Turbulence

It was a long day that began very early in my cozy bed with cats and husband, and alarm ringing at 3:30 a.m. The aircraft had a mechanical issue that added almost an hour to our wait time on the tarmac, and was followed by a bumpy ride, and steeplechase through Dallas-Fort Worth’s huge airport, and barely a bathroom stop before sliding into my seat on the last leg to Birmingham. The first leg was so bumpy I dry-swallowed a Xanax and it hit me in time to keep me from clawing my seat-mate as we rumbled above brown Texas, green Louisiana and Mississippi, and red Alabama. I don’t enjoy flying, and I had started the adventure with my anxiety at a 9.5 and was above 11 the rest of the day. Or twenty-11. Anyhoo, no, I did not drink a thing. It was still (too early in the) morning for a long, long time. Also, yes, I wore my mask all day. I was a lone masker in a sea of naked faces.

I found myself listening to a couple of playlists for self-soothing, and when the one I call Ebullience (for joy, excitement, energy) ended, it started up the playlist I call Rage, which has a lot of Beyonce/Lemonade in it. I put that list together after Austin died, and I needed something to accompany me as I ran, or tried to run, and get myself to do the 5K. (I only made it to a 3K, but it was still a triumph for couch-potato me.)

Nevertheless, I enjoyed listening to Queen Bey, and then the Allman Brothers came on, “Tied to the Whipping Post,” and I took a deep dive into hearing this white man/men singing about how their broken hearts were the same as the unfree being scourged into raw meat or to death. It’s a song with a lot of rage in it, and I had added it to the list for that reason back in 2019 when I was feeling a lot of rage about Austin’s suicide. But it struck me completely differently on this trip, flying right over the former slavery states of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. White dude with a broken heart just doesn’t get to compare his sad day with the brutality, the enormity of 400 years of state-sanctioned violence. It is this thoughtless kind of action that I hope to purge from myself–this kind of ignorant, nonchalant racism, where a song that sounds like fun turns out to be a sick anthem. It’s hard to say goodbye to pieces of art or artists who we once admired, but if the message is toxic? It’s time for me to release my enjoyment of Southern rock (headbanger that I used to be) and try a little harder. Pay a little more attention.

Growth doesn’t come when you sit in the same chair and eat the same boogers, my friends.

Hitting the Road

Old letters and photos, sepia-tones and showing age, with an old ink pen.

I am heading out on Tuesday to the East Coast, via the Deep South, to New England, following the course of our family history back through time. I’m starting roughly where we left off with slavery, in Alabama, and working my way backward through Georgia, South and North Carolina, up to Virginia; Maryland and D.C., then up via train to Boston and the Cape. We will end up at the Mayflower II, if all goes well.

Accompanying me are my elder sister and a cousin, both of whom share my family history, and who were willing to come along for the ride. We are also planning to stop to see some bucket list places, including Chincoteague (PONIES!), Mount Vernon, Gettysburg, and a side trek to visit my brother-in-law in Maryland.

This will add several states to my list, and we are hoping to go bird-nerd crazy (my sister is an excellent birder). I already downloaded the Merlin bird packs for Southeast and Northeast USA to my phone. It is my fondest wish to see a red cardinal somewhere, some time. (Our mutual grandmother Ruth loved cardinals best, and knew them well from her Illinois and Montana childhood. I’ve never seen one.)

Red cardinal bird on the ground.
Courtesy of eBird, https://ebird.org/species/norcar
I’ve never seen one, but I hope to.

My plan is to stop at graveyards to visit ancestors, find their headstones, say hello, what were you thinking, how have you been? We would stop at houses if we could find them, but most of them are gone. There is the ruin of a mansion supposedly haunted by one of our Upshaw forebears, bitten by a rabid fox and smothered by her own servants (enslaved). We will find the plantation lands if possible, and I’ll take photos and see what it looks like now, maybe visualize what they were seeking when they stopped there. The journey has its dark side–but it’s part of my personal reconciliation and reckoning. I very recently joined Coming to the Table, an organization that helps white people reckon with and bear their ancestors’ past slave-owning. Reckon with it, because it is a story many people want to forget or rewrite. Bear it, because there is no reconciling it. Reckon — like recon, to know again, it means to count again, to account for. It’s what I’m trying to do.

Maybe it will just be a fun roadtrip. Or maybe it will change my life. I used to be terrified to travel, because when you leave your safe space (home), bad things can happen. There’s no control. #issues I have mostly grown past that, but once a Catholic, always a Catholic, even when you’re an atheist-pagan, like me. I slipped this little St. Christopher into my coinpurse because I need all the good luck and blessings I can muster.

Round silver medal of St. Christopher held in the palm of a white woman's hand.

I’m still packing. Trying not to be nervous. Mostly excited. Cemeteries and history and cousins, oh my!

Birthrights and Wrongs

I’m heading south and east this week to dig into some family history, the in-person research I can do only in person Ole Maryin Alabama. I’ll be staying in Jasper, with forays into Birmingham and down to Alexander City and Hackneyville. Part of the research will be digging into libraries and part will be driving around to see the environs where my forebears were slaveholders.

I’ve found what I could find on Ancestry.com¬†and at my local library; I have looked through old photo albums (hence the photo of Ole Mary washing clothes, from about 1915; it’s very possible she was a former slave). I have purchased deed-mapping software and found information in the strangest of corners online, but nothing beats feet on the ground.

I’ve never been to the south before. The furthest south I’ve been is Charlotte, Virginia, to visit a former relative by marriage, and to Baltimore. But I’m talking deep south, this Alabama journey, into the Black Belt where cotton was king. It’s a new experience for a California native — and part of my evolution. The paradox of moving forward is going backward, to see where I came from, which will help steer me ahead.

In the summertime when I was a child, we had lots of farm chores to do, especially before we went off to play. When I was about 12, my mother left a list of chores for us, and mine was to clear some weeds from the garden. I took the shovel, and I dug and sweated and shoveled, turning over the dirt, breaking a whole new row, fresh soil with no weeds. It took me about two hours in the hot sun to break that row. When I finished, I was so hot and tired I didn’t want to go out and play with a friend.

When my mom got home later that evening she said I hadn’t pulled the weeds.

“Yes, I did — look!” I showed what I had done.

But she shook her head, and showed me where the weeds were still standing in the rows already planted. What I could have done in ten minutes — pull the weeds and be on my way — I had not seen, had missed altogether. I still had to pull those weeds the next day — but I had broken ground, made the garden bigger.

Somewhere in there is a metaphor for privilege — just pulling a few weeds and skipping away, when someone has done all the work of breaking the soil, throwing the rocks aside, making it friable and fine enough for seed. I’ve done it both ways, the easy and the tough, and believe me, it was galling to think how hard I had worked when I could have had it easy. I imagine if I always did the hard part and someone else always did the easy job, I would be pretty fed up.

Am I a good person? Am I in integrity with my roots, with my future actions? Am I standing on the backs of others who broke the path? Enjoying the fruits of someone else’s labors? Am I bold enough to tell the story I find, regardless of what it is? Of how, or whom, it hurts?

I have many thoughts going through my mind as I prepare for this first venture into the past. But consider this a vow: Whatever I find, I’ll write about it, unflinchingly. I hope to tell it well enough so you want to read it, too.