There is no way in which I accept the world without Grace. And that’s not particular to me because I knew her all my life. Hundreds of people knew Grace; thousands claim her. Many knew her much better and saw her more than I. That’s not news. When someone important to you and to the texture of the world–to the hope and veins of life as we know it–stops breathing, the question is what to do about it.
A year and a half ago, onApril 15, 2006, my older daughter, then nineteen, and her best friend, two other local activists and I, were arrested inEast Hampton,New York, participating in a demonstration against our taxes going to the war inIraq. We had simply walked out of a cordoned area with our signs and images of soldiers who’d been killed inIraq. We were handcuffed and taken to the local police station after refusing to return to the roped-in area. Three local attorneys, including the leader of the East End Veterans, took on our case pro bono. Our hearing and trial were postponed again and again over a period of sixteen months.
Outside the courtroom on July 23, after yet another postponement, my daughter and her friend said, in Spanish and English: “We are your children. These are our streets. We’re against this war.” The simplicity and strength of their statement, and their beauty, reminded me of the young people in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements.
We planned another protest to show opposition to the war and occupation and assert the right to dissent. As though Grace and her Greenwich Village buddies were appearing everywhere (as they always have), we were called to action by a beautiful, feisty, small-framed and white-haired retired teacher. On Saturday, August 25, just four days after Grace died, in the height of shopping and beach-going in a place known for high-cost summer fun, a bunch of people of different ages–local residents and visitors, grandparents, toddlers on shoulders and babies in snugglies–marched and chanted in Spanish and English around Main Street, made noise with tambourines and cymbals, displayed images of the soldiers, all contributing to the visible national and international opposition to the ongoing US war and occupation of Iraq. The young people called out: “No more blood. No more death. We want peace. How ’bout that?” The owner of Bookhampton, where we convened, had been a student of Grace’s atSarahLawrenceCollege. She lined her store windows with the soldiers’ faces and signs against the war, and prominently displayed Grace’s first book, The Little Disturbances of Man.
Where we live is known to most as a ridiculously high-priced summer resort. To those of us who are farmers, plumbers, teachers, house cleaners, contractors, writers, store owners, landscapers, parents and children, and are rooted here in some real way, it is home. On August 25, home came alive as a vibrant American village, full of contradictions and possibilities, upholding the distinctly democratic right to dissent.
On Rosh Hashana we brought in the new year with a peace vigil in Grace’s honor in front of Jefferson Market Library at10th Streetand6th Avenue, formerly the Women’s House of Detention, where Grace spent some time inside, just across the street from where she stood week after week with theGreenwich Villagepeace vigil. We carried signs saying “Grace Paley/Presente” (in the Latin American tradition when people die their name is said aloud followed by presente! showing that they’re still with us) and “Stop the War.” If I had made my own sign, it might have said: “Grace Paley/Presente: She put her small, sturdy, beautiful self in the way of injustice and shook the world’s unsteady shoulders with real words, like these, from her poem “Responsibility”:
There is no freedom without fear and bravery
There is no freedom unless earth and air and water continue and children also continue,,,
@ Kathy Engel, Oct. 2007
Note: a version of this essay first appeared in The Nation online, Oct. 2007. It is reprinted with permission from the author.
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