Dallas

The ninth grade at Her­bert Hoover Junior High School in Long Beach, Cal­i­for­nia began with a minor tri­umph. I was assigned Fea­tures Edi­tor for the school news­pa­per, The Scotty Scroll—a name that com­ple­mented our High­landers school theme. Advanced Jour­nal­ism pro­duced the paper. Although I had never taken a jour­nal­ism class before, I con­vinced the teacher, Car­olyn Muck, to admit me. She was my first teacher-mentor. I would have taken jour­nal­ism from her through all peri­ods of the day. She believed I might do some­thing that mat­tered with words. Mrs. Muck was my con­fi­dante; I stopped by the class­room at the end of each day. She asked me about my life — what I hoped to do and achieve as an adult woman. I was both arro­gant and imma­ture enough to con­sider her an older friend.

I talked about my love of act­ing and the the­atre and my drama classes on week­ends. More than any­thing else, I wanted to be on the stage. She wanted me to con­sider the pos­si­bil­i­ties of being a play­wright, not an actress. When I told her my high school sched­ule the fol­low­ing year would not include jour­nal­ism, but drama instead, she was for­lorn. With res­ig­na­tion she said writ­ing left a per­son unless you kept it going. If I made this choice I would lose the pos­si­bil­ity of becom­ing a writer — it would be buried and get lost in activ­i­ties and pur­suits that were, frankly, more engag­ing and not soli­tary. I did not take her advice. I engaged in act­ing and the­atre with my whole being. But later, it was writ­ing that came back to claim me and wouldn’t let go. I never found her again. I wanted to tell her she was the one who inspired me to be a writer – an essen­tial part of my iden­tity. And, I would have cor­rected her — it’s an even lone­lier pur­suit than she sug­gested in that 9th grade classroom.

Defin­ing moments is an over-used phrase. But they hap­pen in his­tory and in per­sonal lives. Novem­ber 22, 1963 remains one for Amer­i­cans and much of the world. (For a long time I didn’t know peo­ple who are not born by then, and now I know so many who were not.) On this the 50th anniver­sary of that loss, I have been think­ing, like so many oth­ers, what I was doing and how it felt to be a girl then, and what changed in those moments and sub­se­quent weeks and years.

I was sit­ting in a con­verted bun­ga­low class­room at the back end of Hoover’s prop­erty. I was in home­room. It was mid-day. Bun­ga­lows were pre­sum­ably tem­po­rary rooms and were repur­posed from World War II. Car­ole, a pop­u­lar and socially impor­tant girl, with long blonde hair, styled in a spi­ral pony­tail, announced to class she heard Pres­i­dent Kennedy had been shot in Dal­las. Miss Cun­ning­ham, home­room teacher and my Eng­lish teacher, gave Car­ole a stern lec­ture. She was called her out for spread­ing fright­en­ing and untrue gos­sip. Car­ole was con­fi­dent, assured, in charge, and beau­ti­ful. Nobody intim­i­dated her not even this teacher.

Within a few moments of Miss Cunningham’s berat­ing, the P.A. sys­tem went on; we were told to march, in assem­bly for­ma­tion, to the front steps of the audi­to­rium. In a few min­utes, Mr. Whe­lan, the vice-principal, a red­headed Irish­man, appeared and said: Our Pres­i­dent John Fitzger­ald Kennedy was assas­si­nated in Dal­las, Texas. There were screams and cry­ing. Tough boys looked down at their shoes. School was dis­missed. We should pro­ceed imme­di­ately to our homes. He spoke directly, in short clear sen­tences, with­out first brac­ing us for the impact. His face was streaked with tears, and his eyes were swollen. He looked the way I felt. I wanted to hug him and tell him some­how we would all be fine. But I didn’t think that was true. I was sure we would never be fine again, not any of us.

Walk­ing the few blocks back to the house I had two thoughts. Fore­most in my mind was that our coun­try was bro­ken — fin­ished. If a pres­i­dent could be killed in his own motor­cade, then we were doomed. It was the end of the world. The other fear was my par­ents would not know yet. I would be the mes­sen­ger. When I reached the house I couldn’t find them. They were stand­ing silently in the back­yard hold­ing hands – both weep­ing. We stood together for a time, my father hold­ing us close. He broke the silence, “They slaugh­tered our beau­ti­ful pres­i­dent.” The word slaugh­tered seemed fit­ting for what hap­pened. My father was a WWII vet­eran and knew what it meant to be slaugh­tered – he had seen the rav­ages of battle.

It seemed unthink­able that one per­son could do this – so the pro­noun they felt appro­pri­ate. It must be a plot; per­haps it was an inva­sive for­eign plan to destroy us. My par­ents, who were never polit­i­cally para­noid, became so that after­noon. They were not alone. What would hap­pen next?

My world became grey, point­less, sub­dued. What could mat­ter now? How could I go on at school or go for­ward with games and friv­o­lity? Surely we would col­lapse and every­one and every­thing around us would fall apart. I couldn’t imag­ine it could ever be fixed. In the next days, the story became more absurd, another mur­der of the assas­sin – and then more chaos in thought and actions.

On the day we returned to school after the hia­tus, I got a smack of reality-therapy. I walked home with a girl I had known for a long time. They were devout fun­da­men­tal­ist Chris­tians and their lives revolved around their church and its activ­i­ties. Her par­ents were impor­tant lead­ers in their con­gre­ga­tion. She wanted to know why I was so sad. Pres­i­dent Kennedy was killed, I said. She said, yes, but with luck, Repub­li­cans would be elected in the next term. That’s what her father told her. I pep­pered her with ques­tions and accu­sa­tions about how she could respond that way, hadn’t she seen the funeral, the chil­dren, the First Lady, the coun­try in grief? In a matter-of-fact tone she said they were not allowed to watch the tele­vi­sion cov­er­age because what hap­pened was God’s will. JFK was an evil force in our coun­try. He was a Roman Catholic and there­fore not a Chris­t­ian. They played Gin Rummy late into the night of the 22nd — when hold­ing a win­ning hand instead of shout­ing out Gin! — the fam­ily mem­bers shouted BIG D. I knew then hatred had many faces, and took many forms.

Mrs. Muck assigned me the fea­ture about the President’s mur­der. I wanted to expose my for­mer friend but knew that wouldn’t be pub­lished. More than that, I knew she wasn’t the only class­mate who did not see JFK’s death as the tragedy we did. I became seri­ous about my Amer­i­can his­tory course. I wanted to learn more about pol­i­tics and the way the gov­ern­ment worked. Action was required, not just words. I believed I had heard enough words and they screamed in my head. I had read enough, and looked at too many pho­tographs of what would become known as JFK’s Camelot. It was a time of dis­be­lief. And a time when at last I knew there were no fairy tales, few happy end­ings. What became cer­tain was that every­thing is unknow­able and unpre­dictable — the future — my future — every­thing in our nation and in the world. Being a thir­teen year old girl felt silly. I wanted to become an adult and do some­thing that mat­tered. I wanted to make a dif­fer­ence. ©Alida Brill, 2013

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A DAY FOR ALL WOMEN

At long last, Alice Munro, the woman and her words, awarded the ulti­mate lit­er­ary prize, the Nobel.

She has not spent her life long­ing for this, or for acclaim, fame, celebrity or the desire to obtain the trap­pings of a lux­u­ri­ous lifestyle.  It’s been about the work, about the per­fec­tion of each sen­tence, within each story.

She tells life­time events in para­graphs so still and yet so active with life that one read­ing is never enough.  I was given Dance of the Happy Shades by my mother. It was Munro’s first book; she was 37 when it was pub­lished.  I was 18 years old, and still remem­ber the story, as if I read it yesterday.

Through more than 40 years I have read every­thing she gave us, waited for each new story, col­lec­tion, book.  Ear­lier this year she announced she was fin­ished writ­ing, not tired of writ­ing, but done.  And it is a job well done, in a career she cor­rectly noted is hard work, not glam­orous activ­ity.  In Canada, away from the fancy par­ties, high-end din­ners, tele­vi­sions appear­ances and all the rest of the glit­ter that’s become part of the iden­tity of the suc­cess­ful writer, Alice Munro wrote, and wrote and wrote.  Her sto­ries make me think in a more nuanced and tex­tured way, have offered a wider world inside the smaller ones she detailed. She made me under­stand the nobil­ity of this craft.

Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize is a vic­tory for all women, not just writ­ers, pub­lished ones or oth­er­wise, but for all of us. Alice Munro gave women’s sto­ries impor­tance — our small and large deci­sions, tri­umphs and dis­ap­point­ments.  She encap­su­lated the com­plex­ity of rela­tion­ships, their inher­ent heart­break as well as life-affirming con­nec­tions.  She has done this as no other writer in my time.  Alice Munro’s sto­ries tell us that we mat­ter, that even if hid­den from the urban throb of excite­ment, women’s lives mat­ter — that we exist – that we con­tinue to hold our place in the con­ti­nu­ity of human­ity, that we are present in the moment itself.

And so, to Alice Munro, a thank you beyond the power of words to con­vey, for all you have given so many of us. Cel­e­brate with us as we cel­e­brate you. Your mod­esty and humil­ity have never failed to move and impress me, but this is your moment to soar. I am float­ing high above earth on a cloud that says… YES, YES … Alice Munro The Nobel Win­ner, a woman for all our lives, for all time.

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Year Two: Day 255 – A Decade + 1 Year

Today is Sep­tem­ber 11th, 2012, the 255th Day of the Year.

This is the 11th year since the attacks on the 11th day of Sep­tem­ber in 2001.

In Man­hat­tan the day began in a rou­tine way, the way week­days begin here, but for the fact it was a pri­mary elec­tion and that sky was a peace­ful blue. By the end of the morn­ing the day would be remem­bered for attacks and death — The World Trade Tow­ers. The Pen­ta­gon. A field in Pennsylvania.

In the days imme­di­ately fol­low­ing the tragedy, our city was a killing field and a cathe­dral. Things sec­u­lar seemed sacred. We were softer, kinder, and qui­eter. We were a wounded city. Grief was in the air, I could feel it in every exchange I had with another per­son, whether a friend or stranger.

I wrote these words then:

The first time I approached it was just at dusk. The steel skele­ton of what had been the mighty tower hung sus­pended as though it were a piece of scenery for a play. But it was too large for any theater’s stage, and the scope of the tragedy too mas­sive for the con­fine­ment of the playwright’s craft. It was a stark shard, and on that shard, as on the attacks itself, the nation and the world has attached much mean­ing and symbolism.” *

Eleven years later, the huge shard is gone. A grow­ing new tower is vis­i­ble from the end of the ter­race. Some feel the tower avenges some of the deaths by mak­ing a state­ment that we won’t be intim­i­dated. I don’t focus on the new tower. Instead I think of the pools of water, the reflect­ing waters that now stand where the base of the tow­ers once existed. Those waters and the names of each per­son lost that day are what I think of today. Water can be heal­ing and in sacred or reli­gious rit­u­als sig­ni­fies renewal, cleans­ing, rebirth.

Hatred took down the tow­ers. Soft­ness in Man­hat­tan is in short sup­ply again. We’re almost as we were, and that’s not nec­es­sar­ily good. There is war, blood­shed, vio­lence and hatred in every cor­ner of the globe. My speck in the uni­verse – this island of Man­hat­tan — is part of a larger national polit­i­cal drama unfold­ing as we near the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. Eleven years after 9–11, the rhetoric is angry, mis­lead­ing, and accusatory. We are shown maps with red and blue states as the news com­men­ta­tors excit­edly chat­ter about the close­ness of the race to the White House. I see divi­sion. I see any­thing but a United States of Amer­ica. I wish it were not the case that tragedy seems to be what binds us and not compromise.

Heal­ing Waters. Waters Heal.

I think of the lives of all who died that day, not just their man­ner of death. I think of the many new can­cers now dis­cov­ered and named because of the poi­son that went into the bod­ies and sys­tems of the first-responders and oth­ers at the site. I think of the gen­tle water and all the words that can’t be said on a memo­r­ial stone of what con­sti­tutes a mass grave. May each name be for a blessed memory.

May we find peace in the world and on our shores. May we retreat from prej­u­dice, intol­er­ance and the arro­gance of assum­ing we are always right, and the other per­son is always wrong.

Tonight I will go the far cor­ner of the ter­race and look to see if the white beams of light are being dis­played this year, as they usu­ally are. The ghost tow­ers I call them each year. But even if they are not, I will see the light of hope that we will move for­ward in a way befit­ting a coun­try founded on lib­erty and free­dom. And dream we can move into a decade of compassion.

* “From the Shards” by Alida Brill in To Mend the World, Mar­jorie Agosin and Bet­ty­Jean Craig, edi­tors, White Pine Press, 2002

©Alida Brill/From This Ter­race 2012

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YEAR 2: DAY 235: SUMMERING THROUGH

Today is August 22, 2012 the 235th day of the year.

I last reported (that’s a fairly glib use of the word) to you From This Ter­race on the 11th day of a newly minted year. Although I wrote with hon­esty about reach­ing a place where I wasn’t wait­ing, I think I must have been wait­ing, as we all do. It’s the human response to life’s chal­lenges and per­haps an indi­ca­tion of hope for change.

I’m not recant­ing. I’m con­fess­ing I couldn’t live up to the ide­al­ized higher self I thought I had come close to touch­ing in the heady days of early Jan­u­ary. At least I glimpsed what I thought I could achieve. Then many things col­lided at once. The temp­ta­tion to push aside what I felt wasn’t essen­tial over­took me. And silence ensued, and did it ever last. 224 days of it. The Stone Sage Lion began to roar at me and that’s quite a feat.

Silence is a writer’s best friend, or so I’ve been told. The great Russ­ian poet Anna Akhma­tova said that there was only one lux­ury a writer could not live with­out — the abil­ity to be absolutely alone. I’ve been mostly alone in the days of this year — if not always in actu­al­ity, a still soli­tude has taken up res­i­dence in my brain. It’s not felt like a lux­ury, but more a defeat occa­sioned by ill­ness and life choices. It’s made me think about silence and soli­tude. It’s made me remem­ber the writer and scholar Car­olyn Heil­brun who spoke about soli­tude being some­thing one craved only if one did not have to endure it all of the time.

Sum­mer is a silent time in my part of the world. Sup­press your laugh­ter. In fact, my Man­hat­tan neigh­bor­hood is quiet because peo­ple go away. They “do sum­mer” and I don’t “do sum­mer” any longer. Sum­mer was never my friend but I pre­tended we were inti­mates. Even­tu­ally, the pre­tense gave way to the real­ity of my life. I stopped being a truth-evader. Sum­mer and I do not get along well. We’re not a good match – I think of us as a con­stantly quar­rel­ing cou­ple. So rather than win­ter­ing through as Rilke com­mands in his son­net, I’ve sum­mered through. I’ve decided what’s essen­tial is to com­bine silence with con­nec­tions, even if those take the form of sus­tained email con­ver­sa­tions with friends. I still believe C.S. Lewis was right when he said that we read to know we are not alone…but I now add my foot­note to his com­ment … I think many of us write to know we are not alone. That is surely the case for me.

So, am I wait­ing for some­thing? Yes, I am. I am wait­ing to learn how to let go of extreme expec­ta­tions for myself that blind­side me to the small­est plea­sures of a day. Early this morn­ing, I was awak­ened by the sound of birds in the mid­dle of this com­pletely urban land­scape. They were rum­mag­ing through the terrace’s hang­ing flower boxes to see if by chance there was a tasty morsel for them to enjoy for break­fast. They were chat­ter­ing to each other, and to me.

From This Ter­race is Open…again…finally.

©Alida Brill/From This Ter­race 2012

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