Outside the Circle

Cindy Milstein

What We Still Have


Possessions have meant less and less to me over the years, especially since my parents died. I saved almost nothing material of them. And the small, portable mementos I did keep from each of my parents have gotten lost and stolen (my dad’s wristwatch and wallet, respectively), or broken (my mom’s keychain).

That seems apropos. “You can’t take it with you,” as the saying goes. But that’s not quite it. “Lost,” “stolen,” and “broken” are so much more accurate, covering personal and political losses these increasingly bleak, barbaric days. And so it behooves us to fight not so much for things — though in the age of austerity, egalitarian abundance of life’s needs and desires is essential — so much as people, for and with each other. Or rather, (re)humanized people.

Today, July 28, would have been — is? — my dead mother’s birthday. We had a ritual-joke that was also necessary-serious. Every year, for many years, I bought her a Vermont Life desk-version calendar for the coming year. It featured spectacular photos of one of the most sublime places on earth — one image for each week — and ample room for her to scrupulously write down the days’ doings in her meticulously clear script. She noted the routine things of life like appointments, but also out-of-town visitors, social engagements, theater performances (she wrote previews and loved the stage), special occasions, and the highs of life, including and particularly the details of foods when she ate out with family or friends. We could look back years hence, and recall, from her calendar, what we’d had on a certain day during, say, a relative’s bar mitzvah or during one of year annual visits to me in Vermont for many a summer.

She saved each and every calendar, along with each and every journal she’d ever written, along with handwritten recipes and hand-labeled photographs. I let them all go. The one calendar I saved was for 2014 — the last I bought her. It sat untouched in her desk’s drawer. She’d been too sick and weak to write dates in it advance of time, as she usually did, such as my birthday or hers. It’s pages were clean, impersonal, but peppered with the cheerful beauty of four seasons of Vermont, most keenly the rust-rainbow-colors of autumn, both our favorite season.

I kept that calendar for a while, through several moves, displacements, and upheavals. I can’t recall now when I decided to let it go. It’s untouchness broke my heart, already in so many pieces, taped haphazardly together, repeatedly, and none too well. It keeps breaking. Or maybe it will never be free from scar tissue and wounds, cracks and fissures, a fragile truce/trust.

Today, on her would-be-is birthday, I searched through my large electronic file of photos to find one of her, and realized that I barely kept any of those either. I photographed some photos of her, to carry around easily in some cyber-cloud, but only a few. I can see her in my mind’s eye, I thought. Like paper photos, fading occurs over time.

What I did find was this picture. It stopped me, in fact, as if my heart stopped. Yellow was her favorite color — a sun that covered up the stormy horrors of her childhood. She also hung on for dear life to a hopefulness that too often defied logic or reality, despite the fact that she could indeed feel hopeless, see and hear it. Her protection against this world, her past torment and trauma, was to feign as much sunshine-cheery hope as possible, as much of the time as possible, and she did it so exceedingly well that it became real. What seemed an act or escape to me was, as I discovered during our last year together, her authenticity, her not merely surviving but living.

It’s beyond hard to uncover hope, dreamed up or true, in this world of ours today. We can barely breathe through the capitalist-climate-disaster humidity that’s melting down the ecosystem. We can barely catch our breath in between killer cops gunning down someone black, brown, indigenous, trans/queer, with a disability or mental health challenge, and/or poor. Our hearts almost stop at the thought of neofascist regimes in place and on the horizon, with their statist violence, coupled with equally murderous extraparliamentary forces, and at the pain of unprecedented human displacements of all types from prison to evictions to refugee camps to streets. Even those people/friends I know who never seem to lose their positive spin on things are grasping for air.

So this silly photo — not-faded, yellow-bright hope, part of a wall full of happy tiles-as-mural, probably made by kids at the behest of adults who wanted them to think this world could be something so much more than it is — actually choked me up. It gave me pause; tears. My mom came vividly to life to me, but so, too, did her choice of how to deal with her own deepest circles of hell.

I’m not good at pretending, at walking away from the cold, hard truths of this social order, and too often that finds me lost, stolen, and broken, umpteen-times over — like so many of us. It seems wrong, in fact, to aspire toward toward such distancing. The more of us who see the “what is” of this era and aspire in practice toward the ‘what could be,” the better to get a least part of the way there. That in itself, though, involves a certain form of “hopeful,” against all odds and maybe even logic, yet so we can remain or (re)become good humans who desire ethical forms of social organization and social relations. On my mom’s would-be-is birthday, I can see that’s what she was trying to hang on to with her form of brilliant-yellow hope.

I miss handing her a 2017 Vermont Life calendar, wrapped as if surprise, and her gleefully, childlike, acting out surprise in return when she opened it. But meaning, not as act but as truth, the love and connection that was behind this shared annual moment of picturing a year ahead that just might look better, at least on certain weeks or days.

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(Photo by Cindy Milstein from 2013 or 2014, of street art in a San Francisco that’s by now nearly had the life beaten out of it by high-tech capital, but in which people with heart still fight back.)


One comment on “What We Still Have

  1. smirkpretty
    July 28, 2016

    Cornel West from an essay in “The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear”

    “Hope is not the same as optimism. Optimism adopts the role of the spectator who surveys the evidence in order to infer that things are going to get better. Yet we know that the evidence does not look good. The dominant tendencies of our day are unregulated global capitalism, racial balkanization, social breakdown, and individual depression. Hope enacts the stance of the participant who actively struggles against the evidence in order to change the deadly tides of wealth inequalities, group xenophobia, and personal despair. Only a new wave of vision, courage, and hope can keep us sane and preserve the decency and dignity requisite to revitalize our organizational energy for the work to be done. To live is to wrestle with despair yet never to allow despair to have the last word.”

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This entry was posted on July 28, 2016 by in Dispatches from Life.
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