Thursday, January 19, 2017

Part Five: Old Fashioned Wars (A Letter to my Great-Grandmother)




Dear Sunny -

Your husband, Reverend John Samuel Stephenson, proves himself a charismatic speaker and a dedicated pastor (particularly with the youth). Soon, he's sent to St. Martin in the Fields Church in the wealthy suburb of Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, where he is named the Assistant to the Curate.

You move from your townhouse in Germantown to a larger, drafty house in Chestnut Hill, where the heat is broken. During the weekdays, your children are off at school - a new school where all the other children have hired drivers in luxury automobiles, while yours have their daddy in a wood-sided station wagon. You are often home alone and sick, due to the damp chill in the house and all the cigarettes you smoke.

Nancy loves her new fancy school. She has art classes and piano lessons and field days! ....I wonder if having small children makes you think back to your own schoolhouse in Eleanora. Do you ever smell burning coal, chalk clouds and pencil shavings? Or imagine the feel of a paper book beneath your hand and a worn wooden desk under your elbows? Back then, are your brothers "breaker boys"? Going off to work early every morning with tin lunch buckets and hobnailed boots, caps, handkerchiefs on their chins and chewing tobacco between their teeth? Returning every night black as crows with aching backs and swollen, blood-encrusted fingers? Or do you and your siblings all stay inside your schoolhouse with your studies, since your papa is the Mine Superintendent and makes a little bit more than the others? ...Perhaps you don't like to think about Eleanora. It's far nicer, I imagine, to look at your daughters and son - all ignorant to the kind of pain and fright you face as a child.

...And yet, as much as you might like, you can't hide them from the world. Early Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, before the family leaves for church, Nancy stands in the dining room, listening to the radio in the corner, from which a reporter hollers breaking news. Japan has attacked Pearl Harbor. Volunteers and servicemen-on-leave are told to report to police and fire stations to see if help is needed. Walk, the newsman emphasizes, do not run and cause hysteria. Commercials for Jello play. The reporter returns to read death tolls and ship counts and to make mention of the traffic in Honolulu, Hawaii. Nancy has just turned 12 a few days before. As you listen to the news, do you inhale suddenly, causing a fit of coughing? Or are you lighting a cigarette with shaky fingers? Is the coffee in your hands spilling from cup to saucer? I can picture Nancy standing between wallpapered walls, wearing her Sunday best, while her blue eyes are wide and wild with confusion and fright.

The day after the attack, the United States declares war on the Empire of Japan. Three days later, Germany and Italy declare war on America and in turn, America declares war on Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s fascist Italy.

Soon there are air raid drills in schools and food shortages, the distribution of meat and sugar coupons. Nancy has a breakdown. Weeks after she turns 12, weeks after the United States enters World War II, she refuses to go to school. I don't blame her. In school, bomb drills interrupt mathematics lessons and the naive chatter of children recounting adult conversations and overheard news reports, surely, cannot be avoided. Today, she blames hormones and nerves. As the eldest child and now a young lady herself, she can’t so easily ignore the fears of her fellow citizens, her friends and family. She writes “left mid-year” in her notes next to 1941. She misses one week of school.

Nancy’s inability to return to school those few days (she thinks back now), probably worries you and John a great deal, but I like to imagine that during that week, you and young Nancy sit with playing cards, stacks of books and knitting needles with yarn. While everyone else goes off to work and school, you, mother and daughter, sit with blankets and black tea and bowls of oatmeal - reading, and knitting and talking. And whenever reports about the war cut into your radio music, you switch it off and Nancy plays the piano, while you sit scribbling flower patches and sailboat sketches. Maybe Nancy builds a fire in the hearth of that house - stacks split logs, gathers and wedges kindling into every crack, crumples newspaper pages and presses them beneath the wood before taking a lit match and kissing the flame to every paper corner until a blaze bursts into a small sun. This makes you smile, I like to think, as you sit back, inhaling the heat. 

I am 33 years old, a mother now too, and I still need an occasional retreat to my mother's arms. For it appears, 75 years later, that our world is still run by violent, self-absorbed little men who want, more than anything, to rule like tyrannical kings and conquerors. In 1941, America fights fascist dictators. In 2016, America elects one.

I, of course, don't know your opinion on the matter. I am 7 years old at your funeral, so not many opportunities for political discussions between us before then. I do hope in the light of your current space, you can see time stretched around you like a quilt of maps and lines. And I hope that you are smiling as you get this message, thinking, Calm down, great-grandchild, you are overreacting.

People tell me he's a populist. I agree. He's that too. But mostly, I fear, he's a fascist - an egocentric authoritarian looking for power through a third world war - an old fashioned war with the draft and bloody beach battles and nuclear weapons - a war he can set up on a  tabletop terrain map of the seven continents and five oceans with little army action figures and metal tanks and battleships and submarines.

Already we are entrenched in so many wars - so many wars I cannot even list them all, let alone fight them, but here are a few. I'm sure you'll be familiar with some of these these. (These are not wars declared by Congress, but wars started by the people, at the people - wars risen out of prejudices, ignorance, fear, and pride.)

There is a war on Women and Girls and it is global and violent and as complex as all the individual cultures where females are fighting for equality, a voice, votes, and respect. In our American culture there is a civil war currently between Misogyny and Feminism. Unfortunately for progress, Misogyny wins November 9, 2016 when its king claims the highest seat in our government. Tomorrow, Friday, January 20, 2017, his inauguration takes place, hopefully in the dreadful rain. The following day, The Women's March on Washington will happen, along with hundreds upon hundreds of other smaller "sister" marches around the globe. The mission of the Women's March on Washington is this:
We stand together in solidarity with our partners and children for the protection of our rights, our safety, our health, and our families - recognizing that our vibrant and diverse communities are the strength of our country.
I fear his embarrassment from this bold and beautiful act of citizens walking in solidarity. I worry he will retaliate by taunting his followers into violence against the peaceful protesters. I also worry that he will wait a little while. Then when he eventually provokes and engages other countries into war (or joins with Russia, as it, through quiet force, claims country after country, stealthily stealing world domination as if life were a big bloody game of Risk), I fear, the president will reenlist the draft, which will be horrifying enough, but I fear he will include women, old women particularly, then explain his reasoning in a Tweet at 2a.m. (Here I would explain to you, Sunny, what a Tweet is, but I'm not really sure myself - only I guess I could say that it's like an instant telegram for the world.) Anyway, his telegram Tweet might read:
What ladies? All you girls wanted equality. Now you have it. Go fight for me. Sad! 

And the only way to dodge his draft (aside from building a boat and hiding away at sea) is to be home and pregnant or participating in one of his beauty contests. And with technology today, he could easily find out who attends these marches by hacking social media and cell phones. Then he could place these women, these peaceful protesters, at the top of his draft lists, sending us all away to die in his faraway old fashioned wars where like astronauts we will be ordered to shove his company flag into the ground of newly occupied colonies (only after, of course, we've nuked them, and captured, tortured and  raped the survivors). When at home we demand a change or peace, the republicans in office will be frightened into silence - afraid to lose his support or his supporters' votes - bullied away from doing what's right.



I do, of course, hope that I am overreacting.

Image result for mussolini quotes women


But on with the wars....There is a war against African Americans and Mexican Americans and Muslim Americans. There is a war between Man and Mother Earth: attacks on African elephants and rhinoceros, attacks on the ozone and the oceans and the ice caps, attacks on our rain forests and the American Indians. There is a war on Science and a war on our Constitution. There is a war on Education and there is a war on the Educated. There is a worldwide web of unholy holy wars where self-righteous religious rage is plowing down innocents in the streets; stabbing priests on church altars and gunning down dancers. There is a war on American Diversity. There is a war on Homosexuals and Transgender Americans. There is a war on all those brave enough to be unique and outspoken and bright. And there is a deep, psychological (and possibly irreversible) war happening on the minds of our American children: Look, (America is telling our youth), we know we tell you not to bully, to quit lifting the skirts of the girls in your class and to stop pushing them down with your hands and your words. We know we scold you for fighting and for name calling, but...alright, listen, so it turns out we've been lying to you. Truthfully, the key to popularity isn't kindness. If you want friends, you really just need to be insufferably offensive (a misogynist, white-supremacist, homophobic bully). Only then will the other children think that you're funny and cool (or they'll fear you and therefore pretend to be your friend, which is sort of the same thing). So, go on and tease, no, better yet, torment ANYONE and EVERYONE who appears different from you. It'll work, trust us, just look at our president. 

America needs to be a better role model for our children. They see what's going on. They see it all. And with their growing brains and impressionable hearts, they are going to do what we do and say what we say. This has not changed since 1941. We still cannot hide war from children. 

"Live and let live!" Grandma Nancy says last year on Christmas Day, while we discuss the most recent terrorist attack. She is in her mid-80s. She's a great-grandmother now too.

After she says this, for days, I find myself repeating the old proverb again and again. It's so simple and yet, so perfect. Yes! LIVE (your own best life) AND LET (everyone else who isn't hurting you) LIVE (their best lives too!) For goodness sake, (I want to shout, Sunny!) quit ignoring/disregarding/shouting over/murdering people who think differently from you. Talk about it and AGREE TO DISAGREE. I mean, debate. Talk it out. And learn to at least (with some caution and occasional distance) understand the other side. Live and let live. American politicians and citizens aren't even attempting compromise. We're all just yelling with our hands over our ears. But if we want American democracy to survive and thrive, we need to stop this US vs. THEM. In fact, the whole world needs to graduate from this antiquated idea. We need it to be: US FOR THEM and THEM FOR US. Because, the truth is, our little world needs all of us and all of them.

Since the election, I have been in a war of my own: me and my feelings of worthlessness. I am a woman and a "stay-at-home-mom" and when I return to work, I will be a teacher to young children. Since the election I have wanted to run across the country telling every girl and woman I see that she is more than her hips and lips and legs and ovaries and breasts. That she is a builder - a builder of societies, life, and her own destiny. Sometimes, I fantasize about playing a non-traditional woman in our American culture. I think about what it might feel like to say that I am an astrophysicist or a brain surgeon or a senator, an oceanographer, a professional basketball player, a carpenter, or an engineer. I feel jealousy toward female lawyers and architects and city mayors. Because I want so badly to add more weight to this lopsided scale of gender equality. I want to do more and be more. I want to be someone girls look up to and think "I didn't know girls could be that!"  But then I realize that it isn't my fault that my society makes motherhood and the teaching of small children out to be trivial "womens work". There are cultures in the world that regard education as one of the most important positions in a community. For they understand that the care of a child is bigger than it appears. It is bigger than me and it is far bigger than him. For every child is a life - a life who touches so many other lives. A child is one moving piece in an exponentially expanding machine - a generation machine where every child is contributing to our world's collective future just by living their individual lives. This is what I keep trying to tell myself. That and if I want change, it isn't worthless or wasteful to spend my days caring, teaching and loving children.

"The education that will lead the way to a new humanity has one end alone: leading the individual and society to a higher state of development. The concept becomes clearer if we realize that mankind has to fulfill a collective mission on earth, a mission involving all of humanity and, therefore, each and every human being."
---Maria Montessori 

For my little girl, when she is 12, in the year 2027, I wonder what she will hear on the radio. Will she stand between the walls of our dining room, listening with tender ears to reports of world war? Or by then will we be on a boat, hiding away at sea? Whatever our destiny, I will make sure that she knows that she can take all the time she needs in my arms, beneath a pile of blankets and books.

But still, I have hope because I have to have hope - for her. Therefore, I hope when she is 12, in the year 2027, I hope more than anything that when we turn the radio on, the morning of December 7, we hear the voices of a vibrant, happy chorus of multicultural American children singing praises of WORLD PEACE.




Monday, January 2, 2017

Part Four: Books (A Letter to my Great-Grandmother)



Dear Sunny -


After college, John works for his father in the wool manufacturing industry, but he doesn’t like it very much. He wants to be a preacher. John Samuel Sr., however, doesn’t see religious service as a legitimate career path for his last living son. So John waits and works. Then in 1928, his father passes away and John joins the Philadelphia Divinity School.

For 8 years, you live at the Stephenson Homestead on Main Street in Philadelphia, while John studies and works as the assistant minister in a nearby parish.  Next, you move to a townhouse in Germantown, a poor suburb of Philadelphia. The church where John works has a convent. Nancy likes to visit the nuns there. She is nine. Your other daughter, Helen is six. Your son, John, is three. One day, an ambulance is called for you ---alcohol, pneumonia, depression--- these "demons" send you to the hospital many times, I’m told. But aside from the bottles and the cigarette boxes and the dreadful depressions, you also fall inside the bindings of open books. Grandma Nancy calls you a voracious reader.  Books are so generous - aren't they? Portable stories inked permanently onto paper pages for our eyes to run, roam and ramble along, while our minds strengthen and stretch and build us into stronger, more enriched persons.  I imagine you reading about world explorers, impressionism, fauna, flora, Mexican pottery, poetry, biographies, human biology and even silly romance dramas. I see you tracking your way through mystery novels, more out of necessity than anything, that needing to know, that curiosity some books give us. I imagine you reciting psalms and Shakespeare sonnets and the poems of Emily Dickinson. Do you have a favorite, familiar story? -one you retreat to when you feel heavy with worry? ...............................................................I am currently reading a book my brother gave me for my birthday. It's called, How to Be a Woman and it's by British Journalist, Caitlin Moran. It is hilarious. Last night, as I lie in bed reading, I start chuckling to myself about this part in the book where she's drunk at a wedding and on a tour of a fancy house with a glass of red wine when out of nowhere a bat flies in through an open window and crashes into her face. Her reaction is to scream, "WHAT THE FUCKING?" and throw her red wine across the white carpet. My reaction to her reaction (of receiving a bat slap to the face) causes me to giggle / fart and then CACKLE and FART- CACKLE - FART - FART - CACKLE. My husband, Scott sits at the computer by the window. He turns immediately to give me a stern shush, but this only makes it worse. He wants me to be quiet because our 16-month-old baby's bedroom is beside ours and we like it when she stays asleep at night. I cover my face with my book until my hyperventilating slows into normal breathing. I read for awhile longer before turning off the light and chortling myself to sleep. Next I'm going to read a two book biography on Eleanor Roosevelt.  SHOULD BE A HOOT!

Are there any good books to read when you're a child? My favorite book growing up is called The Little Match Girl. It is by Hans Christian Andersen. It's about a homeless child on New Years Eve who's starving and barefoot and bareheaded. She freezes to death in an alley, lighting the matches she's supposed to sell. I am fascinated by suffering. I seem to seek it out. I think it's because I always have mittens, knit hats, boots, books and breakfast. What is it like to be a little girl in that coal company town? Are you beaten like The Little Match Girl when you don't make any money? Are you terribly bored? Hungry? Forgotten? Are you overworked with raw blisters on your knuckles and scrapes and scars on your knees? With washboards and homemade soap and boiled water  ---how many rinses does it take to get that black dust out of cotton? How heavy are the water pails when they are full and how far must you walk to the pump? Do you play hopscotch, jump rope, baseball, kick the can? Do you make dolls out of old flour bags and run races in the middle of the black gravel lanes?  Do you have a swimming hole in the summer and a great hill for the snow in winter? Do you learn cuss words and practice saying them whenever you're alone? Are you loved? Or is love not a matter discussed by the poor at the start of the 20th century? When your daddy carries you to the hospital, when he leaves you there with the nurses and doctors, does he tell you he loves you? Does he bend down, take off his hat and kiss your feverish forehead, then wipe your wet eyes and runny nose with his coarse coal-stained fingers, before whispering, "I love you, sweet Carolyn May?" Or does he mumble some inaudible, meaningless phrase like, "be good, kid" before hurrying off for a drink? Do you get your need to drink from him? Do you get your depression from your momma? Are you just an unlucky combination of two unfortunate souls? Does she take her own life and the life of the baby in her body, feeling an irrevocable doom birthing another child, her eighth, into the dark, dusty world of her terribly sad circumstances? Or is she full of light and life and devotion for God and her children? Is she an optimist, a painter, a songbird? I just hope you are a loved child. Neglected children can have such a difficult time in life.

When your own children are off at school, are you chain smoking in the kitchenette of your townhouse, watching the clock tick to the end of the school day? Do you stand by a roasting pan, a paper package of pork and a mesh bag of little yellow onions, while you hold a recipe from a magazine and a half-lit cigarette? Are you trapped in that townhouse, stuck in the mine of your time in history as an American housewife of the 1930s? Is this home your own personal mental asylum? Or is it your quiet castle? Your sanctuary? Gram says you are a wonderful mother despite all you have gone through. But at the time of your ambulance rides, your children do not always understand what is happening. For most children are not given the entirety of sad stories. Instead, they see what they see and are often told very little.    



Friday, December 30, 2016

Part Three: Alcohol (A Letter to my Great-Grandmother)


Dear Sunny -

John meets you, pretty young Carolyn May, in a dry cleaners shop. You want to wed him. He wants to wed you, but because of the recent death of his mother, and perhaps because of the start of what will later called The Great Depression, you decide on a small ceremony. I’m sure you’re glad for the intimate wedding. No crowd, no camera flashes and no excessive attention, just you and him, and perhaps a witness or two. When you marry in that little church, does John know about your troubles? About your dreadfully poor childhood? Do you tell him about the man who hurt you? Have you told him about your mother and your father or your sisters and brothers? I imagine John probing you with questions, but that you keep things light and him in the dark. I imagine he likes to talk about big ideas, about humanity and kindness, God, empathy, service and community, while you’d much prefer to discuss the dinner you’re eating or the suit he’s wearing or the birds in the park singing. Maybe you want to remain a mystery. Or perhaps, you’re so lonely and in such need of companionship that all he has to do is tug at the past just gently enough and you can’t help but unravel your history until it is in a heaping heaving pile on some cafĂ© tabletop beside your ashtray and half empty cups. Maybe John thinks that he can help you, save you from yourself. After the wedding, he takes you to New York City for a honeymoon. It is 1926, Prohibition Era, but he seems to know people, possibly old college pals, and he has some money and so he takes you around town to speakeasies and secret parties and it is then that you are introduced to alcohol. 

I have my first real drink, wine coolers, in college. They taste like juice and quickly make me dizzy, giddy and flirty. A drink gives you confidence - doesn't it? Confidence to sit with strangers, to dance with John, to pretend that you aren’t that poor, hungry child from some unmapped coal mining mountain town for which you are. You are clean now and well dressed. You are a lady, a married young lady with a new kind of social life and this is all well and good, but money and pretty dresses and cigarettes and scotch won’t change you, Sunny. You are still the daughter of a drunk. You are still the survivor of pneumonia with a frail frame and punctured, weak lungs and scarred skin . And you are still an orphan. All you know of your past is what you manage to remember. You have no photo albums. No parents to call on to converse with and ask questions. (I want to mention that I don't want to sound as if I am blaming John for giving you your first drink. I hope you don’t blame him either. It would have found the inside of your glass eventually.) Your horoscope tells me that you appreciate simplicity, of experiencing life through the senses. It also tells me that you are shy. I know this already. Just as I understand that a drink feels good in a warm sensory sort of way and a couple drinks can silence most self-conscious worries. Is it here on your honeymoon in New York City when you discover that you have been carrying your daddy’s coal in the soles of your shoes since childhood? Do you drink very much and collapse onto the hotel bed in your evening clothes? Do you then discover in the morning the filth of your daddy’s addiction as if it were a stain beneath your heals? If so, what is this devastation like? Do you wonder if he has damaged your biology? It’s from him, isn’t it? Or has it manifested itself further back, as far back as your great-grandmother? I don’t know how much you and John drink once you return to Philadelphia after your trip, but Prohibition goes on for another seven years. I imagine you find a way, but perhaps you are forced back into seven more years of sobriety. As you age, Sunny, I’m told you crave alcohol when you feel alone or afraid. You won’t ever really quit. Not once you know this warmth, this ease, this softening or rather blurring of lines and memories and feelings.

I wonder how deep this coal dust goes - how much of it is in my blood. Does it reach inside a miner to seep black specks of darkness into his sperm so that future generations can’t escape the sadness, which grows from hopelessness, hunger and years in the dark underground? Why am I not surprised to hear of a Scottish drunkard? Is there something in the soil of the lands of the Scots and the Ires? Something in the water? The sea air maybe? Have the rivers all turned to ale? A drunk father delivers his drunk disease to his baby, a future drunk son or drunk daughter. It is a story as old as famine and rotten potatoes and sheep wool sweaters. Could the stars be to blame? Your stars tell me how you might be. Much of it goes with the stories I’ve been told, but is this just coincidence? How can the moon and the tides and the planets shape us? Guide us? Do our brain cells or souls or cells reach for the heavens like a compass to gather our bearings before we push through our water womb to cold air and breath? If that’s true, then where we are born matters too. And how our mothers and fathers treat us - whether they love us, hate us, hurt us, spoil us- I imagine all these pieces matter. I hear that our genes can be very different from our siblings. We can’t all be made of the exact same matter or we’d all look, sound and act identically. Therefore, to share traits with one’s great-grandparents must be even more unlikely. But still, I wonder, are you in me? You must be here somewhere. Maybe all you give me is this story and your suffering. A story that says, I was born in 1906 in Eleanora, Pennsylvania. I live during this time with these circumstances so that you don’t have to.

Well then, dear Sunny, thank you.






Part Two: Your Mothers (A Letter to my Great-Grandmother)


This is a photo of my own beautiful mother. 

Dear Sunny - 


John Samuel Stephenson Jr. is born June 21, 1906 in Philadelphia to a wealthy Main Street family. He has two sisters and one brother, but his brother dies when John is young. After his brother's death, John’s mother, Sallie, devotes nearly all of her time to charity work, leaving John with his older sisters and father. His sisters are quite a bit older than the two of you (14 and 15 years older).

Sallie herself dies in 1926 when she is just 59 years old. I don’t know why, or rather from what. John is 20 years old at the time, you are 17, and the two of you have just met. John sounds like such a happy chap, a songbird with a kind, reverent soul. Does his gleeful temperament rattle you with guilt? Or does it soothe you like sunshine in early spring? Do you curse at your gloom so that it might hide in the corner of your broken heart or do you sort of invite it in, give it a blanket and a bed inside your bones, as if you deserve nothing better? John’s mother sounds a wreck, leaving him all day. But maybe that’s why he turns out alright. Perhaps she knows that if she is John's primary caretaker, he will grow up to the sound of her constant weeping and that isn’t healthy for a child. I wonder if Sallie can’t stand to even look at baby John for very long; to hold him or kiss his face. He is her other son after all and he is young and also destined, as we all are, toward death. I hope his sisters kiss his face in her absence and blow raspberries on his belly and play him records and nuzzle his neck and cheeks.

When you are a young gal, Sunny, your daddy is off working long dark days and drinking away his nights, while you are left with your mother and your sisters. I'd guess that the boys, your brothers, are breaker boys, working too - sitting beside conveyor belts all day in a dark cloudy building, separating coal from impurities, arriving home coughing filth and blowing black snot from their noses. You probably help clean the house. Maybe you have a large garden in the back, one you weed, till and harvest. Maybe you have a cow and a small flock of hens for eggs. Maybe you help bake bread in an outdoor beehive oven, churn cream into butter, scrub and wring and hang the clothes, make the soap, boil the soup, run to the company store, gather bits of dropped coal from beside the tipple (the structure above the train tracks for filling train cars with coal), clean out the nasty privy, and gather water from the pump. You squish bed bugs and wait for your Christmas orange. Unlike Sallie, your mother, [who's name is now unknown, forgotten, unwritten, lost (a metaphor that is not lost on me)] has no choices really - for poverty is a kind of imprisonment. She can’t leave you with a governess or a grandmother or with your father even. Sure, your sister Jean could care for you. But there isn't much extra scrip (company money) for fine haircuts in a nearby city or for pieces of delicate lace and silk, anyway. She’s stuck there in that house, in a row of other identical houses, sucking down coke oven coal dust, scrubbing out its grease from familial skin and coarse muslin - unable to hide from you the reality of your destitution.

John is shielded from his mother’s tragedy.

You are not.


Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Part One: Coal and Pneumonia (A Letter to my Great-Grandmother)






Dear Sunny -


Coal dust smudges the skin of sweaty miners, seeps beneath fingernails, and stains trousers, jackets and bootlaces. Is there running water? A bathtub and bars of soap? Is there a proper school, a grocer, baker, butcher? Is there even a doctor? I imagine whitewashed wooden houses with crooked roofs, dense gardens, open cook fires and muck and black dust everywhere. Does the sun shine through the coal dust clouds to the poor mountain town below or does is pass it by to save its rays for the bottom of the mountain where there is grass and a river that carries all the black runoff water away? Eleanora, Pennsylvania --- she can’t be found on maps today. Gram says there was a fire, but history tells me it was abandoned.

When you are a child, great-grandmother, you and all the other children in the patch are given an orange on Christmas day by a wealthy man, probably one of the owners of the coal company or the manager of the company store. One hundred years later, I see grey juice dripping from cold little fingers, down round chins to wet jumpers and jackets and holy wool sweaters. Orange globes in the hands of poor dirty children. I wonder if the coal, ash and soot is still there today with the rest of the remains of that forgotten Pennsylvania town.

In 1909, you are born, the sixth of seven children, to a Scottish drunken mine superintendent and your mother, who dies when you are young, but more on that later. Born, Carolyn May Hammond, later nicknamed “Sunny”, I see you like a little light in that town. Pale and pretty, squashing bed bugs when you’re sent to bed early, wondering if you’ll ever have enough to eat since your papa might be spending his pay at the company store or to bootleggers for bottles of scotch whiskey or wine or ale. But he isn’t all bad, your papa, for when you are a girl of six or seven years, you take off her coat. It is just before the start of spring and you must be warm and so, as all young girls and boys do, you remove her jacket. Someone scolds you for it, your momma or your big sister, Jean. And they are right to do so because a very short time later, maybe a day or two, you, Sunny fall ill with pneumonia and your daddy carries you out of the company town to transportation, to a train I’d guess. And it takes you and your papa to a hospital with doctors and nurses. There he leaves you to be saved. So no, he isn’t all bad. When you are an old lady, you remember the hospital, but you can’t recall where it is, just that it must be far from home since no one in the family goes to visit you, not even Jean. At the hospital, around the year 1915, before antibiotics, a year when a child with pneumonia usually dies, doctors insert tubes beneath your arms to drain the fluid from your small lungs. You rest and recover. The nurses must like you, you think, for they give you a little birthday party at your bed when May 1st arrives. When you are well enough, it is decided that you will go live with your aunt who knows a few things about nursing.

Throughout your life, you contract pneumonia many times, but it never kills you. It weakens you, as illness is prone to do and for the rest of your life, I’m told, you are frail. However, you reach your 80th year. I remember you in your glider, swaying in the Sunday morning sunlight. When I am a small child, we often visit with you after church. You chat with Mom and Dad while we play on your clean beige carpet.

When I am a toddler, I contract pneumonia. There is a Polaroid picture of me in a hospital crib. It must be 1984 or 1985. I don’t know how or why I become so ill, but I spend a week in the hospital. My lungs are not punctured and drained like your 7-year-old body, Sunny. I am given antibiotics, Penicillin probably. They don’t make me weak, you'll, I think, be happy to hear, I’ve always been very strong.

Eventually, you return to your momma and papa in Eleanora. Around this time, the youngest child in your family, Marion, falls from her highchair into the fireplace. She is burned badly. I remember her, a little old woman from my own childhood. She looks like you. I don’t remember any burns, but perhaps that’s because her papery wrinkled skin hides them well. You blame one of your sisters for pushing Marion and for the rest of your life, you never speak to her again (even when Marion begs for a reunion). After her fall, your sister, Marion is sent away. She lives with relatives, sweet people she recalls, who treat her like their own child. A couple years after you are home from the hospital, your mother dies. She is pregnant with her 8th child. No one knows why or how now, but the thought of my great-great-grandmother, bearing a child and taking her last breath, inhaling that dirty air, while her soul slips from her tired malnourished body, a body with a belly that is hoarding water and scavenging nutrients for her newest developing baby, torments me. What is her husband, your father, like when he drinks? Does he see his wife as his property, taking her body whenever he wants? Or are they lovers and life partners pinned to their place in the world by addiction and poverty? I’ll never ever know. But after your momma dies and the babe in her belly dies with her, your papa remarries and when he does, he sends Jean away. Does he marry his second wife because he needs someone home to raise his children and keep house? I’m sure he can’t afford to pay a nanny. Does he decide then to marry one of the town’s known spinsters or a hungry childless widow or an aging prostitute, a flirtatious bootlegger? None of you children like the stepmother, but your pop isn’t married long. He dies a couple years later. Does he drink himself dead? Does he suffocate underground, choking on earth and dark? Does his heart break beneath the weight of his failures? Or does a fire in the mine snuff him out? When he perishes, does he fall ill by an infected wound or by the flu or pneumonia? ….Is his death sudden or foreseen? The young children who are still home are sent away. You are 13 years old and go on to live with a woman, not a relative, in Philadelphia. She isn’t very nice. She makes you go into the city to run errands for her. Years later, you realize that these peculiar jobs she sends you on are to retrieve stolen bottles of perfume, which this woman then illegally re-sells. I imagine you’re told: Go to this address. You will meet this person. Take the box. Bring it home straight away.

Your daughter, my grandmother, Nancy, writes, “These were her teenage years and I faintly remember her mentioning once about being assaulted by a man visiting the house. There are many dark corners in her life that we were never told about.”

You are an orphan living with a strange woman in the city, which is a new city to you. It is a busy city with trolley cars and automobiles and tall buildings and railroads and shops. You wander these wide roads, completely alone. Do you make any friends here? Is there anyone you can talk to or meet with? Who is this man who hurts you? A friend or the husband of the woman with whom you live? Does he sneak into your room at night? Force himself into the apartment when he knows you, a young girl, are home alone? Do you fight him off? Or are you too embarrassed and frightened to scream, kick, bite and claw his entitled skin until he gets off of your body, because it is your body, Sunny, a body you have worked so hard to keep living. Perhaps he presses a knife to your slender throat. Perhaps he has a rope. Perhaps he has the strength to hold you by the wrists and steal from you your dignity as if you were a box of perfume he could take and re-sell in the city. However it happens and whatever it is that does happen, I’m sorry. I wish I could be there. I wish I could slip into the past and protect you.

You start smoking cigarettes in 1924. You are 15 years old. Tobacco smoke blackens your fragile lungs all your life. You never quit. I can’t imagine this helps your health, your proneness for pneumonia. I wonder if you think it’s worth it, this trade. Maybe these nagging urges feel necessary for your sanity: a constant distraction from the real problems that threaten to suffocate and torture you.

Sometimes I make an entire pot of coffee and drink it all day long. Cup after cup. I drink it black now. Once in awhile, I'll drop in a little cream, but usually I take it as it comes.

After you complete your high school education, you enter a program to become a nurse. Do you want to help children who are alone like you? Paint birthday signs, wrap little gifts and blow up balloons for hospital bed birthdays? Tell them they’re going to be all right as you bring them supper or tend to their wounds or hold their bodies as they weep from fear or loneliness or pain? I’m sorry to hear you are unable to complete the training. That the physical labor of scrubbing floors and changing beds and cleaning bedpans and lifting limp bodies is all too much for you.

When you are 17 years old, while working in a dry cleaners shop, a happy handsome young man from a wealthy Main Street family enters. He is charismatic and good-looking with light hair and clear blue eyes. You are charming and pretty. I like to imagine you dancing home from work the day you meet him, your future husband. His name is John. You tell him that your name is Carolyn. I wonder if you blush with excitement and possibly even passion as you feel, maybe for the first time in your life, hope.





Tuesday, December 13, 2016

We must make ART.



I must make art. It would be easier to live without this condition for happiness. To spend my free time in mindless monotony. Busy myself with socializing, obligations and passive observations. But the trouble is...my passion to make stuff pokes at the microscopic puddles of my pores like sewing pins; swims like a pod of whales in my piss, blood, spit and soul. It bites at my tissue and bone like termites: MAKE ARTit demands, BEFORE WE SWALLOW YOUR SKIN AND SKELETON AND SHIT YOU OUT INTO A MOUND OF POWDERY GRAY MATTER. 

I thought I didn't want to make theater anymore. Thought I could outrun my infatuation with age, but this thing is more like real love. More complex than lust and far deeper than any crush or fleeting obsession. This is true. Admittedly, it is mean and difficult too. Theater isn't easy. The industry has abused me with disappointments. Starved me and confused me too. But my moments lit by tin can lights or rehearsal bulbs or the midday sun (on some outdoor stone stage) still enthrall me. I feel courageous up there with my lines of text and intention. My words fly / stab / sing / grab from my mouth to kiss the silences that sit on the edges of springy, velvet-sewn seats or metal folding chairs or patchwork quilts stretched over dirt and dry grass.  My body dances to the song, the story, of my characters. I love theater. I love the spit and wind of it. Love the raw unedited magic. Love the magnetic pull of poised, competent actors enunciating sharp poetry for a crowd of engaged onlookers. Oh yes, I love it so.

I've been searching for both distraction and action lately. Theater feels like an old friend who stands at the back of a cold church funeral. As soon as I see her, I weep and run, collapsing into her tight embrace. We laugh as she pulls me across the street to a bright dance party where the music is so loud and the lights and the people are so beautiful in their color and movement that I forget, for a little while, the tragedy I have just left behind. And even though, at this dance party, I must make sure not to embarrass myself and/or drink too much, I am reminded of passion. I am reintroduced to my own neglected joy. And I am served an entire pie of sweet sweet peace.

Since our nation's recent election, I have been feeling as if I were sprawled out across all the steps of grief [denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance], with a skyscraper on my chest and my back pressing jagged cement.  I'm mostly avoiding the news. It frightens me. This country and world appear terminally suicidal. Out in the corn fields, there is a plowed message, a tattoo on the arm of this "super" power, and it reads DO NOT RESUSCITATE.

I am seeking light.

A few weeks after the election, I am invited to perform in the staged reading of a marvelous play.  At night, after baby is in bed, I'd lie on the couch reading and re-reading myself into my character's body and story. [For actors are detectives and we spend much of our preparation gathering evidence so that we can understand the person we are trying to portray.]  This study is an old bliss of mine and I am grateful for the distraction. Even out in the stage lights, standing before the audience on the night of the performance, I feel as if I am catching the end of a long lost breath.

I want people to flee their TVs with me, even for just one night or for a few hours every day. To join me in a search for life. Come, I urge you, and turn off your cell phones. Silence them, and ignore them and your urges and addictions. Briefly or forever, abandon the noise of the Internet and all its false promises of entertainment and information and look with me to people, real people and to the art we make. Get dressed up and shout a song into a microphone or hide in a closet nook and make something. Sing folk songs on your porch / build a quilt / paint a portrait / dance in your living room / write a poem about the cracks in your mother's hands / write a silly novel about peach jam / write a love letter / stitch a dress / crochet a scarf / darn a sock / mix and bake a carrot cake / wallpaper a wall / go to a music shop and touch all the instruments, then take one home with you / sketch with crayons or markers or pencils or coal. Whatever it is, go on and make something.

Personally, my screens are burning me. I feel dry in my deprivation of skin and conversation and social interaction. I need a crowd, a cacophonous cafe. I need to go to town. Soak up the spoken word of strangers and suck in the stink of paint and clay, of wet cement and cigarettes, of candy shops and Indian food and messy book stores. I want to warm myself with body heat. Find friends, fliers and ticket booths. Gather on sidewalks and in bakery lines and libraries. I want us all to rebuild our world with stories / paint / glue / coffee and cake / yarn / ink / wood / tape / voices and voluptuous color. 



Sunday, November 27, 2016

EXTREMISM



I vow to fight off EXTREMISM with quiet isolation. I will take vaccines of turned off screens and paper books, newspapers, magazines, conversations, dirt, grass and the company of oak, pine and maple trees. I will not allow the Internet to infect my mind, mouth and ears. For it is a deafening disease, EXTREMISM. I capitalize the letters to show you how big and scary it is. EXTREMISM makes it nearly impossible to think for oneself; let alone to empathize with others. It doesn’t allow conversation, but yelling with covered ears. It is seeking for same and destroying, humiliating and denying anyone different. EXTREMISM is growing, spreading rapidly. The widespread World Wide Web, I think, is partially to be blame. For EXTREMISM is quite contagious. It spreads by rhetoric but hides inside stories and ideas and opinions. They convince and collect believers by the billions. And what happens when one clan of EXTREMISM attacks an opposing clan of EXTREMISM? I fear the answer is war. Because if no one is listening to the shouting, then both sides will seek to silence their rivals with bullets, cannonballs and atomic bombs. So please, be wary. Don’t believe everything you read, hear or say.









Thursday, November 17, 2016

To Baby,

Your newest word is happy.  You keep saying it, aaaPeee. That's how it sounds.  It feels like a sign from God or my heart or the whole universe - because while it is an important word, it isn't a common one in our house. So it feels like you or something or everything is telling me: Be it. Go ahead, be happy. I know it isn't always easy, but as best you can, be happy. 

Well, that's easier said than done, baby, for you don't know it yet, but the world is a frightening unpredictable place and I can't figure out how to fix it. I'm sorry. Once you were born, I tried. I did everything I could, but I've been completely unsuccessful. I haven't been able to eliminate nuclear weapons. Nor am I able to adopt all the wandering, homeless refugees. I can't feed all the hungry people either...not even just the starving children. And I tried, I swear I did, but I couldn't pick all the plastic out of the oceans nor could I rub all the pesticides off the produce. I couldn't blow all the smog away either. I couldn't save the rain forests or the rhinos or the honeybees or the children in Aleppo. I couldn't cool the atmosphere or end bigotry, racism, homophobia or bullying. I can't even convince anyone of anything, which makes me feel silly for trying.

But you're right, I can still be happy. And I can suck all the air in from around me and throw it back out again. I can rake the leaves, while you kick the piles and fall in the dirt and carry sticks, pine cones and rocks in your small hands.  I can wash the dishes. I can clean the floors and I can feed you. And when I feel frightened, I can suck all the air in from around me and throw it back out again. I can call my mother. I can hug my brother. I can kiss my father's cheek and I can soothe my sister. And I can suck all the air in from around me and throw it back out again. I can walk the dog. I can sing and dance and bake and teach and read and laugh and make you laugh. I can smile. And whenever I'm scared or sad or cross, I can suck all the air in from around me and throw it back out again. I can weep. I can fight. I can fail. And I can run, leap and stomp. And I can suck all the air in from around me and throw it back out again.

Tonight you stand on our hope chest, built seven years ago by a dear friend, and you jump onto our bed where I've piled blankets and pillows, giggling as you land on your belly. I help you to somersault and I tickle you and kiss your face.

I can't do a lot of things I'd like, but I can try to be happy. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Seriousness and Silliness





This year Bob Dylan won the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature. This timing is so good. We need to remember and sing his songs of protest, injustice and peace. Recently someone told me how it feels like we're back in the 1960s. When I see the protests now, I think, Look children, this is how you stand up to a bully. Sometimes it takes parades and protests, handwritten signs and song. It takes face paint and walking sneakers and courage. It takes so much courage, such bravery to tell a bully 'NO'." I've decided to share this video of me playing Dylan's tune, The Times They are a Changin'. I film it Sunday, five days after the election. Here, my daughter wears white like the suffragettes and squeals as she crawls around me on the couch. I am so grateful for her gaiety. This little taping is an accurate snippet of my life right now. While I worry and search art and the news and my heart for understanding, she lives, blissfully unaware. I need her now more than ever, to distract my seriousness with silliness.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Election Night


I put our little girl to bed; wash the dinner dishes and go to the Internet. Polls are closing across the country. It is Tuesday, November 8, 2016, Election Night. I am watching and waiting for states to turn Blue, but when many go Red, I abandon my screens. My heart feels like a cassette tape unravelling, tearing and tangling my breath and blood into a mass of illegible scribbles. My stomach aches. My hands shake. My head is so full of thoughts I worry they might burst through my skull and skin to spill out into the air like a jumbled mess of wails and incomplete sentences. I stand up and go downstairs. The dog follows. I lift my guitar and play. I need a drink but all I have are these cans of hard cider. It's too sweet, but I gulp one down anyway. My anxiety doesn't leave me then, but it prevents fear from completely pillaging me of my hope and sanity.

Late into Election Night, I am folded at the belly, holding my knees and weeping. "I feel like someone's died." I say to Scott as the news commentators tell us how unlikely it is that Hillary Clinton will win. It is midnight, the start of my 33rd birthday.

Upstairs, at 2am, baby cries for me. As soon as I hear her, I decide that I'm done. There's nothing left for me to see or do tonight. I need to try and rest. Scott stays in the basement and falls asleep on the couch. I sleep with our girl until morning. I get four hours before the sun rises and she wakes me. We all go out together to walk the dog. We are slow, dragging our broken dreams behind us in sacks full of sleeplessness, disregarded history books and harassed progress.

We go out to breakfast. It is my birthday, after all, and we need to see people. The restaurant is quiet, but crowded. We hug our waitress. Scott worked here a few years back, with her. She wears black. She looks like she's been crying, but she manages to smile a little. She tells us she's in shock. We all are, we assure her. We are all tired too, sick and tired, but we need to eat and we need company. We need each other. Our 14-month-old baby girl is happy, walking around, opening and closing her soft hands in waves and pointing to the paintings on the walls and to the pictures in a book. By the time the food arrives, she's hungry, grabbing at the banana, oatmeal and egg I cut into bits and place onto her plate. I have to keep taking deep breaths to slow my heart from rattling me unconscious. I eat my breakfast and drink my coffee.

"I think, more than anything, we all need to love each other harder right now." I tell our friend, hoping it will somehow heal us.

Later, when she clears the table, she says that we're all set, that she's taken care of our bill.

What? No way. We tell her, feeling guilty and grateful.

"Love harder, right?" She says before walking away.

Yes, love harder.