I’m proud to say that 2013 marks my 20th year in Vermont, but I’m equally embarrassed to admit that this year also marks my first time attending the renown Women’s Film Festival in Brattleboro.
I was afraid. I was afraid of caring too much. I was afraid of paying money to watch something that would make me sad. I didn’t understand what it was all about. I hadn’t really thought about it being a fundraiser. And, most revealing, I didn’t see myself as one of “those” women–the ones who I imagined as angry or righteous and needing “all about women” things.
I was in the dark.
In the past 24 hours, I’ve seen 3 of the 24 films in the 2013 season, and I only want more. Yes, I’ve teared up a bit, but mostly I’ve been enlightened and invigorated and stirred. What’s even more inspiring is the reason behind the festival which is best described in a VPR interview by Vickie Sterling, the co-director of the Women’s Freedom Center which organizes the festival each year:
Film, like all media, is incredibly influential, and our ideas about how we see ourselves and each other and the world are really shaped by the images and stories we see on screen.
But in the US, most of the films made and seen are done so by men. In fact, 92% of all feature film screen writers are male as are 95% of the directors.
What happens when you have that sort of imbalance is that women’s stories are fairly one-dimensional–we get these characters who are really portrayed as men would like them to be, rather than as they really are; and the message then conveyed is a woman’s value really is in her youth, her beauty and her sexuality.
We think it’s vital for women to tell their own stories.
I hate to admit it, but this sobering truth never occurred to me before. Not in this way. Not with this clarity or weight.
The striking thing is that I’m not new to women’s issues. I’ve long cared about them. I ‘ve spoken up about them. And yet; there is still so much I take for granted or that I swallow without questioning. I can’t afford to do that anymore. The world can’t afford it.
It’s time for privileged women like me to LEAN IN and lead so that other women have a chance too.
In the East a funeral for a mother; and in the West a funeral for a father–as if pain was a child–requiring a hand on both sides of our state.
Fires and floods, murders and accidents. How much will Southern Vermont be required to take? At first I thought the curse was on Brattleboro, but there seems to be a similar infliction on the Deerfield Valley.
This morning, friends in the West attended the funeral of not one, but two fathers–both killed in the same tragedy–one by accident, the other by anguish.
I headed East for another two taken–Rita Corbin died 11 days after the collision that also claimed the life of her 17 year-old grandson. But it was love, not loss that echoed in Rita’s absence; just as it had after the fire and the flood and the murder. And so it is, that I offer the echo of love to our friends in the West, in the hope that a sweeter balance can be restored.
A few years back, I answered “a call” to SING–by reluctantly joining the Brattleboro Women’s Chorus. This was a one time thing for me, but the women of BWC have continued for 16 years, including this past weekend’s Thanksgiving concert. It is in the spirit of Thanksgiving–for the work of chorus director Becky Graber and the board & women of BWC–that I share the piece of writing below.
It was the second or third stop on the Mother’s Day Nursing Home Tour when it hit me.
The Low Middles and I had just patched our way through Que Sera Sera–a song my mother loved–one whose harmony slipped from my memory when it was our time to sing.
I’d been scrambling to learn my part to this and a dozen others for weeks in preparation for our big concert at the Baptist Church. I didn’t like the pressure. I didn’t like being unprepared.
My jewel of revelation was here.
I had long admired the work of the Brattleboro Women’s Chorus, and had even co-opted their music years ago to create a women’s sing-along in my community of Marlboro; but I had never wanted to perform with them. I didn’t like the responsibility of it. My life had been too full with responsibility.
It was my spirit that cajoled me.
Over the years, I had grown accustomed to responding to this inner voice. It had taken me on a wild ride from an Art and Meditation Class to a Ballet Class to this. I knew there was a good reason why I was supposed to sing with the chorus, I just didn’t know what it was.
Once I had made the commitment and began rehearsing , I expected some great gift of joy to be released.
I hadn’t realized how hard it would be to focus on music for two to three hours at a time, particularly in the evening when I liked to crawl under the covers with a book. I hadn’t realized just how much all my years at home had ruined me as a student. I didn’t want to be told where and when to sit or stand. I didn’t like being part of the herd and I didn’t know how to small-talk like women do on the rides home.
Sitting at a cafe one afternoon, I was approached by a friend whose wife had been singing with the chorus for years. “She loves it,” he told me, complaining that she wouldn’t take a break no matter how full their plates were.
I told him that I didn’t really want to join and shared how anxious I felt about the performance. Though it didn’t feel particularly sublime in the moment, his response, like a pebble tossed into a pond, rippled again and again.
“It is all of your voices,” he said, “Coming together, that made the music so beautiful.”
Little by little, I began to experience just that.
On the day that we came to sing at the nursing homes, I knew it to be true. It wasn’t the perfection of any one of our voices or parts, that made the music, it was the mysterious alchemy of coming together–without perfection.
How can I begin to put into words the depth of my experience? How can I communicate the breadth of its influence in my life? Not one of us Low Middles knew our part fully. But each of us offered something to the other–so that together, we made the music.
We made the shades rustle, the faces lift, the eyes brighten. And for me personally, a profound understanding emerged: that I can be supported, that it is not all about me and my responsibility or my perfection, that it is in our fallibility as well as our competency that we support and uplift others.
On the following Sunday, I stood at the podium on the altar at the Baptist Church and gave VOICE to Julia Ward Howe’s words. A wind came through me and spread her thoughts resounding through the room. Tears sprung from my eyes eyes and I was swept up in the passion of her voice. I felt a strength that I have never known. The strength that comes from vulnerability.
On the fourth floor of Eden Park, I had seen vacant eyes, drooping heads, drooling mouths. This is where we discard our elders, I thought. But when the music began, and we came together in song, the room came to life—not just in front of me, but within me.
I saw a husband tend his wife, wipe her mouth, hold her trembling hands. I heard a woman, at first talking out a lifetime of troubles, begin to sing, eyes brightening, connecting with ours. I felt a nurse spread love throughout the room with her caresses.
As we left the floor, I approached a woman who had never opened her eyes or lifted her head to our performance. I gently squeezed her shoulder, and to my surprise, she moved her head to cradle it against my forearm.
I put down my backpack and gave her a full embrace knowing that she felt everything around her even though I hadn’t seen it.
It’s a quintessential Vermont day, and we’re all trying to hold onto the last breaths of autumn before the big snow. The vendors at the farmers market are shivering, but they’re also grinning. The market closes today–for the season. No more waking at dawn to make egg rolls or harvest vegetables. They’ve shown up for us for the past 6 months, and now they’ll pack it up until spring comes round again.
Like a party crasher–with guests–snow is the forecast, and not just flurries. A foot. Facebook posts prematurely turn toward woodstoves and woolens, muffins and hot soup. The bloggers are stirring too. Three neighbors post at once. Jodi, about our road. Shannon, about the weather. Kevin, about… taking a dump.
To tell the truth, I’m not sure what Kevin’s post is about, and I’m not even sure I’m supposed to blow his cover. This is the first that Nature Man has “blogged” if I’m not mistaken. Mostly, he just spouts. Vitriol. Like this:
I was takin a dump the other morning while the wife had the National Pompous Radio on in the kitchen. I know, I should have got up and shut the door to the shitter, but I was mid-turd, so I had to sit there listening to them blather. They were interviewing some fellow who was a leader of something called the Tea Party. He was talkin all tough about cutting taxes and job creators and Cripes knows what else, and all I’m thinkin is, buddy, you named your group after something my daughter does with a stuffed bear and a headless Barbie doll.
Natureman suggests a KEG PARTY instead; which is where I need to be in 30 minutes. Actually it’s a cider-pressing, but there’s always beer. Do you think it’s still on? The white stuff has begun to fall.
After 18 years in these Green Mountains, summer is by far my favorite season; but when the snow comes around, like an old lover, it doesn’t matter how many times he’s been dumped, he stills turns me on.
On Saturday I joined the Occupy Movement in the comfort of my own town park in Brattleboro, Vermont. “What are we doing here?” my eleven-year old asked, “This isn’t Wall Street.”
I explained that this was our way of showing our support for what started in NYC. My son looked around the small park and noticed his school nurse, some younger classmates, and our neighbors from up the road. I introduced him to the midwife who assisted us with his older brother’s birth. “Helena came from across the state to be here,” I said, as she and I shared a sweet embrace.
Some of our South Pond friends were gathered too. Sparrow was there with her new baby, and Ted and his wife were there with their colleague from Nicaragua. Charlie and Kate told us that both of their sons, in different parts of the country, were gathering today. Students and teaching colleagues of my husband were also well represented.
“There are Occupy Movements in Rome and London this weekend as well,” he added.
“They’re happening over the world,” Kate echoed.
While we talked, young people led chants, while others of all ages stood by the road with signs. The thumbs up and solidarity honking was non-stop. People rolled down their windows to cheer. A local lawyer. Truck drivers. Teenagers. Old guys. BMW’s. Beaters. Delivery vans. NY plates, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts.
After an hour, my son walked into town to spend his pocket change, while my husband and I occupied a blanket apart from the crowd. A man from New Hampshire dropped down beside us, saying that he needed to soak up my “peace” vibe. I chuckled to myself, imagining an entire movement of people lying in the grass under the sun.
This guy had been in Boston for the rallies there, where it was much more intense, and he said that he preferred the energy here. After a few moments of silence, he was up again, off to talk with Health Care activists and 350-ers and some young men shouting about Ron Paul.
After 3 hours, I was ready to go. I wanted to get a bite to eat before the literary event with Ken Burns and David Blistein at the museum. There was no specific mention of Occupy Brattleboro at this large gathering, not even by the local organizer, but she did reference the fire and the floods and the murders. I appreciated that.
I also appreciated Ken’s message that we have to see ourselves in each other, that it’s our arrogance that makes us think that our views are uniquely right or that our times are special or that we are living our lives more fully than the generations before us. We each have our individual stories, he said; we each contain generosity and greed, sincerity and hypocrisy.
His friend David Blistein echoed these thoughts, saying that our righteousness prevented us from truly “feeling” our history, or seeing the other side. It doesn’t allow something new to happen, he said.
I couldn’t wait to get into the discussion during the Q& A, but there was more. David read from his new book, Real Time, with the voice of Harriet Tubman who had this to say to our self-absorbed generation:
At least those people knew they were slaves… (unlike the)people in the so-called ‘free’ world today. Because they plainly are not aware of their chains… Getting up at dawn to travel in a little metal box just so you can spend the whole day in another little box? That’s slavery. Having to look at the words on your computer before even saying hello to your children? That’s slavery. Sitting in front of your TV for hours at a time? That’s slavery. Thinking that the wealth in your bank account is more important than the wealth in your heart. That’s slavery. Living with a husband or wife whom you’ve forgotten how to love. That’s slavery.
It occurred to me that although “our times” seem so divided and alternately so “enlightened,” there is an arrogance in distinguishing ourselves from the past. It’s what Ken Burn’s calls, “the tyranny of the present.” But I didn’t whole-heartedly agree with either man’s view, and so when it was time, I shot my hand into the air.
“As a memoirist,” I said, “I do see the same history repeat itself in my family with the most uncanny details; But I’ve also seen it evolve. Each generation may pick up the same story, but they also make it a little better. I see the same evolution with Occupy Wall Street. They’ve created the space for something new to emerge–from the people.”
I could have wrestled these thoughts into the wee hours of the night with these two, but hundreds of people were ready to descend upon them, and I had a husband waiting across town with a glass of chardonnay and a late night burger.
It had been a good day in Brattleboro, made up of everything I love and admired about her. She had survived the fire, the murders, the floods and was still doing what she does best–engaging people in what matters to them.
It wasn’t just the Literary Festival, or the Occupation at Wells Fountain Park. It was the general hum of the town–among the staff behind the Co-op’s deli line or Amy’s bakery; in the arm chairs of the library; on the lawn of Brattleboro Savings and Loan with Fish from WKVT; at the newly restored Latchis with the broken marquee, still offering up opera and jazz; and down the street at the youth theater (NEYT) exploring homophobia with their latest play.
Past, present and future, the people in Brattleboro examine the chains, on all of us, and creatively endeavor to sing and read and gather to set us free.
(p.s. sometimes I think a little arrogance is in order to claim the change we want to see, especially if when its balanced by compassion and humility in the face of so much pain.)