a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Jan Levine Thal
A Change of Place
Harvard Yard. 1968. Sculpted green lawns, weed-free and uncracked sidewalks criss-crossing under graceful, elderly trees protected by the finest of gardeners. Brick walls tall enough to shut out the traffic noise and the townies. Here in the seat of learning for all time and all humankind, Ruth questioned authority. Wondered about the price of this seeming nod to natural beauty.
She found her possible mentor sprawled among the piles of books and papers in his dorm room looking out over the yard. Tall, African-American, top of the line on everything measurable – grades, IQ, face. Beyond that she remembers nothing specific about him. She revealed her deepest desire—at least the only one she’d say aloud—to contribute to a better world. The unsaid ones—for personal happiness, love, family, creativity—seemed so trivial and selfish.
His pitch for revolution settled into her memory without words, blanketing the moment like the smog outside the walls. Except for one sentence.
As Ruth tells the story now, always they ask if he lured her to his bed—she, who can’t dredge up most of her lovers’ names, they are so numerous. (In her youth, “no” wasn’t an option.) No, she always says, not sex. He wanted me to join one of those leftist sectarian groups. Can’t remember which one.
Ruth was reading Marx at the time and completely enthralled. But her friends hated his group. It was humorless, homophobic, just wrong. His parting words: “Some things are more important than friends.” She cried and left him, sad that she could not contribute to a bright future.
Woulda gone to bed with him had he asked.
But you did join a sect.
Oh yes, but not that one. And the next one took me down the road a bit.
An ancient cement building, full of undocumented Central Americans. The assembly line, laid out under the few functional lamps, was makeshift and rickety, an oasis of activity in a vast dark cave with unused corners and pallets of boxes, empty and full in seemingly random order. Ruth daily endured the shaming directives of the floor lady, a large Polish American woman with badly dyed blonde hair and a dog that was her main source of conversation when she wasn’t shouting at people as if that would help them understand English.
After work, Ruth hung out with Georgette, a coworker junkie not really interested in unions or revolution. But nice. In the evenings, while Georgette and her yellow-eyed boyfriend shot up and watched TV, Ruth went to meetings.
She heard a story later that could be true about a man who defected from North Vietnam simply because he hated going to meetings. She understood the impulse.
So you gave up?
But you eventually left, right?
Oh yes, that group. But I joined and quit several others before I realized I would never love the work. Some of the people, yes. Most of the causes. None of the tasks. Not handing out microtype leaflets. Not phone calls ending in angry hangups. Not begging for contributions. Around me, others overcame, suggesting that if I just tried hard enough, I, too could contribute. I stayed far too long.
Her accomplished roommate—she of the national secretaries’ union—said Ruth was embarrassing, socially awkward, inappropriate for a group meant to help women. But others were less picky. The movement needed faceless foot soldiers and Ruth qualified. Sometimes she wondered about the faceless thing. Perhaps if she’d been pretty . . .
They pretty, socially capable ones built lasting social justice organizations, led successful strikes, changed discriminatory practices. A former roommate was instrumental in creating laws on family leave. An ex-lover still works on immigration reform in California. The work was good, the standard of who was appropriate was corporate. Ironies abound.
You hated working in factories? No, that was great, though I can never eat scallops again.
Through her twenties, Ruth made Valentine’s boxes, packed frozen fish, children’s shoes, chocolate Easter eggs, cupcakes oozing with “cream” filling, and frozen dinners in four or five different plants. Met hundreds of workers.
Workers always asked, what are you? Polish, I’d admit, because Jewish would’ve killed chances to connect. Maybe they found my efforts to organize them funny—I was better at entertaining than at talking people into anything.
Did they believe you?
Sure, who would lie about being Polish?
Include you? Yeah, while I was there I always had a posse. They found me odd but were friendly and didn’t try to make me over. Or use me. In the movement I was a loner and a gopher. Ran the mimeo machine. Cut holes in the banners to reduce wind resistance. Used my wages to buy office supplies.
Ruth was generally the designated babysitter on International Women’s Day. Because that day wasn’t for the likes of her. When she suggested she needed something to do besides fail at organizing, the comrades called her incurably petit bourgeois.
You aren’t like that now, they laugh.
I look back at my awkward naïve self with affection. We all know Ruths. Round peg, square hole. Hard working but prone to tangential talking jags, saying all the wrong things, weepy, and so very gullible.
Tired of her complaints, a leader asked what she could possibly do that was more important than the movement. She made mistake of equating herself with him.
Just as he liked heady political debate and street corner proselytizing, she said, she liked writing He sneered, “The revolution doesn’t need writers.”
Peculiar, they smirk. What about the Jacks (Reed, London, and Kerouac)—or Marx, Engels, Lenin and even Stalin and Mao, for that matter? Aren’t you always going on about Pablo Neruda, Berthold Brecht, and Emma Goldman, who won’t be in your revolution if she can’t dance?
Some keep secret diaries or write under pseudonyms. Ruth stopped writing. She was shocked after a police raid, when a comrade moaned that the police destroyed his journals. He got to write journals?
She was a woman without a place in this world. Like Georgette the junkie. Perhaps that was their bond. When Georgette walked out on her dealer boyfriend, she left a note for Ruth saying she was going home to get clean.
Ruth wondered where she could go. To whom would she address the note?
But you’re not like that now, they point out. Kid, job, activities. Living in a different state. More friends than you have time to see. And still dedicated to social justice through the arts. What happened?
I figured out that nothing is more important than friends. Your ideology is your guidepost, but your friends are your place. And the world needs artists. And there are worse things than being weird.
It only took forty years. And a change of place.
Jan Levine Thal joined the Civil Rights movement in the 50s while in grammar school. She began writing fiction around the same time, once winning a copy of Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man in the Sea as first prize in a contest. Until then, she had no idea that writing might pay off. Still waiting for further confirmation. In the following decades, she joined progressive movements, wrote for and edited myriad publications, engaged in political and artistic expression. After moving to Madison, WI, she became a radio personality at WORT-FM, and has written, acted, directed, and crewed for community theater. She is president of the Board of Directors of Broom Street Theater, one of the oldest continuously operating experimental companies in the United States. She serves as Artistic Director for the Kathie Rasmussen Women’s Theatre, which aims to produce work written and directed by women. With degrees from Harvard University, Northwestern University, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she makes her living as the managing editor of an academic journal. Her comedic dystopian play, Cassandra’s Gift, will be produced in December 2013. Her novel, Clean to the Bone, will be published in 2014. She was lucky to have known Patricia Monaghan, whose intelligence and wit remain a lasting influence. She thanks Michael McDermott, Laurel Yourke’s workshops, and many fabulous friends and family, especially her son, Jeremy Thal, for inspiration and a French horn. So long and thanks for all the fish.