Toward an Alert Democracy

trump-1843504_640“I just can’t do long rides on buses or sleep on church basement floors this time,” said one friend, as she ruefully assessed her capacity for political protest. She would march in Boston, not Washington, the day after Trump’s inauguration; no overnights required.

We, the generation of the Sixties, had protested about many social and political issues over the decades – against the social conformity of the 1950’s, for civil rights, for an end to the Vietnam War, for women’s rights and gay rights, for protection of the environment. In our day protests were often raucous and violent, with police in full regalia, wielding truncheons and shooting tear gas; protesters fighting as well, and often dragged off to prison. It took strength of soul and body to protest.

Now we are in our late 60’s, 70’s, even 80’s. We may look young – hair suspiciously near its original color, dressed in Spanx-enabled slim pants and jackets, moving along briskly thanks to physical therapy and regular exercise. But our joints ache when we get out of bed in the morning; we reach for the Advil. We have less energy; on some days naps are needed. We suffer the remains of various surgeries; muscle twinges and reduced range of motion. Some of us are ill. For years many have only sporadically been politically active.

Despite aches, many people my age went to the Women’s March in Boston for at least a while, and afterwards were exultant as they reported packed subway cars, shoulder-to-shoulder crowds, fields of pink cat-ear hats, an array of pithy signs. One favorite of many: “IF YOU THOUGHT I WAS A NASTY WOMAN BEFORE …. BUCKLE UP, BUTTERCUP, I’M NOT DONE YET.”

Helpful police. The joy of being with so many people who shared our values. No violence. It was the best of what demonstrations could be. This time we were grandmothers, there with our daughters and granddaughters, teaching the children the importance of having a voice. The younger generation turned out in force. “The great awakening of the millennials,” quipped one friend. Trump is such a powerful threat to our way of life, our democracy, that it seemed imperative to get active again. Age affects what we can do, but not what we care about.

While over the years many of us have demonstrated, written letters and checks, and marched for particular causes, the basic principles of our liberal democracy had seemed secure. We had taken the Constitution for granted as a social contract among us, limiting the authority of government. We had assumed a three-part government in which each part served as a check on the power of the others; the rule of law, not personal influence, in everyday life; equal protection of human and civil rights for all people; the power of reasoned argument based on evidence; tolerance and civility in public debate. Trump posed a fundamental threat to this system.


Anxiety wound its arms around me shortly after ten on election night, when Brian Williams and Rachel Maddow looked at the map, jaws dropping, as they realized what was happening. Their experts were stuttering. States that had been predicted to go for Clinton were still too close to call. This wasn’t supposed to happen. They called the election for Trump at 2:30 am. We all knew long before that.

A large red dragon, snorting steam, spewing obscenities, and smelling of pitch landed with a thump in the middle of my living room. The air became hot and acrid, burning my eyes, my throat, my lungs. Sparks flew. Claws shredded my skin. My entire being screamed as I dove under the bed. Once I found the courage to crawl out my head ached for days. I was emotionally raw and vaguely nauseous. I crept around my apartment; being quiet was all I could do. When I ventured outdoors the world was very still. I trembled with emotional exhaustion as I went about my errands, still moving slowly. Friends and neighbors greeted each other with a pale, “How are you?” and responded with faint shrugs and near-whispers, “Let’s not talk about it right now.”

Our world was about to be turned inside out, in a crude and cruel direction by someone ignorant, vulgar, vicious, bigoted, and out of control with his tweets. So much for civil discourse. To “Make America Great Again” he promised to throw out “the millions” of illegal immigrants who were “taking American jobs”, re-write regulations for corporate taxation to “bring jobs back home”, build a wall between the US and Mexico, and tear apart Obamacare. The “Great America” he evoked was the America of the 1950’s and earlier. While appealing to many, his promises would not solve the problems they faced and were a betrayal of the equal treatment for all and due process of law that we had worked for, for decades. Weeks later we still despair.

In addition to shock, there was loss. We had expected that the Obama agenda would continue, more or less, under Clinton’s leadership, albeit with less fluid intelligence and finesse. In any case we would have lost Obama, himself. That loose-limbed and graceful, oh, so cool, guy. Warm, authentic, with a great big smile; easily able to do commercials for toothpaste companies if he ever found himself out of political work. He represented the irrefutable fact that our nation could elect a black President. An iconic picture of Obama showed him in his office, bending down so that a young black boy could feel his hair. Later interviewed, the boy said, “I wanted to see if his hair felt like mine. It did.” But we also lost the general agreeableness of his policy stances, his respect for Constitutional order, and his balanced intelligence, to be replaced by chaos, bigotry, tweets by the thousands, and inhumane policies.

So we got angry. We must fight again. From our country’s origins it has been clear that Democracy must be worked for and not taken for granted – a fact more obvious in some times and places than others.

It’s a hard thing to say, but protest should be easier this time. Coming out of the ‘50s it was all ideals and passion. Now many of those ideals have been at least partially realized; we have very specific images of what our society can be, and millions of people have experienced it. Women can be treated equally in the workplace and even have high-level careers – we know what that looks like; gay couples can marry and raise families – we know what that looks like; people of color do have equal rights to live where they want, get an education, hold good jobs, and vote – we know what that looks like. While these rights have been emergent and some are not yet fully realized, two generations of women and men have grown up assuming the society they have experienced is the way life is. They don’t remember. They will experience the coming changes as the loss of what they have taken for granted. If Roe v Wade is threatened, millions of women, now with powerful megaphones, will object.

We also now know how to resist – how to set up carpools, rent fleets of busses, find inexpensive places to stay, plan sign-making parties, get permits, arrange for portable toilets, engage celebrity sponsors, print T-shirts and, if needed, organize non-violent civil disobedience workshops. We open our homes to marchers travelling from afar and buy stashes of metro passes for their use.

The Internet has transformed our methods. Swirling through the ether are notices about marches to attend, petitions to sign, donations to give, exhortations to show up quickly at crisis points like airports. This morning’s torrent applauds Lufthansa’s decision to allow all passengers with valid travel documents, no matter country of origin, to board flights to Boston where federal court orders prohibit detaining them and sending them back. These emails urge that we email or tweet the CEO’s of other major airlines, urging them to do the same, followed by instructions from millennials on how to tweet.

The last time the issues we fought for unfolded over decades. This time they are under assault simultaneously, in an overwhelming swirl of bizarre cabinet appointments, tweets, ineptly drafted executive orders, controversial statements during afternoon briefings, firings, and judicial findings. As I write this Trump has been president for 10 days; it seems like years, already. We have been plunged into a new universe created in the oval office with the speed of a signature, as from the mind of an impetuous 4-year old. The simultaneity with which the issues are being engaged is, itself, nauseating. One’s emotions simply can’t deal with threats to core values hour after hour.


“Steve Bannon is our President,” mourned one friend. “Think of me as Thomas Cromwell in the court of the Tudors,” Bannon has said, authorizing us to look for his behind-the-scenes manipulations. Unlike Trump, and terrifyingly, Bannon has a coherent governing philosophy. Surfing YouTube one can find Bannon explaining himself. At this year’s CPAC meeting he described three streams of work currently underway in the Trump administration. Slightly elaborated, they are: 1) Sovereignty. In Bannon’s view, nations are the primary political unit and each is built around a core cultural identity that it must protect. According to him, America’s cultural identity is White and Christian. Immigrants threaten that identity. The need to protect a core cultural identity gets translated into an increased military and changes in immigration policies. “Build a wall.” “Kick the bad hombres out.” 2) Economic nationalism, in which America reorients priorities to the working class’s benefit. We would enter into trade agreements for our interests alone, with little regard for global implications, and would implement environmental deregulation, foreign policy, and tax programs that would encourage the rebuilding of a manufacturing-based export economy. “Put America First.” 3) The Deconstruction of the administrative state. The administrative state consists of entire agencies that have, since the New Deal, proliferated and gained broad governing authority by virtue of their technical expertise. Unelected bureaucrats, not elected representatives, are running the show. In deconstructing the administrative state, these agencies, the regulations they put in place, and the civil servants who administer them would be stripped away. “Drain the Swamp.”

This program stands behind Trump’s campaign rhetoric, his executive orders, his legislative program, and his cabinet and court appointments. Steve Bannon, Steve Miller and Jeff Sessions began meeting several years before the Republican convention to develop their political philosophy and identify a candidate they could push forward. They chose Trump. His own interest in nationalism made him politically congenial. His extreme narcissism and need to blame anyone but himself for bad news made him easy to manipulate; excessive praise would do the job. We must be alert to the intentions of the emperor’s costumer and watch for his shadow behind Trump’s bluster and tweets.


My generation sighs. We thought we were finished, but now each of us must take a deep breath, roll up our sleeves again, and put our particular talents to work if we want a government that reflects our goals and values. I imagine each of us volunteering to help the causes we care about passionately. If we can write, we will write letters and columns. If we have artistic talents, we will volunteer to make signs, posters and logos. If we are good at management and organization, we will help get activities together. We will show up when needed.

I have chosen to focus on freedom of expression, including freedom of the press. As a writer, this is particularly important to me; it also affects our ability to make our democracy work. Today, the White House banned the NYT, CNN, and the LA Times from Sean Spicer’s daily news briefing. While that news briefing is not the most reliable of sources, if the press cannot obtain information about what the government is doing, what it is planning, it cannot tell us. We, in turn, cannot judge its importance. If writers cannot write what they see, what they feel, and express it in poetry, fiction, or essays, we are deprived of a perspective on what is happening in our world.

Of course, we must march. But if we don’t dig in and commit money, time, and work to particular issues, not letting anything slip by, we could lose it all. John Lewis’s words at a Martin Luther King Day event in Miami this year are to the point.

Stand up. Speak out. When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to do something, to say something, and not be quiet. You must have courage. You must be bold, and never, never, ever give up.

Along the way, we may invent a more alert democracy for the future.

© 2017 Barbara Scott Nelson

Yoga in the Garden

yoga-1694550_1920Winter has been surprisingly warm this year; the end of February is a balmy 60 degrees. In my neighborhood college students are wandering around in shorts, kids are out on scooters, and Canada Goose winter jackets with coyote fur trim have been temporarily put away. Some of us dream of gardening.

Planting my annuals starts on Memorial Day weekend when I traditionally put about 150 Impatiens in the garden immediately outside the windows of my little house near the sea. Because a fungus has attacked that species in recent years, last year it was Phlox of Sheep, an oddly named but quite attractive substitute. This planting is a long and arduous task, requiring much digging and bending which, at age seventy-three, is not as easy as it once was. I do it on Memorial Day weekend because, when I was still working, the three-day weekend provided sufficient expanse to interweave planting sessions with rest or social activities such as a movie or tea with a friend. It still does. And at our latitude, wise gardeners do not put tender plants in until late May, for fear of a cold night.

My gardening journal tells me that Memorial Day weekend has offered different conditions for this planting ritual in different years – sometimes cloudy and in the sixties, sometimes sunny and humid, in the eighties. Last year Memorial Day weekend was miserable for all the usual pastimes – cookouts, baseball games, walks among the lilacs. We had cold rain, drizzle, and fog for two days. Memorial Day, itself, felt like cloud-draped November, though the rain had stopped. The temperature was in the forties and it was quite windy. It would have been a labor of love to get out there that day. When I complained to my gardening guru he strongly advised that I “deal with it” and get my young plants in that weekend, in an effort to reduce the degree to which their roots would become pot-bound. Evidently plants like their roots to range freely, seeking water and nutrients.

Respecting this advice, and knowing how happy I would be when I had little plants growing, I collected my gear and went out. The job requires a trowel for easy digging in wonderfully wet soil; my blue-handled screwdriver, exactly eight inches long, the prescribed distance between these baby plants; and a bit of fertilizer to give them a good start in their new home. I used to be able to do this job on my hands and knees, but because of various orthopedic issues that is no longer possible. However, my version of the “forward fold” move (uttanasana) from my yoga class works well. Ideally one bends over from the hips, not the waist; legs straight; “sitting bones” lifted toward the sky; the entire top of one’s body folded over, neatly parallel to one’s legs; hands flat on the ground (elbows on the ground if one is especially flexible or under 40). While my version of the forward fold is not as elegant as the drawing in my yoga book, in this position one’s hands are conveniently where the work is, for digging a hole, inserting a plant, and pressing soil down with one’s fingers.

When I began that morning it was cloudy and the garden was wet from the previous day’s rain. The woman at the nursery had suggested wearing the pants from my foul weather gear, which I would have done had I been able to find them. An old pair of jeans would have to do. My gardening gloves quickly became sodden, as did my feet and the bottom four inches of my jeans. A gray wind whistled off the sea, rushed up the street, and swung around the corner of the fence. I wondered about frostbite.

By about the 30th plant my hamstring muscles were very stretched, but needed rest. I stopped for a while, then did another thirty plants, alternating rest and work through the day until most of the 150 were in their place. It was still cool, but the wind had died down and sun warmed my back as I folded forward. My clothes, along with the stone pathway and the street beyond, began to dry. Birds living in nearby trees decided that the warmth of the sun was sufficient for a chorus of their favorite songs. Everything around me was perking up, declaring that it would be a good day, after all.

As I finished, my garden promised future glory, with young Phlox of Sheep standing unsteadily in formation, drinking in the sun and stretching their roots in the damp soil. But I was very tired. Planting 150 plants was not something I could continue to do every year. My hamstrings simply were not up to the job, and spending that much time upside-down had an unpleasant, dizzying effect.

In consultation with my gardening guru I developed a new strategy for this garden. Instead of blanketing the area with Impatiens or Phlox of Sheep each year, I would change it to a largely green perennial garden and choose a few annuals to rotate, one kind at a time, through the season; perhaps pansies for spring, begonias for summer, chrysanthemums for fall; and plant just three or four of each. With my need for yoga’s forward fold reduced to just a few plants at a time, this seemed a practical possibility. While I would have to give up my beautiful blanket of pink, I surely would come to appreciate the new woodland look of my garden with a few spots of color strategically placed among the trees, rocks, and bushes – a look I will try this spring and will likely be able to sustain for a number of years.





Cell Phones in the City


“YOU STOLE MY CELL PHONE!” Harsh words bounce off the walls of the small basement room and tremble the air. Her weathered face twisted in anger, the middle-aged woman clutching a tangle of clothes to her body, plaids and stripes dangling around her legs, shouts again at the smaller, quieter woman across the room. “YOU STOLE MY CELL PHONE!” We volunteers shrink in our chairs.

Sandy, the clothing center’s young director, moves quickly to the center of the fray, soothing that the phone had not been stolen.


Sandy starts the classic back track for missing objects, “Where did you have it last?” Ten minutes later the lost is found in the ladies room where the client had gone to try on clothes.

“I apologize for yelling at you,” the client says to the victim of her earlier rage. “It was my fault, I left it there.” She then calmly turns away to resume the business of selecting clothes.


As tension seeped out of the clothing center, I wondered about this woman’s emotional volatility; bursting into the fire of rage, then subsiding quickly. Before the blaze of temper, and after, she functioned reasonably. She was not mentally disturbed. As was true of all of our clients, she had been referred by a social service agency that would have filtered out someone who could not make effective use of our services. The disturbed would be helped another way.

I imagined this woman’s conditions of life made theft expectable – sleeping fitfully on a ragged piece of cardboard on street or subway grate, all her possessions nearby, only loosely guarded as she dozed; in a shelter with security for only what could fit in a 12” x 12” locker; sharing a subsidized apartment with several equally needy strangers. Days of scratchy anxiety, always tensed against the world.

I live in a largely accepting and benign world. No one snitches my toothpaste from the medicine chest or my purse from its spot on the floor of the hall closet. Aside from an occasional wailing ambulance or amped-up motorcycle roaring away, the street outside my bedroom window is quiet and my building is secure, both conducive to sound sleep. I don’t look over my shoulder for sign of threats as I go about my daily tasks.

It was the urge to work again with people whose lives were different from my own, to have my life touch theirs no matter how superficially, and perhaps to help a bit, that had led me to the clothing center. I had discovered earlier that there was much to learn about other ways of living simply by feeling the stretch of my own boundaries to meet theirs. It was an empathic stretch; an attempt to touch the other’s life emotionally, making our work together effective and alive. I had encountered this when teaching high school in suburban Baltimore, and in the Peace Corps. Each time, I felt pulled by the distance my mind and, more importantly, my soul had to travel to comprehend the lives that touched mine.


In Baltimore in the mid-1960’s I lived in ill-fitting jeans, black sweaters, and sandals; explored rural Maryland from the back of my boyfriend’s motorcycle; and sat cross-legged on raggedly carpeted apartment floors or in dim jazz joints smoking hash with Peter and his friends. They were philosophy graduate students, darkly unshaven, ink on their fingers. We spent intoxicating hours arguing about the war in Vietnam, the arbitrariness of bourgeois conventions, the dignity of the oppressed.

Early Monday mornings I twisted my long, heavy blonde hair onto the top of my head, slipped on a slender suit, stockings, and civilized shoes, and drove my rattly, used Renault out the highway from downtown Baltimore to suburban Belt High School. Drivers on that route hurtled to work mindlessly; I was in a zombie chute from passionate political critique to middle class cultural reproduction.

My classroom smelled of disinfectant, chalk, and musky teenage sweat that seemed never to fade. At the bell my first class tumbled into the room, boys jousting, girls giggling with each other and snapping gum. Furniture rattled and scraped until all of the bodies settled, their energy temporarily dissipated. The day’s lesson could begin. Barely older than my students, having been trained as a philosopher, I was somewhat shaky on the American Literature I was to teach beyond the obvious Hawthorne, Melville, and Hemingway and, as a first-year teacher, had only a faint grasp of whatever passed for technique in those days.

In the ‘tracked’ classrooms of the time students were sorted into the college bound, average, and non-college-bound. For some of the college-bound students, as for me, ideas were alive. What was Hemingway doing in The Old Man and the Sea? These students were kindred spirits. Those who didn’t enjoy the play of ideas could be counted on to follow directions and do their best, working for a good grade. No empathic stretch needed here. They were me, just five years younger.

Students in the other two classes were more problematic. Some were more socially sophisticated than the teenaged me had ever been. Costumed in their parents’ achievements, they had better cars, better clothes and an air of entitlement far beyond what I had been able to achieve as a high school student. While intellectually I understood this as America’s class system at work, emotionally, they felt much better at the game of middle class success than I would ever be. As a teacher, I was too young and still too close to their age to use all the terrible things we remember about adolescence – – fear of not being with the right crowd, of not being asked to the football game, of not wearing the right clothes, that the zits would never clear up – – to find common ground and reach them. I was overwhelmed by my empathy rather than able to use it to teach them.

There were also the unruly, who viewed school as a waste of time, shoving large bodies against classroom furniture with a scrape, tossing spit balls around the room, preening grease-glued ducktails, refreshing makeup at odd moments, maintaining a ongoing banter of street talk at the back of the room. Tough girls spoke more roughly than I had heard before. This group could be counted on to need pencils, to have forgotten their textbooks, to have not done their homework, to need to go to the bathroom more often than was likely and in suspicious clusters. I found them totally unapproachable.

Teaching required me to deal with students who were not like me, and with whom I had not felt comfortable when I was in school. I needed to stretch myself through my discomfort and find a way to make the literature reach them. I was not successful. I had not grown enough past the emotional turmoil of my own high school years to make the stretch toward students different from me, and didn’t know that I should.


On my way to work every day in Isfahan, Iran I encountered loaded camels lumbering down the street, slobbering half-chewed hay and off-loading clumps of steamy, pungent dung as they went; men bent over the joob (a small irrigation stream running along major streets), washing their mouths, blowing their noses, and spitting into the water and, a block further, merchants throwing buckets of the same water onto their vegetable displays to keep them looking fresh; black-wrapped women scuttling down the shady side of the street, dry heat rippling around them. All fused together in oppressive heat and dust.

My husband, Peter, and I taught English to university students; largely mature family men – elementary school teachers who sought bachelor’s degrees in order to obtain better-paying high school jobs. The university building was of misguided modern construction – heat-radiating steel frame and concrete block rather than traditional cool, thick stone and beautiful tile. The mandated literature curriculum was bizarrely inappropriate, consisting largely of reading Lorna Doone, an English romance novel written in 1869 about a farmer who falls in love with the “queen” of the notorious Doone clan –a family he has sworn vengeance on.

Every day, middle-aged men in cheap dark suits and scuffed black shoes, heels crushed down to make sandals, bent over their books in the heat, earnestly struggling to decode Victorian expressions of romantic love and respond in halting English to comprehension questions about Lorna and her family. We didn’t see much connection between our students’ lives and the literature we assigned, and not much way to reach through their embarrassment and awkwardness in English to find the people underneath who might genuinely respond to the literature.

Under such circumstances, conversation class might have been more productive. But our students refused to discuss topics beyond the trite, like the weather or directions from here to there, declaring any other topics political. Did you enjoy the holiday? “Not to talk. Political,” accompanied by shaking heads and abrupt hand gestures. Have you seen a good movie recently? “Political!” Will your daughter get married this summer? “Political!” At least one of their classmates was a SAVAK informer, they swore. They didn’t know who. Anything they said that could be interpreted as controversial would be entered into the Shah’s dossier on them and their families. Apparently conversation with us could be dangerous.

Given this stilted state of affairs, opportunities for our lives to touch theirs, to ground our teaching in something real, had to occur outside of the university. We were learning about their domestic lives from our experiences with friendly neighbors, but how to learn about their hopes for the future and understand their concern about, and the likely reality of, the SAVAK informers? We took advantage of the Iranian pastime of weekend picnics in the countryside to invite a few students for picnics on a nearby mountainside. Jagged and red against a deep blue sky, and bare of vegetation, Kuh-e-Soffeh commanded views in all directions. The mountain seemed likely to be free of spies. Nonetheless our students peered around the rocks near our picnic spot to assure there were no lurkers.

Peter and I struggled with our elementary Farsi, which worked well enough in bargaining for rice, vegetables and chunks of lamb, but not so well in asking our students about the political and social realities of their lives. We struggled to understand their answers. Stripped of the romance of an exotic culture and the charm of ancient customs, their answers were shocking.   It was in Iran that my life first touched those whose prospects were threatened by political constraint and fear of punishment. The stakes were high for missteps – all of our students knew people who had been snatched off the street, gone forever. Perhaps tortured or executed. Our students’ caution in conversation class was completely reasonable.

It was difficult to comprehend lives so utterly different from ours and painful to accept that people we cared about faced the circumstances they described. Further, their worldviews were embedded in tribal traditions and beliefs, and largely bereft of modern ideas and practices. While Lorna Doone’s language would remain bizarre, her story of romantic love between girl and boy of warring clans began to seem both relevant to those with tribal roots and classic. And the effort we made to understand them brought our students closer. Between us, non-political conversation in the classroom could be crafted.


While teaching American adolescents and Iranian men had its satisfactions, after working in the field, so to speak, for a number of years, I began to think I could have more impact if I climbed the proverbial hierarchical ladder. Working directly with students, one classroom at a time, seemed inefficient. Surely I could affect more students if I were a school administrator charged with implementing new curricula school-wide, or training teachers in new methods. Later, I thought I could affect even more students if I conducted research on how they learned which could, in turn, affect educational practice on a broad scale. But eventually the purported link between research, policy, and student learning began to seem more tenuous than when I started. Each wobbly layer of implementation, from top to bottom, contributed its own interpretations and accommodations. I often sat in rooms with national policy-makers in the field of mathematics education who agreed that they had solved this problem, or that one, by making strategic sets of grants or new policies in those areas. What should they take up next? I heard Swiss mountaineers yodeling to each other from mountaintop to mountaintop while, in the valleys below, the trains chugged along much as usual.

Forty years later, retired and looking for worthwhile use of the gift of time, I realized how far I had drifted from the intellectually and personally challenging work of providing direct service to someone. It had been a long time since I had worked with people whose lives were different from mine and had to take them in on their own terms, stretching my boundaries to meet them, if I were to be of help.

In retirement, with the yearning to touch people directly again, I might have chosen to tutor students in mathematics or teach English to recent immigrants but, wanting a change from education, thought to volunteer at the materials assistance program associated with my Quaker meeting. At this time of life I didn’t want total emersion; my perch at the clothing center would be sufficient – a few hours a week, in a familiar place.


Clients arrive at the clothing center referred by a social service agency like Rosie’s Place or the Pine Street Inn. Referral forms gesture toward the shape of their lives:

      This client arrived in the Boston area [in November] without any furniture, household goods, clothing, or items for her children such as clothes, car seat, stroller, blankets, toys. She is hoping to receive assistance from your organization.
      This client is just starting to rebuild her life after experiencing a prolonged period of difficulty. She needs glasses, bowls, utensils, bedding, shirts, pants, and toiletries.
      This client needs warm clothing and boots.

One can only imagine that “prolonged period of difficulty.”

The center is located in the basement of the Meeting House of Friends Meeting in Cambridge, MA. One’s initial impression is of high clutter – a herd of laundry trucks overloaded with black plastic bags bulging with clothing, jostling in a corner; large plastic bins stuffed with jumbled, colorful goods, haphazardly labeled and shoved onto metal shelves climbing to the ceiling; four-foot high stacks of clothes on work tables, pant legs and sleeves akimbo, resembling a pile of dancers. These are the staging areas. The rest of the room is neatly set up like a small clothing store – a dozen or so long metal racks stretch across the room, on which hang shirts, pants, dresses, jackets, and coats, all behaving normally, separated by white plastic size-dividers, (S, M, L). Edging the main event other items are on display – shoes parade on metal racks; belts, purses and ties dangle from hooks on rotating stands; underwear, socks, mittens, hats cluster cozily in bins; and a few house wares straggle their way across a set of shelves. All items are free. Many clients spend upwards of two hours selecting their clothes and relaxing on the cushy sofa with cookies and hot coffee. It’s a place to “settle themselves,” in winter warming chilled bones.

A constant stream of donations from local residents pours in as closets are periodically sorted or households downsized. The hidden recesses of closets may contain beloved, but worn or stained jackets, pants, sportswear. Volunteers inspect every donation; only clothes and house wares that are clean and in good repair – as we, ourselves, might use them – are accepted. Just because clients are poor does not mean that they must suffer the additional indignity of shabby clothing that shouts, “castoff.” Good clothes can become the love and pride of their next owner. Last week Sandy was greeted on the street by a good-looking and confident woman she didn’t recognize, who turned out to be wearing a well-cut grey suit from the center and reemployed as an accountant, though she still lived in a shelter.

My picture of the lives of those we serve fills in gradually. Their things teach me. One day I encountered 60 yoga mats, piled like logs fencing in the jostling laundry trucks, donated by a yoga instructor upgrading her studio. Yoga mats? Evidently they are much better than cardboard for sleeping on the street – they provide a bit of cushioning, can be rolled up and easily carried around during the day, they keep one’s sleeping bag from freezing to the sidewalk in the winter. Clients regularly tuck one into their bags as they leave, taking another for a friend.

Nearly half of our clients have cell phones provided by Lifeline, a federal program colloquially known as “Obamaphone.” These phones come supplied with 400 minutes of phone time monthly and unlimited texting. Our clients circle through the city each day searching for a hot meal, but any food will do; crouching on the sidewalk, back resting against a wind-protecting wall; settling down in a warm sunny spot to talk with friends; looking for a place to sleep that night. But they are not out of touch. They can be reached by family, friends, social service agencies dispersing benefits – referrals to our clothing center, shelters with an open space for the night, agencies that manage the movement from one form of housing to another or know of possible jobs. Clients can store in the phone all official identification numbers – case numbers, social security numbers, phone numbers of social service agencies. No wonder the possibility that hers had been stolen prompted our client to shriek.

I, too, have a cell phone but it stores very different data. Like theirs, it has the numbers of personal friends and family, but also the collection of folks who help me manage my life – the plumber, the electrician, the roofer, the cleaning service, financial advisor, lawyer, auto insurance company, doctors. I also have a landline, a U.S. mailbox, and an internet address. For one who has long been tethered to a landline phone, it is cool to talk to friends or conduct business from anywhere. For those without a home, it’s a necessity.

Cell phones, yoga mats, subway grates – all function very differently in our clients’ lives than in mine. Comprehending those differences forms the beginning of an empathic stretch toward their lives and the understanding of what might feel to them like friendship and help.


© 2016 Barbara Scott Nelson


The Purple Racing Stripe

“Like the purple stripe,” mumbled a hooded young man in baggy jeans as he and his leather jacketed, chain-jingling buddies jostled past me on the sidewalk. Every bit of their angular swagger shouted, “Make room, make room.”

“That’s so-oo cool,” chirped smiling young things behind cash registers, at the neighborhood café, even in the doctor’s office.

“Wow! I wish I’d thought of that,” said some women of my age, reaching out to touch it, their eyes alight with the fun. Others quickly averted their gaze, as though embarrassed by the sight.

The purple stripe has added unexpected richness to my experience of city life – connecting me to people I otherwise might simply have passed by.

Several months ago I dyed a 2-inch wide strip of my hair purple. I have a short, wash and wear hairstyle that used to be dark blonde, now mixed with streaks of silver and grey. The purple stripe stands out vividly; taking different shapes as my movements or the wind shift my hair. Sometimes it’s a Nike swoosh, sometimes the racing stripe on the side of a car. If I part my hair slightly differently a feathery fan flicks across the top of my head. The purple fades slightly with each washing, becoming subtler as months go by, eventually just a hint in the grey. I have it re-done about every four months, when it becomes electric again.

You may have seen the television advertisement for Walgreens, in which two grey-haired women, nice-looking but a bit on the drab side, approach a counter and spot a funky young woman in black, with short, jaggedly arranged, purple hair. With appreciation for her jazziness, and conspiratorial looks at each other, they decide to put purple in their own hair in anticipation of their 50th high school reunion. The ad closes with the two women, sleekly dressed and dancing exuberantly in the crowd, purple curls flying amid their grey. Walgreens titles the ad, “Carpe Diem,” seize the day. If Walgreens promotes non-natural hair colors as a vehicle of fun, such colors clearly have reached the mainstream; though judging from the reactions to my own purple stripe, not always among women of my generation, at least not in my neighborhood.

I had my purple stripe put in several months before I saw that ad, prompted by an equally funky young woman. We met in the middle of the street in front of my little house near the sea, she checking the state of her garden, I taking groceries from car to house. “Hi, I’m Abigail. My friends and I are renting that house for the coming year,” she said, pointing behind her. “We’re moving in today.” The house, a small, white cottage, once the parish house for a nearby church, is rented each school year by groups of female undergraduates who attend a nearby college. They add swing and energy to a neighborhood otherwise populated largely by little boys with harried parents. Abigail was lovely, with café au lait skin and a soft, light green Afro.

“What day does the trash pick-up come?” she asked. “And do you know a place to get good fish?” As I answered her questions I marveled at how strikingly mundane they were, to concern one with green hair. I would have expected questions about art galleries or rock concerts. This moment of incongruity, between her appearance and her concerns, caught my attention.

I have always loved the dissonance of contrasting elements and the tension that holds them together. Early modern music (the early Stravinsky or Prokofiev), art (Chagall, Matisse, Picasso), and fiction (Joyce or Woolf) push against the traditional but are not yet wholly modern. One can sense traces of both the old and the new in an edgy balance. Films that have cultural fractures at their core – Brokeback Mountain, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Mud – also carry an appealingly edgy tension. More prosaically, the disjunction between Abigail’s green hair and her concern about the trash pickup schedule; or the tension between a middle class senior’s apparently quotidian life and the zest of the purple stripe, which hints of something beyond.

Many women of all ages dress defensively; with the aim of masking some perceived imperfection in their bodies. For women of my age this may involve covering wrinkled, sagging necks with scarves or turtlenecks (see Nora Ephron’s essay, I Hate My Neck); loose tops to disguise sagging boobs (small-breasted women have the advantage); skirts and pants cut to disguise sprawling hips. I have done these things too. (Why women feel the need to do this is a long story, for another time.)

But I have found it more interesting to dress with an attitude of play, just for the fun of it, as at least Walgreens appreciates. For as long as I can remember I have felt the mischievous desire to adopt some minor oddity about my person, anticipating the dissonance between the relatively ordinary me and the appearance of eccentricity that it would create. (Have you seen Theresa May’s leopard-print heels? Evidently she’s into dramatic shoes.) Wearing black all the time was one of those ideas, hatched in my mid-twenties. It would have been eccentric then, but soon became a regular costume among the young, and then amongst all of us. This turned out to be something of a pattern. Each time I hit on an appealingly whimsical idea, by the time I got around to doing anything about it, the particular thing I had in mind was common practice and, therefore, no longer eccentric. So I did nothing.

But this time, I finally I did it.

An attitude of play is a larger feature of my life now than earlier – an irreverence toward established patterns, joy in the simple fun of disjunction with expectation. There is little to lose any more, as professional concerns recede. The stress of reaching a desired social or academic status is gone. Financial issues have resolved themselves to what they are likely to be from here on. This is a time for fun. And a time for the purple stripe. Those who appreciate my purple stripe do so because it is in the hair of someone my age. It would be unremarkable on a younger woman. It may be the very irreverence of the purple stripe that upsets some women of my age.

As I comb my purple stripe into a feathery cap to suit my mood today, I look forward to its opening even more doors than it already has. And its fun may be contagious. A lively friend had promised herself she would do something jazzy when she reached seventy. She recently asked for the brand and color of the dye that made my purple stripe. She had told her grandchildren of her thought to do this and they have been pleading, “Gamma, Gamma, when are you going to do it?” She said, with a wink, that she planned to color just the tips of her hair, but all around her head.

© 2016 Barbara Scott Nelson

A Survivor

clock-419250__340.jpg       Every Sunday evening I wind the grandfather  clock. It has become a ritual, marking the delicious pause that Sunday evening provides before the beginning of the week. The clock reaches up about eight feet – made of walnut, with inlaid tracings of a lighter wood,topped by a curved crest and three wooden finials. Relatively plain as such clocks go. When I slowly turn the winding handle, metal gears rotate with a series of clicks and I can feel strain on the cord lifting heavy weights. The old wood of the case creaks.


One of the issues hovering in the back of my mind these days is the prospect of one day sorting my worldly goods in preparation for moving into smaller quarters. I plan to move to Kendal at Hanover, a continuous care community in the mountains of New Hampshire, just a mile from Dartmouth College – source of football games, interesting courses, art exhibits and, reassuringly, a good medical school. I’m at the top of the wait list for Kendal, which means I could move there any time. While my need for this move is several years off, I recently learned from a friend who is the admissions officer of such a place that, all things being equal, one should move in one’s mid-late seventies. “Some people come in their eighties and find that they don’t have the energy to make new friends and develop a strong social network once they get here. So they miss out on one of the strongest features of this kind of community.” Evidently, one should think of this as the next interesting phase in life and prepare to enjoy it, rather than viewing it as the last stop.

Even with a positive attitude, here I am, at 73, sensing a move on the horizon and dreading the disruption of sorting and packing. As I savor the details of life in my city apartment and my little house near the sea, I cast a more questioning eye than usual on the stuff that has accumulated there. While neither my family nor I were ever wealthy, there’s a lot of stuff; a bit that is old and valuable, most just old. Closets of linens, pots and pans, various appliances that trace the history of my culinary explorations, and lawn equipment.   Which would I actually use in a very nice, but much smaller apartment?


I think often of the clock, as I mull this over. The feel and sounds of the clock when I wind it are likely much the same as they were for the generations of my family that owned it earlier. Winding the clock ties me to them. Over my morning coffee, in a kind of reverie, I imagine the day the clock came into my family in the early 1800’s. I picture the family living in one of those severely rectangular Pennsylvania stone farmhouses, surrounded by fields, softened only by a few shade trees next to the house and a nearby kitchen garden for vegetables and herbs. Farmers, they were, and the work was constant and hard. But times had been good and their savings had accumulated nicely. Recently they had bought a few things each year to make life more comfortable – good rugs, the newest model of icebox with a spigot to drain off the water. This year it would be a tall clock that would tick through the day and chime on the hour.

The day the clock came would have been one of high excitement. The three children were likely out of bed at dawn, chores finished, and breakfast gulped down before daylight was firmly established. After forever they heard the horse and wagon stop in front of the house, with the clomp of horses’ hooves and creak of harnesses being pulled. The clock would have been taken apart in the store (take off the bonnet, unhook the pendulum, remove the works from the case, put all four in the back of the wagon, cushion well with padding) and bumped over unpaved country roads the ten miles to their house. Once inside the house, Dad would have set the case in place against the wall and, after reassembling the clock, started the pendulum going with a touch of his finger, bringing it to life. The tick and chime, which seemed so loud at first that conversation stopped while everyone listened, gradually slipped into the background. The clock probably liked being backed up against the cool stone wall. In time, the moisture in the clock’s wood would come into equilibrium with that in the cool air around it. The clock would settle in, ticking away comfortably, as long as it lived in stone houses like this one, heated by fireplaces or wood stoves.

While children running around the house, the occasional negligent owner who didn’t oil it regularly, and more wagon trips to new homes would have been threats, I imagine the most dangerous moment for the clock would have been when it first encountered a house with central heating. This would have been after several generations of downsizing decisions, when it ended up in the fancy city home of the couple’s great-grandchildren, in the latter part of the 19th century. Central heating, when it arrived, dried out the air and the by-then very old wood of the clock as well. The fragility one senses today may have come from that time, when the wood lost moisture to the drier surround, every piece became a bit smaller, and the joints were no longer so tight.


My city apartment has central heat, as will the apartment I will be moving to. I run a humidifier in the winter when the heat is on and the air is dry – partly for my skin, partly for the plants, but significantly for the health and well being of the clock. By now, caring for it is an act of stewardship. My role, in the story of this long-running family, is to keep the clock healthy and ticking for the next generation.

“It’s a survivor,” said the clock repair guy who came to look at it when it first came to live with me. And the clock has helped all of us survive. Like a mother’s heartbeat to her unborn baby, the background pulse of the clock’s steady tick and its regular chime mean home.

As I come out of my reverie I realize that the clock is not just one of many possessions about which decisions will need to be made. It is a member of the family, and certainly cannot be left behind. It will live with me at Kendal and then be loved and cared for by one of the next generation, who may also have grown up with an ancient clock ticking in the house.

© 2016, Barbara Scott Nelson

Pedicuris Interruptus

feet-799034_640 copy These days I get monthly pedicures. As a fairly straightforward Yankee type who buys clothes when necessary, not for entertainment, and the care of whose feet is a do it yourself operation, pedicures have not been a regular part of my adult life. However, now that I am in my seventies, orthopedic limitations prevent reaching my toes. To my chagrin, no matter how hard I try or how many contorted positions I experiment with, I can no longer fold my body tightly enough, bringing shoulders to knees, and stretch my arms far enough, to reach my toes, file and paint the nails.

Rose, a good pedicurist, works in a nearby salon. She has become one of the small army of helpers who now ease my way in life. Rose is a nice, young woman with brains and ambition. She’s on her way somewhere, and I enjoy talking with her about her visions for the future. I hope she beats the odds and makes it.

I have come to enjoy the routines of the pedicure. My feet, released from the confines of socks and shoes, shout with the freedom to stretch and wriggle. Jeans rolled above knees; I slip my feet into warm, blue water and sink deeply into a spacious leather chair with massage capabilities. Lying back with tea in hand, my feet and legs enjoy a long, relaxing soak; dry winter skin is sloughed off; and after the cutting and filing but before the painting, Rose gives a lengthy foot massage with delicious oils and lotions. I have learned to relax into the warmth and caress of the pedicure, quiet my mind, and drift off into clouds of indistinct sound and scent.

The last time I went to the salon, I took along a copy of Strad, a British magazine for the players and makers of bowed, stringed instruments. Reading articles about such things as Stradivari’s early instruments, and summer and winter rosins, is part of my research in preparation for writing a story about violin making. Total immersion in an elegant world. Carrying the magazine around to read while waiting for the dentist or the subway, people ask what it is, what it is about. It’s not a commonly known magazine in this country.

On this particular day, as my pedicure was ending with the painting of purple on my toenails, a rare male cautiously peeked around the corner, asking if this was the place for pedicures. He explained that he had never had a pedicure before but his wife had given him a gift certificate, so here he was. He was Harvard Square casual; slender, probably in his early forties, dark hair shot with grey, wearing rumpled jeans, a dark shirt, and very worn running shoes. A uniform that masks all social and intellectual distinctions. “I don’t know what to expect,” he said, “or what to do.” Rose invited him in saying, “Just relax and put your feet in the water.” He apologized for the state of his feet and repeated that he had never had a pedicure before. Rose reassured, saying, “That’s fine. I’ve seen everything.” As I took a look at the situation out of the corner of my eye, I could appreciate why his wife thought to give him that gift certificate.

As I picked up my stuff to go, he asked if my Strad magazine belonged to the shop. He started talking about the woman pictured on the front cover, Rachel Podger, a British baroque violinist who had won the 2015 Bach Prize awarded by the Royal Academy of Music in London. He has her Bach partitas, he said. “I am in the position to make recommendations to the Boston Celebrity Series and would like to get her to perform there.” Scrambling to turn my brain back on, I emerged from my hazy clouds enough to mention my writing project. “Are there good luthiers in Boston?” he asked, “There’s one in New York.” I asked if he was referring to Sam Zygmuntowicz, arguably the best luthier in the United States, who has a workshop in Brooklyn and has made violins for Isaac Stern and several members of the Emerson Quartet. I told him of one or two luthiers in the Boston area who were very good, if not quite of Sam’s renown. Hoping to shut down this conversation and return to my reverie, but interested in more talk another time, I gave him my email address, vowing to meet for coffee sometime.

As I left, I was ambivalent about this man’s questions. You never know whom you will meet in the salon. All sorts of people get pedicures, some of them quite interesting. However, I had become accustomed to the mindless drift of these monthly sessions. I had been enjoying the softening of my Yankee soul and now considered self-indulgent pleasure an amiable feature of life. Unexpectedly turning my mind back on was a jolt. Perhaps I should entertain the possibility that pedicures can contain mindful as well as mindless relaxation, and enjoy whatever comes my way in the salon. And newcomers should be prepared to learn that pedicures are about more than feet.


© 2016 Barbara Scott Nelson