Lady M writes: This is not quite autobiographical, but it seems to be based on her life. This was written in the early 1970’s, judging from the reference to Spiro Agnew, but it has some resonance with current events.
… It is 1944 and I am eighteen. I hear a lecture on Montaigne. It seems he did his writing in a tower room with a low, beamed ceiling. On the beams he carved those sayings from the classics which he particularly admired. One of these, roughly translated, was “Nothing that is human is foreign to me.” I am moved by this. I am eighteen and easily moved. With a brush and india ink I paint it on the ceiling of my bedroom. My mother, that reactionary, objects violently, but she is too late. It won’t wash off. Before I turn off the lamp at night, I smile up at my Montaigne ceiling. Nothing that is human is foreign to me. I love it.
I am eighteen and have no ties. My body and my mind are free. I own nothing and I owe nothing. I don’t know fear. I love speed and the wind in my face. I love fast cars and riding the roller coaster. The wilder the ride, the more I laugh. I don’t understand my friend, who sits beside me, terrified. No one should ever be afraid. Everyone brave and free. For this I argue, I petition, I weep, I march. I along with them all, the oppressed, the rebels, the losers …
… I am twenty-eight, and I stand with my little daughter in front of a roller coaster. I have a car, a job, a mortgage, another baby at home with my husband. Mommy, Mommy, let’s ride on that! my daughter begs. My legs don’t want to move. I battle this strange, unwelcome instinct. I loved this ride only yesterday!
I sit beside my daughter rigidly, fingers clenched round the safety bar, eyes shut tight. The ride is a nightmare of terror, the noise of the wheels roaring in my ears, the car hurtling down to what seems like certain destruction. My daughter laughs and laughs. My legs shake as we walk away. A thought pops into my mind: Good Lord, has my body turned (hated word!) conservative? I laugh away the thought. But I never again ride a roller coaster.
… I am forty-eight. I drive a sturdy sedan. I drive defensively, cautiously, (Good God, here’s that word again) conervatively. I am changed. Once, long ago when I was a young teacher, I got down on my hands and knees with a screwdriver and unscrewed all the seats from the floor of my classroom. Now I visit a progressive “classroom without walls” and find it pointless and noisy. Once I was thrilled at a performance of “Waiting for Lefty,” when some actors planted in the audience included me in the action of the play. Now I curdle in embarrassment and distaste when actors come too close to my fifteen-fifty seat and try to involve me in their shenanigans. Once I helped to organize a strike. Now I cross a picket line with barely a twinge of conscience.
I am forty-eight and must face an ugly truth. I’m becoming conservative. I must accept it, like my sagging jawline and my reading glasses. I might as well admit to myself and everyone else that I really don’t like all this liberated sex. And women being free to use dirty words at cocktail parties. And unkempt freaks wearing their aberrations like so many merit badges. I find rock music loud and repellant. And when my daughter paints WHICH WAY IS STRAIGHT AHEAD? across the wall of her room, I don’t find it funny at all.
I am forty-eight, and for the first time in my life I take a good, long look at the conservatives around me, whose ranks I am thinking of joining. There’s my neighbor who’s always ranting about busing. When she talks about it, the glint in her eyes makes me uneasy, and I don’t like what she says. At a concert, the audience, seeing the recently-deposed Spiro Agnew enter the hall, rises and given him a thunderous ovation while I sit frozen in astonishment.
And then I tentatively investigate a conservative publication. At the library I pick up the current issue of THE AMERICAN MERCURY, and on the very first page, under the title, “Save a Few Whites for Posterity,” I read their editorial:
The Whites are literally too dumb to have any understanding
of this war for survival that has been raging since the turn
of the century, even though they have been in the middle of it.
They have allowed themselves to be used as pawns and cannonfodder to better serve the aliens who have directed them.
Like Simon Girty, the white renegade who joined the Indians and whooped and danced with glee as White Men were burned at the stake, nothing gives an internationalist a better feeling than to destroy another White person. The high point in White history, they teach, was the total d estruction of Hitler Germany–which happened to be the only organized force ever in existence dedicated to the survival of Europe and the White race.
The fratricidal war against Germany is duplicated in microcosm in thousands of incidents daily in the United States and Europe.
I can hardly read on, but I force myself. It gets worse. I can’t believe my eyes. Is this conservatism? Is this what the silent majority would be saying if they opened their mouths? I can’t possibly live here!
Don’t be silly, a mildly-conservative friend assures me, you don’t have to go to extremes. You don’t have to go down the whole road. For instance, you can oppose busing without opposing school integration, can’t you? I remember my neighbor’s eyes, and I know you can’t. Maybe once you turn onto this road, you are propelled all the way down to the end without realizing it. I think my conservative friend is like the man who fell out of a window on the twentieth floor and said as he passed the tenth, Okay, so far. I don’t want to go even a little way down this road. I can’t take the chance.
I turn around and try to find another road. A memory comes floating back–my Montaigne ceiling. Nothing that is human is foreign to me. I am moved by the memory. I am forty-eight and easily moved.
All right, I have to be a liberal. Does that mean I have to buy it all? Tear down the classroom walls? Talk like a stevedore? Sit through Living Theater? March and fight and weep again? Do I have to ride this roller coaster? I am tired and disillusioned and afraid, afraid, afraid. Can you ride to Utopia on a roller coaster? I doubt it. But there doesn’t seem to be any other way to go.
A further note from Lady M: I am personally not sad that my mother isn’t alive to bear witness to our current events, and also that she doesn’t have to come to terms with my half-sleeve tattoo. Also I didn’t paint gigantic words on my bedroom wall.