Meredith Sue Willis

Life Story

I’ve been reading a memoir by a friend of mine, a generation older than we are, who was born in Austria and escaped on a Kindertransport just ahead of the Holocaust. Her sense of herself in history is profound, and I’m thankful that my age cohort too can see itself in history. We all are in history, of course, but I don’t think my 22 year old son thinks about it so much.

I grew up in a small town in West Virginia and went off to college as a believing Christian to Bucknell University where I tasted alcohol for the first time and met my first atheist. Within two years I had rejected – or thought I had rejected – pretty much all of the ideology that shaped me. I dropped out of college to spend a year as a VISTA volunteer in a poor neighborhood in Norfolk, Virginia. This experience laid the groundwork for my understanding of how the political-economic system works: we VISTAS tried to start a food cooperative, upon the request of the people in our neighborhood, and were told by our sponsoring organization not to do it because it would affect the business community. We started it anyhow, working out of a local church, and I should say, for the record, that the VISTA people in Washington supported us, not the sponsoring organization.

When my year was up, I made a big assumption that there was a natural next step for me, and it was to transfer to college in a place even more central to what was going on in the world. I wrote for an application for Columbia University, not knowing that it didn’t take women. Someone redirected my letter to Barnard, which is where I transferred, living off campus for my last two years, including 1968. My life centered around my roommates and our apartment and our boyfriends, and around my desire to get out of the softness of social service into the rigor of political action. I started going to SDS meetings.

I was one of the girls hanging around the periphery trying to find a way to step onto the carousel. From time to time I raised my hand and got called on to speak. Public speaking was something I had been trained in early at the First Baptist Church of Shinnston, West Virginia. I kept trying to figure out whose side I was on – which was the really really correct group among all those brilliant talkers who seemed to have been raised on Das Kapital the way I was raised on the King James Bible. I had a lot of trouble understanding why the Action Faction made fun of the Praxis Axis and why everyone hated PL. It wasn’t that I didn’t hear the differences, but I kept thinking Why can’t we all just fight together?

Which, of course, we did, briefly, in the spring of 1968. And that was wonderful, and I do believe we were part of stopping the war and raising consciousness around the country. I’ve written about all of this in three novels called the Blair Ellen Trilogy: the VISTA part is in Higher Ground and the Columbia part is in Trespassers.

Since then, I’ve been writing and working as a writer-in-the-schools with Teachers & Writers Collaborative and other organizations, and teaching novel writing at NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies. I lived for twelve years in monogamous bourgeois style with my boyfriend Andy Weinberger. We finally got married, and later still, had a son who just graduated from Brown. I keep an organic garden in the back yard of our big old house in South Orange, New Jersey.

I continue to believe that it is my civic duty to try and make change. I do this in every way I can: I vote with an eye to who is going to choose Supreme Court justices; I go to protests when they are in New York and I can get there by New Jersey transit. I have spent ten years putting in long hours at an organization dedicated to keeping two towns in New Jersey stably integrated. I am still writing and teaching and delighted to hear about all the rest of you.

- by Meredith Sue Willis
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