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Category Archives: Memory

Yesterday I had the most amazing conversation with a very old friend, a former priest who had planned to be part of a companion draft board action to our anti-corporate action. I had woken the day before with a script between the two of us writing itself in my head. The scene of us waiting outside the government building that housed the draft files was so vivid. My memory clearly pictured the darkness, the cold, the rain, the warm coffee cup in my hands, the fatigue, the closeness I felt to my friend. This would make the perfect beginning for my book, a fifth version of the most difficult chapter – the first.

I had written a version of the scene, but now I wanted it to become even more real, the reader’s first contact with the narrator and two main characters. I realized that I needed to talk to Phil, to pump him with questions, to interview him about that night, to make the words leap to the reader with immediacy. I had tried to find him for years, especially when I planned the reunion two years ago. But this morning, the Universe and its powerful agent, the internet, served me well. It must have been the right moment. I found a contact who emailed him and we set a time to talk, all within a few hours.

Before we talked, he sent me a wonderful selection from his journals that mentioned his activities in DC at the time of the action. Details I needed, memories that varied from mine. When we finally connected by phone, we were both so happy to be in touch again that the words, thoughts and feelings flowed, years fading. We were both still passionately concerned about peace and social justice, still working in communities that served those ends. We shared news about our families, our work, our spiritual journeys over the last 40 years. As I remembered, he was able to plumb to such depths quickly, sharing a beautiful story about the death of his first wife.

He said something very freeing about our differing memories about the timing of some events. “It’s like scripture, isn’t it? Every person has their own words, their own view and memory. It’s a good thing, or else we’d only have one book instead of dozens.”

Now I’m waiting to skype the young man who was inside the building we were watching! More connections to come!

Today is the 43rd anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Today I heard a part of a friend’s story I hadn’t heard before, one that reminded me both of how much MLK’s dream has come true and how much more of it we have yet to fulfill in 2011. My friend recalled that he attended a Catholic church in his youth in St. Mary’s county, MD in which blacks were seated at the back of the church and had segregated weekend activities from white parishioners. I was curious about the time period – 1950? “No”, he said, “the early 1970’s.” Yet today, we sat in a non-segregated (non-Catholic) church hall sharing stories of our common religious upbringing and the reasons why each of us had grown away from it. Our journies back to a spiritual life took very different paths, but neither of us returned to the church of our youth, the church of our parents.

Of course, the racism in the churches in the 20th century was a reflection of the racism in our culture, our government and our laws during most of our lives. My friend and I both realized the role that racial segregation and the dismissal of women drove each of us from organized religion. Yet we needed a Power greater than ourselves to survive, live, thrive. We had to find a Power greater than any organized religion and find a way within our hearts not to dismiss the valuable gifts in religions and religious people along our paths.

I continue to be shocked by the horrors of segregation, even though my own experience of it was also complete. So complete that I never saw a black person in my Catholic parish. Did black Catholics in Kansas City have their own parishes? Where? Were there also segregated churches there as late at the 70’s? Most likely.

I must continue to plumb the depths of my own experience in my writing and encourage my black friends to write, to share their stories, to pass down our heritage of both suffering and transformation, to keep MLK’s dream alive in our own lives.

In work hours when I am not actively re-editing my book or writing query letters, I continue to read fiction. Novels are my favorite genre and have been most of my life. Ideally I would love to have my memoir read like a good novel. I work on the flow, the sense of the story, the narrative arc, dialogue, setting, cutting anything that doesn’t move the story forward.

A couple of months ago, when I was revising the fourth draft of my book, I was especially inspired by a second reading of Walter Mosley‘s The Man in My Basement to make scenes more present and believable to the reader, letting go of rhetoric that was so much a part of my thinking and language in 1969. His language, dialogue and plot structure make an unlikely situation and philosophical discourse believable and real. I hope my work of non-fiction will be able to hold and challenge the reader in the way a well-crafted novel does.

The last three books I read inspired me in different ways: The Gathering by Anne Enright immediately grips the reader into her tale of her Irish family, her brother’s death, the “clean, white bones” of her stories and night thoughts, slowing unveiling its central core. Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat captures the generational suffering and colorful dialogue of four women of Haiti in their search for wholeness and love. The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing (winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature) is such a depressing story of a woman’s isolation on a South African farm that I almost gave up on it before the tragic ending, which is foreshadowed in the first chapter. Through enormous skill in revealing the suffering of women, each of these books compels the reader to stay, to travel deeper into the human heart.

Each of us has stories, suffering, a voice of our own, something special to share with the world. May we continue to learn from those who have mastered the art of the telling.

Today I had all morning and all afternoon to work on my book, focusing on Day Two and Day Three of our DC-9 trial. I’m bushed. It was a grueling experience in 1970 and practically wore me out again in the re-writing of it. Judge Pratt had taken a page from the lessons of the Conspiracy Eight trial in Chicago – shut them up, gag them if they try to interrupt with questions. Never let them cross-examine witnesses, even if they fire their lawyers.

I have been fighting a cold too for the last several days. But I couldn’t pass up the chance to use the hours available to me, a clear, phone-interruption free day! What a gift!

I also feel gratitude for the opportunity we had in 1970 to confront the court system, to speak out against war, injustice and corporate murder of innocent people. I can feel the feelings I felt then, over 40 years ago. I suppose that is why I keep writing, to bring alive the scenes, the defiance we exhibited, the fire in our hearts to struggle together for justice and peace.

Now I can rest, rest my cold, rest the work energy, rest the feelings and trust the great spirits of today’s young people to carry on the fight for justice, peace and real rest for all people.

Viva Tunisia!

Where are the other three of the nine, including the two women?

My waking thoughts were about Charlie Meconis’s book With Clumsy Grace: The American Catholic Left 1961-1975. It must have been a doctoral dissertation with all the citations, charts and references to court documents. He interviewed 46 people for the book (including me and other friends), so there are quotes from Joe O’Rourke throughout, also Neil, Phil, Dan, Liz, etc. I read more at the Y yesterday afternoon, then kept it up in the late afternoon and evening at home. So, it was fresh in my mind. Also, I worked on the Chicago jail/court chapter yesterday morning, so most hours of the day were given to my book – either writing or reading the Meconis version of events surrounding the subject of my book.

The Catholic Left was an amazing movement, and much credit for the energy, vision and organization goes to Phil Berrigan. But Meconis also brings out conflicts within the movement over religious motivation vs the humanitarian/political, between the women and men, between increasingly “violent” tactics and the philosophy of non-violence, paranoia and precaution against FBI infiltration.

Memory is so fluid. It seems affected by the present moment, by who I am now. I have elements of my past operating in my present: my nun self that likes schedule, routine, silence and my “wild woman” self that loves my sweet young husband, all my crazy friends and my criminal past. I discovered when I was writing about one important character in the book that I was writing more about the person I know today (compassionate, secure as a leader and teacher, open to exploring his own suffering) than what I really remember about him in 1969. Amazing that we have somehow maintained and worked through the difficulties of a 42 year old relationship!

I know that my particular story, my vision, my memories will contribute to the mosaic that is the tale of the Catholic Left, the broader anti-war movement and the women’s movement of the late sixties, early seventies.