50 Years Ago: A Memory

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In my Frye boots and Mexican dress, I strolled across the campus with two of my friends, “Bush” and “Norman.” This use of last names, reminiscent of prep schools or football teams, was a guy thing that didn’t include me, and I always chafed when I heard it. But it wouldn’t be until a few years later, when feminism surfaced and I joined a consciousness-raising group, that I could articulate the feelings it triggered: once again, excluded from the boy’s club.

Today that feeling was merely a twinge in the back of my mind, though, because we had a bond that went beyond gender. We were young people who knew that the war in Vietnam was wrong, and we had the brashness to believe we could stop it. We would become part of something much larger than our university or ourselves. Today we would become part of history.

The protests and rallies had been going on for weeks. We’d heard impassioned speeches by student leaders and radicalized Vietnam vets, we’d listened to Malcolm X, we’d talked and debated and agonized over our own roles, and now the three of us had made our decision. This was the night of “the bust,” and we were going to join the protest. The occupation.

What did it mean to occupy a building? My stomach fluttered and, to counteract the fear, I entertained the boys with an imitation of the old lady who stood on 114thStreet, my street, and extemporized about current events. “Did you hear about that Michael Crudd?” I croaked, mimicking her voice, and we laughed uproariously. How incredible that anyone wouldn’t know the correct name of famous Mark Rudd, instigator and leader of our “revolution.”

As we made our way to our building, the campus was vivid in spring bloom, everything around us imbued with special meaning—the grassy terraces rimmed by distant buildings, the stone-paved plazas, the expansive tiers of stairs leading up to the grandiloquent Low Library. Presiding over all, the nine-foot statue of Athena, Alma Mater,resting on her throne. With her scepter raised in one arm, the lofty pillars of the library behind her, Alma Mater seemed the embodiment of the entrenched power that at this moment was so abhorrent to us. As we climbed the steps and passed beside her, Norman, jaunty and confident, flipped her the bird.

We had arrived at college with a respect for authority fostered in us as children, but now everything had changed. That spring, in rapid-fire motion, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed, the war in Vietnam escalated, villages were massacred, and our government became a symbol of oppression. We were angry. We wanted to end the war, and we wanted to end racism.

We advanced across the ponderous landscape, caught between a familiar impulse toward lightheartedness – this was, after all, the place where we hung out every day, talking, laughing, engaging the issues of the world – and the knowledge that what we were doing was scary business. There were rumors that the TPF, the Tactical Police Force, whose name alone carried images from science fiction, would come and arrest us. But what would happen? And how?

And where was Knox? Knox, the cheeky and charming self-styled revolutionary, better known to me as Greg, was my boyfriend. Knox, who stood up boldly at the rallies exhorting us to fight the good fight!Join the resistance!Don’t trust anyone over thirty!We would form a cadre, I fantasized. I would be the Tanya to his Che Guevara. But today, at the moment of truth, Knox was nowhere to be found. This demonstration was a big step into the unknown for me: I would be arrested, I would go to jail. Beneath my nonchalance, I was scared. But where was the love of my life?

“He’ll be here later,” Bush assured me.

The building we were heading for, Schermerhorn, was a massive edifice of stone and wood with high ceilings and an air of solemnity. But today the mood was anything but solemn, and when we arrived, the scene was chaotic. I had always been the dutiful student, arriving at class on time, handing in my papers, taking exams, but now there were no teachers or authorities, just us young people, huddling in groups, camping out with sleeping bags on the floor, rushing back and forth with swagger or bewilderment, making plans, announcing rumors. We were occupyingthe building.

But what were we supposed to do? What were the rules? There were no rules. We invented them as we went along. The student leaders invented them, the leaders being anyone who had the guts to stand up and present an idea, a plan. Our de facto leader Mark Rudd and his group occupied the center of university power, the president’s office in Low Library, where their photograph, later published in Lifemagazine, would become an icon of the protest movement. But here in Schermerhorn, although there were lots of speeches, lots of ideas, and lots of plans, there were no leaders.

I wandered around the building, searching for familiar faces, strolling over to look out the windows where the counter protesters, the ROTC boys, formed barricades to prevent deliveries of food and shouted hateful slogans. I drifted back to my seat on the marble staircase.

“The suits!” a boy shouted, running from the window. “The suits are coming!” A clutch of fear ran through the crowd. Ah, adolescence. How easy it was to know the good people from the bad. The bad ones wore suits. The suits, it turned out, wanted to persuade us to get out of there before the police came. But of course we couldn’t do that. We had a cause. And besides, we couldn’t trust people in suits.

“To the roof!” The call resounded. Bush and Norman were going to the roof. Did I want to come? What for? I asked. To watch for the pigs. And it’s really cool up there, they said. Have you never been? I had not. Intrigued, I followed them.

And it wascool on the roof. The view over the campus with its plazas and patterns, its greens and elegant buildings, was like the view from an airplane, with the New York skyline shimmering in the twilight and a sliver of red cloud across the horizon. The people on the ground, protesters, counter-protesters, professors trying to reconcile the two, onlookers, university officials, were ants scurrying to and fro on the face of the earth. We were all just tiny creatures in a larger universe that would go on, whatever we did.

Bush and Norman went directly to the edge of the building and sat with their feet dangling over. “Are you nuts?” I said, “That’s four stories high!” They laughed and pooh-poohed my concern, but I hovered at a safe distance behind, and when my anxiety intensified, I went back down the stairs.

And now I was hungry.

In spite of the barricade, food had been smuggled in, and a group was gathered around a table set up in the hall. One girl, tall and slim, with short dark hair, stood in front of a giant bowl filled with dozens of hard-boiled eggs. “Can I help?” I asked.

“No, this is a snap,” she said, and proceeded to take two knives, hold them inside the bowl and, with quick motions, cut up all those eggs in a few minutes. Wow. I’d never thought to chop eggs like that. As she chopped, she gave orders to the others: put the sandwich bread there, get the drinks from the cooler, set out the paper plates. She had flair and buoyancy, she was super-efficient, and she was doing something important for the revolution. This girl, I thought, she doesn’t worry about what people think. She isn’t shy and self-conscious, doesn’t second-guess herself like I do. This is the real Tanya. If I could have that kind of confidence, I, too, could take charge, be a leader of the revolution.

After we ate, there was more milling around, more talking, more announcements: “They’re coming at six!” We scurried to our positions and sat in lines along the hallways like we had for the air raid drills in elementary school. We were instructed in nonviolent resistance: Go limp. Just let them drag you. Whatever you do, don’t get up.

They didn’t come at six.

“They’re coming at seven-thirty!”

They didn’t come at seven-thirty.

Our conversations jigged back and forth between stories about jail to the silly jokes of punchy kids half-scared, half-exhilarated.

Knox still hadn’t showed. Knox never did show up, and perhaps this was the beginning of his unmasking, the ending of my fantasy. But by this time, I didn’t miss him. Each moment was loaded, full of elation and anxiety as I sat with my comrades and sang We Shall Overcome.

And then it happened. In the middle of the night, when we had all just drifted off to sleep, the cry came, “They’re here!”

Outside the window the sight was more chilling than any I had imagined: A line of men in helmets and riot gear and lit by a string of eerie spotlights advanced toward us, an army in the night.

As we sang We Shall Not Be Moved, the TPF knocked in the doors.

“Get up!” they ordered. “You’re under arrest!”

No one got up.

Again they ordered us up. No one moved.

They began to drag the boys, who were closest to the doors, throwing them outside like sacks of potatoes. They worked their way down the hall, and when they got to my friend, whose name was also Nancy, the officer, middle-aged and puffy, bent over and looked at her with a big sigh. Nancy was a beautiful, angelic-looking blonde. “Aw, come on, sweetheart, just get up,” he pleaded.

Nancy, stone-faced, didn’t budge. He dragged her out the door. I was next. I went limp and found it painless. They were gentle with us girls. When we got outside, we stood up and were herded into paddy wagons.

Watching Manhattan go by through the window grills of a paddy wagon, twenty of us packed onto benches meant for ten, felt surreal. This was our city, these were streets we roamed and explored freely, and now we were prisoners. No longer the privileged college students, now we were the faces we had seen on the other side of those paddy wagons, the faces of the disenfranchised.

As we were escorted into “the Tombs,” New York City’s prison, we stood waiting while a line of prostitutes, jaded women in high heels, short skirts and lots of makeup, was led in beside us. As they passed, they looked at us scruffy students with a mixture of humor and commiseration. The police then took us into a room where we were charged, and as we stood in a line facing the policemen, we were shocked to see that one of the boys had a line of blood running down his face. At the same time another boy muttered a sarcastic comment about police violence, and one of the officers went red in the face, raised his club and charged at him. “What did you say?” he shouted. “Who you calling violent?” We froze, exchanging furtive glances and saving this incident to recount later.

We were herded into cells, all seven hundred of us, the largest population the “Tombs” had ever held, twenty-five of us girls in a two-woman cell. A matron pulled us out one by one and over to the next cell where she stuck a gloved finger up our vaginas and rectums, examining for drugs. Sophisticated as we were in political discourse, we didn’t have the words or even the concepts to talk about this feeling of violation. We stayed there all night, sleeping in shifts, not knowing how long we’d be there, running on adrenaline, fear and a new solidarity, the solidarity of the oppressed.

The next morning we were arraigned and released. The Tombs just didn’t have the capacity for all of us. Only later did we learn about the police who, after the bust on campus, went on a rampage, chasing down and beating bystanders with their Billy clubs. The bad people, we now understood, wore police uniforms.

I went back to my student life, shaken and sobered, but the University remained in upheaval and the country unsettled for some time to come.

I didn’t stay with Knox and never became another Tanya, though I did participate in a few more protest marches. But after that and for the rest of my life, when I make egg salad sandwiches, I put the hard-boiled eggs in a bowl, chop them with two knives, and remember that night at Columbia.

(This was published in TIMES THEY WERE A’CHANGING: Women Remember the 6os and 70s  (She Writes Press, 2013))

The other side of Scotland

 

I drove across Scotland, from west to east, and this is what most of the landscape looks like. One town I passed was called Windyraw. (guess why!)

Windyraw

 

I was going to Delegate Castle, another seat of the Hay family, but this one in eastern Scotland, near Aberdeen. And these Hays were not Covenanters, zealous Protestants, but Catholic (God forbid!) and they supported Queen Mary and the Royalists during the Reformation. So, probably not my ancestors. Even though the photograph of the latest Laird looks a lot like my father. – couldn’t do the tech to put them both here. Anyway, my brother disagrees with that opinion. But Delgatie Castle was charming and quirky, with lots of lovely artwork and historic though cosy rooms. Except for the room Queen Mary slept in that looks more like a tiny stone cell. Well, that was in the 1500s, not so much luxury then.Nancy Delgatie Castle

The ponies were very friendly at Delgatie Castle!

friendly pony

The fairy mound

Downie Hill from field

Downie Hill from the field

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Downie Hill closer

Downie Hill from the air

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Morag on the Downie Hill

The Downie Hill is 15 minutes from where Morag, my new friend, lives in Nairn, Scotland. Can you see it through the field? No one around here seems to know about it. I talked to the farm family whose land it is on and a horsewoman neighbour named Downie, and they knew this was the Downie Wood, but they hadn’t heard about the hill. In witchcraft history, the Downie Hill is famous, the place where Isobel Gowdie met the fairy queen and the elves, all of whom lived in it.

I went there the other day, walked across the field, and stood in front of the hill, but didn’t try to push through the giant ferns to climb up it. But today Morag talked me into forging through the ferns and bracken, and we did it. We reached the top – also overgrown with ferns, as opposed to the satellite picture on the left that must have been taken in winter. We didn’t see any fairies or elves, but we stood there in silence for a bit and felt the silence and the breeze. Across the fields, in the distance, the sea.

The Kindness of Strangers at a castle

 

 

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I drove up the little dirt road, following the signs and with the help of a young woman pushing a baby carriage. “Up there,” she said, “the castle is just behind a new house, a massive, massive house.”

As I pulled up the driveway, an elderly man came up to the car. “Ye’ll be wanting to see the castle?”

“Yes, it is okay?” I said as I realized that this was his private property.

“Aye. And ye’ll be wanting to take photos?” He was smiling, indicating that it was very okay to take photos, and directed me to a spot to park between a few barns and a large house (but not “massive, massive as the young woman had said.)

I stepped through a gate and walked across a grassy slope. A heap of stones, the remnants of a tower and a few walls, the castle looked about the size of our tiny row house in Burlington, Vermont. This was the hereditary home of the Hay family in Morayshire, seat of John Hay, Laird of Park and Lochloy. In the 1600s, with peasant labor, they farmed the thousands of acres around it, land that reached several miles down to the Firth of Moray, an inlet of the North Sea. Standing here, I could see all of that land and all the way to the sea.

I took some pictures and walked back down to the car, where the man was waiting for me. James Campbell, he introduced himself, and invited me in for tea. His wife Doreen came out and we went into the kitchen where she made the tea and laid out a variety of cakes and biscuits. James told me that they had lived in this house that they’d built twenty years ago after living down the hill in their old farmhouse. He’d been a dairy farmer all his life, and when they retired, they built this larger house near the castle with its magnificent view of the land around it.

James and Doreen obviously enjoyed having visitors to the castle that was on their land and told me that many Hay descendants had come to call. “So you’re a Hay, too?”

“Well, very remotely,” I said. “My ancestors in Scotland were named Hay, and probably way back were related to these Hays.”

They were surprised when I said my ancestors had moved to America in the 1700s. I guess that’s unusual, or maybe just more remote than they’d thought. James and Doreen have an archive of books and material about the castle and the Hay family.  They brought out book after book, and soon I was surrounded by a small library of information.

The minutes went on, and James and Doreen seemed eager to talk about the castle and the Hay family. My instinct was to look at my watch, but then I realized that I didn’t have to be anywhere. How wonderful, I thought, to be free to stop and chat for an hour with someone you meet like this. And serendipity that now I could learn something more about the history I’d been studying for the past few years. I told them about my project, the novel about Isobel Gowdie, a peasant on the Hay lands, and her witchcraft trial, and Doreen smiled. “Ah yes, the witch of Auldearn.” Isobel is known in these parts.

They showed me books about the Hay family, the history of the castle, some plans one man had drawn up to restore the castle to its original form, “but he couldn’t get the money from the government.” There was a book on the history of the Auldearn Church, which features prominently in my novel, and pictures of James and Doreen’s twenty grandchildren, most of whom live nearby. They led me on a house tour, and upstairs I enjoyed the view from two large drawing rooms with “massive, massive” windows in bays overlooking the land.

When I was finally able to extract myself from this charming place, I was armed with more than I’d imagined. The kindness of strangers in magical Scotland.

 

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In the “Old Country”

About to land in Scotland, I realize that a part of me is expecting the Scotland of the 17thcentury. A tempestuous and romantic place, with wild-haired men on horseback raging through the countryside brandishing swords and scalps…

The plane touches down at Glasgow airport, and I’m back in the 21stcentury. Now I picture a scene from an Ian Rankin novel with tough blokes speaking unintelligible street patois and brandishing switchblades.

Are there side effects from reading too many novels? Or from writing one? I’ve been immersed in the world of the 1660s Highlands for the past few years, and now that I am actually going there, I need to work on unscrambling my realities.

But first, Glasgow. No switchblades evident, and the people look just like the people in Vermont. I’m staying in the West End, a vibrant area full of international restaurants, free museums, and picturesque old buildings.

After an overnight flight, on my first night in Glasgow I sleep for almost twelve hours, and today I feel better than I have in years. The power of sleep – definitely underrated. Wandering around the city, I have brunch in a café called Little Italy, with delicious coffee latté,and visit the Kelvingrove Art Museum, the Glasgow Cathedral, and the St. Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art – which says nothing about my famous witch, Isobel Gowdie. But the cathedral does commemorate her persecutors, the Covenanters, who, after the witch hunts, became martyrs for their own brand of zealous Presbyterianism.

I’m reflecting on the ways we know reality, the things we know in our hearts to be the truth, and how we shape our world view around that. How very different those constructions can be between people and across time. Sometimes we move from one reality to another, like flying into a different time zone, and then the mind and body need to shift and reorient. Like Margaret in my novel, BITTER MAGIC, a young girl who is a Covenanter but entranced by magic and folk healing.

Tomorrow off to Nairn, the scene of the crime.

On the trail of a witch

Morayshire, Scotland: golf links, 2018, farm town 1660

 

On the trail of a witch

Leafing through my grandfather’s book about the Presbyterian ministers in our family, I came across some “Covenanters.” Who/what were Covenanters? I found that in 17thcentury Scotland they were key players in the fight for religious freedom and against the notion of king as head of church.

And then I discovered that the area in Scotland where the Covenanters were most concentrated, in Morayshire, was also where the most witch trials were held. And it so happened that one of the best-known witches in Scottish history, Isobel Gowdie, lived on the estate of John Hay (my birth name, Hayes, was originally Hay.)

Whoee!… Presbyterians and a witch. This was my kind of story. I was a Starhawk (a Wiccan) fan in the 70s and became a Presbyterian minister in the 80s. I hadn’t thought I’d write a historical novel, much less one about a 17thcentury witch in Scotland, but I was drawn in to the story of Isobel.

Just think. Here, where people play golf today, Isobel, a peasant woman, lived in a mud hut, concocted magical potions, and communicated with fairies, all in the face of my zealous Presbyterian ancestors.

I’m off to Scotland next week to get a feel for the land, talk with local historians, and flesh out the first draft of my novel, BITTER MAGIC.

Follow my blog to come with me!

 

I write to discover what I know

 

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Poppies on a June morning

Flannery O’Conner said it and got to the heart of what is rewarding about writing. Writing about relationships, I discover new insights about relationships. Writing about spirituality, I discover spirit. And sometimes the greatest reward comes in what someone else discovers. A book club member found herself in tears recognizing her deceased husband in the depiction of Frank in WILD MOUNTAIN. And then I got tearful discovering something about a character I created.