The quiet, the words, and Grace

I’ve been thinking about Grace Paley all week.

Born in 1922, she would have be 90 years old this past Tuesday.

She pops into my mind for quick visits all year round, when making a warm drink on a cold morning, or stopping by the post office up on the hill, or trying to bend a written line to my will, gently and forcefully.

But when her birthday rolls around each year, I pull out copies of her books, dive into her words, look at her picture, think, What would Grace write on a chilly, cloud-blown day in Vermont like this?

I don’t remember when we first met. Sometime after we moved to this little Vermont town that she also called home. I don’t think we were ever officially introduced. Someone probably pointed her out to me, from a distance. I simply came to know that that short-statured, wild-white-haired presence was Grace. At town meeting, at the village store, at the daycare that our daughter and her granddaughter attended,

While waiting for the kids to come out to the coat room at the end of the day, she and I would chat idly about the weather, or an upcoming town event, my heart beating wildly, amazed that this vibrant, tender, fierce poet was standing just a foot away from me, in her long winter coat, hair flying out from under her knit cap.

In person, we knew each other as acquaintances, neighbors. In private, I knew her words, her stories, and I admired her endlessly.

Grace wrote about war, and peace, and justice. She wrote about mothers, and fathers, and children. She wrote about youth and age. She seemed quiet and mild on the surface, but read her poems and stories and you’ll know she was anything but. And she didn’t just write: she protested, she marched, she spoke out.

Once, at a peace vigil at the local church at the top of the hill, her lone voice broke the long meditative silence, quietly singing “Down By the Riverside”.

Gonna lay down my sword and shield
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside
Gonna lay down my sword and shield
Down by the riverside
Ain’t gonna study war no more.

The rest of us joined her.

That’s the way it was.

She was quietly loud.

When we were together, our two quietnesses were a knitted afghan that warmed us but kept us insulated from each other. My quiet was shyness and a worry of offending. Hers? I can’t say, but I assumed it was contentedness. No need to talk. Just be.

I sometimes regret that I never told her how much I admired her. But she was probably used to people saying things like that. She might have laughed, or, more likely, shrugged modestly. I don’t know.

I would have gone home, and thought about being a writer. She would have gone home, and willed words onto the page that we would all read years later. Grounding, truthful words about how hard and sad this life is, and how wonderful, too.

I tried to find a short video of her reading some poems, but couldn’t find anything I really loved. If you have the time, though, there’s this wonderful, long video of Grace reading several of her stories and poems in her gorgeous New York accent. Her part of the video starts about 18 minutes in.

Take some time with her. She’ll make you laugh. And surprise you. And give you hope.

This Hill

this hill
crossed with broken pines and maples
lumpy with the burial mounds
of uprooted hemlocks (hurricane
of ‘thirty-eight)    out of their rotting hearts
generations rise trying once more
to become the forest

just beyond them
tall enough to be called trees
in their youth like aspen    a bouquet
of young beech is gathered

they still wear last summer’s leaves
the lightest brown almost translucent
how their stubbornness decorates
the winter woods

on this narrow path
ice holds the black undecaying
oak leaves in its crackling grip
oh    it’s become too hard to walk
    a sunny patch   I’m suddenly
in water to my ankles    April

–Grace Paley (from Fidelity, 2008)

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