One of our greatest Indiana-connected poets, the late Ruth Stone, waited until age 85 to win her full due; and then came the deluge.
National Book Award. National Book Critics Circle Award. Wallace Stevens Award. Poet Laureate of Vermont, a post once held by Robert Frost.
Poetry, arguably, wasn’t her greatest achievement. After her husband committed suicide when she was in her 40s, she went on to rear three accomplished daughters with a succession of college teaching jobs, writing all the way.
When I interviewed her more than a decade ago, she described her formative years in Indianapolis and confided that she was pretty much weaned on the cultural gospel of female subservience. She deemed herself one of the lucky ones.
“It would have been a beautiful world,” she said, “if women had always been educated and had been able to write what they felt. Think of all the genius that never got expressed.”
Our loss, in other words. Not just women’s. Everyone’s.
Such unfathomable losses. To men, to whites, to the native-born, from the suppression of those who didn’t arrive on Earth or in America with the right ticket. Yes, people who are held back and held down persist in giving society immense achievement. Yet that makes the might-have-been all the more poignant.
Which brings me to the current events that have called Ruth Stone’s haunting observation to my mind.
When the Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, in an eloquent opinion crafted by a Republican appointee with a lengthy conservative pedigree, eviscerated Indiana’s and Wisconsin’s laws against same-sex marriage, the reaction of gay couples and their friends and families once again mixed triumph and sorrow.
Final victory now at the U.S. Supreme Court, after two preliminary wins there and decisions in favor of marriage equality in 20 of 21 district courts, seems all but assured. Casting this vestige of discrimination into the dustbin with male-only suffrage and Jim Crow has moved from historically inevitable to apparently imminent.
So hold your breath and get ready to cue the wedding feasts.
And meanwhile, grieve.
While a state sanction of same-sex domestic relationships would be condemned as a sign of the Endtimes by many, a majority or near-majority now and a clear majority of future generations will ask what society hoped to gain and what it unconscionably lost by all these years of denying legitimacy to law-abiding loving couples – and the children they could have had and reared only because they wanted them.
Professionally and personally, I’ve known many couples who’ve struggled to pursue these eminently conservative ideals of citizenship and parenthood. Their stories range in gravity from Dickensian to “Will and Grace,” but their anger at being designated second-class citizens with second-class children by pietistic politicians is pretty much universal.
For them, at least, there’s hope. Like Ruth Stone, harsh as her lot was, they can call themselves the lucky ones. And the straight world will profit also, as they model marriage for a society with a 50-percent divorce rate and they and their children move through the marketplace with no official cloud over their pride.
And never shall they forget those they have buried – who, for all they shared with the rest of us, were denied the full sunshine of social, emotional, physical, professional and interpersonal freedom they deserved and were never fully seen by the communities that needed them. Only grudgingly and gradually afforded any measure of acceptance, they would win marriage last of all as a group and could only dream of that capstone as individuals.
I won’t presume to speculate on their happiness. Happiness is a disposition and a decision, not a set of circumstances. My sorrow is for a collective loss, for careers and civic action that would have enriched the community had they not been compromised or denied, for orphaned children who might have flourished through fine education instead of drifting through poverty.
“I am a part of all that I have met,” our all-American gay poet Walt Whitman wrote. Let that be the hard lesson of this latest step in our slow ascent to where we should have started.
Dan Carpenter is a freelance writer, a contributor to The Indianapolis Business Journal and the author of “Indiana Out Loud.”