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.

 

How is This Possible? Coincidences and Other Disasters

CANjuliahandscrosstopSI spend a lot of my time howling the cosmic yawp into the blue beyond. It looks, to mortal eyes, like I’m making lunch and beating a deadline and running errands and remembering to put out the trash cans. But I assure you, a goodly portion of every day is given over to caterwauling (mostly in my inside voice but not always) on the WHY of everyday living. The WHY of how did we get here? The WHY of how can X be happening?

I’m old enough to know better. I am hitting that midpoint in life. I have successfully raised 4.9 kids (just 1 year left on #5). We have a retirement plan (sort of). We own our cars (not new ones, God, no!). We’ve traveled around the world a bit (more when single than together) and we’re not on our first marriage (to each other, yes. In total, no.).

So you can bet that I don’t believe in fairy tales, magick, the Virgin birth. I do, however, believe in Something. It’s just too random that my husband and I met when we were both at the nadir of our love lives. I find Something in the spectacle of my own resurrection after that hairy divorce when I was a shadow of my ex, a skeleton of who I was and had yet to become, up to now, when I feel fully fledged and mighty as Aphrodite on steroids.

I have worked as a journalist for some 30 years now, writing poetry and short stories and a novel or two between times, trying to write the one story that was true. Reaching for Hemingway’s One True Thing. I have almost had it once or twice. Missed it by *that* much.

I was talking with my very elderly Aunt Doris about four years ago, telling her about my new story idea. I want to do a sort of “Diary of Anne Frank,” but a fictionalized version. Tell that teen girl’s story in a different way. Be in her shoes. Tell it sideways. Something like that. I told my aunt this on the phone, knowing I would see her the next day, and she encouraged me, as she always did, with alacrity. “Oh, that sounds wonderful,” she said. The next day I drove 70 miles to her house to see her, but she was gone. Still breathing, but the essence of her had slipped down, underwater, to where I couldn’t reach her anymore, and though I talked and talked to her, she wasn’t really there. We never spoke again.

So we held her memorial and sprinkled her ashes and cleaned her house, and my mother handed me a heavy old box of letters and journals. I took them home for later, feeling heavy myself, and wondering at the why, the how, the WTF of it all. We cleaned her house, and I brought home her desk, her martini glasses, her car. I slipped a ring onto my finger that had once adorned hers. I had her glasses remade with my prescription and one day opened that box. The diaries were there.

A few months later, I began typing up the diaries. I posted them on Twitter and Facebook, talked about it on the radio, made friends and followed trails back some 90 years. I’ve been working on this project for four years now; The Doris Diaries, her words, the diaries of a teen girl. Telling her story in a different way. I’ve slid into her shoes, a little sideways.

I’m not sure of the why. I only know that there’s truth here. I don’t know the right questions to ask, but the answers are somehow here anyway. It’s Something. Something I can’t explain.

 

Writing as Though I Had Wings

hand with penI’ve come to that cross-road in a writer’s life where she has to choose between writing what she wants and writing what earns her bread. It might even be one of those modern five-way stoplights where several roads merge and one must decide whether to turn gently to the right, to join the path ahead, or — most alarming of all — veer to the left and go against the traffic, hoping for a break in the rush to slip across. What to do?

And I think I might go for the difficult and risky choice.

This is absolutely one of those moments where, if speaking to young writers, I might say, “Do as I say and not as I do.” Because who would counsel a writer to leave off the path toward Easy and instead push forth into the Difficult? You want success? Don’t do this.

But then I think of all the advice given to me, especially in the past few years, about “Follow your bliss,” and “Do what you love.” Let the angels lead you where they will. I think of the quote from poet Mary Oliver, “I want to think again of dangerous and noble things. I want to be light and frolicsome. I want to be improbably and beautiful and afraid of nothing as though I had wings.” Angels, again. So, I think, well, maybe I should. Maybe it’s time to chase this.

What is the this? It’s a long story, so to speak: My family history, reaching back into long ago when my people first 1545231_10153695308530455_1715698475_nput foot on American soil. Before it was American. Or after, just a century ago, before two great wars and women’s suffrage and Prohibition. I’m looking at my roots, of getting here, of what was left behind and what they came for, and what they achieved, and what it cost. And whom it cost.

So think of slavery and the Trail of Tears. Think of the British Raj and the Industrial Revolution. Think of the Orphan Train, of blood and bones. And — of healing, atonement, and mercy.

Oh, I don’t know how to write any of it, either. I’ll have to get there and see. But I’m finding myself obsessed with the vision I have for this story, and the possibilities. Maybe I’ll give it a year and see what happens.

Maybe I’ll be afraid of nothing as though I had wings.

Twice as Nice: On Reading Books Again

photo 4I like to re-read my books. I mean, a lot. Once a year, some of them.

This week I re-read an old favorite: 84 Charing Cross Road, along with its sequel (in the same book!), The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street. This is a wonderfully funny and sweet true story, told in correspondence between a New York playwright-freelance writer, and a bookshop employee in London. 84 Charing Cross was the address of the bookstore, Marks & Co. They began their correspondence in 1949 and it ends after 20 years — I won’t tell you how. But it was made into a wonderful movie with Anthony Hopkins and Ann Bancroft. See it, some day, if you haven’t. It’s sweet and bookish and nerdy and just as fun every time. The second book is when Helene Hanff, the NY writer, finally goes to London to visit and meet all the friends she only knew through letters. She hopes to find the “England of literature,” and she does!

My eldest daughter, Mia, took a semester to live and work in London so I went to visit her there. We saw a show one night — can’t remember which one, but it was in Covent Garden, and right nearby is Charing Cross Road. I forced her to walk with me to the corner at 84 Charing Cross. And I was so disappointed to find a Pizza Hut instead of a bookstore. My photo card burned out on me so I did not get the last set of photos I wanted. But here’s what it looks like now.84 Charing Cross

I had many years of yearning for England like a salmon yearns for its stream of origin. It took until my mid-thirties to get there, but I had a lovely adventure. I’ve been there three times, and each time I go, I find someone or something from England’s literary past to enjoy in person.

We once spent an afternoon in a taxi, chatting away at the driver as he drove us around. We stopped at Abbey Road for the zebra crossing (pictures gone!) and drove around St. John’s Wood, Primrose Hill and Regent’s Park (and no photos!). Do you know Primrose Hill? It’s where the dalmations in Dodie Smith’s 101 Dalmations went for the Twilight Barking. I had to see it! And see it I did. (I still curse the technology fail of my last batch of photos; the Cloud had not quite come into its own in 2006, and neither had Instagram/Facebook). It was a good visit to London, and I hope I have more ahead of me.

I re-read 84 Charing Cross Road in an afternoon on the sofa, feeling comforted by the visit with an old friend. I closed my eyes and dreamed myself back with a cup of tea and a Tube ticket and a jar of Branston Pickle on the table. Marmalade and lush gardens and blue plaques on the buildings to say which famous person had lived there. Rain, rain, and sometimes sun.

I re-read my books to renew my friendship. To slide into the arms of memory. To make room in a story for myself, and what I need right then: familiarity, warmth, a rose garden with no thorns.
More on this topic soon.

 

The Artist’s Way

022_22 (2)A few years ago, I went to Europe to visit my eldest daughter, who was working in London for six months. We met up in Paris, and after some days there and in Belgium, we crossed the Channel to England and finished our sojourn by visiting a plethora of literary sites. People who know me realize that I am a Jane Austen aficionado and understand that a trip to her native land, and a walk through her very environs, is like a heroin hit to me: once is not enough, and I suspect I’ll anxiously pursue more of All Things Jane until I die.

The literary trail began in Paris, with a visit to Shakespeare and Co., the bookstore-cum-refuge for ex-pat Americans. Hemingway hung out there when he was writing in Paris with the Lost Generation. There, I found his short book, A Moveable Feast, and devoured it like a box of truffles. Each small chapter, savored, melted deliciously, bringing the reader almost unto tears. Indulging, I remembered how formative Hemingway was when I first began writing in earnest (no pun intended), how important the declarative sentence, the dearth of adjectives, the use of the appositive was to him, and how that shows up in my work, when I’m on it. How he says we must always endeavor to write the one true thing in our stories.

We walked the Left Bank boulevards and hopped trains to Flanders, into Belgium, slipped on cobblestones, supped on bread and cheese and wine; climbed the steps to Sacre Coeur and savored the silence in St. Sulpice; strolled among the tombs in the city of the dead called Père Lachaise, a cemetery housing Moliere, Chopin, Colette, Gertrude Stein, Oscar Wilde, Heloise and Abelard, so many more with stories to tell.

We left behind the City of Lights, and arrived in London in time for Shakespeare’s birthday, and though thwarted in our efforts to get to Stratford-Upon-Avon, we ate birthday cake in a pub called Shakespeare’s Head. We strolled in Hyde Park near the statue of Peter Pan, taxied through Regent’s Park and Primrose Hill, where Pongo and Missus had their Twilight Bark, and passed Platform 9 ¾ in King’s Cross railroad station, where a luggage cart sits frozen halfway through the wall, caught in its magic, left behind by one of Harry Potter’s mates.

106_106No matter where you go in England, there’s something or someone literary, whether it’s Dickens or Bronte or Woolf or Pepys. A walk through the National Portrait Gallery was like flipping through an old yearbook – there he is! There she is! I gazed on their faces, some of which I’d never seen before. Who knew Byron was such a fop? That Mary Shelley was so demure, Wordsworth so dour or Keats so tragic? I didn’t, and yet I did know, from sitting in their words, like soaking in a tub with the most delightful essences and bubbles to surround me.

And there, in a case like a precious jewel, was the one known portrait of Jane Austen, a sketch and watercolor done by her not-very-adept sister, looking like a child’s scribble, or my big toe. Flat, lifeless, sour and awkward, the little icon gazes into the distance over my left shoulder, her neck impossible crooked, her arms crossed and fading from sight. Was this my Jane? My hilarious, observant, wicked Jane? Alas for all of us, the pathetic miniature is all we have.

There is a quote that hangs on my bulletin board, a handwritten index card faded from sunlight:

“Although sometimes I have felt that I held fire in my hands and spread a page with shining, I have never lost the weight of clumsiness, of ignorance, of aching inability.”

So saith the sage John Steinbeck.

I took along notebooks and wrote poem after poem along the way of my travels, grasping for an image that wasn’t a European cliché, a snippet from the known world, and tried hopelessly to capture in some rare new form. The mot juste. The one true thing.

But I look over what I wrote and think my words are no closer to capturing the light than Austen’s portraitist.