The Ugly Truth: Sins of the Forefathers

A few years ago I picked up a book at the library because of its intriguing cover and title. It was Edward Ball’s Slaves in the Family. I read about Ball’s exploration of his roots, delving deeply into his family’s history as slave owners, discovering the ugly truth in his own backyard, as it were. When I finished reading this devastating portrait of Ball’s own family, it took weeks before I could read anything else. My mind was full of the revelations and secrets he had exposed.

Old Mary
The photo is one of very few African-Americans, possibly a former slave, taken my my grandfather Rae Bailey while visiting family in Georgia in 1924. His caption: “Old Mary — bilin’ clo’s, chile.”

Not long after, I was visiting my 93-year-old great-aunt Doris, and we turned to the topic of books. I told her about Ball’s story and offhandedly remarked, “Wow, I’m sure glad we didn’t have slaves in the family. I couldn’t live with that kind of guilt.”

“Oh, but we did,” she said.

To say that I was speechless is an understatement. Doris explained how she remembered hearing about the nine slave cabins “we” had had, a few generations before her in Alabama. She did not say slaves – just slave cabins, mind you – but there’s no getting around this one with semantics. She remembers hearing stories about them, as part of her childhood. She even brought out some very grainy photos, shadowy cabins in shadowy fields, and said, “Those are the ones.” Our slave cabins. Lovely.

Needless to say, that conversation knocked the wind out of me. It is mighty difficult to be smug and complacent about one’s own liberality when one has that kind of stain on one’s hands.

What I felt for weeks, months – for years now, in fact – is repugnance and shame. I felt tainted and helpless to do anything about it. Are the sins of the fathers visited upon the generations to follow? Is there karmic retribution for such deeds? Is there anything that can be done about my own relentless Catholic guilt, pure and simple? I didn’t know then, and I still don’t now.

But it’s a thing I live with – this knowledge that back in my family’s history there are people people who were monsters with no morals whatsoever — or people who were caught up in the mores and practices of their time. Were they confused, or stupid or evil? Or keen entrepreneurs? Or hapless folk much like us who got through their days not worrying so much about the chattel in the field, but about what was for supper, why the children wouldn’t behave and whether it would rain on the church picnic?

I pretty much get through my life like that – on one hand, worrying about the meteor hurtling toward Earth that will turn us all to dust, and on the other, why I can’t get those rust stains out of the white towels and how much easier life would be if I could find a pair of sandals that were both sexy and sensible, and mystery of mysteries, why I can execute a perfect French twist with a pencil and no mirror when washing last night’s dishes, but on important occasions my hair merely resembles the most rakish of English thatched cottages.

And then I open the newspaper – a compulsion, a hazard of the trade, a duty of the 21st-century citizen – and see the mocking grins of U.S. soldiers parading Iraqi prisoners on leashes, or standing behind pyramids made of human bodies or those forced to simulate sex acts for the camera. The faces of the prisoners are covered, in creepy pointed hoods. We can’t see their expressions, can’t know how much the scenario bothers them or not. If you can’t see faces, then you can’t see emotions, like pain, or fear. That makes it easy, doesn’t it?

And in the news reportage, everyone runs for cover – we did what we were told by our superiors, or we didn’t know that this was happening below us in the ranks, or I’m shocked and appalled that this would happen, or I’m not shocked at all; that’s what war is. We knew or we did not know, we are vile perpetrators of gross acts of torture and humiliation, or we are no worse than those we captured, or we are far better than these lowly scum because they are Iraqis and we are Americans and wasn’t Sept. 11 reason enough for you?

There is an answer in this mess, but we may never know the truth. As Pontius Pilate said to Jesus before washing his hands of blood guilt, “What is truth?” What indeed?

I do not profess to know answers to much of anything. Any rumors of knowledge or power on my part have been greatly exaggerated, and any perceptions that we, the media, have an inside clue are frankly just smoke and mirrors. So in these situations, rather than pontificator or spin-mistress, I become a parent, which is about the best I can offer.

As I tell my children, when someone tells you to do something you know is wrong, you have to have the courage to stand up and say no. Even if everyone else is doing it, if it’s wrong, it’s wrong.

If you are in charge of a project or a team or a committee or a war, and something goes wrong, you are responsible, even if you did not know that thing would go wrong. Fix it; that’s what responsibility is.

And hurting people is not OK. It’s not acceptable to use force to get what you want, to be wantonly cruel to animals or smaller, weaker people to prove a point. Bullying is wrong.

But we know all these things, don’t we? Regardless of your opinion of this war (and guess what? It ain’t over yet, despite the nicely staged announcement several months ago), despite the Vietnam comparisons and the sacrifices being made by our own Alamedans, our reservists, our family members overseas, despite dire pronouncements left and right, the brutal fact is that war is hell. People die who do not deserve to. And terrible, unspeakable things sometimes happen.

As for me, safe in my little house thousands of miles from real danger, I cannot judge those who fight it, or wage it, or win or lose it. But in this particular war, I can’t see redemption. I feel helpless and angry and plagued with guilt over what happens in my name, over how we achieve our goals and how we fail to achieve them. Curse me for a fool, but I’m just wishing we’d spent a little more time talking, or planning, before coming to blows. And I’m hoping that future generations won’t look back on us with the same sense of guilt and shame.

This essay first appeared as a newspaper column in the Alameda Sun in 2005. Modern Muse copyright Julia Park Tracey 2005.

 

Guest Post from EJ Hanagan

When I was in my twenties, I remember older women telling me “just wait until you hit 30, that metabolism will slow down so much that you won’t be able to eat a saltine without gaining five pounds.” I feared that statement so much because I valued my body like every other 25 year old IMG_5795-Edit-2-3does. I didn’t want to give up my youthful appearance and those delicious low-rise jeans that were so unbelievably uncomfortable and grotesquely revealing. I didn’t want to be out of shape and not be able to keep up with my future children. I love fitness-I love exercising and eating healthy, but I was so scared that once I hit 30, my body would spiral out of control and leave me lazy and hungry ALL THE TIME. I listened to these women and let their own stories affect who I was.

It wasn’t until I reached about 32 that I realized that I had to stop focusing on other people’s results and start putting the effort into my own personal results. So, I continued with my fitness obsession and because I learned what I am capable of physically, it made me yearn to discover what I was capable of on other levels. Which is why I set out to complete the first novel that I had started. Once I sent my novel out to the world and realized that I could write and possibly make a career out of it, I felt as if I conquered yet another thing that people had been telling me wasn’t possible.

In my twenties, I never gave myself the option of shouting to the world “I AM UNIQUE. I AM ME.” Instead, I hid from being unique and I altered my opinions and likes/dislikes so they were in line with those around me. One thing that is unique about me is that I love exercise-I love it so much that I feel all out of sorts if I don’t get my heart rate up every day. I used to get defensive when these older women would tell me that I’m destined to be sloppy and out of shape, simply because of age-now I smile and walk away.

Being in my 30s has taught me that I may not always be right, but I know who I am and I know what I’m capable of. It has taken me a long time to realize that I need to compete with myself, not with everyone around me. I no longer let anyone tell me how to feel or think-I make those decisions confidently on my own. So bring on the low-rise jeans and pizza in moderation, because I know what I’m capable of.

EJ Hanagan writes women’s fiction with a focus on strong female characters. Her second novel, Underwater Secrets, was recently released.  Alternating between generations and intertwining the stories of Claire and her mother, Underwater Secrets teaches that sometimes the key to loving ourselves involves loving the people around us, quirks and all. Set on a lake in New Hampshire in the sixties, Underwater Secrets, provides a glimpse into the past.

Follow EJ Hanagan on Facebook.

Buy Underwater Secrets on Amazon!

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Book Review: On Writing (Stephen King)

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Worksheet from Martha Alderson’s “Plot Whisperer” workshop with Jordan Rosenfeld: Writer Path.

You’d think I had other things to do, but I just reread this how-to and wanted to share some thoughts while they were still fresh in my mind. I’m a great re-reader of books (see last Monday’s blog), and needed a kick in the pants this month to get me back on track with my revisions. Herewith, my review of SK’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

Stephen King began writing his book on the craft of writing to delve into the language and show fledgling writers something about how it’s done, or how he does it, anyway. Midway through the manuscript, he was gravely injured in a well-publicized accident and almost died. That experience shapes the rest of the book and gives the ultimate section of On Writing a particularly poignant tone. This section was serialized in The New Yorker, and those who haven’t read it already may turn directly to it with good cause: King’s story is powerful personal drama. But turn back to the beginning for an equally powerful, if much lighter, look into King’s development as a writer.

In the first section, “C.V,” King mines his memory for early glimpses of the evolving writer, in hilarious tidbits. King is not the pop-horror hack that many of his critics claim him to be; in On Writing, King is on his game: intelligent, bluntly honest, profanely funny. He tells how he came to succeed as a writer and what mistakes he’s made along the way, including an alcohol and drug problem that nearly cost him his marriage. In the center section, “Toolbox,” King gives the nuts, bolts, and how-tos of writing, none of which are unexpected nor too revelatory. His advice is mostly practical: “Avoid bullshit,” he says, among other bons mots. As a how-to-write book, you could do worse, or better, than this one. As a peek into the King psyche and wit, On Writing is a must-read.

* * *

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

by Stephen King
Scribner 2000
$25.00 288 pages
ISBN 0-684-85352-3

 

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.

 

Leatherbound

12013118013_69a7fa2bb8_mI lost my leather jacket about three weeks ago. I had it on, I took it off, I laid it down, I apparently left it wherever I was and now it has vanished, seemingly forever.

I bought that jacket when I was 19, at Coddingtown Mall in Santa Rosa, where I had taken the bus after classes at the junior college. I was working part-time for my father in his then-new brass wind-chime factory (housed in a barn on our rural property). I strung wind-chimes together: three knots for the center, five knots for the pipes, a jerk and a flourish and it was done. I made 60 cents apiece for assembly and $5 an hour for poly-bagging. I couldn’t usually string more than two batches, because my father was working ahead of me, and if I worked too fast, he’d have to stop polishing brass or cutting parts and set me up. That messed up his rhythm and made him irritable.

So I played the radio loud, heavy metal music to cover the sounds of the drill press and band saw, breathed through my hot face-mask to avoid the brass dust and assorted other toxins in the air, and strung wind-chimes.

I earned about $40 per week, put most of it into the bank and spent a little on bus fare and snacks at school. I was taking classes in general ed and journalism, and going to see lots of bands perform. I liked reviewing music and had wangled my way up to entertainment editor at the college newspaper. I got to emcee shows and introduce the different bands that played at lunchtime on campus. I wrote a column called “Park’s Peek at Entertainment,” where I used such scintillating lines as, “Be there or be a hexagon.” I thought I had found my niche.

I definitely had the look down. I had a punky haircut. I had the de rigueur ear piercings, black eyeliner and pencil-leg jeans. I had vintage red leather pumps. I even had fishnet stockings at the ready. But one thing was missing. Obviously. A leather jacket.

So I took about $20 with me to the mall and went straight to Wilson’s House of Leather, where about two minutes confirmed that I was never going to be able to afford a leather coat. Disappointed, I walked down the mall, poking into shops and stores, until I happened across an old favorite, Foxmore’s Casuals. And there I saw the perfect jacket. It was black and supple, hip-length and double-breasted, its sleeves just the right cut. It sat on my shoulders like a guardian angel: snug, protective, devastatingly cool. The $80 didn’t stop me because I knew at Foxmore’s I could buy it on layaway. So I did. And four weeks later I had my jacket.

vintage leather jacket motorbikes 1280x1024 wallpaper_wallpaperswa.com_21I loved that jacket with the zeal of a convert. I wore it everywhere, including in the rain – which I discovered was a big mistake. But you can’t tell a 19-year-old anything, so I learned those kinds of lessons the hard way. I wore the jacket with my mini-skirts, I wore it over jeans, I wore it to school and out to clubs at night. In that jacket I felt tall and tough; I felt smart and pretty; I felt cool and confident. It gave me that certain élan when I went to interview a band. It gave me authority when I took the microphone to introduce the metalheads who were playing that gig. It gave me an edge, which is what a petite, tongue-tied girl with no street smarts from Petaluma needed.

A year later I moved to San Francisco to finish college. The jacket came with me, but when I found myself married and expecting a child, the jacket went into the closet. I moved from San Francisco to Concord, to Oakland, to San Leandro, and had three children along the way. Having babies put some meat on my bones and I couldn’t fit the jacket anymore. As a mom, pushing the double-stroller and serving on PTA, I didn’t even think about the jacket. But I kept it as a relic from my misspent youth. When my eldest hit about 14, she found it in the closet and wore it once in a while, just for fun. My daughters grew, my marriage crumbled and we sold the house in San Leandro. Somehow, the jacket came along to Alameda, taking up space in another closet.

A few years ago I noticed that leather jackets were getting shorter and a retro look was back in style. I took that coat out of the closet one day, slipped my hands into the sleeves and felt it settle on my shoulders like the arm of an old friend. The satin lining was intact, the leather as supple as ever and it fit me even better than before. And the timing was perfect; somehow, in the midst of all the life-changes going on around me, I needed it – that boost of confidence — again.

Friends, if you’ve seen me in the past two years, I’ll wager that at least once you saw me in that jacket. I loved that jacket, I tell you, because it was me: not just me now, but me when I was 19, before the footprints of life had marked me, before the wear and tear that three children can wreak upon a woman’s body or that losing love (and finding it again) can bring to a woman’s heart. That jacket remembered the curve of my arm, the jut of my shoulders and never failed to remind me of where I came from and where I am now.

Ah, well, though. It’s gone. What can I say? I’ll buy another one come fall. I’ll get something new, with the rich, earthy smell of leather and a lining so silky that my fingertips will float through the sleeves. This one will have pockets I can actually use and maybe a zipper, and when I wear it I’ll feel 10 feet tall. I’ll wear it till I’m 90. Watch for me.