“The World is not the way I thought it Was”

 Photo credit:  Lou de la Torre

Photo credit: Lou de la Torre

Ruth Frankenberg

An extract from "Mind Embodied," Ruth FrankenbergLiving Spirit, Living Practice: Poetics, Politics, Epistemologies.

"I was in the front, face-to-face with a riot squad policeman, who was closer than you and I are, in his full riot-gear. And they were kind of shoulder to shoulder… At a certain moment I made eye contact with the policeman in front of me, and I had an overpowering experience of identity. With... with me. It was not anything for which I had intellectual preparation. It’s really hard to talk about it. But it was a very direct experience of identity, with this – what I would have said was the epitome of “not me.” In Zen language, you know, self and other are not two. Fine! I’d never heard of Zen language. I had never had any preparation for what that experience was. However, the experience was totally, completely more real than any idea I had ever had… That night I was elected chairman of the students’ commission to support the strike… But actually my political career as I had known it died at that moment. Because what actually happened was, “The world is not the way I thought it was. It’s different. And I have to change my life.”

Blanche Hartman was seventy-one years old, married with children and grandchildren when I interviewed her. She was born in Birmingham, Alabama, the daughter of middle-and-upper-middle-class Jewish parents. When she and her sisters were still young children, the family’s trajectory was altered forever when Blanche’s father became involved in civil rights work, effectively driving him out of employment in his home state. As an adult, Blanche also committed herself to radical political activity. As she put it, “for twenty-five years, it was the center of my life.” But the incident recounted above contributed to the demise of that life. By the time of her face-to-face encounter with the policeman in riot gear, Blanche was already in her forties and the mother of four children, one of whom was a student at San Francisco State University. Indeed it was partly on account of her son that Blanche Hartman found herself at SF State on that day, for in context of student protests and police abuse, community members had been invited to “interpose themselves between police and students to prevent further violence.”

… In Blanche’s description of the events of that morning, it is striking that indeed for her experience actually overrides any pre-existing theory or explanatory framework. As she puts it, “I had never had any preparation for what that experience was. However, the experience was totally, completely, more real than any idea I had ever had.”

As is often true of origin stories, this one has antecedent and ancillary incidents surrounding it...(103-4).

Blanche Hartman went on to practice Soto Zen and at the time of this interview was Abbess of the San Francisco Zen Center. For more, Ruth Frankenberg, Living Spirit, Living Practice: Poetics, Politics, Epistemologies, Duke University Press, 2004.