As I look around this big room, I see many people, friends, acquaintances and strangers who all have something to say that I would like to hear…
But since I am honored by the New Mexico Women in the Arts with the responsibility of speaking to you tonight, I want to draw our attention to the two young women, seniors at our high schools this winter, who will receive the scholarships to which all of you have contributed.
They are, and they will be, our girls!
Lets imagine, then, that one of them is a poet, as I was and am, someone who grew up on the poems I memorized when I was naughty to avoid my mother’s dreaded slipper on my backside:
“It is an ancient mariner, and he stoppeth one of three,
by thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
now whereforestoppeth thou me?”
Which inspired me to write my first poem, before I could write—I dictated it to my mother:
God will, God will notbless the lamb that he has got…
Now, as we all know, our scholarship winner will not have memorized those poems—or any poems—but somehow the sheer beauty of words will have lighted up her soul and she is determined to learn more, to write more, to read more—to become for the world what she already is in her own eyes: a visionary. A poet!
Our second scholarship winner is made of different stuff. From childhood the cruel injusttices of our society have pierced her. She can never pass the panhandle without giving something even if the grownups warn her against it. She can never read of the suffering we inflict on prisoners, on addicts, on those people we call illegals, without feeling a terrible pain—the pain of needing to do something, anything, to lessen their distress. So she will learn, in the course of her formal education, how to fight: how to appeal to the hearts, before the heads, of the comrades she needs to help her in her struggle. Not an easy path, but one as important to the rest of us as water, as bread—as poetry.
Finally we may find that our two scholarship winners go through a mysterious transformation, with the help of what you have all given them, and the poet becomes a fighter, the fighter becomes a poet—as I have tried always to be.
Even now, the power of our words and our actions are united. To refuse to accept racism in all its forms, its subtle and dramatic exclusions—to speak against the cruel misstatements, the lies that divide us, the assumptions that degrade us, knowing all along that we court danger—dismissal, exile, even hatred.
For as the poet who has shaped me, Adrienne Rich said, “Everything you write will be used against you, or against those you love.”
I was disinherited years ago for speaking truth, as I saw it, to power. In this case my family, powerful in all the worldly senses, and no more benighted or cruel or racist than most of the powerful people who inhabited their world. But because I depended on a fraction of the money they made from their media empire, money made from the minimum wage work of women secretaries, mailroom clerks and cleaners—as well as the reporters and editors who were given the credit—I had a responsibility to resist.
They couldn’t—like the fast food workers who walked out in a hundred cities last week, they would have faced summary firing.
Because I held no wage paying job, I could only be dismissed from the boards—a liberation devoutedly to be wished!—but also from Christmases, birthdays, vacations, wills—and the good wishes that we all long for as we move through life alone.
It was a privilege. We must all walk through fire. Our two girls will walk through their own versions of the fire that scorched me, but like the forest fires that release the seed to grow, that ordeal grew me and is the reason I am here with you tonight.
I am proud to have been disinherited. We must seek to be disinherited from a dishonest, lying hierachy that uses our acquiescense, our wish to be liked, even loved, to oppress us, and others.
Because we women have so frequently been abused, we tend to have a lot of fear. We writers who wonder why so few people read us, might consider that it is because we don’t take the necessary risks—we entertain, we don’t challenge… If anything good can come from the multiple forms of abuse we women suffer, it is that we have already known the worst, sometimes in early childhood—and nothing can be quite as horrible as what we have already been through.
And suffering has taught us empathy. Now it remains to claim our power, to move beyond embarrassment, shame and fear.
Take the risk, dear girls for whom this evening exists: our daughters, our granddaughters, the young women of a future we will never live to see…
The risk of being hated.
The risk of being excluded.
Because only by proudly accepting the inevitable cost of our use of our power will we come into our own.
I will end by quoting from the 1994 inaugural speech of the great leader the world just lost, Nelson Mandela:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadaquate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brillliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
So let your light shine.