July 21st, 2007


While I was up at Split Rock, I was also supposed to be writing my story to present at this year's Fringe Festival, where the storytelling group I am involved with, Northstar Storytelling League, has a venue.  Peace Porridge is the theme, and the idea was to do children's storytelling, but one session we were assigned was at night, when more adult stories would be appropriate.  This is the story I have been working on, which is based on a part of the story I told at last year's Tellabration! concert.  I would appreciate any feedback between now and August 11, when I will be telling it.

Peace, like sex, was invented in the ‘60’s. Trust me: I was there. But neither were very important to me until 1971. In 1971, at the age of 15, I joined the church youth group –a sortof local Up with People! called Celebrate Life. We stood to one side of the altar during the 12:30 folk Mass, and sung St. Mary Our Mother – St. MOM’s - into the renewal movement. Most of the kids in CL were awkward and out of place with our peers for one reason or another – me because I was too smart for a girl, and flat-chested - but in Celebrate Life, we were all a family. For us the peace could last 15 or 20 minutes, we were so hug-starved, although usually the rest of the church had had enough and cut us off at ten. But we had another chance for spreading peace and love at the end of Mass. “Go in peace,” the priest would say, “To love and serve the Lord.” Celebrate Life would echo this benediction by always singing the same song:  “Let there be peace on Earth / and let it begin with me.” If you know the song, you know it is a wonderful tune to get seasick to; and we generally did, arms around one another’s shoulders, swaying back and forth like an Ocean of Love. There were no tryouts for Celebrate Life, and we were not very good, but we knew how to sway, and peace rolled off us in waves.
But there are some kinds of peace, I found that year – the year the Pentagon Papers were published, and America began to learn how deeply it had been lied to - that are not worth having. 
There was a boy in Celebrate Life, Kevin, who liked me. He was small and dark, with tightly curled hair and a thin nose. His wire rims were always crooked, and the lenses covered with fingerprints. Arms dangled out of his shirtsleeves; he was jointed like a marionette.   The fuzz on his upper lip did not make him look cool.  Kevin was dorky, but there was one interesting thing about him: he was adopted.   
My father and I were butting heads a lot, because teenagers think they know everything. But I was proud enough that at last, some boy liked me - even a dork - that I must have said something about it at home. My father’s response surprised me. 

“Don’t let it get too serious. You don’t know what stock he’s from.”

“Stock?” I said. Like livestock? 

“He’s got nappy hair. He’s light-skinned, Paula but you just don’t know.” 

“Know what?”  

“He could be a Negro. Or part.” He seemed even more uncomfortable about the “part” part. 

“It’s not Negro,” I said. “It’s black.”  Gawd. My father didn’t know anything. It was like he had never heard of the Civil Rights movement or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

“I’m sure he’s a nice kid, Paula. But this is a small town. People will talk.” I ignored the pleading look of a parent who did not want to see his daughter hurt. My father, I realized with a thrill, was a racist.   

After that I started paying more attention to Kevin. I let him put his arm around me once in awhile. Served my father right. But Kevin remained a dork. He still told the same fart jokes. He had a high-pitched laugh that came out through his nose. And he kept trying to take our relationship to The Next Level, which appeared to involve a lot of saliva. I had no idea why anyone though the French kiss was an erotic experience.

Once a week or so Celebrate Life had a show out in the community. The day Kevin asked me to be his girl, we had spent the afternoon singing at a Bar Mitzvah. We were celebrating diversity, and practicing tolerance. It would have been nice if we had spent more time practicing Hava Nagila. But the kids at the Bar Mitzvah seemed to take it all in stride. When the time came, those of us without instruments joined the dancers, who spun us around and around in a circle faster and faster, like a human merry-go-round. Kevin held one of my hands in his sweaty palm, and tugged at me as he was tugged, till I thought my arm would come out of its socket. Afterwards we went to McDonald’s, and over shakes and French fries, he asked if I wanted to go steady.

I couldn’t tell Kevin that I thought he was a dork. That would be cruel. But I didn’t really think I liked Kevin that much. And on the other side of going steady was the French kiss. I knew I didn’t like Kevin that much. How did I get out of this? Then it hit me: I’d play the parent card.         

“I can’t,” I said. “I’ll get in trouble with my dad. He’s kind of prejudiced.”

Kevin looked at me blankly. “Prejudiced?”

“Because you’re adopted.”

“He’s prejudiced against people who are adopted?”

“No…He’s thinks you might be black. Isn’t that stupid?” 

Kevin gave me a strange look. “I’m not black,” he stuttered. “I’m Italian. My mom told me. I’m Italian.” 

“It wouldn’t matter to me,” I said. “I’m not prejudiced. It’s my dad.” I wished I hadn’t begun this, but there was no going back. And my father shouldn’t be allowed to get away with this stuff, I thought; he really shouldn’t. I was taking a step to expose bigotry. This was noble of me.

“I’m Italian,” Kevin insisted. But after that night, he stopped talking to me much. He didn’t even want to make eye contact. And eventually, he stopped coming to Celebrate Life. I saw his mother once, picking him up after school. She stared at me hard through the car window, till I had to drop my own eyes. But not before I saw, behind the judgment and anger, the same pleading look of my father. This is a small town. People will talk.  

Years later, after the naiveté of the sixties and early seventies began to embarrass us – recognizing that all that hugging and swaying to Let There Be Peace on Earth had not ended war, or poverty, or racism – I noticed that people I respected had stopped talking about Peace as if it were a singular good. They were now talking about Peace and Justice. You could not have one without the other, I was told. But I already knew this. Because where Kevin was concerned, neither peace nor justice had begun with me. In fact, I had lied to myself about both. And my lies piled themselves on the lies in the world around me, thick like leaves on the ground – well-intentioned lies, cowardly lies, complicated lies. Lies about war. Lies about peace.  You shall know the truth, said a wise man I once called savior – a man who came not to bring peace, but a sword - and the truth will set you free. What is truth? I asked him. But I did not stay for an answer. Instead, in the fall of my life, I went out to rake leaves.