Earlier today I caught the end of a public radio program about Dorothy Height who died today at the age of 98. I’d met her briefly years ago when I did a slide show for the National Council of Negro Women. I don’t remember the particulars any more, but I remember that we’d had a problem with the narration that turned it all into a painful experience. When I met Ms. Height, I was uncomfortable and embarrassed. Saints can have that effect on you anyway, 1) if they’re very serious and 2) don’t know you or care to.
Anyway, one of the radio commentators remembered that when Jesse Jackson was asked about Dorothy Height, “What does she do?,” he responded, “She doesn’t do; she beeeze.”
Despite my uncomfortable meeting with her, I knew that about Dorothy Height. I knew it about Dorothy Day. I certainly knew it about Mother Theresa, César Chavez, Desmond Tutu, Coretta King (I was never in the same space as her husband), the Dalai Lama – all people I’ve been in the same room with, and all, for my money, saints besides.
That doesn’t mean I was one hundred percent about them and what they believed: Dorothy Day in her journals expresses her disgust with a friend who was a lesbian; Mother Theresa was certain abortion was a sin. But each of them is or was someone who didn’t just do, though their lives were filled with doing. They “beeeze.” They had or have palpable weight in a room.
There are artists, mostly performers (maybe because performers are who we’re most likely to see), who have the same kind of presence. Leontyne Price impressed me that way. Granted, she was a physically large woman with an enormous and magnificent voice. But it was more than that – it was the poise, I think, a profound self-assurance. She knew who she was in a way that most of us don’t.
There are a lot of people with stage presence, stage magic even: for example, Frank Sinatra, Renée Fleming, Beyoncé. There are writers and painters with charm and wisdom. Outside of the arts, there are people who have accomplished things for the poor and the sinned-against, whose courage is remarkable. The people I’m talking about may not always have had as much virtue, or as much talent as the some of the others. In other instances, more. Sometimes much more. But the good they’ve done or the great art they’ve created doesn’t explain why they’re mountains when everyone else is a hill.
Maybe they’re just very, very good at being. Picasso, Tolstoy, probably Nelson Mandela, I guess, Einstein…. If you know what I’m talking about, you can make your own list.
Mostly, they become this large when they’re older. Somehow, age should be part of it, even if it doesn’t always seem to be. Maybe some of it is that the eyes of everyone else in the room is on them, and they grow in proportion to that focus. I don’t know what it is, but it fascinates me and it’s what I was thinking of today, on the day Dorothy Height died.