Light and Dark

As the joy of the holidays subsided, the dark days of winter took hold.  Truly, the last few days of 2016 brought death to a close and disconcerting distance.  It stepped in and stayed until as recently as last week.  And still, it lingers.

I’d pulled my black leather pumps from their shelf high in the closet.  I’d arched my inner soles into their uncomfortable embrace.  I’d released my tired, swollen toes from their pinch at the end of the day.  But I’d yet to return them to their box; death would not let me store them away for the next black dress event.

There was another, and another.

A year of new life was marred by the loss of three precious ones.

Death is always waiting in the wings – but I’m comforted by the thought that their spirits fly in the wind that catches our breath and reminds us we’re alive.

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We Are Made of Stories

As I stood on the porch of the triple decker and listened to their stories, tears came to my eyes.

Jennifer Butler Basile

Jennifer Butler Basile

The girl who quit school after grade eight because she didn’t have the proper clothes for high school. The pride in her voice for her brother with a ‘sharp mind’ who went on to become a judge – because she contributed her wages to his education once hers had stopped. Sugar on bread moistened under the tap as a sweet treat. A wagon cobbled together with whatever scraps a band of neighbors could find.

These are the intonations and inflections of lives lived, identities formed, cultures cemented in history.

The Museum of Work and Culture, in the heart of Woonsocket, RI, tells the story of the many French-Canadian citizens who contributed to the mill industry there. I have not a French-Canadian bone in my body, but their story of immigration and integration is that of my ancestors as well. The hard jobs they took, the harsh living conditions they endured for a better life – if not for them, then their children.

The power of their stories lies in their telling.

The Museum of Work and Culture does a fabulous job of incorporating audio recordings of the oral histories they’ve collected. Quite frequently, there is not a face to match the voice; it is over the images of a film or piped into the replica of a 1920s triple decker front porch. This fact may make them even more affecting. The voices of the past reach into the consciousness, reminding us they are gone, but their mark remains.

They urge me to record my husband’s great-grandmother’s story from Arctic, RI. They remind me to dig deeper into my great-great-grandmother’s story in the mills in Lincoln, her trip from Massachusetts, and Nova Scotia before that.

History is very much alive and well. It is places like The Museum of Work and Culture that remind us of that – and of the fact that we wouldn’t be who we are without it. We cannot let these important stories die. It is the stuff we are made of.

Dust Echoes

The universe has sent me a thing of beauty just when I needed it.

Searching for an image to accompany my previous post, I came across this logo:

dust echoes

Given my explanation of dust as a metaphor for all that piles up in one’s mind, I found it an apt illustration – but I was curious as to its creator’s views on the subject.  Clicking on the link, I found this amazing website.  A project of Tom E. Lewis, Dust Echoes offers animated shorts from then emerging Australian animators, depicting touchstone stories of Aboriginal culture.  The homepage itself is a story, drawing viewers right into the landscape.  Aimed at engaging young people in the rich traditions and history of the Aboriginal people, it is a visual and auditory treat for people of any age.

So, in answer to my question, the creators of this graphic had totally different views on the idea of dust echoing.  They helped me see that there is great value in hearing echoes of the past and transmitting them to future generations.

Native Species

 

The region in which I grew up is rich in Native American history. I waded in the waters at Conimicut Point. I balanced across plank bridges in the Great Swamp. Everyday, I passed places with names like Narragansett, Miantonomo, Apponaug, and Pawtuxet. Along the way, I learned the history and interaction of my colonial ancestors and the indigenous peoples, but the place names became commonplace and part of the fabric of my everyday life that blended into the background.

When my own burgeoning family outgrew our home a few neighborhoods over from the one in which I grew up, we moved deeper into the state; where native history remained vibrantly alive, resisting the squash of suburban sprawl. With signs marking the Narragansett watershed and roads transiting Shumunkanuc Hill, my desire to understand this new land meshed with a desire to better understand the native history and tradition that shaped it.

In an effort to do so, my girls and I visited Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, RI, our state’s only museum dedicated to preserving and celebrating the rich cultural heritage of its native peoples. We had a wonderful time, viewing historical exhibits, examples of artwork, basketry, and artifacts. I read the words of Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas in one glossy display detailing the meaning of and pursuit of happiness for modern native peoples. While their home culture and tradition teaches them to be in tune with nature, stewards of the earth with utmost thanks for the gift it is, upholding generational, tribal, and oral traditions, public education counters Native American values and history, forcing an incongruous duality of individuals, students, youngsters.

As I read the poetic description of the aspiration to a higher good we all possess, I couldn’t help but draw parallels to society as a whole. While not all populations in modern society deal with an environment hostile to their ways of life, we all suffer from a sort of disconnect.

We are totally disconnected from the earth, the land.

We can go to the grocery store and buy apples any day, any season of the year – not just during fall harvest. We go to the farmers’ market in spring and balk when we can’t find the main ingredient for our peach pie. We are conditioned like a spoiled child to have an endless supply of food placed before us whenever we want it, with no thought of the hand that put it there.

We are totally removed from nature’s rhythms, its cycles.

We look down the road waiting for a rush of cars when it is the rush of the wind through tree boughs.

We condition our air, we shut our windows tight. We notice not the storm clouds or fog rolling in until the weather report tells us to.

We miss the signal of the birds squawking in the trees or their sweet songs rejoicing in the spring.

We don’t find the hidden places on the back roads because we’re speeding down the highway. We don’t discover the interconnectedness of us all, regardless of background because we’re too busy to talk.

We forget how to, the benefit of, interacting with the world, the people right in front of us, because we’re so intent on interfacing with those halfway around the world through the computer screen.

The sacredness of simplicity is lost.

The elemental forces of the universe are covered over by the noise we humans have created, covering over ourselves.

But on days when we stop to hear a song, shake a rattle, smell the sweet grass, the stories become part of us and there is an elemental shift within – perhaps drawing us all closer to ourselves and each other.

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Battery and Rebirth

The land is repairing itself now from the spring deluge it experienced this past weekend. It is still trying to assimilate the stands of water upon its surface, soaking and sucking, trying to get back to base. Clogs of leaves and rivers of sand mark the slick black surface of tar. Mini mountains of rock crumble and crunch beneath car tires.

As I traverse curvy country roads and see nature doing its best at damage control, I realize it’s also pushing forward with its plans of renewal. It’s not just attempting to achieve stasis, it’s battling for the burgeoning growth that has been swelling beneath the surface for weeks. Carpets of moss are a brilliant green against the rust colored blankets of leaves up to their chins. In sunny snatches of land, the green points of daffodils are poking up. The air has lost its bite, but blows a breeze still fresh and new.

In this push and pull of survival and revival, I pass a farmyard with a basketball hoop. The grains of the weathered wood on the backboard peeking through the paint, it hangs sideways, the mottled metal loop of the rim vertical rather than horizontal. Of all the images I see in my travels, my mind’s eye freezes this frame.

Why does human ephemera coexisting with a totally divergent context appeal to me so much?

I ponder this as I drive on and suddenly realize why. All of us – broken backboards, bushes and trees swallowed by muck, humans sunk in quicksand – we all struggle to survive despite the forces that strive to push us down. And we do. Despite chipped paint and rusty bolts that no longer mount us firmly to our foundation, we stand. Though rivulets swell into rivers and strain our roots, we hold. Even while downward sucking motion seems inevitable to overcome, we keep our heads above the surface.

A few years ago, my mother was sorting through my grandmother’s old tool shed. An avid gardener whose advancing age had taken both her stamina and her partner, she hadn’t opened the shed in years. In the discard pile of rusty tools, I found a spadeless spade – a thick wooden handle leading to a corroded metal tip even sharper than its original piece. “Can I have this?” I asked. My mother looked at me incredulously. I wanted it as a reminder, that even in an imperfect form, items made with quality materials and craftsmanship would endure. Also, that any job is easier with the proper tools (ie of course you’ll get frustrated if you try to dig a hole with a broken shovel).

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Even with the most vital part of its existence broken, this object will endure and possibly inspire others.

May you find your battered backboard or broken shovel.

Photos: Jennifer Butler Basile

Photos: Jennifer Butler Basile

 

 

How Did They (Do We) Do It?

I often wonder how mothers of our mothers did it. In the age of keeping up appearances and, in the generation before that, of simply surviving.

There were no therapists, no LICSWs, no yoga retreats and meditation circles. There was no opportunity for a facial and hot stone massage. There was no medication to make the pain go away – except for those self-prescribed.

There was alcohol sipped in secret. There was valium – and laudanum in the early days. There might be lashing out at the children when the husband or society did the same to them.  Catholics might find solace in confession – if the guilt of their perceived shortcomings and ungrateful attitude didn’t keep them away.

I wonder how many women thought they were flawed because they didn’t love the life handed to them.  That they were failures because they didn’t find rearing children and keeping house easy.

But that’s not even the point.

Mothers today still flounder with the many resources available to them.

How the hell did women of previous generations keep it together?

Was it the lack of a pervasive media that kept us from hearing about children murdered by their own mother’s hand? Did bubbling anger dissipate through more readily accepted floggings? Were extended family and neighbors more readily available and willing to step in and pick up slack?

Did women suffer in silence?

I wonder how many women devolved into mental illness from the stress of responsibility, relentless duty, stifled desires. I wonder how many Academy Award worthy actresses were forged in the face of an uninterested audience.

And what do we do for them now? How do we celebrate the uncelebrated?

By feeling guilty as hell that we don’t like this comparatively golden portion we’ve been dealt?

Or by saturating the dry earth of hopelessness with resources for women struggling with themselves, with motherhood, with life?

Part of me yearns for the ironclad persona of the women and mothers of my thrice-removed family. But another more unwilling part realizes that armor came at a merciless price. Not only are these women I cannot question because of space and time, but because they would never answer. Perhaps one small admittance would open the chink that would crumble the entire suit. They would never take that chance. Nor would society let them. They did what they had to because there was no other choice. Their own mothers had it hard and so, then, would they.

I wonder if in this age of modern convenience we have too much time on our hands to ponder our existence. However, I’d like to think, even amidst the stirring of lye and slaying of chickens, our female forebears wondered the same things. They probably wouldn’t have lived so fiercely if they hadn’t.

How do we live fiercely in their honor while fighting for what we all need?

Things That Need to Be Said

I have a relative who says things she shouldn’t.

She says the things you don’t want to hear.

The things that make you uncomfortable, that turn the mirror back on yourself in a most unappealing manner.

In a discussion of summer vacations and friends’ doings, I mentioned that some friends had taken their families to Disney.  We lamented the hot weather in Florida this time of year and how trying it must be.  I said it would be trying at any time of year with my youngest being only three.  If I experienced sensory overload and exhaustion at the dawn to dusk days of Disney, I would have to wait until my children were older before I subjected them to its amusing assaults.  I jokingly shared my observation I’d shared with my husband and kids: that I was fourteen years old before I had my first visit to Disney so I was in no rush to get my own much younger kids there anytime soon.  If I had to wait, they could wait.

And that’s when my grandmother dropped her bomb.

There are children in the world who don’t have enough to eat and here we are worrying about what’s the right age to take our children to Disney.

Nothing like the perspective of an eighty-four year old woman to smack you back in your place.

I hadn’t been lamenting my fate.  I hadn’t been saying my children desperately deserved a trip to Disney, but the poor dears weren’t old enough.  Hell, if anything, I was glad they weren’t the ‘right’ age so I didn’t have to go through the whole ordeal.  I don’t see Disney as an obligatory childhood right of passage.  In America, it’s just something a lot of people do and it’s part of our societal subconscious (again, thank you to the ever-pervasive Disney marketing).

But my grandmother was right.

I’d like to think her comment was not directed solely at me.  That it was just an astute observation of the irony of what many call ‘first world problems’.

But it cut to the quick.

In one concise sentence, she cut the wheat from the chaff and crystallized what should be our priorities.  In a world where families can spend thousands of dollars for over-the-top entertainment, others’ can’t afford food for one day.  In a world where I worry about the stress of an over packed summer schedule, there are mothers who worry if they’ll make it through the week.

I didn’t like what she had to say because it made me feel guilty.  But guilt is usually born of some seed of truth deep within our gut.

My grandmother wasn’t trying to nurture that seed.  She was simply speaking her mind in the privileged way that a long life has earned for her.  In her eight decades, spanning two centuries, she’s seen a multitude of changes, not all of them good.  In her evening ruminations, she discovers a perspective the rest of us can’t necessarily see – or don’t because of the frenetic pace of our lives.

I have a relative who says the things that need to be said, things she’s been waiting her whole life to say.

Iron Age

Last weekend, my husband and I watched The Iron Lady.  We’d seen previews for it and were intrigued.  We wanted to see Meryl Streep taking names and kicking butts, which ironically I’d never thought Margaret Thatcher had done.  While she was in office, I was too young to know more about her role in history than her name and position.  It never occurred to me the struggles she’d encounter not only as prime minister, but also as a woman fulfilling that role.  Now, as a grown woman watching this cinematic portrayal of her rise to power and its aftermath, I was angry and heartbroken.

It starts off optimistically enough.  I thrilled in her preemptive speech to her future husband before she accepted his proposal.  She would not bow to society’s ideas of what a woman, wife, and mother should be.  And he agreed!  She would be free to do as she desired with his freely and happily given support.

Then we see Ms. Thatcher as a hard-faced deserter as her children cry at the window as she heads to Parliament, shoving toy cars in the glove compartment on the way.  We see her daughter jealous of her own spotlight being stolen.  We see her husband questioning her devotion to her family in favor of ambition.

 

Why must a woman be vilified if she desires success outside the realm of motherhood?  Even more so if she harbors such desires in the midst of motherhood.  Yes, there are only twenty-four hours in a day.  Yes, there is always the threat of feeling as if she’s failed on both fronts.  Yes, children demand an inordinate amount of growing, coaxing, and coddling.  She needs to prepare a person ready to face the challenges of the next generation.  But what about the challenges of her own?  Why does motherhood take her out of the equation in facing and solving those? 

 

Why is there a prevailing thought that a woman must subvert her own self in order to grow the ones that came out of her?

 

Even with all her success, Margaret Thatcher couldn’t completely change the direction of that stiff wind – at least in this film.

In the speech to her future husband, the young Margaret Thatcher said she did not want to be trapped in the kitchen, hands in the dishwater.  The film ends with her doing just that.  I couldn’t help but think that plunging her hands into that water washed away all merit attached to her ambitious acts.  It called them all into question.  Had she made the wrong decisions?  Set the wrong priorities as a woman, wife, mother?  All joy that she’d excelled in at least the public half of her life was stolen by my doubt that she felt she should have chosen the private half instead.

It shouldn’t be a choice.  Or at least not a mutually exclusive one.

Iron is malleable – especially when it’s heated inordinately – which is a good thing because it looks like society will continue to rake women over the coals for the unforeseeable future.

Odd is One Word for It

Last night, my husband and I watched The Odd Life of Timothy Green.  We were looking for a feel-good, fun film to offer some distraction and diversion.  Instead, it made me think.

The story is book-ended by Cindy and Jim’s overwhelming desire and relentless pursuit of parenthood.  Before they digest the heartbreaking news that they cannot conceive, they build the idea of the perfect boy – then pack their dreams away and bury them safely underground.

Watching the palpable yearning of these scenes, I realized the amazing gift of my own children.  I felt almost guilty that they came to me so easily; for getting so caught up in the drudgery of day to day that I fail to see the miracle that they are.  How blessed we are.

Then Cindy and Jim’s dreams of the perfect boy sprout out of the mud and they obtain instant parenthood.  Their joy at his arrival was a familiar feeling.  And that the universe rewarded such yearning was a gratifying feeling.  They truly wanted this child.

As the movie went on, however, their journey seemed to be less about Timothy and more about their own performance.  How did Cindy’s child measure up to her sister, Brenda’s?  How would Jim better his own father’s parenting skills?  Were they making the right choices?  Were they keeping him close enough?

The scene that haunts me most is their argument after Timothy’s game-winning goal for the opposing soccer team.  As per his demeanor throughout most of the film, Timothy is nonplussed by his social and sporting gaff.  He is happy simply to have participated and had fun.  Cindy and Jim, however, have an all-out fight about their parenting.  Did they hope for the wrong things for their child?  Are their own feelings of validation getting in the way of their parenting?

Yes.

In their pursuit of parenting excellence, Cindy and Jim lost sight of the most important thing – their child.

Is that not a struggle we all face as parents?

Do we use parenting as a vehicle for helping our children fulfill their true potential as human beings or to fulfill our own latent, unrealized dreams?  Do we get so wrapped in assessing and perfecting our own performance that we fail to see the perfectly imperfect little being we so longed for in front of us?  The yearning to have a child is a strong, very personal and intimate one and that child truly is a part of us; however, it’s also essential that we see their distinctiveness as well.  At some point, their needs and desires diverge from ours and our performance is simply a supporting role.

If I allow for a willing suspension of disbelief, I know that Timothy is a magical being sent to prepare Cindy and Jim for parenthood.  Indeed, soon after his short visit, they adopt a young girl.  But as Timothy departed from them, he said they had always been ready for parenthood.  Were they?  Were/are any of us?

Are we ready to subvert our own desires and needs for the care of this little one?  Will we be able to use our own experiences to teach him or her without projecting our own agenda?  Will we be able to train his or her growth without stunting it?

It’s not about us.  It’s not about the perfect child.  The idea of perfection is a box in which we cannot place our child.  Nor can we do it to ourselves as parents.

Gratidão

There are many things for which to be thankful:

The kickass song by a local ska group* for which this blog entry is titled.

Education – without which I wouldn’t be annoyed that I have to shift around the above two sentences so they don’t end in a preposition.

A Facebook meme that focuses on something positive and productive for once – albeit every single day of this month.

The light of a skylight encircling me and my laptop as I write.

The tenuous hold we have on this earth.

The tenacious grip of a frail relative determined to hold on.

(Oops, broke that rule about prepositions)

Humor and its ability to help us carry on.

(Despite conventions 😉 )

A full-on arms-and-legs-wrapped around hug from a toddler.

A gentle hug from my first whose head now nestles into my midsection she’s so tall.

The shy smile of my middle daughter whose quiet strength is not to be taken for granted.

Love – strong, old and new, ever changing, enduring.

The wistful look of an elderly woman – reminding me of the immense gifts right under my nose.

Remembrance, reminders, traditions that connect the present and the past and put us in better mind for the future.

* The Agents

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