There’s a case to be made that Grace Paley was first and foremost an antinuclear, antiwar, antiracist feminist activist who managed, in her spare time, to become one of the truly original voices of American fiction in the later twentieth century. Just glance at the “chronology” section of “A Grace Paley Reader” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), a welcome new collection of her short stories, nonfiction, and poems, edited by Kevin Bowen and Paley’s daughter, Nora. 1961: Leads her Greenwich Village PTA in protests against atomic testing, founds the Women Strike for Peace, pickets the draft board, receives a Guggenheim Fellowship. 1966: Jailed for civil disobedience on Armed Forces Day, starts teaching at Sarah Lawrence. 1969: Travels to North Vietnam to bring home U.S. prisoners of war, wins an O. Henry Award.
Such political passion may seem in keeping with those times, but Paley didn’t slow down once the flush of the sixties faded. In the mid-seventies, she attended the World Peace Congress in Moscow, where she infuriated Soviet dissidents by demanding that they stand up for the Asian and Latin-American oppressed, too. In the eighties, she travelled to El Salvador and Nicaragua to meet with mothers of the disappeared, got arrested at a sit-in at a New Hampshire nuclear power plant, and co-founded the Jewish Women’s Committee to End the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. And that’s not the half of it. She called herself a “somewhat combative pacifist and cooperative anarchist.” The F.B.I. declared her a Communist, dangerous and emotionally unstable. Her file was kept open for thirty years.
Paley was an archetypal Village figure, the five-foot-tall lady with the wild white hair, cracking gum like a teen-ager while handing out leaflets against apartheid from her perch on lower Sixth Avenue. She also lived in Vermont, where her second husband, Bob Nichols, had a farmhouse. In May, 2007, they drove to Burlington to protest their congressman’s support for the Iraq surge. Paley was eighty-four, undergoing chemo for breast cancer. Three months later, she was dead. “My dissent is cheer / a thankless disposition,” she wrote in her poetry collection “Fidelity,” published the following year. That incorrigible cheerfulness carried her to the very end. No one was more grimly adamant that the world was in mortal peril, or had more fun trying to save it from itself.
Through it all, Paley wrote, or didn’t. She published only three slim collections of her wry, chatty, alarmingly wise short stories: “The Little Disturbances of Man” (1959), “Enormous Changes at the Last Minute” (1974), and “Later the Same Day” (1985). Her “Collected Stories” appeared in 1994, as if to confirm that the well had run dry. (“Just As I Thought,” a collection of memoir, speeches, and reportage, from which the essays in the “Reader” are culled, followed in 1998.) This is a great shame, if not so surprising. Activism, like alcoholism, can distract a writer from the demands of her desk. Actually, Paley didn’t even have one. She liked to type at the kitchen table, right in the messy heart of family life, rather than cloister herself in a Woolfian room of her own, though her characters often long for the luxury of a closed door. In her early stories, they are immigrants’ children, Jews mixing with the slightly more established Irish, Poles, and Italians in the tenements and row houses of Coney Island or the Bronx, where “every window is a mother’s mouth bidding the street shut up, go skate somewhere else, come home.” Privacy is out of the question. Brothers, sisters, cousins, neighbors crowd around; lurking everywhere are adult “spies,” like Mrs. Goredinsky, with flesh “the consistency of fresh putty,” who stations herself in front of her building on an orange crate, or the palsy-handed “Mrs. Green, Republican poll watcher in November,” who spends the rest of the year scanning the street for kid trouble… (read the rest of her bio at The New Yorker: The Art and Activism of Grace Paley. What an amazing woman!)
Have you ever had one of those epiphanous moments when something triggers a childhood memory and suddenly you experience your inner child waking inside you? I’ve had SO many over the last few years that I’ve been digging around in my cave on this blog. In fact, I’ve had one very similar to the poem Paley wrote. Lots of memories came tumbling out of the past when I read it.
In the Bus
Somewhere between Greenfield and Holyoke
snow became rain
and a child passed through me
as a person moves through mist
as the moon moves through
a dense cloud at night
ass though I were cloud or mist
a child passed through me
On the highway that lies
across miles of stubble
and tobacco barns our bus speeding
speeding disordered the slanty rain
and a girl with no name naked
wearing the last nakedness of
childhood breathed in me
a sigh she whispered Hey you
again again you’ll see
it’s easy begin again long ago
What about you? Have you ever had one of those moments? If so, please share with us in the comments!
Picture Source: GRACE PALEY – Blogspot