Grace Paley taught me that no showing of conscience regarding abuse of power and the well-being of people is too small to matter. She taught me that where you live is the place to begin. She taught me that doing the right thing according to your belief and conscience doesn’t require asking permission. That it’s not about doing the perfect thing, but doing something. That no one is more important. She showed that humor and humility are necessary ingredients in life and resistance to abuse. I haven’t always followed those directives. Grace did, I think. The photo on the back of her 1998 book of essays, Just As I Thought, tells a lot: Grace, in a knit hat, glancing upward with a big, apron-like sign covering her that read, “Money Arms War Profit Wall Street…”
Since Grace died in August, it has been difficult to find a lens through which to see the world. It feels like the country and the planet need a huge chiropractic adjustment. I know I do. How can earth be without Grace? How can Greenwich Village or Vermont be? How can language–the way people really talk, listen and don’t listen–be? How can vigils and stories be?
When, in the summer of 2002, a group of us living on the East End of Long Island began a Women in Black vigil–in support of the Israeli and Palestinian women calling for peace with justice between their people, and against an impending US invasion of Iraq–I frequently reminded myself and my neighbors what Grace had said about the early days of the Greenwich Village peace vigil against the war in Vietnam. She had told us what had been important was the constant presence, that the power of that presence, sometimes one person alone with a sign, sometimes fifty or even hundreds of people, week after week, contributed to the waves of movement that ended the war.
For my whole life Grace has been like a relative (perhaps an aunt) and a mentor, someone with singular integrity and originality who followed no paved road but built an extraordinary life from love for, and intelligence about, what is ordinary. Never did that double yellow line appear in the road distinguishing everyday life from writing or from activism. It seems she took risks with everything, in the same way other people get dressed in the morning or eat dinner.
I took note, when we started the vigil, of the fact that now in my middle or late middle age I had returned to the place where I grew up and internalized what Grace said in a different way. I had begun to reject the idea that is so reinforced in the degrading coverage of peace and justice activity in the mainstream media, and that had often driven my work as well: that impact can be measured only by size, all in one place, at one time. I had begun to understand more profoundly the meaning of the smaller encounters and actions that shift our lives, which may not make the big hoopla but on an almost cellular level–in our bloodstreams, on sidewalks and in rivers, in the gathering together of people in community–evolve us. I was returning to Grace’s wisdom the way in your middle years you might smile and recognize something a parent had told you when you were young but that never fully clicked. You had to find out your own way.
Something about this small ongoing presence in our community, along with the participation of those who had been leaders in the Vietnam days with Women Strike for Peace and other efforts (Judy Lerner, Amy Swerdlow, Lyla Hoffman, Clare Reed, Blanche Wiesen Cook, Clare Coss), made me more acutely reverent of and grateful for these amazing older women who led the way for me and other women activists and writers of my generation.
I met Grace as a child; she and her first husband were friends of Dad. From that time what I remember most is her voice, which embodied New York City like bagels or apartment building stoops for hanging out, her brown-gray hair tied up and wisping out, and a cotton skirt or dress. (Years later when my first daughter, Ella, was born, Grace gave her a cotton dress with carrots on it that she’d found at a fair in Vermont.) I remember Grace walking. I remember her daughter Nora, soft voice and beautiful red hair. And I remember the kitchen of Grace’s 11th Street apartment–quintessentially a kitchen-table culture–crumbs and books, notes from meetings, coffee smell and mostly good, juicy, warm talk. (In the 1980s my husband and I ended up living in that apartment while in between homes, as did so many of the streams of Grace’s friends and students. We were all her students in a way.)