Michelle Fine’s notes from her talk at the Maxine Greene Memorial:
For Maxine – I can hear her say:
“I am a believer in the unanswerable questions; the really hard ones.”
In the Fall after the harrowing Summer of 2014, Maxine’s words haunt as we drown in unanswerable questions.
We sit in puddles of cumulative tears dropped after witnessing videos of police murdering Eric Garner and Michael Browne;
babies, children, mothers and fathers standing at the US – Mexico border asking for sanctuary;
Russia invading Ukraine and Ebola invading African countries starved of infrastructure,
as 2000 Gazans and 71 Israelis were killed in a devastating assault followed by the now predictable occupation of more land by Israel.
This was the summer we learned about ISIS and beheadings, when unknown numbers of drones are dropping bombs in Pakistan, Iraq and elsewhere.
Not even Robin Williams could make us smile.
This is a time when thinking persons experience a crisis of confidence in hope; a desire to flee; a profound destabilization of our sense of ourselves, our country, what it means to be human(e). In the deepest bowels of my soul, in my belly, I miss and need Maxine, so much.
I want to offer some moments of when Maxine shed light for me, with me, on me, beside me… an academic mother, lover, mentor, a woman who spun images, who spoke out loud what I feared to say, who created spaces where I could nestle with my darkest dis-ease/anxiety/shame. Even toward the end, more fragile and more daring, she offered light as she sipped cranberry juice through a straw, with oxygen tubes floating into nostrils, exhaling wisdom, humor, and the intimate desire to know. So we chatted about war, the imagination for evil, about Obama, public education, gossip about colleagues and then her newest discovery, Dancing with the Stars – “Have you ever seen it?” She was cared for impeccably by Alta and Anna even as so many who adored her would arrive like refugees from cold, dark institutions, sneaking up the elevator to apartment 3C – because the neighbors banned her salons – and then being captivated by a living room of light and windows and welcome, that is, by Maxine. “Thank you for coming” with a chuckle, she would announce as I entered, leaving me unsure if I was being invited in or invited to leave. Her ambivalence danced with desire to be with, be known, be loved, have red lips, be sure and be uncertain.
There was the moment, mid-1990s, when we were teaching at Bedford Hills Women’s Prison. Maria Torre and I invited Maxine to come teach a class. She agreed and schlepped north up the Saw Mill, through the existential quicksand of prison scanning, metal detectors, barbed wire, heavy noise of metal slamming doors, cold stares, lives held in abeyance, children without mommas, surrounded by eyes of want, betrayal, desire, regret and appetite. She entered cautiously, in black, a room of smart, hungry, courageous complex women in green, and began to speak of Tillie Olson’s I stand here ironing; to speak of the loss of Linda her daughter, anxious of course about the too easy slippage between losing a child to cancer and losing a child to incarceration. And the women loved her. They understood her. They so appreciated her integrity, sadness, her humanity. They loved her low voice, her relentless willingness to ask impossible questions, her red lips, dark hair, very white skin, and her ability to travel from art to literature and from familiar to esoteric references and still remain grounded, huddled in a blanket of affect, in the room. Within the cold plastered walls, Maxine was our intellectual and emotional Sherpa who accompanied and protected us as we traveled together through deep, collective circuits of loss and regret as if that were simply human.
And when Maxine wasn’t a light in dark times she was a noise in quiet times. Have you ever sat next to Maxine in a space where quiet was the obvious, only choice and whispering the preferred mode of communication? She and I were in Gloria Steinhem’s living room, maybe a decade ago; a stunning space of women in rapture with politics, ideas, Gloria’s apartment and of course Gloria. We sat in a huge circle with Gloria as the center. Maxine and I shared a mini-sofa at the Southeast corner of the circle, her cane on the floor, pocketbook stuffed between our thighs. Gloria was speaking when Maxine leaned over to me: “Do you remember she slept with Henry Kissinger?” Her query was louder than expected – I knew and she didn’t. Actually almost everyone knew but Maxine.
But she continued,
“I never did that.”
I hurriedly gathered our bags, her cane, mobilized the strength to get us both upright, giggling with shame, pride and embarrassment – rushing to find a cab.
And then, most recently, there was the hospital, where she was clearly in pain and discomfort but remained a strong and caring light for all who visited and attended to her. She never complained and only begged Anna for ice chips. “I am scared, don’t let me die.” “I can’t breathe, I may throw up.” “I see you both and I am calm.” “This is my son and his wife, we had a beautiful wedding.” Even as she entered a morphine-induced stupor, she would offer a slightly hallucinatory lecture on Dewey, Sartre or Merleau Ponty, Guernica, a piece of music or a performance at Lincoln Center.
“I do remember your mother, Michelle. She was strong, she spoke her views.”
“What was the occasion when you were wearing a white suit, and how are your boys?”
At one point she turned to me, “We should go to Ohio” to be with Janet Miller who was speaking at Patti Lather’s retirement. “We should be there. I am famous, but so are you.” Trouble was…. We (or at least I ) weren’t invited; she was on intravenous drugs, Tim was talking to doctors about hospice and yet, “I want to do something meaningful.”
“You have and you will again,” Carole and I spoke like sisters in synchrony.
“Well, I hope so.”
Carole and Maxine then discussed the next edition of Dialectic of Freedom that they would begin as soon as Maxine left Lenox Hill Hospital.
With ironic, delicious, well-deserved confidence, from her hospital bed and in that white and blue spectacled hospital garb, she knew she was smart and bold. Never once did she ask the question that haunted her for at least the 40 years I knew her: “Was I OK?” asked after every public lecture.
As Connie, her daughter in law and I, filled the room, and probably the hallways with song – preferably show tunes that Connie knew and I could fake – Maxine would muster strength and her remarkable memory to complete the chorus. One morning, from her exhausted body, under a crumple of sheets re-ordered with love and dedication by Anna, with thirsty lips, parched throat, oxygen, glasses and eyes of fear, she boomed out, “SOLIDARITY FOREVER!” and asked us if it were may 1, assuring us that “The union makes us strong!”
And she was so right, about all the unions she joined, created and nurtured.
A stunning feature of a light in dark times is the last chapter, the refraction of the light offered for almost a century. At the end, so many showed up to be her light, to sit in her shadow, to swallow her last words so they might live inside us. Tim, Connie, Anna, Carol, Janet, Jean, Susan and so many others, gathered to be with her. Maxine was surrounded by loving arms, sweet desires and all of us yearning for one more day, one more hallucinatory lecture with a smile of recognition, “it’s so nice of you to come” dismissing and appreciating us. “I love you darling.”
Maxine knew indeed, that we were not finished yet. In her last moments she asked for Linda.
Maxine, in the shadow of your passing, we are onto the really hard questions. Problems are wicked. We need you more than ever, even as we dance on your sweet shoulders. Sleep well my friend; your words keep us awake as we build fragile shelters of not-so-solidarities to prepare for the winter.
Indeed, like Maxine, we are all not finished yet.
I will miss her enormously. But I think she would tell us, “Don’t mourn, host a salon. Or a movement, or watch the incredible grace of a tree, poem, a child, a classroom that hums with questions. Put on lipstick. Make time for friends. Grow a sauna of teachers and learners. Be a light in dark times.”
Goodbye sweet Maxine, until we meet again
And Joel Westheimer’s comments at the Memorial:
“The endless conversation.” That’s what I wrote in 1987 in the margin of an edited book called Teacher Renewal. I wrote it while I was a student and Maxine was speaking about her chapter in that book.
She called for “an endless conversation, a dialogue without restraint, and discourse without resolution.”
Have any of us every met anyone who lived their life more by those ideas? She might have said “the endless salon at my house” or “the living room carpet that always fits a few more.”
Every single time I saw Maxine, she picked up the conversation exactly where we had last left it, as if I were one of only 6 people who had been in her apartment in the intervening months. But she had talked to hundreds, exchanged letters and notes and phone calls with hundreds more.
“Did you finish that article you were working on about…” and she would fill in whatever article it was.
“Do you still think Obama is…?” and she would repeat back to me whatever it was I had last said about Obama the last time we had met.
“How is your sister, Miriam?” she would ask. Or “When Carol was here, we talked about Bill’s new book – have you read it?”
There are only a few who know how to live life so fully. Salons. Students. Concerts. Lectures. Reading up. Dressing down. Imagining the possible for our children…and their children.
As so-and-so in this novel by so-and-so, she would say, as if all of us were as intimately familiar with the characters of every book written in the past 200 years as she was…
One moment it was Amir speaking to his friend Rahim in The Kiterunner.
The next Ren and Toby from The Year of the Flood
Or Dorothea and Mr. Casaubon from Middlemarch
Or so-and-so from Shakespeare,
And this and that from Roth’s American Pastoral.
Who could read all these books?, I thought How did she remember so many characters? She’s 4 decades older than I am – and I feel lucky to be able to remember the titles of the books I’ve read.
But it didn’t matter. The quotation from the fictional character captured the point perfectly. Maxine always brought us to those places in our imagination that so often pass unnoticed. The ones that, when given the attention they deserve, nourish our curiosity and the sense of the possible.
She inspired teachers and scholars alike, in fact blurring that very distinction.
Of course a conversation without end does not imply a purposeless conversation or a weak one. Creativity and imagination were not just idle words when spoken by Maxine.
I was thinking about how we often talk about how standardization of the curriculum is the enemy of creativity and imagination.
But we forget and Maxine reminds us again and again that the reverse is also true:
That creativity and imagination are the enemies of standardization, powerful counter-forces to the dull and the dreary. Worthy adversaries against uniformity and conformity.
Maxine nudged us to recognize education as a beautifully human enterprise, built not on disconnected and disembodied facts but on the language of freedom, beauty, art, poetry.
Mary Oliver, in her poem, The Summer Day, says this:
I DO know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?
Maxine, a mentor and friend to so many of us, lived a wild and precious life.