State of Grace
THERE are career writers, authors whose every move seems to further their art or their marketability. Then there are the others -- writers whose haphazard publications indicate the existence of equally important identities. This past Mother’s Day, in South Strafford, Vt., Grace Paley, the 84-year-old poet, short story writer, activist, feminist, mother and grandmother, is a poster girl for the latter path.
The town green is resplendent: dogs, jonquils, babies in bonnets, girls and boys on stilts, butterflies. Small children careen around the perimeter on bicycles. Behind the green, with its podium set up for speakers, the town hall rises with its high windows and gleaming white steeple. Most striking are the dozens of women well over 50 in skirts and shawls, their gray and white hair tucked under straw hats, many dressed in shades of lilac.
Dressed in a plaid flannel shirt, with her short gray hair and fierce brown eyes, Paley struggles, when it is her turn to speak, to keep a loose sheaf of poems from blowing away in the wind. She addresses the wind directly: “Oh! Have them!”
“Here’s a totally apolitical poem,” she says a little later, chuckling into the microphone.
“Here’s one with a lot of Jewish stuff in it,” she introduces another. “I think you’ve figured out by now,” she says conspiratorially, “that I’m Jewish.”
The Strafford green seems light years away from the Bronx where Paley, the daughter of Ukrainian immigrants, was born in 1922. Since the early 1970s, when she married Robert Nichols -- a writer, activist and landscape architect who is the son of Canadian and New England Protestants -- Paley has lived in New York and Thetford, Vt., though she makes no secret of the fact that New York is where her heart is. The house that Nichols and Paley share is at the end of a dirt road, up a hill. There is a garden full of large squash leaves and, as Paley wrote in an early story, “a homeful of rooms.”
Nichols is 88 and bears a striking resemblance to Captain Ahab. (Perhaps it is the low, Amish-style round beard and the enormous dark eyebrows.) The Feminist Press has just published a collaborative volume of selected stories and poems by Nichols and Paley, called “Here and Somewhere Else” (148 pp., $12.95 paper). Paley’s “The Collected Stories” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 386 pp., $17 paper), meanwhile, has been recently reissued, as well. The couple’s kitchen table in Thetford is covered with mail and books and notices for upcoming events.
In one of Paley’s stories, “Friends,” the character Selena thinks of age as “our coming eviction, first from liveliness, then from life.... Luckily, I learned recently how to get out of that deep well of melancholy. Anyone can do it. You grab at roots of the littlest future, sometimes just stubs of conversation.” On this spring day, there is no indication that the two writers who share this table have slowed down or bowed in the face of increasing age. Although Paley has struggled for the last several years with breast cancer, she feels much better now and doesn’t want to talk about it, but her daughter Nora, who lives in a nearby town, admits that just two months ago she was very ill. The treatment, in this case, caused more pain than the disease.
The number of books and articles and collected essays about Grace Paley’s work threatens to overwhelm the relatively small but influential volume of the work itself. This “deceptively sweet grandmother and give-'em-hell activist” -- as former Vermont Gov. Madeleine Kunin, who speaks after Paley on Mother’s Day, describes her -- has mixed teaching and writing and mothering and participating in politics throughout her entire life. “I wish I had written more,” she says as we wait for the ingredients in the soup she has made (cabbage, carrots, onions) to “turn to mush” the way she likes. And yet, she insists, she would not have traded any of her roles for a larger body of work. “After all, it’s not as if anybody is one thing.”
After studying with W.H. Auden at the New School for Social Research -- she was kicked out of Hunter College for poor attendance -- Paley taught creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College for 22 years and has taught and lectured as a visiting writer at Columbia, Dartmouth and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Mass. In addition to Nora, 58, she has a son named Danny, who is 56.
Paley published her first story, “Goodbye and Good Luck” in 1956 at the age of 34. Her first collection of stories, “The Little Disturbances of Man” (1959), happened into being when the father of one of her children’s friends, an editor at Doubleday, sat in her kitchen in New York and suggested she write a few more. Her next collection, “Enormous Changes at the Last Minute,” was published in 1974, then “Later the Same Day” (1985). She has also written poetry, published in “Leaning Forward” (1985) as well as in “Begin Again: Collected Poems” (2000) and “Long Walks and Intimate Talks,” a 1991 volume of poetry and prose. “Just As I Thought,” a collection of her essays and speeches, was published in 1998.
“I could never write a novel,” she tells me at the kitchen table, somewhat proudly. “I can’t see extracting myself from life so much. Bob can go upstairs and close the door. Not me. I’m extremely interruptible.”
There are a lot more poems and stories that Paley would like to write. She shrugs at the cluttered table and gestures around the room full of photos of grandchildren, and then to the blooming apple tree in the dooryard, where a pair of rose-breasted grosbeaks sing their robin-like song. Beyond that lies the breathtaking view of Smarts Mountain in Lyme, N.H. “Poetry may be done with me, but I’m not done with it,” she says, Indeed, she recently had a poem in the New Yorker. “As for the stories, I’ve got threads I’m still following. Then again, I might write something totally different. Any writing I do always begins with a line, usually the first line. You write because you’re upset, because something has pressured you to tell your story. As for plot, it’s nothing but the word ‘then.’ ”
PALEY has worked for, supported and helped found a number of organizations, including the Greenwich Village Peace Center (which she started with her neighbors, the PTA members of P.S. 41, in 1960), as well as the War Resisters League, the Women’s Pentagon Action, the Clamshell Alliance and the Feminist Press. On this Mother’s Day, she is reading in support of a new organization called Mothers Acting Up, with plans, among other things, to protest the war in Iraq. She has been active much of her writing life in PEN and founded the PEN Women’s Committee in 1986. In 1969, she traveled to Hanoi on a peace mission and in 1974, she went to Moscow as a delegate to the World Peace Conference.
Much of her activism, and many of her stories, begin in the playground, in conversations with other women. “You should never do anything all alone,” she tells me forcefully. “I have always believed in people working together.” It’s a matter, she says, of having hope, if not exactly faith. “With faith you think you know what’s going to happen. With hope, you wish it will.” When asked if she has ever considered moving away from America, Paley laughs. “I didn’t even want to leave New York, much less America!”
Paley is known for her empathy with the working class and for her sometimes-controversial stories about race relations, such as “The Little Girl,” about a 14-year-old white girl who is raped and murdered by a black man. Much has been written about the author’s early decision to write in the voices and dialects of her family. “I grew up in a house where the grown-ups quarreled, but not with me,” she says. Paley had an older sister who “really loved me and was the first person to read my poems.” She had an aunt who also doted on her and whose pronounced “unmarriedness” made a big impression. “I was the smallest and I was always getting into trouble. But I always knew that if I got into real trouble they would help me.” She has always believed in luck.
So much has changed in Paley’s lifetime and yet, sitting in her kitchen waiting for the soup, it seems that much has stayed the same. In one of her earliest stories, “The Pale Pink Roast,” Paley wrote of a character: “He was obligated by the stories of his life to remind her of transience.” She believes that this has changed, that relationships between men and women are much better because women “stand up for themselves” and “don’t let things go.”
“I’ve always like men,” she sighs. “And I’ve been mad at men.”
As if on cue, Bob rushes in from a town meeting. Some friends have come for lunch. Bob checks the soup, slices some bread and starts to set the table outside. “Do we have a nice tablecloth, Grace?” Somehow the writer, who was unable, earlier in the morning, to put her hands on a copy of the couple’s newly published book, goes straight for it, a lovely cotton green and blue plaid that flutters out over the well-worn table.
“Funny thing,” she remembers, “we always got my mother kitchen equipment for Mother’s Day.”