Voting Rights Act decision

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The Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed the year I turned 18, graduated high school, felt I was entering the adult world. It was going to be a better world; my generation would see to that.

I had been through the ’50s and first half of the ’60s. I can’t remember when I first found out that some people weren’t allowed to vote. I can’t remember the day when I first found out that my kindergarten best friend, Karen, was supposedly not “like” me as I had thought (even though we were the only girls in the class tall enough to look each other eye-to-eye), but was “different” because she and I had different-color skin (even though lots of other kids had the same color skin as each of us). Whatever day it was, my reaction was similar to my older son’s when he first heard, at an even younger age, that some people thought women couldn’t do certain kinds of work: “That’s unfair, and really stupid.” I waited for my country to stop being unfair and stupid.

I was still waiting when I watched on our black-and-white TV as a huge mass of people stood in our nation’s capital, listening as I was to Martin Luther King tell us his dream. I waited for my country to fulfill his dream, which in any rational and moral world would be everyone’s dream.

I waited through assassinations and through protesters being attacked with firehoses and dogs for trying to bring fairness to our elections. I remember the people who put their lives on the line–and sometimes lost their lives–to put an end to this. We thought they succeeded.

No, I never thought that racism was gone. But I did think that each hard-won step would finally be accepted, that the same battles would not have to be re-fought forty, fifty years later.

In 1965, I thought better of my generation.


All I Left Behind

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That’s the title of a song written by Emmylou Harris and sung on the album “Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions,” by Emmylou and Linda Ronstadt. It tells of the objects the singer “left behind with you along the lost highway.”

What I left behind was my home. Over and over, through my life.

My family lived in five different towns–two of them twice and one of them at least three times–by the time I was 6. We lived in the same house in Cherokee, Iowa, twice–half the second floor and all the third floor of a big old house on a corner lot. The owners lived on the first floor; it was his family’s home. I loved that house, that neighborhood, my friends there, the way our family was while we were there. It was far and away the best place, emotionally, of my childhood, and I lost it twice.

Then when I was 6 we left Iowa completely, and moved to the very foreign land of Southern California–leaving behind a huge extended family, including my beloved Nana, with whom I had spent a lot of time–leaving behind “home” in every sense.

From the time I was 7 till toward the end of my junior year in high school, we lived in one house in Garden Grove. For a kid like me, who needed to escape and be alone a lot, it was great. When we moved in, our one-block tract of homes was almost surrounded by orange groves. Our lot, on the circle end of a cul-de-sac, was 1/3 acre; about half was fenced yard, and the rest was tumbleweeds. I didn’t love the house–it was a small, ordinary ranch house, and we weren’t a happy family–but the outdoors around it was important to me. Even as development grew up around us, we still had a broad railroad right-of-way on one side, all sand and rock and native plants and lizards and horned toads. I came to love the little patch that showed the desert that Southern California really is. But we moved.

The new house, in Tustin, was larger and nicer, and I really liked it. I was allowed to decorate my room to please my late-teens self. We still weren’t a happy family, but I was old enough to be out with friends a lot, and the family seemed to be a tiny bit more peaceful with more space, so we each had our own.

In my first year of college–a nearby community college–my parents separated (they later reconciled), and the house was to be sold. I, attending college and working part time, had the choice of moving to a different place with my mother and younger brothers or getting my own apartment. I chose the latter, but–it wasn’t my choice to leave that house at all.

At 20 I married, and after a couple of years we moved to L.A. for my husband to attend school. I didn’t care about the apartment we left behind, but Orange County had, over those 15 years, become “home,” and I was leaving. It didn’t matter too much, though; L.A. was just an hour’s drive, less if the traffic wasn’t bad.

I had come to love California, particularly the hills, canyons, mountains, and desert. I felt a deep attachment to its history–at one point I planned to make writing about it my life’s work. But, said my husband, now finished with school, I have a better chance of work in Minnesota–and off we went, back to his home, where his family and friends and hometown and lifestyle waited.

We bought a house in Cottagewood, in Deephaven. I put a lot of time and energy into that house–knocking out plaster walls, painting inside and out, refinishing furniture, planting flowers. As I gradually realized that I was no longer living my own life–we were living his life–at least the house felt like me.

But the time came when I knew that I had to give up the marriage or give up myself. Leaving the man was, by that time, not difficult. Leaving another home was–

Today “home” is where my husband and kids are, not a place. Maybe that’s what home always should have been. Or maybe I can’t let it ever be a place again, because I just can’t take losing it again.

I’ve come around to music again. In “I Am, I Said,” Neil Diamond sings, “L.A.’s fine but it ain’t home. New York’s home, but it ain’t mine no more.” From the first time I heard that, I thought–the places are different, but I know just how that feels.

(Previously published in a slightly different version in my LiveJournal.)


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I still hold in my mind, all these years later, scene after scene, clear and bright and detailed as a perfect photograph. I see the desert light, golden at dawn, intensely white at midday, red at sundown, and the fathomless shadows where the light didn’t reach. I feel the rock-hard pebbled sand surface through my sneaker soles–despite all wisdom, I could never stand hiking boots. I hear the silence of centuries, of eons, of speechless rocks and long-deserted human habitations and animals with no energy to waste on sound. I smell creosote and piƱon, the baking wood of old buildings, the hauntingly mundane Bactine smell of the River. I remember the towns of forsaken dreams–Swansea, Planet, Garlock, Goldfield, Salome. I see the first sun-purpled bottle I ever found, lying under a rusting pipe outside an old mine. I see bats by the thousand flying out of their caves at dusk; a tiny sidewinder S-ing across an old grave; a tortoise under a bush that offers the only shade in sight; moths the size of small birds banging against a trailer’s screen door. I remember warnings of a hundred ways to die for a moment’s carelessness: the bottomless black hole of a vertical mineshaft, its top an immense opening in the level ground; the roads barely wide enough for a vehicle’s wheelbase, with a mountain on one side and a dropoff on the other; rattlers, scorpions, gila lizards; thirst; madness.

Maybe that’s why I took to the desert as soon as I encountered it: it was hard and unforgiving, unpredictable, requiring one always to be on the alert. It was what I knew.

Do As I Say…

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I’m tired of hypocrisy. I’m tired of religious people who say, “Deuteronomy says homosexuality is an abomination, but sure, I eat shrimp and mix my fibers.” I’m tired of right-wingers who say, “Get the government out of our lives, except in other peoples’ most personal and intimate relationships.” I’m tired of parents who think they’re teaching their kids by what they say, all the while their own actions do the opposite. I’m tired of people who claim to follow the Bible or the Constitution and know almost nothing about what it says, much less of the history of its time, or of anything written around the same time that might clarify it.

Believe anything you want. Follow any guidelines you want. But actually DO it. Know what the belief entails, know what the guidelines say, and then be consistent. If part of it makes no sense to you, or you just don’t like it, and you aren’t going to believe/follow that part, then don’t CLAIM to believe/follow the whole.

Be honest. Say, “I believe/follow what I want to and reject the rest.” Say, “I have one set of rules for you and a different set for myself.” Say, “I want the government to leave me alone but to make you do what I want.”

Have the guts to tell the truth at least about that.

Carrying It with Me

Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

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