College drop off: a poem

Red-ribs

We detour to Rocky Mt. National Park. The short, popular hike, all we have time for.

“We have to act as if the future matters,” says one hiker.

Alpine Parsley. Drabwort. Saxifrage.

Everyone knows going down is harder than going up.

“If you can make it all the way down without whining, I’ll get you some chocolate.”

Clouds with structure and authority seem a necessary grandeur, given how rocky peaks shove their ancient mass into the sky.

“The whole top of that mountain slid off,” someone points. Tons of rock crumbled into scree, as if gravity wanted to make a show, too.

Alpine Indian Paintbrush.

Panting, plodding, the wind tugging my scarf but not quite filling my lungs.  “We’re from Texas, so we’re really feelin’ it too!”

5,000 feet and climbing.

Clustered low to the ground, humble and remarkable: Moss Campion, Dwarf Clover.

Heading back to campus, we stop with others at a popular pull out. Morris dancers circle and clap, ankle bells jingling.

The gusty air. The regal clouds. Grinning faces posing. A six percent grade to the road.

A man tries to mount his giant motorcycle but it tips over and pins him to the ground. He gets up.

To hear him bark blame at the accordion player is to wish that stone or distant thunder or lichen, all things of relentless, effortless grace, could counter our flaws.

“Who’s ever heard of weather moving west?!” asks my son.

Rocky Mountain Sagewort. Blue leaf Cinque foil.

His whole future in front of him.

Four days later lightening strikes at that very pull out. Kills two. He texts me the news.

The stuff we save

  
Here I am a little tongue-tied, a little at a loss, and wanting to show up anyway.

It’s a cloudy, warm Wednesday in February. The dog barks. The fish tank hums. I feel suspended between things, which is nice because my suspense is filled with silent freedom, but it’s not so great because I feel a little unhinged, not as in crazy, but as in not connected.

The cloth drought continues. It’s kinda killing me. I can’t stand finishing big projects and I have three right now: two bed quilts for my firstborn and the Hearts for Charleston Quilt (which is proving harder to assemble on the vertical than I would have liked).

Today I cleared out a downstairs closet because getting the vacuum out had become nightmarish. Boxes of fabric stowed ‘temporarily’ had tipped over and gotten mixed up with unpressed shirts, unpaired socks, camera bags and cleaning supplies. Ugh!

Just folding and sorting the cloth made me feel better. And the closet is a closet again. Later, I’ll iron some of that fabric while watching TV. I will like that, too.

Next week come: my birthday, the anniversary of my mother’s death (it will be 20 years), then: Valentine’s Day. It’s a weird blend.

My mother died when I was 39 and pregnant. More than once, I have wished for her ‘take’ on my boys even though if she were alive, I’d be batting away her pronouncements as if my survival depended on it. Her judgments were painted with a broad brush and right to an obnoxious degree.

Recently, I revised a memoir piece in which I ask for my mother’s advice and found I really could hear her voice. She was saying things pithy, dumb-sounding, irreverent, and wise.

I plan to submit the piece to a literary journal before tax day. I swear! As Deb Lacativa messaged me recently, “It’s time to start collecting rejection notices.”

So, to close, in the spirit of housekeeping, aging, and examining what satisfies, I dragged this link out of the drafts folder: Candy Chang

Several years ago, she painted blackboards on the sides of buildings and stenciled a collection of lines reading: “BEFORE I DIE, I WANT TO _______.” Passersby filled in the blanks.

BEFORE I DIE, I WANT TO: finish a novel; see my sons get married; hold my grandchildren; eat antipasto in Italy; buy fabric in India; take K to The Fat Hen in South Carolina; sunbathe in the Caribbean; knit a sweater that actually fits somebody.

What do YOU want to do before you die?

 

The internet on our PC is broken (I just love saying that… it’s kind of like announcing “the electricity is broken”).  I am posting with laptop and phone, something I never do. 

Elephant surprise 

“Elephant Surprise” is not a disgusting, illegal casserole, but a wonderful gift from New Mexico. What a nice surprise to open an envelope and find this guy!

Look at that detail! Thank you, Grace! Her note asked, “You do like elephants, right?”

Yes I do! And even though one could love elephants in a passionate crusading sort of way, that’s not how I love them.  I just do.   Interestingly, the first elephant quilt I made (above), I called “Grace”. Not only that, a pregnant friend bought the quilt for her unborn child and then named her “Grace”, too! IMG_5689        Today I take elephants thread and generosity as proof positive of grace.

Time and telling

 I once announced, “I’m a writer but not really a storyteller,” to which a friend replied, “You are a storyteller. You just don’t think you are.”

The grist for our tales can come from anywhere from any old day of the week: how sorting threads suddenly feels like a mission; the dog finding raw whole sweet potatoes in the woods and gobbling them down despite all your commands to the contrary; why waiting in yesterday’s grocery line was particularly tedious. 

Finn bit my neighbor last night. Here. Trying to watch “Brooklyn”. No blood or even teeth marks. But real aggression. 

“The Bite” could be a long story — one involving control, temptation, distraction, fear, and disappointment.

Or how about going to a friend’s husband’s house that is far away and not her house and watching the Patriots lose to Denver while eating chili made meaty and delicious with shiitake mushrooms. Texting my son in Boulder. Noticing how warm the winter sun looked on the football field. Wondering why relationships fail. 

I haven’t read Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book but I heard her say in an interview something interesting (but not original) about collective ideas and creativity. She asserted that our work is “out there” and maybe it doesn’t matter if the stories pick us or we pick them, but it does matter that we sustain our allegiance to them. If we don’t, someone else just might take ’em and run. 

And speaking of Jung, to close let me share a relevant moment of synchronicity. 

Remember two posts ago when I quoted Henry Louis Gates, Jr. saying that if critics didn’t like Styron’s version of Nat Turner, they could “write their own novel”? Well last night I learned that someone has. Nate Parker wrote, directed and starred in a new movie telling that very story.  It just premiered at Sundance.  

 

 

Silence of listening and acknowledging

Charleston 105

Magnolia Plantation, April 2014

Thank you to Christi Carter of Sweet Pea Path for sending me a link to an article called “Holding the Sacred Space of Many Silences“.  Written by a young Northern white woman teaching in Charleston, South Carolina, she makes some great points.

I love what she says about failure and silence.

In order to do this work — to even begin to think about attempting this work — one must acknowledge that this will be a practice of many failures. In order to give voice to the transatlantic slave trade, its long life, and its innumerable repercussions, one must embrace a silence created by two factors: a silence necessary for listening, and a silence necessary to acknowledge that which is unspeakable.

The article came just as I was finishing “Between the World and Me”, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. His beautiful prose and hard-hitting insights are essential reading — especially if one is white and serious about becoming conscious about racism. I came away feeling chastened by all the ways that white privilege so seamlessly bolsters my life and my children’s lives and also saddened at all the ways racism continues to destroys African-American lives. Right now, I’m taking a break from the book about Afro-Cuban Ifa (Babalawos, Santeria’s High Priests, by Frank Baba Eyiogbe). My head spins with the complexities, not at all helped by so many of the gods’ names beginning with the letter “o”!

Lately, I’ve been rewriting a lot and trying not to worry about it. There is so much story still to go! But this is where the energy gathers and I’d be a fool to fight it.

Charleston 152.JPG

Magnolia Plantation, April 2014

I am trying to figure out this business of voice for the enslaved characters. Those chapters are written in “third person close narrative”, which means even though I am referring to them in the third person, the story is coming as if from inside their heads. The language can’t be mine. And it can’t be Eliza’s. To help, I am referring to transcribed interviews of former slaves collected during the 1930’s as part of the Federal Writers’ Project (“Before Freedom, When I Can Just Remember“). The people collecting the narratives were all white, so there’s that. But as best I can tell, they captured the cadence of speech employed by the enslaved, as well as their vocabulary and sentence structure.

Some other well-known slave narratives are less useful for this purpose because the writers became literate to such polished degrees (Frederick Douglass, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass“, Harriet Jacobs, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” and Solomon Northrup, “Twelve Years a Slave“).

IMG_7546The Eliza chapters are told in the first person. I find her easy to hear in my head.

My goal is that by juxtaposing her story with the stories of a handful of her slaves, the structure of the novel itself will create a harsh and exacting contrast. A while ago, I made this collage of well-to-do Colonial children and a desolate Louisiana bayou to explore this very contrast.

And speaking of contrasts. How about my plodding descriptions of this or that and Janelle’s exuberant description of struggle?!!

Onward!

 

 

 

 

 

 

White Writer, Black Characters

IMG_7101Some time ago, I received a challenge on Instagram about my use of images of African Americans. After watching an episode of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s show, “Finding Your Roots”, I had triple exposed photos of a quilt I’m working on (from the “Middle Passage” series) with a TV screen capture of an enslaved woman near a river in Louisiana. The result was haunting and satisfying enough that I wanted to share a few of the variations, and did. Undoubtedly, copyright violations. But were they acts of cultural appropriation?

IMG_7111

Through both quilting and photo collages, I have been letting my imagination range in service of writing a piece of historic fiction set in South Carolina in the eighteenth century. As an intensely visual person, working with photos and cloth often comes more readily than writing a historical scene, particularly one with dialogue.

But whether in cloth, photography, or text, when is the use of an African American image or topic by a white artist an act of cultural appropriation? And if it is, how do you tell? Can a white audience/creator ever be the judge? Do the artist/writer’s intentions matter? And if a work offends even one African American, should I defend it?

Initially, I did defend the images. ‘Exploration in service of understanding. American history/my history. Blah, blah.’ But then, after following tags like #whitefragility on twitter and reading articles with titles along the lines of, “why I won’t discuss race with my white friends anymore”, I sent a private apology and deleted them.

But now I’m posting them again. Have I learned nothing? I am not sure about any of this.

[Just to explore the idea that my results would be ‘truer’ using topics closer to my own ancestry, I layered the same quilt image with a TV screen-capture of Irish gangsters from ‘Peaky Blinders’. The results were more compelling, but I don’t think it was the Irish connection that made them so].

I am a firm believer in genetic memory. Just so you know.

In the foreword to her book, “The Logbooks — Connecticut’s Slave Ships and Human Memory”, journalist Anne Farrow describes a conversation with a black friend who challenged her choice of topic. Her friend said, “‘When white people take up black stuff, there’s always a reason. There’s always something there.'” My sister refers to that ‘something’ as “hinky”.

So, am I entitled to the topic of slavery? Is there any way to get it right? I like to think I’m self-aware, without major amounts of hinkiness lurking. The only thing I can come up with is this: I don’t want to spend this much time with fictional material closer to my own suffering — and maybe so much so, that I’d rather leap across three centuries and a tricky racial divide. Okay, but is that ‘hinky’?

‘The research I’ve done about slavery has made me a better citizen’ is something I have asserted from time to time. And indeed, if healing the wound of racism requires acknowledging the complexity and horror of our history, then shouldn’t all of us white people be learning a little? And maybe even, a lot? You cannot read about the transatlantic slave trade and the practices of slave owners and be unmoved or unchanged. And, if you follow the news, you cannot learn about this historic stuff and think, “glad that’s over”.

In Ta-Nehisi Coates’s intense and informative article, “The Case for Reparations“, he asserted that the fact that one’s white ancestors were not here during the 250 years of slavery in no way makes us exempt. And why would we be, when we dwell in white privilege? For purposes of white privilege, it doesn’t matter when our grandparents arrived. It only matters that they were white. Even if they were shabby, uneducated, Catholic, Irish. Still white.

Watching Ken Burns’ “Civil War” series for the third time, I hear Shelby Foote‘s words with new ears. He said something like, ‘oh, sure we’ve had other important conflicts in our history like the Revolutionary War, but you cannot understand the American psyche unless you understand the Civil War.’

[Case in point: how can you understand the rise of the Tea Party without understanding the Civil War? And Trump? Clearly, his hat should read (I didn’t think of this): “Make America White Again”.  As if it ever was].

Around the time the controversy about the novel ‘The Help’ erupted, I watched a documentary about the making of the film “Nat Turner”. The movie was based on William Styron’s novel, “The Confessions of Nat Turner“. Most of the interviewees harshly criticized Styron and the movie because they diminished a hero in African American history, especially, but not exclusively, by making him lust after a white woman.

Lots to learn and note from the documentary, but since I was busy writing scenes of another slave rebellion (The Stono Uprising, SC, 1739) and wringing my hands about ‘getting it right’, my take away came from Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who voiced a contrary view. He said something like, “if others have a different version of Turner, let them write their own novel.”

Pondering all of this, I found an an article on the site “The Root” entitled, “White Writer/Black Characters: Bad Idea?” by Desmond-Harris. After establishing that no writing pleases every audience, she asked, does that mean you should abandon your interest in making black women your protagonists?  She continued:

“No way,” says Marita Golden, author of a dozen works of fiction and nonfiction, including Skin Deep: Black Women and White Women Write About Race. “White people, because of the emotional legacy as well as the historical and political legacy of racism, often feel that they do not have access to the black soul and the black spirit,” she told me, “but I think writers have the right to write about anything.” In fact, she said, “I really feel that white people should write about black characters.” …

So here’s a start. Develop relationships that will allow you to become confident that you can begin to speak to that experience, because you know African-American women as individuals. “Usually, white people who write meaningful books with black characters, they do have black people in their lives who they know deeply and respect,” said Golden. To be clear, that’s “as friends, not as research. Serious, meaningful, complete friendships with black people.”

I wonder about jinxing my writing efforts with such a public discussion, but this is where I am. Where I dwell. (I like Saskia claiming the word, ‘dwelling’ — there’s a lot to that word. And it seems like it resonates with ‘remembering’ (Liz) and  ‘flourishing’ (Peggy)).

This might be a selfish post dressed up as risk taking, but there’s so little cloth in my hands these days and the business of creating one page after another is so solitary that the urge to connect here with where I dwell wins out over cautionary superstition!

To be clear: I am not looking for permission or rigid definitions. I am curious. What do others think about cultural appropriation, the uses of the imagination, artistic subject matter, genetic memory? What about this business of facing suffering straight on vs. from the side?