Like the difference between weather and climate, big patterns are not easy to see. Trying to tap into the larger forms can feel counterintuitive, furtive, confusing. As the old saying goes, no matter how good their eyes, the short person can never get the overview.
My personal bookmark for that problem of perception is a scene from The African Queen, John Huston’s 1951 film. Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart have reached what appears to be the end of their improbably arduous mission to destroy a German ship on a lake down river. Now their small launch—the eponymous African Queen—is mired in mud and weeds, and it cannot move. The two accept defeat, and they lie down to die. At that moment the camera pulls away to reveal that their small boat is actually right at the edge of the lake. Rain begins to fall, the water rises, and the boat floats into the lake as the two are revived. Such a great movie, and such an unforgettable example of the power of perspective.
Rebecca Solnit is a keen observer of both the small and the large. Her writings have addressed history, art, feminism, racism, the environment, politics, place. I have come to particularly pay attention on how to be better at tracking movement in the macro.
In her new book, Whose Story Is This? Solnit offers an insightful metaphor for the work we are all participating in whether we realize it or not:
We are building something immense together that, though invisible and immaterial, is a structure, one we reside within—or, rather, many overlapping structures. They’re assembled from ideas, visions and values emerging out of conversations, essays, editorials, arguments, slogans, social-media messages, books, protests, and demonstrations. About race, class, gender, sexuality; about nature, power, climate, the interconnectedness of all things; about compassion, generosity, collectivity, communion; about justice, equality, possibility. Though there are individual voices and people who got there first, these are collective projects that matter not when one person says something but when a million integrate it into how they see and act in the world.
Solnit goes on to describe how she once believed that change begins in the margins and then moves towards the center. She has since changed her mind. “It’s not the margins, the place of beginnings, or the center, the place of arrival, but the pervasiveness that matter most.”
These concepts—the importance of pervasiveness, and the value of the million who will integrate that collective work we do together—are ideas that fill me with hope for the future. They exist in a domain that feels very far from my perch however. Most artists, like me, have claimed “individual contributor” status, and our interests and work don’t typically focus on achieving pervasiveness or moving the dial on how the masses shift their views.
The value of the single voice is an ongoing question I ask myself. There are times when I am comforted by evidence that we are participating in longer arcs of influence that, like the weather/climate conundrum, are hard to see in real time. (My go to book about the power of small, individual efforts is The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, edited by Paul Rogat Loeb.) While some days I am certain that what each of us choose to say and do matters, on other days I am not so sure.
Meanwhile our culture appears to have fetishized celebritism and is drifting towards the autocratic–in government, leadership styles and belief systems. It is easy to believe that the “collective projects” I care about most are being trampled in an angry backlash of hate, repression and greed.
This is the nature of our minds, to rubberband from one way of seeing to another. While I work daily at distancing myself from identifying with those boomeranging points of view, I appreciate useful suggestions on how to move out of the weather mindset and into a more climate-oriented point of view.
Solnit adds this in considering the structures we are creating together:
The consequences of these transformations are perhaps most important where they are most subtle. They remake the world, and they do so mostly by the accretion of small gestures and statements and the embracing of new visions of what can be and should be. The unknown becomes known, the outcasts come inside, the strange becomes ordinary. You can see changes to the ideas about whose rights matter and what is reasonable and who should decide, if you sit still enough and gather the evidence of transformations that happen by a million tiny steps before they result in a landmark legal decision or an election or some other shift that puts us in a place we’ve never been.
Solnit’s simple guidance for getting beyond the weather and closer to the climate is captured in one sentence: “You can see change itself happening, if you watch carefully and keep track of what was versus what is.”
What was versus what is. I had those words in my mind when I went to see Gloria: A Life, at A.R.T. in Cambridge. Written by Emily Mann (artistic director the McCarter Theater in Princeton) and directed by Diane Paulus (artistic director of A.R.T.,) this documentary theater production is a remarkable opportunity to keep track of “what was versus was is” as told through the extraordinary life of one person, Gloria Steinem.
For women of a certain age, it is hard to be objective in talking about Gloria Steinem. Like many of my friends, I have held her with respect for over 50 years. Thrust into the spotlight of second way feminism because of her brilliance and her beauty, she rose to the challenge with an amazing equanimity. She was vilified repeatedly by a variety of critics, many of them people in power (an excerpt of Nixon brutally dismissing her is played as part of the audio/visual material included in the production.) But she still remained teachable, a careful listener, a gifted collaborator, and willing to change her point of view. She was also refreshingly self-effacing in candidly sharing her personal journey.
She was always an advocate for hearing the stories of every woman. She knew where her commitment was tethered:
The whole thrust of academia is one that values education, in my opinion, in inverse ratio to its usefulness…Academics are forced to write in language no one can understand so that they get tenure. They have to say ‘discourse’, not ‘talk’. Knowledge that is not accessible is not helpful. It becomes aerialised—and I think it’s important that women’s experiences be given a narrative.
The timeline that Emily Mann uses in this production offers a narrative that, while personal to Gloria, still makes space for that elemental respect she had for the experiences of all women, everywhere. This work is not an exercise in hagiography. It is instead a remarkable history of the last 70 years as seen through the events of a single life. To have this theatrical evening end with an open audience “talking circle” is delivering on a tenet that was elemental to Gloria Steinem’s life.
The stage, already designed for in the round viewing, is ready for the open sharing of personal experiences. And as is often the case with a Diane Paulus production—audience participation is her mantra after all—the sharing feels like a political act, one that is laden with hope for what our future can be as we collectively make our way out of this treacherous current era.
Gloria herself was in the audience the night I saw the production. She was invited to center stage, dressed exactly as her performing counterpart, Patricia Kalember. She proceeded to converse frankly with members of the audience for over an hour. As has been my experience for the many times I have gone to hear her speak over the years, Gloria is brilliant at Q&A. She does not offer advice, but her responses are wise and informed. At 85, she is still brilliant, stunning and a careful listener.
Any concerns I may have had about this being a performance that could only be appreciated by my generation were dismissed. The scope of the storyline and the pertinence to today’s challenges speak clearly to a range of ages, genders, races, circumstances. This wasn’t another “white and privileged,” “OK Boomer” night at the theater. Thankfully.
Solnit came to mind again as I thought about Gloria and what she has meant to so many of us:
Contemplating the conversations we have now and those we don’t, I wanted to yell at some of the people I run into, ‘If you think you’re woke, it’s because someone woke you up, so thank the human alarm clocks.’ It’s easy now to assume that one’s perspectives on race, gender, orientation, and the rest are signs of inherent virtue, but a lot of ideas currently in circulation are gifts that arrived recently, through the labors of others.
And then this wise admonition:
Forgetting is a problem; words matter, partly as a means to help us remember. When the cathedrals you build are invisible, made of perspectives and ideas, you forget you are inside them and that the ideas they consist of were, in fact, made, constructed by people who analyzed and argued and shifted our assumptions. They are the fruit of labor. Forgetting means a failure to recognize the power of the process and the fluidity of meanings and values.
The human alarm clocks, the ones who have worked so hard to shift the narrative: Gloria, that is you.
There is no one I would not encourage to see this production. Gloria: A Life runs through March 1.