I Applaud Optimism, Protest

by Jacquelyn Shah

Feminist, atheist, pacifist, iconoclast, I ardently believe in protest––both noun and verb.  Organized protests are, as history has shown, important and valuable; willingness to individually protest has an impact, sometimes. I have joined protests, e.g., the pro-choice march, Washington, D.C., 1992; and I organized and led a protest at the time of Houston’s 1990 Economic Summit of Industrialized Nations when I formed a short-lived organization, WAVE: Women Against Violence Everywhere. But along with the descriptors already mentioned, I must add that I’m a pessimist, albeit one who tries to remain hopeful. As a poet-writer, I’ve created a memoir titled Limited Engagement: A Way of Living, which details just how I came to live as the title suggests.

It seems to me that all protests throughout human history have resulted in partial and/or temporary change for the better. Then some power-mongering autocrat undoes the changes and/or instigates new repressions. As one unwilling to simply march, shout, or brandish signs, I have preferred being the change I wish to see in the world.

I am old, and gratified that there are younger people – energetic, more optimistic – to do the marching and shouting, etc. I can only offer a personal timeline of my living a difference as a middle-class, mid-western, white girl, then woman; these are the highlights:

  • 1954 Best friends with Janiece, the only Japanese-American girl in my school and just about the only different kind of student in our very white, so-called “all-American” class. It was many years into my middle age when I learned she was the daughter of parents who met and married in one of the Japanese internment camps created by the U.S. during World War II.
  • 1959 I had a short-lived Catholic boy friend, Bill; because I was not Catholic, his parents made him stop dating me.
  • 1963 In college, I had a Jewish boy friend, Harvey, whose parents made him stop dating me since I wasn’t Jewish.
  • 1965 I had a second Harvey boy friend, who was African-American. Though my father expressed his opposition, I disregarded it, and let the romance run its course.
  • 1967 I married Gautam, an Asian-Indian; had beautiful daughter #1––Tanya.
  • 1970 Took classes in Indian history at the University of Bombay (now Mumbai).
  • 1975 Beautiful daughter #2 was born––Zarina.
  • 1980 Distrustful of the permanence of reproductive rights after the U.S. government’s Roe v. Wade decision, I had my tubes tied. Lifelong proponent of zero-population growth––over-population is a real problem! – I was committed to having only two children.
  • 1988 Post-divorce, I began my long-term relationship, still ongoing, with a feminist woman – Iris.
  • 1995 I married in friendship, exchanging vows, an African-American woman, Risë.
  • 1999 Tanya married an African-American man.
  • 2001 Beautiful grandson #1 was born.
  • 2004 Zarina married a German-French American.
  • 2005 Beginning of twelve-year study with beloved Russian piano teacher, Slava.
  • 2006–2009 Beautiful Grandsons #2, #3, #4 were born.
  • 2015 Start of close, enduring friendship with a straight, white man – Harwood.

Several pictures form a collage of the author's family.

I have not lived out the above from any intention––they are simply the events and relationships that evolved from being open to people from wherever, in whatever physical form gender-wise, race-wise, and otherwise. I’ve always been attracted to the other, having had many, many friends along the way from backgrounds, races, and countries different from mine. Despite my limited engagement with the world (I put particular emphasis on “limited,” which does not mean “no”) I have engaged with many fine people through the years, always trusting my instincts in determining who qualifies as fine (i.e., intelligent, kind, fair, peaceful).

With a relentless fixation on violence in human society, each day of my life I am astounded and horrified anew. Humans live with unceasing dangers seemingly inherent in their very existence, violence largely perpetrated by men, who have owned the resources and held the power––though women are not exempt. So-called domestic (too-tame an adjective) violence, rape, murder, terrorism, torture, war––WTF?! I am particularly appalled at what people of color in the U.S. have had to endure for centuries: the multiform violence of exclusion, repression, persecution, incarceration, and murder.

Questioning how I came to be sensitized to the issue of violence, I looked back first to childhood. As an only child for six years, I was––I believe––the target of my mother’s misplaced anger following her less-than-happy marriage, anger resulting in frequent and unsparing hairbrush spankings for the slightest infractions during ages four to about nine. I lived in fear of the person expected to be loving, protective.

Then, two months after I married, my husband and I quarreled and he slapped me. I left the next day, stayed separated from him for a year. (Then went back, was happily married for many years. He never touched me again.)

I add a moment, 1970, age twenty-six, when my father assaulted me. A very small incident in the grand scheme of sexual abuse, it nevertheless permanently changed my relationship with him––the father I had adored, despite his drinking problem.

Add to this relatively minor abuse that had major, lasting effects my fast-raising consciousness of all the much worse violence in the world, including in my family of origin . . . Voilà! I’m a feminist pacifist who does limit her engagement with the world and its people.

Too old to march (bad knees), I remain robust enough to write. A practicing, publishing poet, much of my work reflects a protesting stance. As I write, I’m peacefully being the change I wish to see, while others (like white nationalist groups such as Atomicwaffen Division) are also being the change they wish to see–through murderous behavior. I can only dismiss my despair, pessimism, and applaud the optimists whose unflagging protest is indispensable.