Tuesday, August 5, 2014

He Always Said He Could Fly

This Sunday would mark my dad's eightieth birthday. I wrote the following to honor him, the singer of songs and teller of tales.

My dad was a compulsive story teller. While other kids my age grew up with The Cat in the Hat or Charlotte's Web, I grew up with boys falling into watermelons and floating children, all compliments of a mind that saw beyond the ordinary and into a world of his own making. But it is no surprise his world would be extraordinary...he was extraordinary. And yes, he really did say he could fly.




He always said he could fly. How he came upon this thing in those snaky backwoods between the levees, where the most any man could hope for was to eat the fruit of his labors and not stay hungry was wondrous, but he was a wondrous man. The boy grew up in a magic place. It was a hole scooped out of the earth by a great earthquake. It’s said the shaking made the Mississippi River run backward and the swamps and bayous grew up in the rebellious water that refused to return to its banks. It was the kind of place where mystery and magic still thrived.
But as time passed, no one paid mystery and magic much heed. Between the plowing and the chopping and the picking and the swollen, bloody fingers and the chronic coughing from the dust of cotton, most men (and women for that matter) paid little attention to the magic around them. But he did. He found creatures in the forest, foul smelling creatures covered in hair but no one believed him. He found snakes with venom so powerful that one bite could kill a tree, but no one believed him. He found a large, wonderful catfish that could drown a man or pull him along down the long delta bayous all the way out to sea, but no one believed that either. But he knew what he saw and was not yet too careworn and hungry as to forget. When he sang in church on Sunday he heard the angels join, though no one else did. He heard the shuffle of feet in the night and knew it was those creatures too shy to show their faces to the children of men.
His mama worried. She had seen men, men just like him, men who saw the things that others chose not to, men taken to the state hospital in Farmington. He learned that it was best to keep the creatures and the mystery to himself. The wide eyes began to droop and he told himself the shuffling was a raccoon in the garbage, there was no music of angels, there was no catfish. And he started to become everyone else. When he chopped cotton, he thought of nothing. When he pitched watermelons, he thought of nothing. When he picked cotton and the thorny flesh of the boll cut his hands and his blood stained his pants, he thought of nothing. And then the wondrous thing happened…
It’s a miracle it happened at all. He had reached the age of reason where he learned to tell himself that the lights that hovered over the waters were swamp gas, the fireballs that rolled across the prairie were heat lightning, the boys that peered down at him from the tops of the trees were buzzards. He reasoned away the mystery and the beauty and nothing was left but the ugly, and he accepted the ugly because everyone else accepted the ugly.
One day the boy was standing on top of the levee with his hands in his pockets, looking as far as he’d ever need to go. His mama rang the dinner bell and the hungry boy began to run down the levee as fast as he could. And then it happened. He lost his footing and started to fall. He expected to feel the hardscrabble, sandy dirt scratch his cheek but the wondrous thing occurred instead. A gust of wind came out of nowhere and seemed to lift him. Now it could be said that he was a small boy and his ears were bigger than most, but whatever the cause, instead of falling he felt himself lift up. Before he knew it he was looking down on Number Nine ditch. He could see his mama ringing the bell, and he could see his daddy driving the mules home for dinner. And when the wind changed and brought him down, he ran to his mama. When he told her what happened her face grew pale. “Don’t ever tell anyone,” she cautioned, “or they’ll take you away.” It was then that the boy knew his mama, too, had once known how to fly before her face became careworn and hungry.
And the boy grew up and married like boys often do. He had children and he told them of how he once flew. They were brought up in a place without mystery or beauty and they never understood how it was their daddy could fly. But one cold, winter day when the boy had become a tired, old man he lay in bed and dreamed…he dreamed he was flying again. And the careworn, hungry face began to smile and the boy flew away.




Tuesday, June 24, 2014

What's In A Name? The Washington Redskins Controversy

Last week the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board declared that the Washington Redskins was disparaging to Native Americans. Predictably, much of “white America” didn't understand the issue. What’s in a name? I’ve thought about this a little because not much really gets me riled. I mean, honestly, what’s the big deal? In fact, I propose some new team mascots just to level the playing field so as not to single out Native Americans. I think we should change the Fightin’ Irish of Notre Dame to the Drunken Irish. Other team names that come to mind would include things like The Stupid Rednecks, The Garlic Eaters, The MassHoles, The Yellowskins, The Dumb Blondes, The Greedy CEOs,  The Lazy Fatties, The Granola Eaters, The Gun Totin’ Maniacs…the list could go on and on and on and on.  What these names do is evoke hurtful stereotypes. Because our mind needs categories in order to understand the world, stereotypes are the simplest way to do this. One of the problems with stereotypes is they are untrue. If the world was as simple as stereotypes indicate it would be a boring place in which to live. Human beings are complex. Phrases like “all gays are…” or “all conservatives are…” are red flags indicating that the person making the statement is too lazy to make individual moral judgments. To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, it is simply easier to judge someone by the color of their skin than by the content of their character. In order to judge one’s character you must take the time to get to know that individual, and that is just too much trouble.

Yesterday I read a blog posted on a Native American site regarding the Washington Redskins controversy and this blog pointed out a more sinister reason why stereotypes can be troubling, one I hadn’t thought of.  Stereotypes are dehumanizing. When a group is stereotyped whether it is African Americans, Native Americans, Jews, Catholics, Liberals, Conservatives, Gays, Northerners, Southerners, Mexicans, Canadians, they cease to become persons and instead become “things”. Things are disposable. Things are here for my pleasure. I can own things and use things, they have no existence in themselves, they are here to serve me.  When people become things bad stuff happens.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant once stated, “Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end." As a people, we do not seem to be any closer to this goal.

I highly recommend you read the thought provoking essay at:  http://www.ya-native.com/nativeamerica/getridofracisminsports.html




Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Necessity of Adversity


        


My husband and I are spending the month of June following old Route 66. This past week we traveled through the state of Oklahoma and much of what I saw and read there was enlightening, not only about Okies, but about all of us. Oklahoma is a state that seems to be haunted by the Dust Bowl even now.  We all like to live our lives relatively sedately, with little to trouble us, but it seems to me that adversity is the leaven that causes great men to rise. Oklahoma is justly proud of two of their native sons, Will Rogers and Woody Guthrie, both formed by the events of the Great Depression.  What made them stand out? Rather than give up they rose above severe economic and social problems.  Will Rogers famously predicted in the 1920’s that our economy could not survive the “get rich quick” mentality infecting Wall Street.  He said, “Our whole Depression was brought on by gambling, not in the stock market alone but in expanding and borrowing and going in debt, all just to make some money quick.”  Will Rogers understood the nature of greed.  He once quipped, “You can’t get money without taking it from somebody.” When you travel through Oklahoma you see these towns that were literally strangled to death, not only because the interstate passed them by, but because of the sheer exodus of inhabitants looking for a way to put food on the table.
 
Woody Guthrie was another Okie formed by the Dust Bowl.  He took his anger and turned it into song.  He said, “I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that
you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing.  Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim or too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard travelling. I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work.” And that work didn’t matter, whether you were a shoe shiner or a banker, because during the Depression any work was good work.

I contrast the mentality of these two men and scores of other Dust Bowl Okies who didn’t give up to people like Elliot Rodger, spoiled and wealthy, brought up to believe he was entitled to whatever he wanted. When you have no adversity, when everything is handed to you, you never get the chance to become a better man. You never get to become a hero. Instead you become a victim of “affluenza” where the world owes you every luxury you can imagine and when things don’t go to plan, you pick up a gun and kill because those people were not human beings…they were bodies to be used. The Dust Bowl Okies didn’t believe life owed them anything. When they couldn’t put food on the table they moved to where they hoped they could find work. Steinbeck famously coined the phrase “The Mother Road” for Route 66. It was a road of hope. 
            

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Words in Pencil on the Back of a Drawer

“My name is Jeanne Greenfield and I was born in a red house in Silverdale, Missouri.” That is what my Aunt Billie had written on the back of a drawer in my grandmother’s old dresser. She wrote it in 1946 when she was fifteen years old. The drawer was removed because my mother is moving from her home to live with my brother. The dresser has been with us for well over fifty years and no one had ever seen the writing until now. It is funny to contemplate my Aunt Billie, now deceased, writing her “autobiography” at fifteen. Aunt Billie’s autobiography, written on the back of a drawer,  reveals things about her. I knew her as an adult, a bit careworn from the job of raising a family of children and then grandchildren. I never knew her as a teenager but like most of us, she must have been experimenting, looking for her own identity, trying to create something to be remembered by. She was able to do this by some words scribbled in pencil on the back of a drawer.

Words are a powerful medium. They last much longer than these “bits of stardust” our minds (and souls) inhabit. They reveal things about us to future generations. Flannery O’Connor made carbon copies of every letter she wrote, realizing that someday they would be read by countless others, long after she was gone. Her letters are revealing, they show a woman of intelligence, faith, humor, and, sometimes, a woman too caught up in the present moment to understand the historical implications of events occurring during her lifetime (such as the Civil Rights Movement).  Other letters by other people reveal things that are often surprising. They show a surprising humanity in philosopher William Godwin, otherwise known for his cold, observations; they show the heart of Albert Einstein when he encourages a young girl to “not mind” that she is a girl; they show the compassion of a Lincoln, the wit of an Austen, the selflessness of a Dorothy Day, and the vulnerability of a Thomas Merton.

These beautiful relics from the past that show us the heart of the author will not apply to the current generation. Instead, we have the anonymity of facebook where we can spew vitriol without thinking about how the future will reflect upon us. I have a friend who lovingly wished a group of young, innocent, African schoolgirls well. She was verbally berated by a man in a way that I am sure he would not have done had they been face to face. But the internet gives us this lovely buffer where we can be as rude and ignorant as possible. There are entire pages devoted to hate and ridicule. There are conservative pages and liberal pages and the most distasteful I ever heard of, a page called “kill obama.” Is this the way we want to be remembered by future generations…as a group of screaming ideologues who could never get anything done because we were so busy shouting at one another we could never hear?


There is an old saying, “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” I think, before your little fingers begin their dance across the keyboard you should apply that same saying to what you type. When I found my Aunt Billie’s autobiography it made me laugh and smile and remember, with love, a remarkable woman. When future generations find your facebook posts, how will they remember you?

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Thoughts on Mother's Day

Most people in the world have one thing in common--they have  mothers. Moms are creatures formed by nature to do things humanly impossible. Their bodies do incredible, amazing, and disturbing things during childbirth and many women elect to do these things more than once. They can almost function with no sleep, they have the ability to make sure everyone at the table has something to eat, and they often discover that they really don’t like apple pie when there is only one piece left.  Moms are asked to pour their hearts and souls into tiny, helpless little creatures and their success is measured by how easily these helpless creatures dissociate themselves and move into adulthood.  Yes, they literally work themselves out of a job and, yet, seem gratified to do so. They go without, do without, and sacrifice for the good of their children.  As the children grow, sometimes they become sources of frustration: “Did you eat?” “Do you need any money?” “Why are you doing that?” It is hard to for us to let go. And, at some point, if you’re lucky, and your mom attains a ripe, old age, the tables are turned. You find yourself asking questions: “Did you remember to take your medicine?” “Did you eat” “Do you need anything?” And you remember. You remember the nights she sat by your bed when you were sick. You remember the times she waited up needlessly to make sure you got in all-right. You remember tears shed and harsh words exchanged for things that really weren’t all that important. And, then, you wonder why it takes something as meaningless and commercial as a “Hallmark holiday” to make you remember.  Happy Mother’s Day.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Explosive Power of Memory

Yesterday an elderly woman walked into a pawn shop in Rapid City, South Dakota. She brought with her some World War Two memorabilia her husband had brought home with him from the Philippines. Unfortunately, one of the grenades was still live creating a scenario in which the explosive ordinance experts at nearby Ellsworth Air Force Base had to be summoned.  Why had this woman lived with a dangerous explosive in her home for decades? This hand grenade was a souvenir picked up during the war. It was very common for soldiers to bring home mementos. My uncle brought home pictures that you will never see in history books. Grisly, barbaric images that realistically present the war the soldiers fought. Not the war of John Wayne where the good guys and the bad guys are clearly delineated by the color of their uniform…or their skin. The word souvenir is French and is about memory. Souvenirs help us to remember certain places we have been, or people we have met. We all like to pick up different things. Some people pick up rocks, or refrigerator magnets or the ever-present t-shirt. Souvenirs help us to remember the way we felt at a particular time and in a particular place. They are meant to evoke emotion.  Perhaps these souvenirs helped soldiers sort through the emotions that society didn’t permit them to discuss out loud. World War Two veterans are a stoic group of men, but what they didn’t talk about in words haunted these boys for the rest of their lives. Like the World War Two veteran who brought home a live grenade, these men brought home dangerous, explosive memories. My mom talks about her brother coming home from the war and waking his siblings nightly screaming in terror. My dad’s brother came home with a fondness for alcohol that eventually took his life. Although memory inhabits the world of the mind it has the ability to present itself as something very real and ever-present. Memory has the ability to cripple. Memories are the pages of our lives, some are pleasant and some are heart-wrenching. But like a book, even though the page has turned, it is what happened in the previous chapter that moves the narrative along. We like to believe we can forget the things that hurt, annoy, or bother us but they happened and we must accept them as part of our life’s story. There are unsavory chapters that we wish we could tear out of the book but they are there and they have made us real characters, with flaws and hurts and victories. Memories are powerful. Like the old woman’s grenade they can sit by quietly, but a word, a smell, a song, and they can come upon you with a realness that reminds us how easily they retain their capacity for explosion.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Grandpa's in Jail?

Georgia was one of the first states to build a penitentiary to house their convicts and the first one was built in Milledgeville.  The reason this little fact is meaningful to me is that it is a reminder that in genealogy one never knows what one will find. In fact, if one looks far enough back they may find a convict (or two) resting comfortably on a branch of the family tree.  I found my great-grandfather (X3) living as a guest of the penitentiary from November 1, 1824 through January 25, 1826. At close to six feet tall he was a large man for the time and his crime was assault with intent to kill. The weapon of choice? A knife. This information perfectly illustrates why I love genealogy and why it is so valuable to me as a writer. There is a story here. Samuel had a daughter named Matilda, who was only three-years-old when he went to prison. Because she was the child of a convict Matilda was able to obtain land in the Georgia Land Lottery of 1827. Ironic, as family legend describes Samuel’s wife, Susannah, as being Cherokee, the very people from who the land was taken. Was this Cherokee wife the reason for the fight? Samuel fought with a knife. Hand to hand. He didn’t shoot someone in the back from long range. This was a personal, face to face confrontation. Who was the other man? What happened to him? We only know he lived because Samuel was not convicted of manslaughter. Samuel’s story does not end here. We know that in the 1840s he leaves Georgia and joins his extended family in Arkansas.  He matures, like most men do, and raises a family and farms the land. He dies at a good age and bequeaths  to his remaining children items valuable for the day: a feather bed, a couple of milk cows, some mules.  History is not made of events, it is made of stories. I love to find stories in unexpected places.  Next week I will be in Deadwoood, South Dakota. There will be a story waiting.  Peace -