In Reflection

Florescent lights glaring back

reflected like so many molars,

her green dress doubled,

she lovingly wipes the cold glass wall

gleamingly clean.



Her supplies are heavy in her paper bag;

she walks at a tilt from the weight.

But cleaning the mirror she is agile and caressing,

sliding her rag over perfect smoothness,

gently touching herself in the reflection —



the mother she has been missing all these years.



© Barbara Burt


The Art of Marriage

for Dick and Katrina


You have chosen the canvas,

stretched and bleached, with

shadowy outlines sketched

in charcoal;

now you must paint.


In watercolors, perhaps,

with the delicate hint of the brush.

Or in the rough texture and

clear scent of oils.

But go slowly, choose carefully,

there’s no rush to get it down.


You will paint over

and over

and despair for not learning.

Learning, finally,

that the art of working at it


the work of art.




© Barbara Burt


I Cannot Wake

I cannot wake at four a.m.

I’d rather lose myself in longer dreams

that know to use their morning share.

The birds asleep, their silence fills the air.

It must have been the omelet,

a garish oozing yellow folded like a sheet,

that drove me to absurd dispair.

Or perhaps it was the waitress’s lack of care.

I bend myself to your direction

with no regrets, or few that I can think of.

Bending causes change; I must beware —

You would not like to wake and find a different lover there.

© Barbara Burt


Cold Feet

When the maple wore its mantilla of white ice-lace

and the snow annulled all the bumps and holes in the yard,

she decided to leave him.

She snuck out from under the comforter —

he was snoring,

and she wore no slippers.

Suddenly, while standing barefoot in the middle of the kitchen,

the moonlight caught her.

The glare of its light accused her.

And she could not ignore

the hard cold fact of linoleum.


So that is why she was there when he woke up

and asked why her feet were so cold.



© Barbara Burt



Every month has its sun —

March’s lies.

It glows early like a robin’s morning,

yet the wind slices cruelly.

It gleams on the river as if seen from sailboats

and warms bare pavement awaiting marbles,

yet the missing green

is freezing still.

I have no quarrel with the cold steel

of January’s sun

or the steam oven of July’s.

But I’ll never again believe

in March’s lies.



© Barbara Burt


A Change in the Winds

We’ve torn the shrouds of plastic

from the window beside the bed.

I lie still and follow the shadows of birds

across the white glare of the wall outside;

I lie on this bed and hear the kiss of softball to leather

and the gentle coaching of the man next door.

We will leave this place soon, I know that.

Tonight we’ll crate our belongings,

betray our sofa for its weight,

the bed mattress for its lumps.

Will I ever be forgiven my desertion of these

and living things?

Will I ever forgive myself, leaving,

so full of whispered promises

and abandoned starts?



© Barbara Burt


Social Security: Don’t fix what isn’t broke


It doesn’t make sense to target Social Security for deficit reduction because it’s not part of the deficit.

NEWCASTLE — Remember how President Bush began his second term with a plan to “privatize” Social Security? Imagine where millions of us would be today if Social Security were a pension plan based primarily on stock market investments.

Well, we dodged that bullet, but the program that transformed American society with retirement pensions, unemployment insurance, survivors’ benefits, and a host of other essential services is about to undergo yet another attack.

In the name of deficit reduction, not itself a bad goal, there’s a proposal to create a fast-track commission to study so-called entitlement programs. What does “fast-track” mean? It means discussion is limited and amendments are prohibited, creating an undemocratic process that’s hidden from you and me.

And, if a fast-track commission is created, the deck will be stacked against Social Security. Already, foes of social insurance, such as the Heritage Foundation and the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, are predicting its imminent demise. Parade Magazine recently ran an article with the scary title, “Can We Save Social Security?”

The use of a hasty and undemocratic fast-track procedure would be unprecedented. Since 1935, Social Security legislation has always had the benefit of full hearings before the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee, and unlimited debate and opportunity for amendments in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

It just doesn’t make sense to attack Social Security in the name of deficit reduction; it’s not part of the deficit. The 2009 Annual Report of the Board of Trustees, published May 12, 2009, stated that Social Security ran a surplus of $180 billion last year with a reserve of $2.4 trillion. The Congressional Budget Office, in its August 2009 forecast, said that full benefits can continue to be paid until 2043.

There is ample time for Congress to review options for adjusting the Social Security system through the usual legislative process. There is time to create a well-rounded, balanced commission that recruits members from business, labor, and the general public. And makes recommendations, not edicts.

But Social Security’s opponents have managed to convince too many Americans that the program is wasteful and in a terminal state. Unwarranted panic allows Social Security’s opponents to stage this stealth attack.

As the program’s 75th anniversary approaches, it’s helpful to recall the reason for Social Security’s original enactment.

Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe wrote last June in a letter to the Frances Perkins Center: “As the chief champion and architect of the Social Security Act, which established not only Social Security but also the Unemployment Insurance program, Frances Perkins demonstrated unparalleled vision, courage, and determination that provided us with some of the strongest federal programs ever”

Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins herself said in a radio speech in 1935, “We cannot be satisfied merely with makeshift arrangements, which will tide us over the present emergencies. We must devise plans that will not merely alleviate the ills of today, but will prevent, as far as it is humanly possible to do so, their recurrence in the future.”

That goal has been met. Today, as we struggle to rise from the depths of the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression, we can thank Social Security for helping to save our economy from collapse.

While trillions of dollars were lost in 401(k) and other pension accounts, Social Security remained dependable. Its guaranteed payments helped to fill in for lost earnings. The purchasing power those benefits are keeping stores busy and people employed.

More than 52 million people will get monthly benefits this year. Wounded soldiers and their spouses and children receive Social Security benefits, as well as the families of soldiers who have died for their country.

The mystery is, in the face of proof that the Social Security system benefits all of us, why would Congress consider reducing it? Instead, let’s get out the drums and bugles and celebrate this great American tradition. It deserves our support, not death by a thousand cuts.

BARBARA BURT December 11, 2009


Barbara Burt is executive director of the Frances Perkins Center, which advocates for social justice and economic security.

Copyright © 2009 MaineToday Media, Inc.

[An OpEd published in the Portland, Maine, Sunday Telegram]

Outside the Lines

When young, we dream of growing within perfect lines.

I ended up with my father’s hands:

broad palms, stubby fingers.

His hands are strong and honest, yet,

even now, in restaurants with strangers,

I hide mine beneath the table.

I can’t see black without imagining red or blue;

I don’t believe in white without yellow or gray.

My mother’s hands are slender,

and she is almost six feet tall.

I am shorter, my grandmothers’ heir.

Like pictures from the coloring book of a three-year-old,

our faces are mottled, with scribbled lines bleeding

out to the space around us.


[© Barbara Burt; unpublished]

Vehicle of Suicide

Each stranded tree is so solitary, so alone,

I long to join it, aim for its

arm-like branches,

imagining obliteration.

But at that instant of decision, I remember

the corpse of some child’s beloved dog

or a wounded pedestrian, pale and blanketed on the sidewalk.

I remember my shock at exploding windshield,

my blood on the front seat,

my ceaseless trembling.

I am afraid of not dying, this time,

and beg myself to follow the gray stream north,

terrified of my own sabotage.


[© Barbara Burt; unpublished]

Catching the Bus for Election Reform

What would induce me, a 45-year-old woman, to spend two nights sleeping on a bus, with 11 hours of standing around in wind, rain, and sleet sandwiched between? The same cause inspired more than 50 other Maine people as well—teachers, teenagers, artists, college students, retired folks, mothers, fathers, fishermen, a former Peace Corps trainer, a librarian, a poet, a doctor, a state representative—to travel to Washington, D.C. in the VoterMarch bus organized by Barbara Skapa of Vienna and Jo Ann Campbell Simon of Camden. Along with the 23-hour bus ride, we shared a determination to voice our protests over the manner in which the result of the presidential election was decided.

If you watched the inauguration of George W. Bush as our 43rd president on television or read the coverage in the papers, you may not realize the extent, volume, and variety of the protests that concurrently took place. Our busload was a microcosm of the estimated 20,000 people who showed up to stand up for voting rights and fair elections. Many of us were first-time protestors, most are political moderates, but all of us have a deep love for our country and its principles of democracy, which have been an inspiration to freedom-lovers worldwide for two-and-a-quarter centuries.

After the 2000 presidential election outcome was summarily decided by the five justices of the Supreme Court, I felt concerned that a dangerous precedent had been set. The man who won the popular vote by garnering more than half a million votes beyond his opponent’s number—who won the most votes in America’s history, except for Ronald Reagan’s re-election—did not win the presidency. In addition, documented voting irregularities in Florida led to substantial questions about the apportionment of the Electoral College votes. Yet it seemed clear that the politicians and the media were willing to sweep these anomalies out of sight and pretend that the election had been democratically concluded.

As Maine voters, it is hard for us to imagine that people in other parts of the United States don’t always experience democracy in the straightforward way we do here. We can register at the polls when we go in to vote on Election Day. We have candidates who run their campaigns under the Maine Clean Election standards. Our Electoral College votes are apportioned according to the outcome of our popular vote. Often, we even know the people who are counting the ballots late into the night after the polls close. We trust the system.

Unfortunately, our experience is not universal. My niece, who moved to Tampa, Florida, in September, registered to vote soon after moving to her new home. But when she appeared at the polls on Election Day, she was not listed as an eligible voter. After standing in various lines for several hours, she was told that there was no record that she had ever registered and she would not be allowed to cast a vote. A bureaucratic snafu? Perhaps. But as we now know, such individual problems added up to a critical mass weighty enough to shift an election.

On Saturday, in Washington, our busload of protestors arrived at Dupont Circle at about 7:00 in the morning. By 9:30, a huge crowd of people had joined us. The rally was organized by VoterMarch, a group calling for election reform. People had come from all over the country—Washington, California, Florida, Georgia, and many states in between. Ages ranged from babies in strollers to gray-haired seniors. Although obviously upset about the way the election was terminated, the group was friendly and good-humored. Most people carried home-made protest signs, some of which were quite witty. Street-theater groups performed skits: a group of “Caribou” begged us to leave the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge alone; another group dressed in top hats and tails who billed themselves as the “Billionaires for Bush” sang satirically of their gratitude for the election results. A variety of speakers inspired the crowd, including a voting official from Miami-Dade County, and Granny D., the remarkable 91-year-old New Hampshire woman who walked across the country last year to support campaign finance reform.

VoterMarch and other groups had been given a number of permits allowing them to stage demonstrations in various sites. Several thousand protestors left DuPont Circle to march to another location. Stopped by police enroute who prevented them from reaching their permitted destination, a minor skirmish ensued. But, as a whole, the relations between law enforcement and protestors were quite respectful and sometimes downright cordial.

Just before noon, five of us decided to make our way from DuPont Circle to the parade route to see what was happening there, instead of attending another rally scheduled to occur on the Ellipse. After skirting several detours, we finally arrived at Pennsylvania Avenue not far from the White House. Once we passed through the police checkpoint (backpacks and bags were searched and some of us were frisked), we could walk along the parade route. Helicopters hovered overhead. Sharpshooters lined the roofs of nearby buildings, ominously silhouetted against the sky. Police were stationed every eight feet on each side of the street, facing the crowds, with marines in khaki uniforms interspersed among them. A phalanx of mounted police stood at attention.

The military order of the police ranks contrasted sharply with the chaos of the crowds. We were astonished to find that, at least within the stretch of the parade route that we walked along, Bush supporters were in little evidence. The official bleachers, for which attendees needed tickets, were sparsely filled. Some of those seated held protest signs. On the ground, the sidewalks were thronged with ad hoc protestors packed together like rush-hour subway riders. Many people held signs. Waves of chanting rolled up and down the line. “What do we want? DEMOCRACY! When do we want it? NOW!” The atmosphere was one part carnival, one part serious civil action. A sense of camaraderie filled the air as these citizens, hopping up and down to stay warm, traded stories of how they decided to join the protest. The vast majority had no affiliation to a particular group—they simply felt a need to vent their frustration at a system gone awry.

One young woman, a law-student from Washington, told me that she was a Republican who voted for Bush. But she wasn’t angry to see all the demonstrators. “I guess I agree with them to some extent,” she said. “If Gore had won by those means, I would be very upset.”

I thought of all the people at home who had expressed support when I told them that I was heading to Washington. I had been bowled over by their fervor. A neighbor baked me a batch of cookies to bring on the bus. A Republican friend confessed that she was ashamed of the way the election was concluded. People who had heard about my plans from mutual friends called to thank me for going. Many said they wished that they too could be there. All seemed to feel betrayed by the process, and concerned about what its outcome means for the future.

The new president’s motorcade rushed by my section of the parade route at about 4:00 in the afternoon. An incredible din of booing and jeering from the crowds lining the route preceded it. A platoon of secret service motorcycles flanked several limousines with darkly tinted windows. I couldn’t tell which car held my new president, though I think I caught a glimpse of Vice President Cheney’s face. As the motorcade passed, people around me chanted, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” at the speeding cars. We energetically waved our protest signs. No matter how thick the bulletproof glass, the president and his coterie must have heard the blast of the crowds’ disapproval.

My new friends and I walked back to the subway with hundreds of strangers carrying similar signs. Though cold, hungry, and soaked to the bone, everyone seemed cheerful, as though something of significance had been accomplished and we had played a part in its success.

After returning home early Sunday morning, I continue to feel buoyed by the experience. It was wonderful to know that 20,000 other people shared my anxiety about our country’s future and were moved to do something about that anxiety. But I know this optimism may be short-lived. Why isn’t everyone upset about the way this election was conducted? Don’t they believe that the right to vote and have that vote counted is the very foundation of democracy? Democracy is by its very nature a participatory process. No one who cares about our country should be able to resist the call for election reform.


[© Barbara Burt; unpublished]