Little Disturbances, Enormous Changes

Written By: Kathy  Engel

Little Disturbances, Enormous Changes

By Kathy Engel

Grace Paley taught me that no showing of conscience regarding abuse of power and the well-being of people is too small to matter. She taught me that where you live is the place to begin. She taught me that doing the right thing according to your belief and conscience doesn’t require asking permission. That it’s not about doing the perfect thing, but doing something. That no one is more important. She showed that humor and humility are necessary ingredients in life and resistance to abuse. I haven’t always followed those directives. Grace did, I think. The photo on the back of her 1998 book of essays, Just As I Thought, tells a lot: Grace, in a knit hat, glancing upward with a big, apron-like sign covering her that read, “Money Arms War Profit Wall Street…”


Since Grace died in August, it has been difficult to find a lens through which to see the world. It feels like the country and the planet need a huge chiropractic adjustment. I know I do. How can earth be without Grace? How canGreenwich VillageorVermontbe? How can language–the way people really talk, listen and don’t listen–be? How can vigils and stories be?


When, in the summer of2002, agroup of us living on the East End of Long Island began a Women in Black vigil–in support of the Israeli and Palestinian women calling for peace with justice between their people, and against an impendingUSinvasion ofIraq–I frequently reminded myself and my neighbors what Grace had said about the early days of theGreenwich Villagepeace vigil against the war inVietnam. She had told us what had been important was the constant presence, that the power of that presence, sometimes one person alone with a sign, sometimes fifty or even hundreds of people, week after week, contributed to the waves of movement that ended the war.


I took note, when we started the vigil, of the fact that now in my middle or late middle age I had returned to the place where I grew up and internalized what Grace said in a different way. I had begun to reject the idea that is so reinforced in the degrading coverage of peace and justice activity in the mainstream media, and that had often driven my work as well: that impact can be measured only by size, all in one place, at one time. I had begun to understand more profoundly the meaning of the smaller encounters and actions that shift our lives, which may not make the big hoopla but on an almost cellular level–in our bloodstreams, on sidewalks and in rivers, in the gathering together of people in community–evolve us. I was returning to Grace’s wisdom the way in your middle years you might smile and recognize something a parent had told you when you were young but that never fully clicked. You had to find out your own way.


I met Grace as a child; she and her first husband were friends of my father. From that time what I remember most is her voice, which embodiedNew York Citylike bagels or apartment building stoops for hanging out, her brown-gray hair tied up and wisping out, and a cotton skirt or dress. I remember Grace walking. I remember her daughter Nora, soft voice and beautiful red hair. And I remember the kitchen of Grace’s11th Streetapartment–quintessentially a kitchen-table culture–crumbs and books, notes from meetings, coffee smell and mostly good, juicy, warm talk.


In 1985 as the founding director of the international women’s human rights group MADRE, I co-led a delegation of women toEl Salvador andNicaragua. Grace was part of the group. Since her death I’ve been reading herEl Salvador andNicaragua poems over and over, remembering dancing inMatagalpa,Nicaragua, after being waved through an arc of mothers and grandmothers, doves thrown toward us, and the women in prison inEl Salvador performing a skit for us after a hunger strike.


There was a boy, about eight years old, in one of the orphan centers inEl Salvador, who wanted a pencil from Grace. We had a strict rule on those delegations, worked out with our sister organizations in the region, that we didn’t give out individual gifts but rather offered gifts as a group, attempting to counter the typical paternalistic relationship between people in the US and Central America. But this one little boy just wanted a pencil, and Grace wanted to give it to him. She asked me if she could, and I said no. I always felt ashamed of that exchange. I never told Grace that I was wrong and how awful I felt. And she never mentioned it again.