I am thinking of Sister Elizabeth, who in the 1970s was an art teacher at St. Frances Cabrini school in Piscataway, NJ. She was a large woman; perhaps today we might even call her obese, perhaps morbidly so. She was a nun to be reckoned with, but she also understood how to make children joyful. As I said, she taught art.
I also remember the disappointment I felt when recess was over at St. Frances. But eighth grade brought with it several privileges. The one I remember most is that we had art class immediately after recess. As the bell rang to call us back into the school building and before we were in earshot of our elders, we used to quietly chant, “Saved by The Liz. Saved by The Liz.” In other words, art class felt like extended recess, and Sister Elizabeth was our coach.
I also remember a kid named Mark Wilson. Just remembering the name brings a smile to my face. Today, a kid like Mark would most certainly be taking Ritalin or something of that sort. I probably would have been medicated in elementary school as well. But then, we knew nothing of such things, and so we all watched as Mark fidgeted and ran his mouth and got into all sorts of trouble. To be clear: I don’t remember laughing at Mark, but rather with him. I can see now that both he and I were clowns, and that we each had our own unique schtick. For my part, I had “good grades” to balance my wayward behavioral tendencies. I cannot speak for Mark. I can say that the trick I remember best was how, after sharpening pencils, Mark would launch them skyward, attempting to stick them into the ceiling. When he nailed it, I was jubilant. I cannot recall whether or not I allowed my joy to be seen.
I also remember Sister Elizabeth threatening to hang Mark Wilson out the window by his feet if he did not sit down and shut his mouth. I think we laughed, or at the very least snickered. We most certainly did not run home and tell our parents about the verbal abuse Sister Elizabeth had wreaked upon some poor helpless child.
Flash forward to the following decade. Now a college student, I was in a junior-year abroad program in London. There was a country called “The Soviet Union”; Reagan was in the White House and Thatcher at 10 Downing. I was politically aware and active–what people today might call “woke”–and I was furious. But I was also terrified. I can recall with clarity standing at the window, at the sink washing dishes, in my flat in London. I remember looking up and imagining a mushroom cloud on the horizon that seemed so real on some days that I wondered if I was hallucinating. It was only much later, more than a decade I would say, that I understood two things: (1) I had spent the better part of my early adulthood in a state of anxiety (sometimes extreme) about nuclear annihilation; and (2) I had not been alone.
The next decade found me and my peers marching against a different, not-so-Cold, war. Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait and the US, at the behest of Saudi Arabia, started bombing the living shit out of the Iraqis. No matter that the US had sided with the Iraqis and helped arm them in our proxy war with the Soviet Union in the 1980s. At that time, I had been too frightened of nuclear annihilation to have paid enough attention to the Iran-Iraq War, but by the time the first of 100,000 bombing missions by the US military and its allies began in 1991, I was up to speed. The spectacle of aerial bombardment that played over and over on my television terrified me. As hard as I tried, I could not help but imagine that underneath that violent and expensive fireworks show, there were people. There was also a lot of military hardware and if nothing else, by the end of the first Gulf War, the fourth largest armed force in the world had been reduced to rubble.
The next decade brought a new Bush and a new war. Call me naive, but I am still perplexed by how thoroughly the American public was hoodwinked into believing first, that Saddam Hussein had anything to do with the 9/11 attacks; and second, that he was holding WMD in his woefully underfunded failed state. For starters, I thought that anyone with a soupçon of knowledge about Middle East politics knew that while Saddam Hussein was indeed a madman, he hated jihadists at least as much as we did. Indeed, he probably hated them more since his demagogic regime was surrounded by them. I also knew enough about Photoshop (and the history of the C.I.A.’s success in toppling regimes deemed to be a danger to US oligarchs) to know that whatever “evidence” was being proffered by the intelligence agencies was suspect at best and required a lot more scrutiny to determine the resemblance of the “evidence” to reality. For me, all of this was an elementary critical thinking exercise: The events of September 11, 2001 were scary indeed, but Saddam Hussein certainly had nothing to do with it. For crying out loud, 15 of the 19 men who carried out the attacks were Saudis. Osama Bin Laden was a Saudi. Saddam Hussein loathed the Saudis. However. After watching those towers fall, we were a terrified populace. The Bush II machine knew precisely how to tap into that American fear and they did so with great success. I had learned something from the 1980s and the 1990s and Saddam Hussein was fairly low on the list of people who scared me. But I was frightened, and overwhelmingly saddened, by the war crimes that unfolded, funded in part by my tax contributions to the US war chest.
I do not like fear. I do not like the way it feels physically, the way it shuts down my appetite as well as the activity in my prefrontal cortex. The way it shutters my awareness, subsuming every single object into its now-limited scope, and then paralyzes me. I dislike fear so much that it is the one thing I almost-literally pray that my dog, Red, does not have to feel. The sight of any fearful dog throws me into a spasm of concern and sadness. When I consider my own dog being fearful, it can bring tears to my eyes. I myself am sometimes afraid of being afraid.
And so today. Fear is everywhere in my country. It is everywhere in the media. White supremacists marched on Charlottesville yesterday. Bona fide Nazis actually killed and injured people. They have done it before: Mother Emmanuel comes to mind. So yes, I am afraid; I fear a great deal for people of color anywhere in this country. However, I will respectfully refrain from writing more on that topic today. The fear experienced by people of color in the ongoing institutionalized war against them in the US deserves its own well-considered series of posts, and I cannot do it justice at this time. So I will turn my attention to the other source of my terror today.
I woke up to the sound of the Sunday morning news talking about the fear that the Trump administration is peddling: North Korea. Are you fucking. . . . kidding. . . . me? This script is so old. It beggars belief that it is being trotted out again. But the Trump administration is far less canny and far more stupid than the Bush or Reagan (or Clinton or Obama, for that matter) administrations ever were, so why should I be surprised? The White House is pitching fear again, as it has done every single decade of my life. I am in my fifth decade now and I am bloody well tired of it. I wish I could assume the comportment of casual, cynical ennui. I wish I could roll my eyes and SMH. But something very serious is going on again, or still, and I cannot bear to turn away entirely. I can, however, take steps to protect myself so that the fear I know so intimately does not envelop my body and cloud my mind entirely.
Visualizations help. And this morning, a near perfect series of images came to mind. I think of Sister Elizabeth, and I smile. I think of her stomping into the Oval Office and ordering Trump to sit down and shut his mouth.* I can see her wagging a finger at him and scolding him. I see her telling him to stand up. Then, Sister Elizabeth, who no doubt would have towered over Trump, grabs him my the back of his suit collar and frog-marches him out of the Oval Office, past the generals, past the snickering staff, and straight out the front door of the White House.
Saved by the Liz. And in the words of Adrienne Rich, “I start to speak again.”
*I want to be very clear that I am drawing no comparison between Donald and my childhood compatriot-in-chaos, Mark Wilson. Among other things, and wherever he is and whatever he is doing, I am certain that after being educated by the Religious Sisters of Mercy, Mark knows how to read, write, and rithmatic.