Where I’m Writing From

This morning I wake in an ascetically narrow bed, in a room meant for work. Outside, the freeway roars beneath the singing of frogs, the songbird’s morning cacophony. There’s a faint smell of coffee drifting from downstairs, which means I’m not the first one up. In a new place, I’m trying to fit in.

I could go downstairs, but that means getting some kind of public face on, so instead I let myself lay in bed, folding the thin pillow around itself for support, wrapping myself in blankets. The room is papered in delicate blue patterns, and the bay window overlooks the prairie. Without moving from the bed, I can only see the sky, but there are miles and miles of sky hanging low with thick gray clouds. The tops of trees metallic with new growth, slivers of light.

My intention, while here for these 3 weeks, was to abandon the news. An intention, of course, broken within hours of arriving. Indiana, after all. The last major primary before California. How could I not want to know?

The house, Ragdale, was built by architect Howard Van Doran Shaw in 1897 for his family as their summer home, a place to escape the sweltering heat of downtown Chicago summer. His father helped him cover the purchase price, and the cost of building a home. His daughters attended school here for a few months in the spring and the fall, returning to their school in Chicago during the winter months. Shaw and two other men bought 53 acres of farmland at the edge of a raised trail that had been used by Indians, a glacial ridgeline that had once marked the shore of Lake Michigan.

The house still retains the flavor of a family home. There are 12 of us here, visual artists, writers, composers. We gather at night around one long table, eat family style food prepared by Linda. We talk about the work we’ve done that day, about our homes and jobs and families. We avoid talk of politics. After all, we’ve come here to get away from all that. To work in peace.

But we all know what happened today. Donald Trump has won the Indiana Republican Primary. Within hours, Ted Cruz will abandon his campaign. Within hours, the country will be formally divided into battle lines.

At dinner, I talked to a young Mennonite artist who works in intricately patterned designs. We talked about the way that denomination, like all Anabaptists, are organized from the bottom up. The people, the congregations, make the decisions regarding the business of the church. It’s a part of the service, something that struck me as something almost crass, though the process he described is invariably thoughtful. Business meetings of the church are like business meetings everywhere, I’d thought, and best avoided.

There is always a tension between money and art: two dogs circling each other, snarling.

The bedrooms retain the names by which they were known in the Shaw family. I’m in the Blue Room. Albert’s room is across the hall, and Alice’s Rooms (sic) to the right. At the top of the stairs, a small bedroom has been named “The Top of the Stairs”. Each room’s name is framed, the letters cross-stitched into a rough woven cloth, as a child would do.

These are the rooms of privilege, the quiet in which it’s possible to think a thought all the way to its end, but the quiet has a certain smothering effect as well. We are not loud here, the quiet enforced not by any formal rule, but by a received understanding. Though the artists who have been invited here are mostly white, mostly women – mostly, in fact, people who look like me – there are a few whose first language is not American English, and a few whose skin is brown. There are not, so far as I can tell, accommodations for disability. One studio is wheelchair accessible.

There is a movie I saw once, as a child, of a smart, rebellious young woman who joined in with a gang of thuggish feminists. Their meetings were loud and passionate, then quiet and sneaky. The woman was beautiful, and it was decided by the group that she should infiltrate that most American of traditions, the Miss America Beauty Pageant. When she won the pageant, as she would, she should remove her crown, throw it at the judges, spit upon their stale ideals of feminine beauty, and state the ideals of the new feminism instead.

I can’t remember the name of this movie to save my life, but this is what I know at the moment she received the crown, something changed. She looked around, seeing only the adoring faces of the crowd. Tears appeared in her eyes. She raised her hand, and touched the crown on her head. And then, instead of hurling the crown aside, she opened her palm into a wave. She became Miss America.

My social media feed will be full of outrage today. Again and again, I will see Cruz’s elbow hit the face of his wife as he reaches to embrace father, the evangelical pastor and Tea Party conservative icon, Raphael Cruz. Those of us who have looked on with embarrassment and disbelief as a racist, sexist demagogue who plays rough and loose with the truth has won the popular vote in state after state after state. “Isn’t it awful,” we murmur, quietly. In truth, we don’t know what to say. We click “share” or “like” as we scroll through like-minded posts.

I could look now, but instead I’m going to get up and brave the stairs. I’ll get dressed, run a comb through my hair, brush my teeth. The coffee will be hot, with the burnt flavor that comes from sitting too long.







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