“I read because one life isn’t enough, and in the page of a book I can be anybody.”
There is no mystery greater than our own mystery. We are, to ourselves, unknown. And yet we do know. The thought we cannot quite think is nevertheless somehow a thought, and it lives in us without our being able to think it. We are a mystery, but we are a living mystery. The most alive thing about us is what we are when thought breaks off and our mind can go no further—for that is where our yearning begins, our inconsolable yearning, and the loneliness that begets compassion, the forlornness that prepares the heart for love.
A. Powell Davies
She is my cousin and a dear friend, someone I love very much. And she was defending me as part of the support for her argument.
We had tumbled into a conversation about Black Lives Matter, specifically about the term “white privilege,” which offended her. I have heard the same from some other white friends. The one whose response speaks to me most clearly is Jewish, and surely her life has not been one of “white privilege,” whatever the tint of her skin. Yet I believe hearing it said does have a way of opening eyes.
When I said so, my cousin protested, “Don’t you see how it denigrates all the hard work you have done to get where you are? It suggests everything was just handed to you because you are white.”
We ended the conversation disagreeing amicably, but I kept thinking about what she said. “It suggests everything was just handed to you because you are white.”
It took me a while to realize how true that is. Not everything, maybe, but a great deal.
Yes, I have worked hard. I still do. And my hard work has much to do with where I am now in my career as a children’s writer. I haven’t just learned how to write one thing and then kept doing it. I have explored. I have stretched. I have tried and failed and tried again. The failures don’t show when you look at my publication record, but they are there, tucked away in my computer . . . and in my heart.
And yet for all the hard work, for all the mix of success and failure, I know that my being white has always given me a leg up.
I began publishing in 1976, and if in 1976 I had been black and writing the kind of deeply interior stories that are given to me, who would have published them? Stories about being a black child in a world hostile to black children? If I had the literary chops of a Virginia Hamilton, maybe, but I’m not Virginia Hamilton. And if some brave publisher had taken me on, who would have then purchased my books after they found their way into the world?
(I once heard a Midwestern children’s book-store owner say, “We put books with a black child on the cover on the shelf, and they stay on the shelf until we send them back to the publisher.” Of course, the reasons for that are various, for one that too many whites don’t see a story about a black child as being of interest to, appropriate for their white children. For another that history has taught blacks not to expect to find anything relevant to their children on the shelves of a book store.)
And beyond the reality that forty years ago black writers had little chance of finding publication another even starker reality looms. I have achieved what success I have, the publication of just over 100 books, because I was given the profound privilege of time in which to develop my craft.
I was married and the mother of two young children when I decided to turn my desire to write into the actual work of writing. And all I had to do was make the decision and then work to implement it. My then husband was a clergyman. His salary was pretty limited as clergy salaries tend to be. But it covered our family’s needs well enough that I could forego salaried work to tackle my unlikely dream.
Even today, when publishers are, presumably anyway, more open to writers of color that is the privilege that keeps too many from even tapping at the gate, let alone storming it. You have to be able to work for a long time, for most of us it takes years, without earning anything at all before you have a chance of entering the ranks of published writers. And while there are plenty of white people these days for whom taking that kind of time to develop a skill is a profound challenge, certainly many more than when I was young, there are even more people of color who haven’t the time or the energy or the heart at the end of a long day of surviving to explore a career as a writer.
I wish writers of every hew could be discovered on the basis of merit and supported while they find their stories, develop their craft, polish their work to a fine glow. If only we could go back to the time when kings chose their own personal artists and musicians and paid for them to live and create. I suppose, though, there were problems with that system, too. We’ll never know how many talented artists and musicians never came to the attention of a king.
Would I give up the privilege that made my career possible if I could return in time to do so? Of course, not. But now my career plays out its final years in a different time, one when the pendulum of attention, at least to already published work, has swung to the side of people of color. And I step back, in my privileged whiteness, and say, “At last!” and “Hurrah!”
I only wish the swing of that pendulum could reach those who aren’t getting a chance to discover what they can create.
Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms or books that are written in a foreign tongue. The point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live your way some distant day into the answers.
Rainer Maria Rilke
I’ve had cataract surgery recently, and I am amazed at the results. Cataract surgery could be the poster child for Western medicine. It so perfectly exemplifies what we’re good at . . . upgrading the body’s mechanics. There’s not much in an old lady’s operating system that can be improved, but my vision is now better than it has ever been in my life.
It’s been a curious experience. The amber film had grown over my eyes so gradually, so subtly that I never knew it was there. In the past year I came to be aware of a rainbow halo around streetlights and around the moon, too, but the vivid colors were rather enchanting. Nothing to complain of, certainly.
I came, however, to be enormously grateful for electronic readers that allow me to adjust both the light and the size of print. I wouldn’t have minded finding such a device to read street signs. And night driving grew more difficult, especially in rain with lights glaring off the pavement.
So when told it was time, I went in for the surgery gratefully.
The results were startling. First eye, 20/20. Second eye the same. That’s distance vision, but I can, without reading glasses, still read a newspaper with relative ease. I will, as soon as the new eyes have settled enough for another exam to be reliable, go back to my comfortable bifocals with no correction for distance. Keeping track of readers is a nuisance. Besides, it will be a comfort to put glasses on again and leave them in place. My face feels naked without them.
But the most curious result of this fix, more surprising than my suddenly improved vision, is the change in the quality of light. The world is suddenly brighter, whiter. I’ve been in the house I’m in for about six years, and I’ve always turned on daytime lights because wide eaves and big trees make the house dark. Or at least they used to make the house dark.
Suddenly with my new eyes, I need few lights in the daytime.
Most curious, though, is my bedroom wall. A couple of years ago I painted one long wall a rich gold to match the gold in the Vermont quilt I keep on my bed. And I have been utterly satisfied with my color choice, both for quilt and wall. The gold is so warm.
Now I walk into my bedroom and stop. Stop cold. Is that the color I chose? That arresting gold? In quilt and wall, too? The gold is so bright!
Which brings me to the end of a long and very personal meander, no use to anyone unless you happen to be anticipating cataract surgery and are curious about what to expect.
I’m left, though, with one final thought. The gold paint on my bedroom wall. I find myself questioning it again and again and again. And wondering.
Is there anything in the world we don’t see through the fog of our own personal cataract? And yet I have always thought my vision uniquely true.
Perhaps, it occurs to me at this ripe age, my eye isn’t the only test.
If I check the gold of my vision against the gold of yours, I might even find a reality that encompasses both.