New Orleans Milan was interesting, but Geneva, Switzerland, was an unexpected surprise. What we had thought was simply a waystation, a place to repack before flying out of the airport there, chosen solely on the advice of ACORN’s French affiliate that it might offer a cheaper roundtrip flight than Paris, turned out to be relief, respite, and really a fun place to visit regardless of the pure luck involved.
Because this was all about travel, we stayed within a five minute walk from the main train station. We were shuttling in from a four-hour trip from Milan and knew just enough to be dangerous that there was a train station at the airport because we had taken it to Lyon and then Marseille two weeks earlier, so we knew being close by would help us in catching an early flight home on Sunday. Then we tried to catch some fresh air after settling and began randomly walking down the hill. We didn’t realize how close Lake Geneva was or what a pleasure it was to feel the breeze and see all of the people walking, drinking, talking, listening to music, and swimming in the lingering dusk along the lakeside.
Travel can be hard but great meetings like we had near St. Etienne, and wonderful surprises like we found along in Geneva, make it all worth the climb. So, do some of the unexpected insights that pop up from reading along the way on planes and trains. Interestingly, mi companera and I both found one such gold mine that enriched our understanding of our own work and what we need to always remember while reading very separate books that struck us deeply.
I was reading Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments: A Memoir. I knew her vaguely from an early book about the romance of American Communism that I had read so long ago it had faded from memory. I had Kindled the book along with several others for this trip when I saw it at the top of a list of the fifty best memoirs over the last fifty years in the New York Times. One sentence struck me deeply because it spoke to me about how seriously ACORN members had always felt about the organization when she said that she had “…realized that people who worked as plumbers, bakers, or sewing-machine operators had thought of themselves as thinkers, poets, and scholars because they were members of the Communist Party.” How profound, and how true. Collective action and organization elevate people and their sense of self and their place in the world as actors rather than bystanders along the parade of life.
Mi companera was reading, Memories of the Resistance: Women’s Voices from the Spanish Civil War by Shirley Mangini. As she read, she frequently shared with me the terrible stories of rape, torture, and repression that had been inflicted on women who were both part of the resistance to Franco’s regime or simply accused of being so, even unjustly, by men they had spurned or neighbors with whom they had had disputes. They ended up in prison for years. Once out they found it hard to rebuild their lives and often ended up in menial pursuits to make a living with their families splintered. Many of them confessed that they missed prison compared to their lives after release. They missed the discussions and self-education. They missed women’s voices and concerns for each other. They missed being part of something out of the ordinary, despite the hardships.
What they undoubtedly missed, much like the Gornick’s Bronx plumbers and sewing machine operators in the needle trades, was being part of a larger cause, something bigger them themselves, something that made their lives a cog in something great and world shaking, win, lose or draw.
Organizers make a fatal error if they ever stop trying to see the organization and its real meaning through the eyes of their members and leaders rather than their own.