We know Donald Trump is a narcissistic ignoramus, but is he also a rapist? A pending court case in New York raises the possibility. The incendiary story has not gotten much play beyond a handful of online articles, including this one in the Huffington Post. It’s worth knowing about.

The accusations in the case are ghastly: a woman identified only as “Jane Doe” claims that he tied her up and raped and beat her when she was thirteen years old back in the 1990s. The statute of limitations has run out, but her lawyer says she was afraid to speak up until now and therefore deserves a chance to pursue justice.

In an earlier case, Trump’s then-wife, Ivana, accused him of rape. After they divorced, she blurred the edges of her claim, perhaps as part of the divorce agreement. Another previous charge involves a woman who had business dealings with Trump long before he became a presidential candidate. She says Trump sexually assaulted her–and she has not recanted.

The three women’s detailed descriptions of the abuse they purportedly suffered at his hands are of a piece with what we already know about Trump, a cruel and unethical man with no impulse control.

He deserves his day in court just like everybody else, but boy, if he’s guilty, wouldn’t it be sweet to see him convicted, sent to the slammer, and taken off our hands. Wouldn’t it be nice to trade in the nightmare for a little bit of peace.

 

Lately I’ve been thinking about Richard Wright’s famous protest novel, Native Son (1940). The book is a page-turner like no other, and there is much to learn from it during this long season of exhibitionistic murders.

Wright’s Chicago-born African American protagonist, Bigger Thomas, is the native son in question. From the very first pages, he is a criminal in the making: young, brooding, physically powerful, horrifyingly poor, inclined to rob rather than earn, and marginalized in all ways due to his race. Though he is ignorant and unenlightened, a furtive intelligence peeks out from behind his inarticulate rage and despair. He is capable of having ideas, very bad ones.

He can’t catch a break, and it’s obvious he never will.  When he’s offered a job as chauffeur for the wealthy white Dalton family, there appears to be a glimmer of respectability in the offing, but you know Bigger will mess things up somehow.

For those who haven’t read the book, I’ll tread lightly over the particulars. Suffice it to say that Bigger accidentally commits a terrible deed. He compounds it in his macabre attempt at a coverup, and then deliberately commits further heinous crimes. Once the manhunt is on, the press inflames the whole city with racist falsehoods. Bigger is finally caught in a cinematic showdown with the cops, his black body flung against the Chicago snow.

For all of the book’s riveting dramatic action, it is the understated final conversation between Bigger and his lawyer, a Jewish Communist named Boris Max, that I keep thinking about. They are coming at this meeting from very different points of view. Max is tense and sad; Bigger is eerily equanimous. Max has come to comfort Bigger and say goodbye; Bigger has figured things out on his own and needs to talk, perhaps even comfort Max.

It turns out he listened very carefully to Max’s lengthy and high-minded courtroom presentation, a spirited defense that had everything to do with abstract sociology and little to do with the individual defendant. He has concluded that Max was correct: he is the inevitable and unfortunate product of a racist city and racist society and therefore, by Bigger’s own reckoning, not to blame for anything whatsoever.

Going still further, he has decided his actions–the killings–were good. They were the right thing to do. He’s figured out a way to justify himself and become his own hero.

“What I killed for must’ve been good!” Bigger’s voice was full of frenzied anguish. “It must have been been good! When a man kills, it’s for something. … I didn’t know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for ’em.”

Isn’t this wild? Isn’t this familiar?

The killer in Orlando and the killer in Dallas are our very own Bigger Thomases: angry, hopeless, desperate young men who found a sick justification for their actions. They are entirely to blame for what they did: like Bigger’s, their actions are indefensible. Yet we need to look at our society–our nation bulging with firearms and boiling with racial, ethnic, and religious tensions–when we contemplate how these modern-day Biggers came into being. With Native Son as a point of reference, they can be seen in the context of conditions that make them not just possible but terrifyingly likely.

Native Son is not a didactic screed but rather a classic example of literary realism with naturalist flourishes. It invites us to look, see, and think. We don’t need to read far into it to notice that Bigger is hardly the only native son gone berserk. In memorably lurid detail, the novel illustrates exactly how racism dehumanizes oppressors and victims alike. The virulently racist white policemen, the rabid white prosecutor, and the race-baiting press all behave in unconscionable ways. Their actions cause us to feel, at times, a modicum of sympathy for Bigger and prevent us from dismissing him as a mere sociopath.

Think, now, of the murderous white overseers of enslaved Americans, the KKK members who lynched black men and women for decades after the Civil War, and last year’s white murderer of black churchgoers in Charleston–native sons, one and all. They are on the opposite side from Bigger, but no less demented in their perverted self-justification of their deeds. This is racism in America: everybody suffers, everybody loses.

Native Son is not light summer reading, but this has not been a light summer. We need to read and reread this book. Its truths are entirely relevant to our time.

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During times of upheaval, art of all kinds can offer solace and refuge. As an antidote to the horrors we are all grappling with these days, I recommend to you the life and writing of Harold Norse (1916-2009),  an out gay man who grew up in the 1920s and 1930s. In this, his centennial year, let’s have a look at who he was and what he was all about.

The Brooklyn native was a smart, sexy guy with a winning smile. He graduated from Brooklyn College in 1938 and later earned an M.A. from New York University. His elegant lyric poems received high praise from William Carlos Williams, who called him the best poet of his generation. First in Europe and then in San Francisco, Norse found his milieu among the Beat writers. His numerous books of poetry, his experimental novel, The Beat Hotel, and his memoir were published by both mainstream and small presses beginning in 1953.

Here’s Norse writing in Memoirs of a Bastard Angel (Morrow, 1989) about a letter he received from W.H. Auden:

Wystan had repeatedly said, and had written in a letter to me, ‘Live every moment as if it were thy last,’ quoting an Anglican hymn he had sung in childhood. And although the context of this line was religious, I could believe the thought without the religion. There was no other way to live. Certainly not if you were in your twenties and the most devastating war in history had just ended. I was lucky to be alive. I was lucky the government did not have room in its military machine for young men designated 4-F because of ‘feminine reactions.’

But Norse did fight during World War II–in New York City. One day on Eighth Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues, he encountered a drunk beating up a peddler and hollering anti-Semitic epithets:

Nobody made a move to help the old man. The crowd’s passiveness and the helplessness of the old peddler at a time when millions of innocent Jews were being terminated in the gas chambers of Europe proved too much for me. I pushed my way forward through the throng and hovered a moment indecisively. Then, almost without my knowing it, my fist shot out of the crowd and the drunk went down, flat on his back, his head thudding on the asphalt. A cheer rose from the crowd, which began to disperse, many thanking me warmly, shaking my hand.

Norse was a man of many talents. In the late 1950s he arrived in  Paris and soon began experimenting with cut-up writing, a technique that William Burroughs made famous. Norse was also painting:

I had begun painting at a suggestion from Julia Laurin. I threw colored Pelican inks at random on Bristol paper and washed them off in the bidet with startling results: a series of maplike drawings of outer and inner space in the most vivid colors and minutely precise details, as if they had been meticulously drawn by a master hand. Yet my hand never touched them. I allowed everything to happen, letting the laws of chance take over, acting as a medium through whom these colors, shapes, and designs would flow, dictated by whatever forces reside in the unconscious. With the feeling that I was charting new territory in the visual arts I worked compulsively, calling the results ‘Cosmographs’–cosmic writings. I was no draftsman, but I was an artist. When I showed them to Burroughs [… ] he was so enthusiastic that he wrote the introduction to my first one-man show, which opened a year later in March 1961 at the English Bookshop, 42, rue de Seine.

These are just a few glimpses of Norse, someone I knew little about until I became friends with Todd and Tate Swindell of San Francisco. The Swindell brothers have done a great deal to promote Norse and other San Francisco Beats who haven’t gotten the attention they deserve.

A writer and activist, Todd Swindell had admired Norse’s poetry for a long time before he began helping Norse around the house near the end of the poet’s life. After Norse died, Todd compiled his archives. He also took on the enormous task of editing I Am Going to Fly Through Glass: The Selected Poems of Harold Norse (Talisman House, 2014). Later this month, he will be presenting a talk, “Cut Out of the Cut Ups: Harold Norse at the Beat Hotel,” at the European Beat Studies Conference in Manchester, England. In July, Todd and Tate Swindell will host and participate in a series of discussion panels commemorating the centennial of Norse’s birth. For more info on these panels (two in San Francisco and one in Los Angeles), go to the Events page at haroldnorse.com.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Todd Swindell by email. Here’s what he had to say about his old friend Harold Norse.

What does Harold Norse add to the Beat Movement? 

Harold adds a strong connection to Modernism to the Beat Movement. He was publishing in magazines like Poetry in the 1940s. When W.H. Auden arrived in the States, Harold was among the first Americans to connect with him, and he became Auden’s secretary. Harold also got to know Anaïs Nin, Dylan Thomas, and James Baldwin.

Without Harold, the Beats would not have such a rich international dimension. He lived in Paris in the late 1950s and traveled widely. We read often of New York City and San Francisco, but a great deal of the Beats’ influence came out of what happened in Paris, Tangier, and the Greek Islands, and Harold was part of that scene. Nor would we have had Harold’s magazine Bastard Angel, from the early 1970s, publishing a new generation of writers such as Andrei Codrescu and Neeli Cherkovski in the same pages as Bob Kaufman and Diane di Prima.

Where was Harold living when he was editing and producing Bastard Angel, and how long did it last? Where is it archived?

Bastard Angel magazine began shortly after Harold moved to San Francisco in 1971, inspired by the city’s poetry scene and its mixture of younger and older poets. Issue #3, the last one, came out in the fall of 1974. The mock-ups and other production material are archived at the Lilly Library at Indiana University. Harold sold them a part of his archives in the early 1980s. Most of his papers are housed at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley.

How did Harold get along with Allen Ginsberg? Did they have much contact?

Harold met Allen in the winter of 1944, a week before Ginsberg met Kerouac. It was on a subway train, very early in the morning heading to Greenwich Village, when Allen entered the empty car wearing a red bandana around his neck, taking a seat opposite Harold. When the train’s rumble would quiet at each stop, Harold could hear the 18-year-old mumbling to himself while his head bobbed as if he were in a trance. Eventually he recognized “The Drunken Boat” being recited in French. “Rimbaud!” Harold shouted. “You’re a poet!” Allen replied. They went back to Harold’s apartment on Horatio Street and compared poems. The pair would have likely met later at parties or bars in the Village, but they were acquaintances more than friends, similar to Harold’s connection with Frank O’Hara.

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Allen Ginsberg and Harold Norse (photo by Gerard Malanga, 1973)

There was a subtle rivalry between Norse and Ginsberg. In Harold’s Memoirs of a Bastard Angel, he mentions the time Ginsberg and his lover Peter Orlovsky arrived in Paris in 1961 on their way to India. At a party filled with champagne and hashish, Peter pestered Harold to disrobe. After swigging and toking, he complied, but then Peter disappeared into the bathroom. Eventually most of the guests ended up in their birthday suits, as Allen sternly guarded the bathroom door. The whole story is well worth reading.

When I was gathering Harold’s archives, I found correspondence to Allen asking him for a letter of recommendation. Harold was trying to obtain a paid teaching position. Ginsberg replied he didn’t have time to comply and ultimately such a letter would not make a difference. In his defense, Ginsberg was inundated with such requests.

In Harold’s archives at Indiana University, there is a series of photographs by Gerard Malanga taken in 1973 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art during a poetry reading by John Ashbery. Allen and Harold were both in attendance wearing the colorful hippie garb of the day. You can see their bright smiles. As you know, Ginsberg was a talented photographer and he photographed Harold in the kitchen of his Mission District apartment in 1988. It is one of the most beautiful photos taken of Harold.

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Photo by Allen Ginsberg, 1988

Did Harold have a workaday job, or was he able to earn a living as a writer? 

Harold’s paid employment varied throughout his life. In New York City, he taught at colleges like Cooper Union. When he left for Italy in ’53, his finances were very strained. At first he worked dubbing English films into Italian and then taught English, on and off, for a couple years. During his years abroad, Harold was supported by a couple of patrons who were from wealthy families but lived frugally. This support was usually a vacant apartment or money for food—but only the bare necessities.

When Harold repatriated to California in 1969, he tried to obtain a regular teaching position but was systematically rejected by petty professors jealous of his time abroad. There was an image projected of Harold being too wild because of his poetry. In the 1980s he had some stints at a college in San Jose and at San Francisco’s New College. Harold scraped by his whole life, but of course he’d been doing that since he was a child. His parents were always leaving furnished rooms under cloak of night because they couldn’t pay the rent.

I read that he rearranged the letters in his surname, Rosen, to come up with Norse. Why did he do that? What was his attitude toward his Jewish heritage?

Like his hairpiece, Harold’s name change was something he never spoke of. According to his memoirs, Harold’s new name came from childhood readings in Norse mythology and because his mother’s family were Nordic Jews, blue-eyed blondes from Lithuania. Though his mother was suspicious of religions (and people), her siblings converted when they married spouses who were Catholic.

Harold embraced his Jewish heritage when the Nazis rose to power. Also, he saw how prejudice arose from baseless stereotypes whether it was blacks, queers, or Jews. For instance, Harold—muscular, hairy, butch—was never suspected of being queer. His swarthy complexion and upturned nose could have him pegged as anything from Italian to English to German.

What are some of the poems you especially admire in I Am Going to Fly Through Glass?

A selection of my favorite poems can change from day-to-day. For now…“Piccolo Paradiso” is a love poem for the ages. “Believing in the Absurd” is a snapshot of Harold’s time at the Beat Hotel. “California Will Sink” is a prophetic lamentation about global warming. “Remembering Paul Goodman” encapsulates the queer poetic geniuses of 1940’s Manhattan. “Let Go and Feel Your Nakedness” merges the lusty odes of Catullus with the liberating playfulness of James Broughton.

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What were some of the challenges of compiling and editing this edition of selected poems?

 My original idea was to photocopy a chapbook of Harold’s poetry and circulate it amongst friends, a stoking of the fire, as it were. I’d self-published a memorial chapbook of poetry from Harold’s friends like Ira Cohen, Mel Clay and Eddie Woods after he died in 2009. (Readers can email me at poet@haroldnorse.com to purchase a copy.) It wasn’t until Neeli Cherkovski suggested a full-length collection that I set my sights higher, which meant going back and reading all the poems again.

The 2003 edition of Harold’s collected poems is comprehensive but poorly organized and needlessly repetitive. I wanted to illustrate the development of Harold’s poetic voice, mirrored by his world travels. Including photographs from Harold’s archives accented this progression. Neeli contributed a brilliant introductory essay that motivated me to include additional poems.

It was hard not to give up when publishers repeatedly turned down the manuscript. I was on the verge of self-publishing when Ed Foster from Talisman House came in with a wonderful offer to print 700 copies­—considerably larger than the usual small-press poetry print runs.

Tell me a story about Harold Norse that only you would know.

Harold’s last years living alone in his cottage apartment in San Francisco were fraught with loneliness, compounded by lack of restful sleep. Though social by nature, he had become increasingly isolated. There was an element within his psyche which could often sabotage an opportunity.

Many folks who knew Harold longer than I have remarked on how he would perpetually kvetch about his work not being recognized. I was in my twenties when we first met and naively unaware of Harold’s role in that situation. I could only be supportive and enthusiastic. As far as I was concerned, the value of his work obviated Harold’s shortcomings.

One day, venting his woes, Harold expressed concern that he sounded paranoid. His complaint wasn’t specific to his poetry not getting the attention it deserved but more about the difficulty of not getting enough sleep and lacking money and companionship. The day before, I had been reading his City Lights collection Hotel Nirvana, which contains the poem “These Fears Are Real Not Paranoid.” I blurted out the title and Harold looked at me wide-eyed as I explained it was the title of one of his poems.

He was not convinced. I had him locate a copy of the book so I could read the poem aloud. When I was done, Harold had tears in his eyes. “I’m hearing this poem for the first time,” he said. “What do you mean?” I asked. “We are unable to see ourselves,” he replied, “That’s why I write poetry–for the reflection that comes from the reader.” It was then I begin to appreciate what my friendship offered Harold beyond housecleaning and conversation.

To read a selection of Norse’s poems published in Poetry magazine, click here.

*****

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Harold Norse and Todd Swindell, 2008 (Photo by Tate Swindell)

 

We keep having these days, and then we have the day after.

On the day after, there is shock and pain and horror; there is fear; there is the latest bit of maddening news that does nothing to solve anything.

And today, where I live, there’s a breeze rippling the catnip and lamb’s ear, the one blooming, the other about to bloom.

How much grief can a single body hold? How much love and joy? If you look into the eyes of any old woman or old man on the sidewalk in your town, you’ll see the history of pain in America, in the world. You’ll see agonizing deaths and illness and Jim Crow and rape and lies and infidelities and car accidents and smashed dreams. Amid the ashes, the wars, the broken bones, you will see kaleidoscopic bits of yourself.

You’ll also see starlight and cornfields and a newborn’s first smile. First jobs and teary reunions and bonfires on the beach. Long embraces on back stairways. New York City glimpsed from an airplane. Graduation day. River water on cold toes. You’ll see yourself, again.

Once, years ago, not long after my mother died, my friend Jay was consoling me on the elevator at work as we went to teach our classes. He told me what a nun said to him during his own time of loss: “Look for Jesus in the breeze, not in the gale.'” The elevator door opened, and I put that remark away to ponder for a lifetime.

We all have our own ways of dealing with private grief, politicized outrage, bottomless fear and sorrow. We think our thoughts, we do what we can.

In my corner of the world, on the day after, my eyes are tired. I have read enough. I glance again at the ripening flowers, the sky, the bumblebee. What would they say, what are they saying? I look and listen. The breeze travels on, from here to the moon and on to the ocean.

 

(1) Speedo swimsuits. You are not Mark Spitz and the year is not 1972. You are you, and your mirror is not lying. Your mirror is trying very hard not to splinter into a thousand fragments of hysterical laughter.

(2) “Wife-beater” undershirts. Did you know that half of the nation’s population actually refers to these as “girlfriend-leaves-barbecue-with-someone-much-cuter” shirts? Well, it’s true. And no, Stanley Kowalski is not a viable role model.

(3) Orange trousers. Though commonly thought to be amusing ice-breakers at tailgate parties, studies show that orange pants have had a disastrous impact on the careers of over-confident young stockbrokers. Suffice it to say Bob Tiddlywinks, class of 1983, probably won’t invest in your hedge fund just because your pants elicit more giggles than his khakis do.

(4) Plumber crack-pants. You don’t have to be a plumber to fall prey to these dangerous pants. Better to wear suspenders of the Mr. Peanut variety than risk southern exposure of the posterior kind.

(5) Boat-like sneakers covered in neon reflector stripes. Never mind that these are comfortable. They are hideous. Repurpose them as chew toys for the neighborhood coyotes.

(6) Pajama pants at the supermarket. Don’t think we haven’t seen you wearing paisley flannel in the frozen pizza aisle. We have seen, and we have smirked, and we have fled to the yogurt section, which you will forever bypass, and that’s OK.

 

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PETITION

We, the undersigned, hereby declare our strenuous opposition to the presumptive Republican nominee for President. We stand firm in our beliefs and urge others to speak out in similar fashion.

 

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Gretta, Farmington, CT

“His knowledge of diplomacy is woefully lacking.”

 

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Anson, Gettysburg, PA

“Does he even know what NATO stands for?”

 

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Micki, Seattle, WA

“He needs to make his tax returns public, now!”

 

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Lila-Anne, Bethesda, MD

“In the unlikely event that he wins, I’m moving to Germany. I have enormous respect for Angela Merkel.”

 

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Pat, Oxford, MS

“To paraphrase a line from Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart, I just don’t like his looks.”

 

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Ginger, Tampa, FL

“I shudder to think what would happen to interest rates.”

 

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Ned, Memphis, TN

“We can’t let a vulgarian take over our nation.”

 

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Pinto, Fort Wayne, IN

“His so-called university defrauded a great many Americans. They deserve a full refund and a heartfelt apology.”

 

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Desmond, Charlottesville, VA

“He cheats at golf? Enough said.”

 

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Luis David, Taos, NM

“He’s no Carlos Fuentes, that’s for sure.”

 

 

The U.S. unemployment rate hovers at five percent, which is great news. But for those still looking for work, the forward-thinking governor of North Carolina has come to the rescue with a promising new career track. The job posting beckons to anyone with discerning vision, an ability to make snap judgments, and a sense of irony so delicate and refined that Franz Kafka would smile with tender recognition. On your marks, five-percenters!

Seeking collegial self-starters who enjoy judging people for exciting new opportunity at state-owned rest facilities across North Carolina.

Job Posting Title: Bathroom Facility Control Gender Monitor

Hours: 8-1o hours/day, or until you keel over from the horror of it all.

Required Skills: You must be comfortable in a professional working environment in which ambient smells and sounds may become overpowering at times. You must be capable of speaking with authority over the roar of a minimum of five commodes firing simultaneously, and you must enjoy staring inappropriately at every person who crosses your path. You must be able to walk away from patrons who mockingly address you as “Bathroom Bill” or “Bathroom Billie.”

Further, you must be willing to lunge up from your wobbly, splintery chair, stick out a hand sheathed in a sanitary plastic glove, and say with a veneer of aggression covering your fear, “Step back, big guy! Got a birth certificate for me?” Alternatively, while a vein bulges menacingly from your forehead, you may be required to say: “Hold on, sister! It’s me and the law standing between you and that stall.”

Level of Experience: Preference given to applicants with previous experience in multi-toileted environments.

Proof of Citizenship: You must be from here, not there. People from there should go back there and not ever come back here.

Benefits: Generous bathroom break policy; chance to protect America; opportunity to levitate, if capable of levitating, and glimpse a single pulsating star through the broken window at rear of facility.

Six months ago, I was invited to open my gardens as part of Historic Weeds Week in Virginia. Imagine my surprise and delight. I have been quietly, patiently cultivating weeds for many years but never thought that my clover and crabgrass would equal the great weeds flourishing in the fields and gardens of the finest estates across the Old Dominion. Frankly, I was humbled by the invitation, which came from a Mrs. Dan D. Lyon of Somerset, Va.

Now this very special time has begun, and even as I write this, a few people in galoshes and yellow slickers are wending their way across my yard. Yes, it is a raw and rainy day, just the kind one hopes for during Historic Weeds Week.

I have spent untold hours doing nothing to prepare: no tilling, no trimming, no pruning, no plucking. It took enormous restraint, but whenever I was tempted to gather up a handful of wild onion, henbit, and speedwell and fling everything over the back fence, I pulled out the gracious and complimentary letter from Mrs Lyon and read it yet again. Like this fine lady, I’m in it for the long game.

Ah, now there is a real crowd gathering, and I will have to sign off and go greet my guests. As much as I cherish weeds, I have to say I didn’t realize so many shared my passion.

My eyes are tearing up as I see affectionate couples marveling over the broadleaf plantain, ancient individuals exclaiming over the bittercress, apple-cheeked children stealing the dandelions, even a few merry teenagers peering down a groundhog hole.

They are all smiling and chatting, and now the teenagers and old folks have started a just-for-fun mud fight, and the rain has slacked off and the cardinals are singing and there is nothing quite so beautiful as a garden full of weeds and the people who love them.

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On a country road not far from where I live, there’s a house I never notice except in the spring. Dozens of daffodils press against the front of this ragged little place. It looks abandoned, but the daffodils couldn’t care less. They are wildly happy the way daffodils always are, their gold faces drinking in the sun and sky.

Who planted them, I wonder, and when?

I dial back the years to 1950 or so and picture a young woman in calico with an apron full of bulbs. She kneels down in the light of a breezy September morning and gets to work. As her trowel pierces the red-clay earth, she thinks about her ailing mom or her husband’s upcoming birthday or a poem she would like to write if she can ever find time. She drops in the first bulb and keeps going down the row.

“I’ll have these to look at in the spring,” she tells herself.

She is sturdy and strong. A week after planting the bulbs, she learns she’s pregnant with her first child. The joy she feels flows out of her hands and hair and into the air around the little house. When the daffodils bloom, she is nearly eight months pregnant, big and round and eager to get on with things. Bending down to gather a bouquet, she laughs at herself when she nearly topples over.

The bulbs will replicate over time. She and her husband will have four babies in seven years; three will survive. The name of the oldest, the one growing inside her while she planted those bulbs, will be etched on a shining wall in Washington, D.C.

When the news of her son’s death arrives, the woman will be living far from the daffodils. She will be separated from her husband, angry at the world. It will be ages before she can laugh again.

But the time comes when the tight petals of her heart slowly open. She takes night classes, has grandchildren, helps a fragile friend. The years drift by.

One day a nurse at the doctor’s office comments on the beauty of her eyes and gives her hand a reassuring squeeze. She goes home, takes off her glasses, looks in the mirror: her eyes are as blue as the sky above Rapidan, Virginia.

It’s been a long time since she thought of that place. Something comes to her–a flickering of light, a rush of gold. Wasn’t there a poem she always meant to write, a few things she really wanted to say? She had meant to say them all these years.

The telephone rings: her granddaughter, on her way to take her to lunch.

She smooths her hair and sits down to wait. Outside the high windows of her apartment, a hawk flies by. It is a clear, calm day. The kitchen clock ticks. She rummages around in her purse for the notepad she uses for her grocery list.

The buzzer sounds just as she writes a single word, followed by a year. “It’s a beginning,” she thinks as she stands up and hurries to answer the door.

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When I think about Nancy Reagan, who died this week at age 94, I remember the time I dressed up like her for a party. I was an undergraduate the year Ronald Reagan was elected President. One Halloween I glued a large magazine photo of Nancy’s face, all made up and mascaraed and smiling wide, to a piece of cardboard and attached it to a ruler. I wore a black skirt and fancy red blouse, and when ghosts and witches approached, I held Nancy’s face in front of my own. It was an easy costume to put together and nobody had any trouble figuring out who I was.

I had learned my lesson the previous Halloween. That year, I decked myself out in a pillowcase on which I had drawn a large clock face. I went around draping myself over chairs and sofas and asking people to guess what I was. The first few puzzled looks didn’t bode well for the evening. There was one person–an art history student, no doubt–who realized I was Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory.

For me, the Reagan years began in a hallway outside a closed door. A sign announced a Young Republicans meeting. I listened to the throbbing, pulsing sound coming from behind that door and then peeked inside. Hundreds of young white men in suits and ties were roaring their enthusiasm for Ronald Reagan. In their teens and twenties, they were already rabid believers in wealth, power, and nationalism. All those guys might just as well have been waving shiny pictures of Ronald Reagan in front of their faces. I quickly shut the door and hurried away. I had glimpsed the future, and it was wearing a money belt and wingtip shoes.

Yesterday as I walked along Cambridge Street near Harvard Square, I saw the American flag flying at half mast in memory of Nancy Reagan. Not very far from that flag, a beggar squatted in front of the Old Burial Ground. His cardboard sign read, “Anything helps.” His cheeks grimy, his life at half mast, he held the sign up next to his face. Here was a living monument to a problem that loomed into public view during Reagan’s presidency.

Reagan used to say the want ads were full of jobs that homeless people could apply for. He was not interested in helping the poor, the sick, the vulnerable. Reagan was interested in helping the rich, the secure, the already powerful, and his wife was interested in helping him. They were by all accounts a very good match.

Nancy Reagan’s death makes me remember what the Reagan years were like. Undoing the positive impression of his agreeable face and pleasant voice, President Reagan cast a cold eye on human suffering. He didn’t leave a way for his party to take the high road. (At least Nixon resigned.)

As we stumble down the low road with the current Republican candidates for President, we have him to thank for their refusal to empathize with anyone who doesn’t think or act like they do. They all learned from his example. Like him, they rarely bother to hide their malfeasant agendas. In the trickle-down America that Reagan helped call into being, crocodile tears are optional.

Though Rubio, Trump, and Cruz may not want to hark back to him, for fear of alienating the anti-establishment masses they have teased into a frenzy of foaming ignorance, they are his progeny as surely as night follows Reagan’s “morning in America.” I’ll bet you a pair of wingtip shoes that they have persistent memories of what worked for him.

Ronald Reagan

President Ronald Reagan (AP Photo/Ira Schwarz)

 

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