Troublemakers Making Trouble


Dear Readers,

The startling outcome of the presidential election has thrown much of our world into confusion. We here at Persimmon Tree want to make the magazine part of the fight for sanity and safety in the country and in the world. There is too much at stake to stick with business as usual.

To that end, we plan to include our thoughts and responses in forthcoming issues and we invite all of you to do the same. We are creating a section for short pieces (about 500 words) similar to the ones below by the members of our team; we will also consider longer pieces for the other sections. Beginning with the Spring issue, we will include your contributions; we are also thinking about posting (with your permission) some suggestions on our Facebook page. Of course, the magazine’s mission has always been to encourage and support women writers and artists over sixty; that mission still stands. But we can also be a forum for resisting chaos.

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Sue Leonard, Editor: The evening of December 1, on the Manhattan 6 train, three men shouted, “You don’t belong here!” and “Donald Trump!” at an 18-year-old Muslim woman and tried to pull off her hijab. An 18-year-old. In Manhattan.**

I am an old hand at protesting. I lined up to march, with a million people, from the United Nations to Central Park for disarmament. I marched in Washington D.C. to keep abortion safe and legal and I brought my students. We sang “Bread and Roses” as did Judy Collins. I supported and then ran the Pledge of Resistance, hoping to prevent an American invasion of Nicaragua during the Sandinista years. I committed civil disobedience many times for many causes. But I have never felt the despair or anger I am feeling about the goals and members of the government taking power in January. So many groups are vulnerable because of their overt misogyny, racism, xenophobia, and contempt for science.

So far I have sent checks to organizations that are already moving into action. I have signed every petition that has come my way. And I have agonized about what else to do. The week after the election I did some research, looking up every website anyone suggested. I responded strongly to Planned Parenthood, but found, not surprisingly, that right now, they have many, many volunteers; I will return there if Roe v. Wade gets any shakier. Black Lives Matter also pulled at me. But the cause that resonated most strongly was the plight of immigrants; I was especially attracted to those groups that advocate for children on the verge of being deported; I plan to volunteer there.

I will say NO in any way I can. I will correct anyone who uses the term “alt-right” when they mean White Supremacists. Finally, if, indeed, the new administration registers Muslims, I will register, however one does that.

As the wonderful Grace Paley said, “the only recognizable feature of hope is action.”

 
 

**On December 15, the New York Times reported the story was fabricated by the young woman. Although there have been many hate attacks this year, this was not one of them.

 

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Wendy Barker, Poetry Editor: Like so many of my friends, I woke up on November 9 feeling as if someone had died. As if I suddenly lived in another country, one whose values and actions were not only repellent but downright dangerous for me, my family, my friends, my communities, and the world. The world! With climate change at crisis point, to suddenly have in power a man (man?!) with no principles, a serious narcissist, sexual predator, cheat, scammer, misogynist, racist, Islamophobe, anti-Semite, and xenophobe who has unleashed such hatred and viciousness has brought me to despair. For days I was bent in deep depression. My students were stunned and depressed. I told them, “We must keep on keeping on. We must. Your voices are more important than ever. You must keep writing and we all must keep on keeping on.” In class, I quoted Yeats’ “The Second Coming” and Dickinson’s “I Dwell in Possibility.”

And then, on Saturday, November 12, my depression turned to fury. And energy. I wrote the director of our wonderful independent arts organization in San Antonio, Gemini Ink, and suggested that we organize a gigantic protest gathering of regional writers around the time of the inauguration. She and her staff got right on it, and now we have over a hundred people committed to participating on January 15. Turns out that, thanks to PEN America, communities all over the U.S. are organizing such events on January 15, MLK’s birthday.

We will not be silent. I will give all the money I can possibly manage to causes I believe in. I will do everything I can to feel that the little bit I can do, the little I can give, will make a difference. If in my twenties I was too busy teaching, trying to keep fourteen-year-olds in West Berkeley from overdosing down by the train tracks, now, in my seventies, I can become an activist.

On my refrigerator, on my desk, and in my purse, I keep this statement from the Talmud (and I’m not even Jewish, though my husband is): “Do not be daunted by the world’s grief. … You are not obligated to complete the work but neither are you free to abandon it.”

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Linda Boldt, Editorial Board: In this year of the unexpected which now looks forward to the unpredictable, I’m finding it hard to get my bearings. In the public arena, I have long been questioning authority, fighting the good fight. I’ve been called a troublemaker but I’ve also been called a change agent. Where to put that kind of energy and involvement now?

I’ve been making trouble for about five decades: objecting to student government rules in high school, male and female dorm rules in college, the war in Vietnam through the ’60s and ’70s.

During my 30-year teaching career, I became a change agent for progressive education reform, which often involved being a troublemaker. I championed cooperative learning, child centered education, teaching as drawing out, not putting in.

When my son came out to me in the ’80s – he in his teens – I naturally became involved in groups for parents of LGBTQ children, and groups that worked with LGBTQ students.

At the school where I taught for most of my career, I agitated to see women, people of color, and gays included in the curriculum, from lower school classes about families to high school literature and history classes. For 12 years Sue Leonard and I organized monthly meetings of faculty/staff where we talked about the stuff that’s hard to talk about: race, class, gender identity.

We have a new president who likes to be unpredictable, so it isn’t possible to anticipate what a Trump administration will be. Is more going to be required of me if my neighbors are threatened by new laws, harsher conditions, random hate crimes? Which private institutions, religious or charitable groups are going to be most called on if some of our darker worries are realized? How can I then help them?

For now, I am holding my breath and paying close attention, to see where I might be most needed to continue to fight the good fight.

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Kitty Cunningham, Editorial Board: I am not a troublemaker. I am nearly 82 years old and all my life I have avoided trouble. Born in the ’30s, raised during the ’40s and World War II, married in the ’50s, motherhood in the ’60s – I have defied convention but never made trouble, even as a teenager. I applaud my colleagues who have marched and protested but I can’t do it. Now my legs won’t do it either so I am confronted with dealing with the unbelievable horrors of Trump and Co. by signing and contributing money where I can. I am a firm believer that the arts can save people, but when the arts mean nothing to the politicos that makes me angry.
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Marcia Freedman, Fundraising: I am 78 years old. In my past – from my thirties and forties, up though my fifties and sixties – I was known as a firebrand, a radical, out on the streets as well as in the parliament. But now, in my seventies, though I am still a political animal, my life is quiet, more oriented toward family and friends, more close in.

And then, a bit more than a year ago, Donald Trump began to win Republican primaries. I was overcome with a deep sense of dread that the man was a despot and he would be our next President. But I did not get out on the streets for Bernie Sanders, whom I supported, or Hillary Clinton whom I could support. I clicked to add my name to on-line petitions, donated on occasion the modest amounts I could afford, and followed the news ravenously. That was the extent of my activism. Truthfully, I did not recognize myself.

And now, Donald Trump has won the election, and I believe that he is a dangerous man and what he purports to represent and the people he is putting in positions of power are a serious threat to our democracy, which, after all is said and done, depends on the consent of the governed. The governed have now given their consent to an erratic, canny individual used to wielding power autocratically irrespective of any ethic other than his bottom line, deeply obsessed with “winning,” and craving the adoration of crowds. And now, by the look of things at publication date, he is surrounding himself with racists, fascists, and incompetents. It is truly, from my perspective, a frightening time. It is the first time in my life that I have felt that political activism was not just a choice, though an impassioned one, but a moral imperative.

So what am I going to do? Surely clicking and donating my occasional $35 is woefully inadequate to what I see as at worst the first serious threat to the foundations of our democracy in history, and at least a four-year orgy of roll-backs of everything I have fought for all of my life. What is this old, neglected body, which cannot walk two blocks without stopping to rest, capable of? I am in awe of those old women who continue to put their bodies on the line, but I cannot imagine being one of them. So what do I imagine I am physically capable of and energetically able to do that has a chance of disrupting the racist, misogynist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic zeitgeist that has overtaken our body politic?

I don’t have the answer to that yet, but I do have one lesson I’ve carried forward throughout my activist life. Organize. Start with those close in and move out from there. Know one another’s stories. Get close. When the shit hits the fan, be ready to respond as a caring unit. In the meantime, in all the small and large ways of possible resistance, do it. Do not be lazy. Do not avoid confrontation. Resistance is a full-time job. This is what I have been telling myself these past few weeks, reminding myself of what I already know.

It is time to come out of retirement.

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Gena Raps, Music Editor: Growing up as a prodigy pianist at Juilliard, I was the child who was supposed to be perfect. And I worked hard to be perfect. Trouble-making years came after I met up with the impediments to making a career.

As a Juilliard graduate in the ’60s I thought the world my oyster. I didn’t know oysters were reserved for men. I was rudely awakened when my distinguished mentor explained that he had recommended my colleague to play with one of the top violinists in Carnegie Hall because the top fiddler wouldn’t go on stage with a woman. My colleague is now one of the top pianists playing regularly in our top concert halls.

Dedicated to the cause, my trio (of three women) played at international concerts of music by women, and went on tour. I aligned myself with UNIFEM (U.N. Development Fund for Women) and organized a concert tour of the Philippines for my New York students, representing the Fund and its call for women’s rights.

As a mature American and a New Yorker, painfully concerned about immigration, health care, and the environment, I protested Trump’s election at Trump Tower on November 10, 2016.

As a Jewish woman, I have been blessed to be part of the original Seder Sisters celebrating Passover in new and radical ways, started by E.M. Broner in 1975 and continuing to this day. In the early ’80s one Seder began “I’m Gloria Steinem and I’m a troublemaker.” As we went around the circle other women, such as Bella Abzug and her two daughters, Michelle Landsberg, and Letty Pogrebin, echoed the claim, raising our voices to the heavens, a circle of proud troublemakers.

As a pianist, I’ve brought to publication forgotten and unknown women composers and have performed and recorded their music.

None of this seems enough in the face of our new political reality. But it’s a good start. Join me!

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Laura Laytham Zaki, Webmistress: Being asked to contribute this little bit to Persimmon Tree is both a serious honor and a double-edged sword. I am not yet a woman over sixty. I’ve been with Persimmon Tree since its inception but I’m only forty-one. I’m somewhere between Gen-X and Gen-Y, but sometimes feel like a premature millennial. I have two kids under the age of ten. Perhaps they are the biggest and best reason for me to resist.

When my eight-year-old son walked in the morning after the election and asked me who won, I couldn’t answer him. I just broke down and cried. He knew what that meant. There was fear in his eyes. My heart was broken. I wasn’t prepared to tell him that our country just voted an outspoken, misogynist, racist bigot to be our commander in chief.

I believe every one and every day can make a difference. I went vegetarian just before I turned 18. That was over 23 years ago. I’m raising my kids vegetarian too. You can’t eat a meal with me or go a day as my friend on Facebook without seeing or hearing my conviction in action.

The biggest and best thing I can do to resist is to raise my children to be better adults than the ones who voted for this next president. They need to learn to differentiate between fact and fiction. They need to understand that voting shouldn’t be just about what’s good for you. They need to speak, live, act, and vote with compassion and conviction.

Anyway, I named my son Lennon for a reason. Let’s just hope it works.

My daughter’s name is Jude. Like her namesake song says, now is the time for us to “take a sad song and make it better.”

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Elizabeth Zimmer, Editorial Board: I’ve noticed, in the past few years, that Facebook has become my favorite “magazine,” a compendium of material edited by my “friends” (of which there are entirely too many) for the delectation of their friends, enabled by the Internet to be in our hands within hours of a thought dawning, a quote borrowed, a scene materializing, a showdown witnessed. But in recent months, and especially in the fraught weeks since the presidential election, it has become much more than that.

I have students who claim to get all their news from Facebook. I’m old enough to still be wedded to paper; newspapers and glossy weeklies and monthlies accumulate in all corners of my one-bedroom flat, but it’s clear that that the current activist strategy of choice is the Facebook post. The online site functions as a vast cooperative, a town square or watering hole where everyone with a spare moment drops in to find out what’s happening and how they can be part of the action.

This online community has several advantages over the “meat” universe. It’s always available, as against the gated environments of those who turn off their phones when they’re sleeping, or who simply send all their calls to voicemail. It generally provides a photo of the people you’re sharing thoughts with, and types out their names; as a result, next time you actually encounter these folks in the flesh, you might be able to greet them civilly. Because you’re not in the room with them, it doesn’t matter if they smoke. (Well, it does matter, and it’s still stupid, but at least you don’t have to breathe their exhaust.)

While my email overflows with commercial announcements, Facebook is still primarily personal, and political. We tell each other where the next play, poetry reading, or mass demonstration is forming; we form carpools to get to marches; we celebrate and sympathize and support. Especially as we age, and if we live alone, it provides a crucial lifeline that can be accessed economically. As the horrors of the impending administration become increasingly visible, it provides a place to organize, to fact-check, to find solidarity and companionship as we sort out strategies for keeping the United States a democratic haven for people of all persuasions. I may not be out marching anymore, but I’m certainly paying attention. I read Persimmon Tree for pleasure, but I interact with Facebook as though it were the bulletin board in my college student union, all those many decades ago.

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Jean Zorn, Editorial Board: Like many of my friends, I’ve been an activist since my twenties. At Berkeley in 1964, we were part of one of the country’s first college anti-war rallies. We and about 3000 others, cheering Phil Ochs every time he came back for another encore of “Love Me, I’m a Liberal.”

Even before that, there’d been the civil rights marches and demonstrations and sit-ins in Oakland and San Francisco. And the Free Speech Movement – thousands of us in Sproul Hall Plaza, being sung into an administration building sit-in by Joan Baez. We couldn’t afford to go east for Mississippi Summer in 1964, so instead we worked for Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers in the migrant camps of California’s Central Valley.

After that, there was the anti-war movement and labor organizing in Madison, and Papua New Guinea’s peaceful fight for independence and control over its own resources. And then a lifetime of public service as lawyers and teachers.

We weren’t heroic; we were just a few among many. We are, still, a few among many who, like us, thought all we had to do was speak the truth and the country would wake up to its mistakes and correct them.

For a while, we thought the changes that had been made – the Voting Rights Act; Titles VII and IX; Roe v. Wade; the discrediting of adventures like Vietnam – were permanent, that no one could go back to the bad old ways. But then there were the Nixon ’70s. Surely, we thought, nothing can be as bad as this. And then we discovered the Reagan ’80s could be even worse. And, then, those rollback, rightwing eras were followed – no longer to our surprise – by even worse: the Baby Bush years. Pushbacks in Roe v. Wade, hollowing-out of the Voting Rights Act, nasty little wars destroying the Middle East, bigotry extending to yet more groups.

So here we are, just a few weeks short of a Donald Trump inauguration. Is it worse? Or does it just feel worse because he was ungovernable enough to say the racist, misogynist things that other people just think? Or because 62 million people heard what he said and voted for him anyway? Or because his immediate predecessor was so much his opposite – not just in race, but in grace and intelligence and thoughtfulness and caring. Or perhaps because the Democratic candidate was a woman, giving us so much hope that we were truly in a new era? Or is it because we are so much older now, and, as my friend Bill Rowen, who was also young when we were, wrote on Facebook this week:

I can’t begin to describe my feelings when I consider that I could live out the rest of my life under a Trump presidency. That is such a disastrous thought that I can barely contemplate it. … Although I do believe that the US and the world will recover from him, I don’t know if [we] will be around to see that happen.

So, yes, it is worse. And, it’s up to us to make sure Bill’s prophecy does not come true. So I am going to do what Bill is asking us to do; I’m going to join as many other people as I can to do something about Trump as fast as we can.

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Nan Gefen, Publisher: Like most people I know, I am angry about the far-right takeover of the U.S. and afraid of what lies ahead. We’re witnessing the cooption of our country, and it is affecting me and those around me on every level. A friend recently told me she witnessed people arguing loudly at two separate tables in Chez Panisse, Berkeley’s upscale restaurant. A glass of water was thrown at one table, and someone stomped away angrily from the other. Such behavior is a sign of the times.

Since the elections, I’ve been besieged by email calls to action: Fight Trump on climate change! Protect abortion rights! Speak out against racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and injustice! I send money to more than the usual number of organizations, sign and circulate petitions, support demonstrations, and send news of protests to my list. This level of activism is my bottom line, what I’ve been doing regularly for decades, but it seems completely inadequate at this time when so much is at stake.

I won’t feel satisfied with my response to this crisis until I select one issue to fight and give myself over to it. Otherwise I am pulled in every direction, feeling guilty that I’m not doing more against police brutality or the power of Wall Street when I sign a petition for voting rights. I need to find my place, gather my resources, and commit myself to working hard. This does not mean ignoring all the other issues, but I am more effective if I concentrate my energy.

I’ve been here before. When I was concerned about the plight of Palestinians in the late 1980s, I cofounded Tikkun magazine and worked hard to make it succeed as a voice for Palestinian rights, and when I became aware in 2006 of the lack of publishing opportunities for women over 60, I created Persimmon Tree. I did these things because I believed it was my responsibility to do what I could about these issues.

As I think about my place now and in the years ahead, I am aware that my spirit is as strong as it ever has been but my body is less able. I’m not going to start another national magazine or go on the Million Women March in Washington D.C., as much as I wish I could. I will have to find my place at a different level, not as the head of a new project but as a member or supporter, contributing my skills as best I can. But I’ll be there in my own way, part of a community of people fighting to fend off the fascism that threatens to destroy our democracy. And for me, that’s what is important.


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