by Donna Schoenkopf
Let me introduce you to Lauren Zuniga.
Did you cry? Did your stomach clench? Did you laugh that wry laugh of recognition of pain and anger, realizing you have been there, right there, in her shoes?
Well, I did.
This is not the first poem I heard or read of Lauren’s. It’s the latest. I found it on YouTube and because it’s exactly (almost) what happened to me, I am starting off this piece with it.
I was eight months pregnant with my daughter and the mother of a five-year-old and a two-year-old little boy. The father of my soon-to-be born daughter was messin’ with another woman and not home with us. I was in a state of continual pain over that abandonment and the incredible poverty I was living in.
It was a bright, sunny day, the usual bright, sunny day of California, when I heard a knock on the door, opened it, and found two suited men on my doorstep.
“Are you Donna?” “Yes.” “We have a warrant for your arrest. We’ll be taking you in now.”
What???! I thought. And said.
And what was my crime? A broken taillight I had never taken care of. Gone to warrant when I hadn’t appeared in court. I hadn’t appeared in court because court was way off in Ventura, I had no car by then, and I had no money to repair the long ago taillight anyway. It was low on my list of priorities.
“What about my boys? What’s going to happen to them?”
They’ll go to juvenile hall, unless you have someone who can take them. But it has to be right now.”
My choice was juvenile hall or my neighbor, Sylvia, Crazy Sylvia, Sylvia who once walked into the local bar with her skirt over her head and no panties on, singing out, “Who wants to screw me?”
What a choice. And, like Sophie’s choice, I had to choose that very moment. Was I wrong to choose Sylvia? No. That time in the bar was a one-time thing. (I think.) And she was like everybody else (sorta) most of the time. It turned out she did a great job. And in my mother’s heart I knew she would. God, if you’re there, bless her.
A female officer, just like Lauren’s, took me on the long ride to Ventura, and just like Lauren I cried and cried. And cried some more.
After the long weekend in jail because there was no one to bail me out, with me talking to my baby in utero and fielding questions from the women in the day room about what I was in for (I felt like Arlo Guthrie and his “litterin’” reply) I appeared before the judge, like a giant orange beach ball in my jail jumpsuit.
“What are you trying to do? Make me feel sorry for you?” he snidely asked. “You could have avoided all this by showing up in court.”
“I had no money and no car.”
“Have you ever heard of the bus? It’s only fifty cents.”
The anger I felt at his pompous reply filled me with a white-hot rage.
“I don’t have fifty cents,” I said as calmly as I could. “I don’t have a high-paying job like yours. What do you make? A hundred thousand a year?”
I heard a gasp of disbelief behind me from the other poor souls in court. (You are not in that court if you have money. You’ve either already paid your bill or sent your attorney.)
And he let me go. He let me go, me and my Big Mouth. He let me go because he had to, even though he really, really hated me. He hated me because he was exposed as a member of the ruling class, beating up on the poor.
And THAT’S why I love Lauren Zuniga. Because she is me. And she is All Women. We all find ourselves in her words, if not in specifics.
We had all been told about her. Lauren Zuniga, slam poet, was coming to Shawnee’s Poetry Night. Yeah, I’ll come, I said, because I had read her poem asking progressives to please not leave Oklahoma even though they felt alone and that things felt hopeless in this rigidly conservative state. It was a call to stay here, here, and not give up the fight, because you are needed. If anyplace on earth needed you, it is Oklahoma. It is where the heart of the fight is.
She was barely late. She had rolled back into Oklahoma City early that day after a long tour. She had forgotten, she said. Straight out. No subterfuges. She doesn’t use niceties or half truths. She had forgotten because on top of being tired and spent (I added that) she was dealing with having come home to a robbed house.
She was a star, standing here at the front of the room, feeling honored to be here, apologizing for being late.
I’ve been thinking about that. Why would she really and truly feel glad to be here? I think it’s because she’s on a mission. She’s Lauren Truth Seed, planting her words wherever she goes.
And without any kind of explanation of anything (which all of us locals do when we read our poems— “I wrote this when ...” “I wrote this because ...”) she launched into a poem so deep and personal and universal that it took my breath away. She used her whole body to dance her words. I looked around the room. We were all crying, locked into her story. It was our story, too. We cried because it was true and touched us where we lived.
She introduced her sister, sitting at a table at the back, as the bravest person she had ever known and asked her permission to perform the poem about her. Yes, of course. It was a poem that didn’t cloak anything in niceties and euphemisms. It was direct and hard to hear. I felt every word. Her last line,“If we promise not to try to change you, will you promise not to leave us?” The love and respect between the two of them were palpable.
The night went on. Not a creature stirred. We were rapt. And unwrapped.
At the end of the night Jim, our host, looked at me over the milling crowd and said, “She’s like you, Donna.”
His words sang in my heart. Here I was, an older woman, entering the last part of my life, being compared to someone so clear and bright. Actually, I think he was thinking of my Big Mouth, which has gotten me in trouble, has roiled friendships, and once in a while has done some good things. Yeah. I can accept that.
And then the night was done. We would have stayed for hours more, but all good things come to an end. A few of us went to Knuckles for an after-reading drink and I sat next to her and we talked.
She had told the audience earlier that she had left the Democratic Party and was now an Independent. I asked her to plug in the word “Democrat” in place of “Oklahoma” in her poem. We needed her in the party. We lefties fall apart and don’t coalesce very well because we are so idealistic that any deviation from our list of priorities makes us want to move to higher ground. Compromise is a dirty word to us.
I, too, had left the Democratic Party, back in the ’60s, and joined the Peace and Freedom Party and voted for Eldridge Cleaver. And got Richard Milhouse Nixon. Twice.
My darling daughter had left the Democratic Party to vote for Ralph Nader. And got George Dubyah Bush. Twice.
So some of us Democrats know that when we don’t join together because the perfect is the only thing we’ll settle for, we get something we never bargained for. We know the perfect is the enemy of the good.
Of course, she did not agree. She is on her mission of truth and justice. She will not sell out. She will speak the truth and not sell out. I think about the loss of her powerful self in our party. Maybe, maybe, she’ll come home.
The conversation went on. We talked about me being an Atheist Catholic and how I don’t believe in free will. That intrigued her. She told us of the meditation exercises that had calmed and stilled her racing mind until she literally saw the light.
And then, she stood up in that crowded and noisy bar and in her clear, powerful voice launched into another poem, a gift for the people in that beery room.
She was halfway through before people began looking over to see what was happening and slowly they caught on. They realized they were seeing something they might not ever see again, a little miracle that comes around maybe, if you’re lucky, once in a lifetime.
When it was over we all applauded, long and hard, with smiles and tears on our faces.