Little Disturbances, Enormous Changes

Little Disturbances, Enormous Changes

Remembering Grace Paley and the impact she had on literature, activism and many generations of women and children.


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.)

I went to Sarah Lawrence College but didn’t study with Grace because it would have felt like studying with a relative. Maybe I was just afraid I would disappoint her. I worked closely with, and was deeply influenced by, her writer friends and colleagues Jean Valentine and Jane Cooper.

Just out of college I, along with a few of Grace’s students, organized a benefit reading in a blizzard at NYU for the White House Lawn Eleven, of which Grace was one, arrested for protesting nuclear weapons in front of the White House. That was the first time I worked with Grace in that wonderful vortex of our lives, the vocation of writing and making trouble.

In 1985 as the founding director of the international women’s human rights group MADRE, I co-led a delegation of women to El Salvador and Nicaragua. Grace was part of the group. Since her death I’ve been reading her El Salvador and Nicaragua poems over and over, remembering dancing in Matagalpa, Nicaragua, after being waved through an arc of mothers and grandmothers, doves thrown toward us, and the women in prison in El Salvador performing a skit for us after a hunger strike.

There was a boy, about eight years old, in one of the orphan centers in El Salvador, who wanted a pencil from Grace. We had a strict rule on those delegations, worked out with our sister organizations in the region, that we didn’t give out individual gifts but rather offered gifts as a group, attempting to counter the typical paternalistic relationship between people in the US and Central America. But this one little boy just wanted a pencil, and Grace wanted to give it to him. She asked me if she could, and I said no. I always felt ashamed of that exchange. I should have done whatever Grace wanted and just learned from her instincts and everything she knew. How did I wind up in the position of deciding for her anyway? I never told Grace that I was wrong and how awful I felt. And she never mentioned it again. But she did ask my father if he knew that I could be quite stern!

I was so moved to have taken her to the places that mattered so much to me–and that she chose to travel with the organization that I, with a group of women, had started. That I was able to introduce her to the poet Gioconda Belli and the women who had opened my life and perspective.

On the way home, an airport official came over to our delegation, which also included a well-known actor, and offered us VIP treatment to move ahead in the line. Grace was against it.

One day a few years ago I was walking on 11th Street and spotted Grace in a coffee shop with a friend. I had been talking with someone about how we need to celebrate these mentors and “mothers” in our lives, while they are here, and how to do that for Grace in a way that was really for her and not just lifting up one organization or other. I ran into the coffee shop and hugged her and just told her I loved her. We didn’t say much else. I knew I could no longer assume she would always be here, on that corner of 11th Street in a coffee shop, or at a reading, vigil or Bread & Puppet Theater Festival, and I was overcome by how important she was to me and the need to let her know explicitly after all these years.

In recent years the most intimate meetings were at my father’s and her husband Bob’s shared July birthdays, eating beans and squash from the garden over a Green Mountain sunset in Vermont, gentle and familiar, sometimes making toasts or reading favorite passages from books, mostly sharing the air.

There is no way in which I accept the world without Grace. And that’s not particular to me because I knew her all my life. Hundreds of people knew Grace; thousands claim her. Many knew her much better and saw her more than I. That’s not news. When someone important to you and to the texture of the world–to the hope and veins of life as we know it–stops breathing, the question is what to do about it.

It’s fall, back to school and back to sorting through things. Last evening I went to my kitchen table, and as if out of nowhere a few colorful booklets with woodcut covers from Grace’s beloved Bread and Puppet Theater had appeared: Hallelujah, Life of a Squirrel and Green Man. My younger daughter had quietly left them there.

A year and a half ago, on April 15, 2006, my older daughter, then nineteen, and her best friend, two other local activists and I, were arrested in East Hampton, New York, participating in a demonstration against our taxes going to the war in Iraq. We had simply walked out of a cordoned area with our signs and images of soldiers who’d been killed in Iraq. We were handcuffed and taken to the local police station after refusing to return to the roped-in area. Three local attorneys, including the leader of the East End Veterans, took on our case pro bono. Our hearing and trial were postponed again and again over a period of sixteen months.

Outside the courtroom on July 23, after yet another postponement, my daughter and her friend said, in Spanish and English: “We are your children. These are our streets. We’re against this war.” The simplicity and strength of their statement, and their beauty, reminded me of the young people in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements.

We planned another protest to show opposition to the war and occupation and assert the right to dissent. As though Grace and her Greenwich Village buddies were appearing everywhere (as they always have), we were called to action by a beautiful, feisty, small-framed and white-haired retired teacher. On Saturday, August 25, just four days after Grace died, in the height of shopping and beach-going in a place known for high-cost summer fun, a bunch of people of different ages–local residents and visitors, grandparents, toddlers on shoulders and babies in snugglies–marched and chanted in Spanish and English around Main Street, made noise with tambourines and cymbals, displayed images of the soldiers, all contributing to the visible national and international opposition to the ongoing US war and occupation of Iraq. The young people gathered at our house, choosing which T-shirts with words and noise-making instruments to bring. They called out: “No more blood. No more death. We want peace. How ’bout that?” The owner of the bookstore where we convened, who had been a student of Grace’s at Sarah Lawrence, lined her store windows with the soldiers’ faces and signs against the war, prominently displayed Grace’s first book, The Little Disturbances of Man, and came out to help get the noise going.

I had to leave early but asked a friend to read Grace’s Vietnam poem “That Country.”

Where we live is known to most as a ridiculously high-priced summer resort. To those of us who are farmers, plumbers, teachers, house cleaners, contractors, writers, store owners, landscapers, parents and children, and are rooted here in some real way, it is home. On August 25, home came alive as a vibrant American village, full of contradictions and possibilities, upholding the distinctly democratic right to dissent.

On September 7, our final court date, our charges were dismissed. The assistant district attorney stated, in so many words, before the judge that the police felt the August 25 demonstration had gone so well and understood the sensitive nature of the issue and people’s need to express themselves that they were recommending a dismissal of charges.

As the war and official reports blared on, we had nudged complacency and status quo a bit, rearranged things, rattled Main Street and business as usual, made a little disturbance.

A small group of us stood outside the courtroom after the dismissal and sang “We Shall Not Be Moved,” led by our local Irish singer-plumber, holding the beautiful, devastating photos of killed brothers, sons, lovers, children, friends. (A woman in the August 25 demonstration kept calling out in a lone voice: “Somebody’s brother, somebody’s cousin, somebody’s father, somebody’s mother.”) I recited to myself what I could remember of Grace’s poem “Responsibility,” which I keep taped above my desk. And I read it aloud to my mother and sister on the beach one morning just after Grace died. The poem includes these lines:

There is no freedom without fear and bravery
There is no freedom unless earth and air and water continue and children also continue
It is the responsibility of the poet to be a woman
To keep an eye on this world and cry out like Cassandra, but be listened to this time

I nodded to Grace. Our Grace. A small motley group of us in a surprising place, but the place where we live, affirmed our rights and kept life going for a minute. Mostly, I guess, we kept love and momentary optimism going–thoughtful, messy, partial and imperfect.

On Rosh Hashana we brought in the new year with a peace vigil in Grace’s honor in front of Jefferson Market Library at 10th Street and 6th Avenue, formerly the Women’s House of Detention, where Grace spent some time inside, just across the street from where she stood week after week with the Greenwich Village peace vigil. We carried signs saying “Grace Paley/Presente” (in the Latin American tradition when people die their name is said aloud followed by presente! showing that they’re still with us) and “Stop the War.” If I had made my own sign, it might have said: “Grace Paley/Presente: She put her small, sturdy, beautiful self in the way of injustice and shook the world’s unsteady shoulders with real words.”

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