Judy Hogan is an 81-year-old environmental activist, writer, and teacher. Over the past few decades, she has fought a myriad of different environmental justice issues affecting her community in Chatham County, N.C. Right now, she is leading an effort against Duke Energy dumping and incinerating coal ash in her town. She publishes books and poetry and teaches writing classes twice a week as well.
This series is accompanied by selected poems from Hogan’s most recently published book, called “Shadows,” which is autobiographical about her daily life. I took a more free-form, artistic approach with this caption style because I want Judy Hogan to speak for herself:
"For me it’s shadows. Every day I walk across
the dam, I watch for my shadow marching
below me, down the hill, and some days,
when the wind is still, even across the water
and up the hill at the other end of the earthen
dam that creates Jordan Lake. In the painting
there is one small human figure surrounded
by rushing water, darkly threatening clouds,
with only a small window of blue that could
be sky but is probably water. That little
shadow is very persistent as she trudges
along. Even in a wind, she doesn’t hesitate,
pulls her hood up to protect her neck and
ears. A step at a time a great distance can
prove possible. But, oh for the courage
to believe in that shadow. I like to think
that when I’m gone, and even if storm clouds
dominate, and water boils and foams, and
wind is cruel and relentless, that my shadow–
all that is left of me and whatever words
on paper survive my death–will keep on
walking with firm steps, seeing more than
I can see now, accepting storms, even
lightning, but refusing to be dismissed,
ignored, or turned aside–something eternal
or stubborn, or so part of the nature of
things that it simply won’t let go."
"How to tell it? I have a new friend
in the midst of my aging, when new
friends are rare. She’s a bird-watcher.
I’m a people-watcher. What I learn,
I scarcely know until I put it in my
books. Some mistrust other people
first and foremost. I attend to them
with my mind open. She talked to
my dog, and Wag listened. Wag is
tolerant now of other people but
skeptical, too. It takes time for her
to trust, but the bird-watcher turned
out to be a dog-whisperer and spoke
Wag’s language, baffling to me. Mind
over matter maybe. Wag would stop,
hesitate, and then touch her nose to
the outstretched hand. Me she pulled
in, too, to tell of the sixteen eagle
nests around our Jordan Lake. I
asked how they would have fared
during our hurricane. She said they
have favorite places to hunker down
during storms, but we had four days
of wind and rain, so she’s checking
on them. She watches for them to
fly by, way up there and catches
them in her camera the way she
caught Wag and me as we walked
toward her, both smiling, she says."
"Erik Erikson said Ghandi found his
true identity when he was fifty. I
was seventy, still healthy, writing
and publishing books, teaching writers,
a small farmer with a flock of White
Rock hens, and a leader in my
community. At eighty, I take that
diversity of tasks for granted. I don’t
debate. It is a balancing act, and
my balance ability is distressed
by my age. Still, I rake and dig.
I hold onto tree branches and my
chain-link fence. I’ve said I’m
both Penelope and Odysseus. I
did have my once-in-a-lifetime
love–across the ocean, despite
the language barrier, and our
different lifestyles. We fought,
but we held on. He became one
of Homer’s shades, reduced to
shadows in the Underworld, but
still alive, still speaking and
foretelling the planet’s future if
we don’t attend to the signs. I’ll
be a shade, too, before too many
years have passed. Some of that
is beyond my control, and some
is up to me. The doctors urged
a cane four years ago, but I said
no. “I can’t farm with a cane.”
They said medicine, but I was
wary of the side-effects, the
medicine worse than the complaint.
My body heals while I sleep.
It puts me to sleep a lot. But my
aches and pains go away. I tell
them I have good telemeres.
They listen. The symptoms which
puzzled them have disappeared.
Eighty isn’t so bad if you accept
that your pace will be slower…
No, I’m not a shade yet, and life
still pulls surprises out of my
lucky grab bag. I can’t complain."
"I was afraid my heart would rebel
and keep me from leading a workshop
on writing poetry. My friend had said
to rest more. I had things to do,
but I did stop to rest. Then six people
came to learn what I knew about
poetry. “What is a poem?” I asked.
They suggested it was condensed
words, that it was like a stream running
through the soul. I told them the
fourth grader’s understanding: “A poet
is someone who writes poetry, someone
who loves all living things.” I told
them about Homer’s Muse, about
the Old Testament prophets who
cried: “The Word of the Lord came
to me.” About how words could seem
to take off, and the deeper mind to
throw up words we weren’t expecting.
I mentioned Jacques Maritain’s hexis–
a gift we have in our unconscious
that we need to take care of and
listen to. If the poem starts in the
grocery store, make more room
in your life for the Muse. Then I
asked them to write a simple poem,
and they all did, even the librarian.
To my surprise, they all read their
new poems. They trusted me and
each other enough on very short
acquaintance. My heart behaved and
was quieted. Another unexpected gift."
"Some see the world as a dangerous place.
I don’t. One says, “You see it as a safe place.”
I say, “No, but I see it differently. I know
there are dangers, but I’m focused on trying
to be in tune with the grain of the universe,
with the way it’s made. I follow my deep
intuition, even when it doesn’t make sense.
It makes me accident-unlikely. I may have
accidents, but usually they’re not as bad as
they could have been. So, yes, I had that flat
tire on Thursday, but it happened in my
front yard. I drove it across the road and
turned. When it was still bad, I pulled over
and stopped to look. I had a very flat right
front tire. Or I have car trouble as I pull into
a service station. I work toward peace
with my neighbors and fight for all of us
for cleaner air and water. They respect me
and protect me. I’ve never been harmed
by my neighbors, and I’ve often been
helped. You don’t need to worry about them
harming me.” I have a very different
orientation to the world. There are dangers
and evil people. If people are determined
to be my enemy, I stay away from them.
In the meantime, I try to have friendly
relations with everyone, if it’s possible. I’m
outspoken, and some people hate what I say
and can’t forgive me. One day I might be
harmed, but this way to live suits me."
"Resting is hard for me. I have so much
I want to do before Shadows take me
from this life. Maybe
I don’t need to be so inactive. Can
I let go fear, slow myself down but
not stop, not let fear put its claws
into my soul, my trust that, if I pay
attention, all will be well."
"Beginnings are hardest. In the morning
I sit up slowly, inch my way closer
to a place to hold on, rise carefully,
balance before I walk. I make sure I don’t
go too long without eating and sleep early.
As the day waxes, my confidence returns.
I remember what I need to, see to the hens,
make notes in my diary, in which I tell
the whole story. Sometimes I start to fall,
but I catch myself. At the dam I walk
steadily, don’t fear falling. Back at
home I’m warmer, shed layers, resume
morning tasks and rituals, with enough
energy for the day. By myself I see the
years of faithful work to leave my legacy
of stories and insights alive behind me.
Among others I see their discomfort.
They don’t look at me. They forget
my place in the line-up of poets. I make
them nervous. Why? Maybe because
I look into Death’s face and am not
afraid. How does one find that
particular courage? It arrives in time
to be useful in the last years, but I
realize I’ve practiced going my own way
most of my life, since age twenty-one,
to nearly eighty-one. Not dismissing
urgencies that would keep me whole
and safe, not denying love when it
defied logic. Those who hated me? I
stayed away, and generally, they did, too.
I sometimes lose things or forget them,
but I’ve never forgotten to safeguard
my soul and keep it whole, no matter
what my circumstances are."
"Proust thought Time destroyed us,
those hidden memories our only
salvation. For me, Time allows
fulfillment, to come into my own,
to learn, to heal, and even to be
recognized and valued. There were
people who hated me, but they
didn’t stop me. My own body
slowed me down, reminded me
I had done well and to think of those
I love. I persuaded my friends
and my doctor to trust my way
of life, my faith in myself; to let
me continue my independent way.
My son and I learned to live
together. We lost some crops,
but harvested bushels of tomatoes.
I made spaghetti sauce and soup.
Now there are grapes to make
Muscadine jelly, pears to make
preserves. I do my work as a
writer, editor, teacher. I celebrate
Jaki, whom I first published
forty-five years ago. I will
teach poetry and story writing.
Like the moon’s slow, steady
increase of its light, I resume
my own life of work and love."
"I slowed down, did easy work, nothing
strenuous. The hurricane left us to mop
up and dry out. Sun came back, the better
to see the devastation. Here, where we
escaped the worst, life was almost normal
despite rivers that flowed upstream, the
milk we couldn’t buy, the flooded roads
we couldn’t pass. I wanted more work.
I made a list I’m crossing off. Something
in me wants serious work, to tell some
story more than poetry tells or my
diary. A new book then about aging
and adapting. There is more to tell
than I have admitted so far. At eighty-one,
how many women tell what it’s like,
to lose the capabilities we always assumed,
to have gates closed, but the mind still
open, still able to articulate paradox
and justice, when everything in the human
being or in the state works easily and
smoothly together, each part doing its
own work? Mine has been to write, tell
my mind’s story. I’ve written many books,
but there is still more to tell. I will."
"How do I describe my faithfulness to my
deepest knowledge, to what I see but
can’t easily reveal in words. I tried not
to be good as a child is good. I rebelled
against old formulas, trite words. I loved
Thoreau’s wisdom: “If I see someone
coming to do me good, I run for my life.”
I rejected that impulse to “do good.” Yet I
have always worked against evil when
I saw it blazing up in corporations, in
those fearful of rocking the boat, or who
were terrified to be seen as bad, as trouble-
makers. So I’ve been castigated, dismissed,
written off. It hasn’t been so bad. Some
tender hearts have loved me, and even
tough-spirited strangers have helped me
out. I have a few fans of my books. I
don’t need acclaim, but I do need to feel
loved and acknowledged by those I love
and trust, those who can see with clear
eyes who I am, what I care about. I’ve
been told many times that what I want
is impossible, will never happen. They
say life isn’t like that. You don’t get what
you wish for. In short, the power of evil
is too great. I don’t give up, however,
and then people love me. Things begin
to change. What my skeptics have
forgotten is the power of transformation
and what love can do when it’s unleashed,
when we see clearly, when other people’s
minds open like a book that wants to be
read. I can’t make that happen. I can’t
stop it. I can, however, give it my
gratitude and let it go to work."
"Milosz helped me see, at age
eighty-one, that our worship of science
and technology, our allowing a dictator
to be elected president, is killing us off.
The big electricity corporation has brought
us a present we couldn’t refuse of seven
million tons of poison. They say they’ll stop
now. They’ve done enough damage. Instead,
they’ll burn the coal ash again and kill us
faster. No one stops them. People are
getting sick. They don’t want to fight
any more. They forget: when we fight, we
love each other. We can live with our
differences. Black, white, and Hispanic;
church-goers and non-church-goers.
Andrew says, “You’ve won a victory.
Have a victory party.” Rhonda says,
“You’re defying the doctors. I predict
you’ll have a stroke.” She’s angry at her
body’s weakness, and at me, for trusting
myself and challenging doctors, our techno-
masters in a sickening world. The human
body knows how to heal itself. Instead, they
give us pills and then more pills, and the
body then is truly sick, won’t fight any more.
Milosz lived under the Nazis, under Stalin.
He fought and he survived. I, too, am
fighting, and I, too, am surviving. Love
can conquer. Give it a try."
"Even love has its misunderstandings.
Sometimes my son and I knock heads.
We’ve learned to let go when arguments
go nowhere. Everyone has her own world
view, her own life story, fears, and dread.
Agony is human, but so is joy. We watch
the exultant eagles join the circling vultures.
For one, it’s work-related, for another, it’s
ecstatic. When our hopes and desires
merge, worry disappears. When pain
returns, we are constrained to work free.
I write my troubles down, the better to let
them go. When they reappear, I’m
prepared. We all learn as fast as we can,
which means some more slowly than others.
A lot depends on our heritage and even
more on work we’ve already done to cope
when people hated us, when our loved ones
turned their faces away. The late years
lead to a homecoming or some call it a
home-going. We have some say-so. For
me, there are many rewards in this last
stage, which Erik Erikson called “Ego
integrity versus despair.” We find rewards
for our self-defense, our ability to listen
and give a helping hand. People we
scarcely knew turn up to help us. A young
woman wants to study me for clues to
living a benign life as a freedom-fighter.
Another woman in her middle years is
drawn to my relaxed humor. Most terrible
things draw our tears, but some that can
wrench us later make us laugh. My
doctor, as I eluded the medicines and
survived, calls me Trouble, but she’s
smiling. Another older woman says we’re
both eccentric, but a good eccentric. My
son is learning to protect garden spiders,
cherish poetry, and love my homemade bread.
I still walk without a cane, urged upon me five
years ago. Some work I’ve let go. I rest more,
but I do all I can do–gratefully. Look around:
I have students and friends. I’m cherished by
those I want to cherish me. I’m alive and writing
down what my last years are like. Already I
inherit that persistence I foresee in my shadow
after I’m gone. She’ll be okay."