I was a child of small town Texas, and of a single parent mom, a feminist. We were poor closet liberals. Austin was my mecca. I excelled there, in the late fifties, and morphed into an existentialist at a residential community of learning alongside The University, the only integrated housing on campus, both by gender and by race. We met in rigorous seminars with a collegium of renegade Christian ministers, headed by a chaplain from WWII who’d seen the carnage, demythologizing the church fathers and scriptures; studying the contemporary theologians: Bultmann and Bonhoeffer, based in Kierkegaard; Buber, Tillich, the Niebuhrs; and readings in cotemporary thought: Satre, Camus, Arthur Miller, Dostoevsky, Ionesco, Beckett, and more. We lived in joy without hope, like Camus’ Sisyphus pushing that rock up the hill, watching it roll down. God was dead, the word god empty. All words were empty of intrinsic meaning, symbols pointing to experience. The collegium attempted to create a language of experience: One struggles against the absence of final meaning, “coming up against it.” Surrendering illusions through honesty, one was opened to creating meaning: an authentic life, freedom. This surrender into reality was “the Christ event”. Our freedom, our commonality in receiving it, and our common task of passing it on, were realized in community through rituals of confession, forgiveness, surrender, and gratitude. Worship as theatre.
In but not of the world, we found a remnant of the social gospel, the campus YM-YWCA, as our outpost. I served at the Y’s national conference. Men and women led workgroups as equals: Peace; Race Relations; the World of Work; The Changing Roles of Men and Women. Consciously breaking out of the silent postwar generation, we vowed to realize our values, a politics of authenticity.
The 50’s unfolded into the 60’s, the sit-in movement their exalted opening. I was discovered by SDS at a national conference of student government leaders, where I supported the sit-ins in a speech, bringing down the house and swinging campus politics left, a white southern girl with a drawl and ruffled dress. I went South toward nonviolence, a methodology of nonaggression inside and outside; means and ends as one; content and process united; the beloved community ever expanding, social change as osmosis, occupation. This was my praxis: hands on, body on the line, work as love made visible. The Y paid: I organized illegal interracial meetings southwide, rode the freedom train to Albany, hung out with SNCC, traveled and spoke, interpreting.
SDS was northern counterpart, white but committed, smart. I typed their mailing list on address stencils in the office on Gramercy Park while the guys talked in the front office, ran the mimeograph machine in Mark Lane’s basement for local SDS’s reform Dem candidate, served on the NEC, organized a labor workshop in the South, met New York politicos.
I called myself a radical, as in going to the root. I thought the root was love. I knew little about the left, ideology, or manifestos when we came to Port Huron, Tom and I, partnered since that sit-in speech. I’d always admired Tom’s writing. It was him. We were different, but side by side. His draft for the gathering was long but bright, a combo of stirring call to arms and master’s thesis. The conference condensed and abstracted it to rework the pieces and paste up an umbrella under which we could unite. It had never occurred to me to critique his work or that I should fit inside it. I struggled to do so now, and felt my voice was lost in his. I managed one objection to a phrase on the perfectibility of man. We changed the wording, but it still wasn’t right. In retrospect I can see that I was working in a different paradigm, homegrown from Christian existentialism and nonviolent theory. As compared to the Port Huron Statement, I was interested in building communities of protest standing outside the civic arena, rather than acting myself within it; unconvinced that independence existed essentially, much less that it was the highest societal goal; had little faith in humanity or progress; was not much involved in governmental policy issues. Control was an ambivalent word. At the time, all this was not so clear. I was still uneasy after Port Huron.
SDS leadership met afterwards in New York to cope with our parent group’s outrage at our non-anticommunism. I wondered if our movement could avoid implosion in the apparently inevitable drama of ideological schisms. It seems we couldn’t. I was party to an opening act on SNCC staff a couple of years later, when our Leninist headman proposed a big centralized organizing project and similar organizational governance. Attempts at conversation from another perspective were characterized as a faction fight and vigorously combated. I took it hard. SNCC and I were both far from our beginnings.
My last action as movement activist was a letter to women of SDS and SNCC, formulating the personal as political. I wrote in the futile and somewhat ambiguous hope that women’s honest and intimate interaction around our lives could, despite the cracks that were appearing, hold our movement together.
Today I live in a family, locally and simply. I study the Way, as I have for 40 years, taking the path of zen. Zen, from the Chinese word chan, meditation, is a method of achieving clear sightedness, without attachment to abstractions. As it is said, no hindrance in the mind, and therefore no fear. No fear of seeing things as they are, and thus with compassion.
My heart’s in the hood, a funky, downtown, used-to-be-the-ghetto, where I’m six generations into the future, lending myself to our anarchist environmentalists, giving our yard to permaculture’s water harvesting basins and native plantings, milling our mesquite trees’ beans into flour, supporting the community garden, saving up for solar. Facing into the devolution when the empire and the industrial edifice have collapsed of their own weight, and we turn to each other. Loving the earth as the ship of state goes down. I see our species as short lived, doing ourselves in with hubris, greed, and overworked left brains, blind to ourselves as one kind among many rooted in the earth our mother, herself the product of infinite time and space.
I’m happy, and my ordinary passions endure: movies, books, poetry, music, dance; water earth fire air; perennial wisdom, tribal cultures, the Paleolithic; the intelligence of nature; the wide open spaces of the great outdoors; clouds, flowers; women giving birth and nursing, little kids, home, and my own dear children, long since grown up.
And still abides my passion for truth, radical truth, found, it turns out, in this very moment, gone before it can be named, unadorned and luminous.