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“Each generation must go further than the last or what’s the use in it?”
-Meridel Le Sueur
My junior year of high school was a mixture of colliding elements. I was supposed to know what I wanted to do with my life. By not knowing, my parents felt I was working against the unexpressed aspirations they held for me.
In school I was being suspended for smoking and various other stunts like the morning I did the school announcements uninvited. At night, around the corner and down the block, a packed VW van filled with a bad crowd in headbands and fringed vests would jettison us off to go marching at the university protesting against the Vietnam War.
None of this made my parents happy.
Truthfully, I didn’t know why I was protesting anymore than I knew anything else at the time. I knew that war was wrong. But I couldn’t tell you where Vietnam or Cambodia was located on a map. I didn’t understand communism and the need to stop it before it takes over the world except what I learned from watching John Wayne movies.
My only first-hand experience was with a lawyer in our neighborhood, supposedly a commie, and his family. It became a red house of mystery and secrecy. Gossipy tales of suspicious house guests who came and left in darkness and holding meetings of fellow travelers or other subversives who were most likely plotting plots unknown. It was the kind of house that parents walking their kids at Halloween would skip with little whispers, feeding youngsters‘ fears of the local boogyman.
I’d seen the lawyers’ kids at protest rallies but we didn’t have much interaction except a cordial nod in passing, as they were leaders and I was following at the time.
I was starting to get high and this meant more hiding and being out of the general radar of my folks. When we did spend time together, it led to fights and some validation to them that I was being difficult. Things were already too perplexing in my world to try to be difficult. If you think the gravity of my outside life wasn’t compressing enough, my inside world was reacting positively Newtonian, exploding outwards with thoughts of girls.
My two older brothers were in college and dating big time. They were having sex and thought there was something wrong with me if I wasn’t “balling the chicks” like a guy should.
Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to, I just didn’t know how to. The women in my peer group were my sisters. We were all hippies. We didn’t want to be like the jocks who felt the female student body was there for their pent-up school spirit. For us, the first generation to experience feminism as teenagers–we wanted it both ways: to be sensitive and to get laid.
It was very confusing to know how to be.
That’s why the teachings of Meridel Le Sueur couldn’t have come at a more perfect time in my life. She was poet, writer, people’s rights advocate, stunt woman and more. If she was a guy, she would have been famous via books and movies.
Weirdly, I’m always slightly surprised when someone is familiar with the works of Meridel Le Sueur. Especially if they’re male and under sixty.
I didn’t know who she was until I met her.
Junior year amid the chaos of living aimlessly and the possible daily clashes meeting mom or dad at the breakfast table, a new student had arrived from California to our little school on the prairie. Funny enough, the lawyer’s house we’re supposed to stay away from–the new kid’s mom is the lawyer’s wife’s sister. And the new kid’s mother brought her mom.
The new kid was years ahead of us culturally and in no time soon found his fellow tokers, my pot-smoking clique. After various stoned heady conversations, the new kid said, “You should meet my grandma.”
“Yeah, she’s pretty cool and smokes pot. And cigars.”
I went to the Red House that first time scared and unsure. The simple act of walking into that home put me into another world. Old labor posters hung on the wall. Books were everywhere. My friend led to the basement where an elderly woman held court in a massive chair with a framed signed Billie Holiday poster behind her to greet you. Like the Beatles song, ‘Norwegian Wood’, I looked around and there wasn’t a chair. For some reason, I sat at her feet. That became the norm when visiting her.
“Woody says you’re interested in politics and acting.”
Her tone was incredibly offsetting. She wasn’t condescending to me like most grown-ups of the time. She didn’t measure her words or try to be didactic for the sake of ego. She was an adult who was speaking to me as a peer and not to a kid who didn’t know anything.
“Yeah, I think so…”
“What about Vietnam?”
“I’m glad they signed the cease-fire. It should end soon, I think…”
“They never end,” Meridel Le Sueur says lighting an old pipe. “What do you think is going to happen to the returning soldiers?”
I didn’t know what to say. I think I said they’ll get the G.I. Bill or something stupid like that. My education was so incomplete I didn’t know how to think things through. After years of carrying signs saying ‘End the War!’ I had never thought what happens next.
“You know after the first World War the veterans who were promised benefits and were denied them once returned, did a march on Washington. A protest march demanding what was promised.”
“The government opened fire on them.”
Normally I would feel my family’s voice that once again I was talking about something I didn’t know the first thing about. Meridel could tell I felt bad for my ignorance of America’s real history.
“When I was a teenager, there was a strike by miners in Colorado for better working conditions. That was my wake-up call. In the record books, it’s known as the Ludlow Coal Strike. It used to be called the Ludlow Massacre because the bosses had hired guns shoot to down the strikers. But history has a way of toning down events. That’s why you have to remember…”
“But history has a way of toning down events. That’s why you have to remember…”
[Meridel’s last published book, ‘The Dread Road’, captures the voices and history of the forgotten miners shot and killed in the Ludlow Massacre.]
After our initial conversation, I tried to visit Meridel as much as possible. For some reason, I don’t remember calling as so much ringing the doorbell and asking,”Is Meridel around?” Somedays she was busy or maybe resting but most of the time one of the members of the large extended family of the Tilsen house would point downstairs and I’d descend the steps to find my place at her feet.
Starring up at her, she reminded me of the photos of Georgia O’Keeffe I’d seen. The rugged westerner face etched with seriousness. But just when you thought she was dogmatic and serious she could be politically incorrect and funny. And she had stories unlike anyone else.
Her birth was in the year of 1900, she mimics America’s chronological conscious growth. Born into a socialist family, her politics began as a child. She studied dance and movement in Chicago before heading off to a place in Southern California called Hollywoodland and becoming one of the first stunt women in the business. Meridel appeared in the silents “Perils of Pauline” and others before deciding Hollywood was sexist, devoid of values, not for her. Moving to New York, while acting on the stage, her politics solidified while living with Emma Goldman and her partner. In New York she wrote stories and editorials and reported for the New Masses and The Worker.
By age 24, Meridel Le Sueur was known as a writer of the working class. She didn’t follow the rigid political styles of others and used street parlance for her characters. Often lyrical and ethereal, Meridel established a unique model for her stories–passion and pain, often at the expense of the protagonist usually female.
When the blacklist of the Fifties came, she turned to writing children’s books, taught writing and eventually joined the kids a third her age on the college campuses of the turbulent Sixties.
When I met her in 1973, the world was finally catching up to her. Her work was being published and then with more attention, republished. I really had no idea how famous she was except by the lines of people, mostly women, who like me, came to meet the woman who was a walking encyclopedia of America’s untold history.
One evening as the minions filed out, glancing back at the hippie male who’s allowed to stay as they are asked to leave, Meridel packs her pipe.
I knew Meridel smoked pot, but I thought she might be reluctant to turn-on a kid who might be a narc for all she knew. It was later found out the Tilsen house was bugged by the Feds from that time until the Nineties.
Many times she had packed her pipe only to inhale tobacco, much to my regret. She liked a pipe and her partially smoked cigars were also present in the large ashtray next to her chair. Meridel loved the attention and could make outrageous statements for the benefit of those around so she could remain quotable. But she also liked quiet.
She never understood the attention. Her feeling was we should all be active in life, politics and love.
But here’s the coolest thing in the world. That day would be the time we got stoned together. This is when I found out the great secret of who Meridel Le Sueur really was.
Meridel was one of the first adults who treated me as one. She taught me women are not fragile and can do most things men can. Women like sex too. They want to get laid. Second to that lesson, I learned there were large sections of our American history that have gone either unreported or distorted.
“Meridel was one of the first adults who treated me as one. She taught me women are not fragile and can do most things men can. Women like sex too. They want to get laid. Second to that lesson, I learned there were large sections of our American history that have gone either unreported or distorted.”
But when we got stoned, I found out her real weakness: candy. This strong woman who held court like a shaman, historian, healer, writer of
lost stories and characters, couldn’t get enough of the sugary treats. She had a stash of candy that would rival any ten-year-old’s Halloween bag.
In the next few weeks, I would repay her by getting her stoned. This went on until she became slightly ill and moved away for her health. In those last months, we talked as usual. She never corrected me as much as taught me another way to think. To question everything and everyone. That no individual is above hypocrisy, left, right or middle.
I had never met anyone like Meridel Le Sueur before that time. In an era where most everyone was acting one way in public and another way behind closed doors, Meridel was real. It was a time of Nixon and the rise of the Hippies. Extreme polarity as the times demanded. Cool people versus straights.
I have much gratitude and feel very fortunate to have found a teacher and mentor without looking for it. To be educated, to be informed, to laugh, to get stoned, finally gorging on Snickers and licorice whips with a person of high respect and praise, to be able to have the opportunity to see the whole person, serious and silly. I am forever grateful.
Meridel Le Sueur died in 1996 while writing with pen and paper in hand, describing her experiences in life, politics and love to the end.