Books I’ve Known And Loved

51ruU2pYgFL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_When Harriet Hanson Robinson explained to her busy (and presumably happy) single friend that she felt sorry for her  because she wasn’t married and could not  be a complete woman there was no hint of bitchiness.

Harriet was a contented creature of her time. In my early feminist days I would have found this hard to believe. I’d have crept around looking for the crumbling facade, the misery, the bitterness of a woman who spent her days washing heavy laundry and sewing for the entire months of May and June each year.

Harriet married a morally upright man who for the life of him could not keep from stepping on toes–landing him often out of work or underpaid. It seems Harriet was drawn to Mr. Robinson by his integrity, but I suspect she loved his ability to make light of life’s trials as well.

Harriet, who mingled with some of the famous families of Concord, Massachusetts (and had strong opinions about them all–she thought HENRY DAVID THOREAU a fake and a hypocrite and guessed his mother kept him well-fed by the pond), was the sort of strong woman who could make something from nothing without complaint. In fact she prided herself on running a household without the help of “an Irish.” She’d experimented with house help briefly when her husband was making some money but found after a few attempts that teaching young Irish girls how to work up to her standards was impossible.

So here’s the thing: I expected this book to be about an exception to the rule. I expected Harriet to be this modern woman in disguise. Maybe the author Claudia L. Bushman had expected that as well for she seems at times baffled by Harriet’s pride and devotion to her dreamer husband,  average children and life of housework.

There is a sense that the author of A GOOD POOR MAN’S WIFE had hoped Harriet in her private diaries might let loose against the order of her times. How is it she remained so cheerful? Why wasn’t she devastated when it became clear she would not be a world famous poet? Her honest appraisal of her rather lackluster children is seen as an ambivalence to motherhood (as a mother I find this a real stretch).

In the year after the death of her beloved son Harriet wrote a bittersweet poem of life and marriage:

My Choice–to William Robinson (her husband)

In shady paths, serene, content I grew,

Nor knew for me what gifts fair life enclosed:

When sudden–with her gilded lyre held forth,

Came Poesy–bright maid, who smiling said:

“Take me, dear child, take me and Heaven espouse”

I struck the lyre, and knew ambition’s joys,–

The praise of men, and all the world’s applause.

The love,–with soft beseeching arms appeared,

And said with low drooped eyes; “Come thou to me!”

In doubt I stayed, in sorrowing tears, I moaned.

But god-like still he waited long and sought.

Till I, forgetting men’s applause, my dreams

of high renown, with cries to him I fled.

And now, serene, content, with him I roam

In sunlit paths. Nor care what life contains.

Since love I keep, which holds embraces all.

Unlike the narrator in Robert Frost’s THE ROAD NOT TAKEN Harriet has taken the trodden road of 19th century womanhood, but like Frost’s narrator she is happy about the choice she’s made even knowing the dreams left behind on the other road. Again the author sees this as a telling sign of Harriet’s possible regrets despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary scrawled across the pages of her journal. I see this poem– in the context of Harriet’s life– as one  about the choices we all make–leaving some good things behind for  things that are better (hopefully). In Harriet’s case there’s no reason to believe she wasn’t quite happy with her choices.

Books I’ve Known And Loved

WARNING: This is not about gay marriage. It’s not about gender politics or more aptly put: gender war. This about history.

Then the LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.” Genesis 2:18

For much of recorded history most people looked around and noticed that men and women looked and acted in different ways (with some overlap). They looked at animals. Rams and sheep, bucks and does, ducks and drakes. We don’t have to believe in the Biblical account of creation to understand that most people realized a duck and drake were of the same kind,  but their purposes were complimentary and different.

Let’s march onward to the US Civil War. In THE VACANT CHAIR The Northern Soldier Leaves Home Reid Mitchell devotes a chapter to the need for femininity in  the masculine world of war.

But women are soldiers now you cry. Yes and for a disturbing look at women who kill from thousands of miles away click HERE. Women are strong. They write songs about roaring and not needing men. Go women!!?

I’ve never seen our ducks declare war on our drakes (though occasionally they squabble). Same goes for our sheep and goats. Same goes for the Civil War soldier and the women folk back home. Reid even goes on to say that one of the reasons the southern soldier had it so hard is that he believed in his manly role as much as his northern brethren. Northern women remained safely out of the actual war’s reach. Northern men could at least rest easy on that. They could go fight a war and miss their wives and sweethearts and dream about being nurtured by them at war’s end in the same homes they left.

Not so for the southern men who had the added worry of their women and children directly in the war’s path. Towards the end of the war the Confederacy held back the troops mail for fear of large scale desertion–though not really desertion but an adherence to the manly virtue of protecting one’s family.

Woman Dressing by Anders Zorn

Woman Dressing by Anders Zorn

And what about womanly virtue? Modern culture decries anything that smacks of the Bible–maybe it’s why there is such a hatred for history (especially American) but as a college student being indoctrinated by men haters who blamed Jewish rabbis and Jesus freaks for everything I wish I would have opened up the good book myself and read PROVERBS 31 which describes what a virtuous woman looks like. It would have given me some balance:

10 Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies.

11 The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil.

12 She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life.

13 She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands.

14 She is like the merchants’ ships; she bringeth her food from afar.

15 She riseth also while it is yet night, and giveth meat to her household, and a portion to her maidens.

16 She considereth a field, and buyeth it: with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard.

17 She girdeth her loins with strength, and strengtheneth her arms.

18 She perceiveth that her merchandise is good: her candle goeth not out by night.

19 She layeth her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff.

20 She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy.

21 She is not afraid of the snow for her household: for all her household are clothed with scarlet.

22 She maketh herself coverings of tapestry; her clothing is silk and purple.

23 Her husband is known in the gates, when he sitteth among the elders of the land.

24 She maketh fine linen, and selleth it; and delivereth girdles unto the merchant.

25 Strength and honour are her clothing; and she shall rejoice in time to come.

26 She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness.

27 She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness.

28 Her children arise up, and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her.

29 Many daughters have done virtuously, but thou excellest them all.

30 Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain: but a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised.

31 Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates.

The soldier of the Civil War even if not a Christian (though most were) lived in a culture saturated by Judeo-Christian values. Sorry, that’s just the way it is. The basic notion of men and women serving complementary yet distinct roles seemed to serve humanity fairly well for thousands of years. Despite Louisa May Alcott’s fictional tomboys and the few hundred women who impersonated men to join the ranks of the Union Army most women played mother or lover to the soldiers. Whether as nurses or homemakers, activists or laundresses most women accepted their feminine side–many actually valued it!

And so did the men. They missed the nurturing, the companionship and the spirit of women. They did not wish for more men. Letters home were filled with talk of home and the women who made it a home. Of course there were some men happy to get away from women and some women relieved when such men left, but the overriding feeling as the war dragged on was one of deep missing, deep lonesomeness for the opposite sex. Other men just couldn’t cut it.

A Rainy Day in Camp by Winslow Homer

A Rainy Day in Camp by Winslow Homer

How does one make sense of this desire in a culture bent on gender fluidity?

When researching for my novels many of you know I “went to war” as a reenactor. My college indoctrination was wearing off as I studied history not through the eyes of embittered leftist college professors, but through the eyes of the men and women of the time writing about their lives in diaries and memoirs.

I still clung to the notion that I had to be the same as men so I convinced my father to buy me an Enfield rifle. We drove to Gettysburg to pick it up. The thing is beautiful, but I immediately realized with sinking heart that there was no way I was going to enjoy carrying it in a wool uniform.

I wrestled with womanhood. First of all I was hardly virtuous. Then came Antietam. A friend let me borrow a corset and hoop skirt. I figured as a researcher it would be interesting to see how the other half lived before getting fitted out to play one of the few hundred women who fought.

And then it happened like magic.

As I walked around owning my feminine side I suddenly understood the power of it. At first I assumed the feeling would go away, but it got stronger each time I slipped into the role. And here’s the equally weird thing: men treated me differently. Now to be fair we were all slipping into what we thought we knew about the 1860’s.

Weren’t people more polite back then? Yes and no. But the part that intrigued me and intrigues me still is that once we played at respecting gender roles we found that we respected the opposite gender more. We behaved better towards each other. (Okay better is relative–I get it, but I don’t care).

Maybe someone smarter than me can explain how playing a virtuous northern woman actually made me respect myself and men more.

Why did men stand a little taller as I walked by? The same men who chatted with me in jeans the day before as we set up our tents. The uniforms we wore as men and women of the 1860’s fit better than the unisex jeans and t-shirts we wore in our real lives. Some will say it’s just a game we played–but it was a game worth playing.

BTW, THE VACANT CHAIR by Reid Mitchell offers such valuable insight into the minds of the northern men who went off to war I think every angry man hater (and woman hater) should be forced to read it as penance. Can’t we just love one another?

Books I’ve Known And Loved

An explosion at the DuPont Company black powder yard courtesy of Hagley Museum and Library

An explosion at a DuPont Company black powder yard courtesy of
Hagley Museum and Library

“The patriotism of the people who worked in the powder mills during the war was only exceeded by the front line soldiers.”

On the day of the final explosion  Helen remembered her mother at the sink. The tree-lined village with its substantial homes and churches lit by new stained glass sat chilled by a March wind off the river. The men were at the powder mill. Some men worked there because they had to, but some came for the excitement of working a dangerous job. And dangerous it was.

The powder necessary for guns, signalling devices, whaling harpoons and later for movie making filtered into every shirt pocket, every wrinkle of a man’s skin with each tiny particle ready to explode from the smallest spark, the tiniest mistake of a worker. The mill made the town and the town devoted itself to the mill. Children delivered lunch pails to their fathers but only at a safe distance (though no place in town was truly safe when the mills exploded as they occasionally did).

Windows shattered, dishes crashed to the floor and hearts froze when the mill whistles blew signalling danger, yet on most days the townsfolk lived happy, productive lives either at peace with life’s inherent dangers or unable to really imagine that one small spark could take their lives. Other people died young–a man with young children, camaraderie at the mill and lazy evenings spent chatting on the porches of his neighbors’ house in the beautiful Hoosic Valley of New York could fool himself.

Not me. Not mine.

Jump in the river. This was the advice when sparks flew. The amount of powder at the mill, in the crevices, on the window sills, in the men’s hair determined the extent of the damage.

Back to young Helen watching her mother at the sink in their neat kitchen just after breakfast. Some tried to describe the look of a blast–towers of flames through billowing smoke, silhouettes of friends suddenly gone in a flash as the lucky men shivering in the river looked on.

Helen’s mother froze as the whistle droned on and on. Women and children lined the streets waiting, some fainting. When Helen’s father wet and dirty came through the door and collapsed into a chair at the clean table, he wept for his friends–the ones he and his surviving coworkers would have to gather the pieces of in the mill yard–a hand here, a foot with a shoe there. They picked up the pieces in a basket and covered them in a red handkerchief.

Funerals began on St. Patrick’s Day. Helen’s mother had knit her a perfect green sweater for the saint’s special day. But March had remained a lion and winds down Powder Lane where the children sledded in winter spoke the mood of the people. Springtime and green would come again, but for now life was cold and charred.

A retelling of Anne Kelly Lane’s informative and heartbreaking little book dedicated to her mother’s memory The Powder Mill Gates Memories of a Powder Maker’s Daughter.   

Support a wonderful indie author today!

Books I’ve Known And Loved

IMG_0001Of two minds. It’s how we live without crumbling into tears of frustration, terror and despair. We play mental games, don’t we? When I say “we” I mean slave owners and slave traders (past and present), black and white, vegetarians and trophy hunters.

Abraham Lincoln was just like the rest of us until he was sainted by assassination. Of two minds, he wrestled with slavery. Ambition isn’t always a bad thing for it gets a person out of their easy chair. It forces a person to declare something, to speak up–maybe the words and the ideas aren’t perfectly crystallized yet. Maybe a consensus hasn’t formed in the popular mind, but an ambitious person with moral qualms takes up the challenge knowing that even if he stumbles it’s better than sitting on the couch eating popcorn.

Better. Now there’s a word. It hardly means anything anymore. I’m surprised it’s not a banned word in public schools for it hints at meritocracy and superiority. And here is the mental game again: let’s pretend somethings aren’t painful. Let’s pretend that if we don’t like something it doesn’t exist.

Except for some outspoken and at times incredibly naive and hypocritical abolitionists most people in the North just preferred not knowing too much about the ins and outs of slavery. While most opposed it, it wasn’t their problem. Some may have read a few horror stories and congratulated themselves for being open enough and courageous enough to read the stories in their entirety.

I imagine if there was Facebook back in the day animal stories would go viral, celebrities would organize campaigns to save the Cecils in faraway lands. But would they allow themselves to watch an entire Planned Parenthood video? Would they watch a slave being whipped or beaten or raped? Would they pretend that slavery was like a clinical doctor’s office–clean and pain-free?

Or would they wrestle as Lincoln did with their own prejudices, fears and ignorance? Today in our tolerant and polite society how many of us are willing to be called vicious and mocking names for our beliefs? Let’s be honest with ourselves. How many of us would be willing to die for our beliefs or even be shunned for our beliefs? How many of us take the time to study what we think we already know because a talking head on TV or a blog told us it was so?

When I say “we” here I mean ME. In Africa the people wonder why we care more for an animal that they understand eats people than we do people. Our president chides African nations (in a  condescending way I find offensive) for selling albino body parts for rituals. Okay. I’m with him on that, but he’s of two minds isn’t he? There’s a big body parts controversy right here in the states.

When I felt the child I was told I had to abort or I’d die move inside me and when I saw the ultrasound they had to take before the operation I was of one mind: SAVE ME. I understand the fear, despair and embarrassment of believing the lie of exploding populations and a  life made easier without another baby to feed. I was poor and of an environmental mindset.

That baby haunts me still because I didn’t want her even before the health crisis. I want her now. (And yes it was most definitely a baby. I saw it and felt it).

I may lose my limited readership taking a stand here, but It’s impossible after watching bureaucrats chowing down lunch while callously discussing harvesting baby organs for thoughts not to crystallize. My heart had been wavering this summer about the foster care/adoption classes I took this spring. My life is peaceful and good here on the farm, but how can I not open my life up to the many families in crisis? How can I stay of two minds?

Some of you may wonder what this has to do with one of the best books ever written about antebellum America. This book requires an expansion of the mind. This book is an exercise. Yes, it’s thoroughly readable and full of anecdotes, but it’s more. It’s a study of the American mind and soul in all its wonderful and horrible complexity. David M. Potter spares no one, but he’s the rare soul who captures the difficulty of coming to one mind about things. He understands (and loves?) people.

Lincoln was an American man. Not a perfect man, but he took a stand and a chance. Here’s what Potter says about him:

David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis

David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis

Books I’ve Known And Loved

Why history should be written for the masses.

Why history should be written for the masses.

Men and women of integrity, listen up! The popular opinion that most Americans during the Gilded Age were stealing land and involved in corrupt schemes has some holes in it. Maybe not too many–but some. Enter Washington and Emily Roebling. I’ve introduced them to you before from The Great Bridge, but damn they’re good.

It’s over a hundred years after their incredible life’s work was completed and they manage to make me want to be a better person. If you read only one chapter in the book go to the one about Emily because it’s not just about her, it’s about THEM. Talk about adorable couples! They even kick each others shins under tables for fun. After only six weeks Washy proposed to Emily with a diamond ring (he was still in the army, in uniform–sigh). She said yes.

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There’s a few pages of this sweet stuff. Cynics, step away from me. I love this!

Now the book is about a bridge. Ho-hum and all–but not so. I tried to build a puppet stage with Elmer’s Glue once and even I came away with at least a vague sense of how the Brooklyn Bridge was put together and it was strangely very interesting (my husband the engineer glanced over at me shaking his head with a smile at my sudden obsession with bridges–after railroads).

And then of course there were scandals and hurt feelings. I kept waiting for the terrible shoe to fall–the one that said Washy took bribes or cut corners–but the exact opposite happened. I was treated to that rare ennobling feeling you get when you’re in the presence of people who live with great integrity and compassion. Washington, how is it that through every set back and through every horribly painful moment of your protracted illness that you stayed so decent?

Emily had something to do with it. She married a lively, strong and intelligent young man and now 14 years later he was irritable and housebound and still 100% in charge of the building of one of the greatest bridges in the world. He wrote that at one point he considered giving up. His physical and mental anguish too much, but then his best friend, Emily stepped in. She didn’t take over, but she refused to let him give up. She stayed with him night and day. Made certain that their house remained a refuge and made certain that despite what must have been a very heart-breaking turn of events that he knew that she loved him and admired him.

His mind–a brilliant one–worked overtime. His vision had turned against him so she wrote out his long, detailed orders and plans–pages and pages in her fine hand–every day for YEARS!. She read him the papers and became his eyes and feet traveling to the bridge site to report back what she saw as the many workers looked on admiringly.

I’ll never build a bridge, but I do have a marriage. I wonder sometimes if I would be self-sacrificing if something happened to my engineer. I’m not really known for my compassion and after reading about Emily’s devotion and even the way Washy didn’t just throw his hands up when wrongly accused of scandal but fought the good fight I wonder what sort of person I really am. We’re all always told were basically good, but am I really?

This is not the time to step in and tell me I am. We’ve been programmed to do that even with our kids when they suck at soccer. And it’s getting worse (maybe it was always this way). If every person’s way is as good as the next guy then there really is no need for history or religion or morality or excellence. We’re all just going to die anyway. Isn’t watching kids play soccer just as good as watching the World Cup? I wouldn’t know. I like American football.

Integrity, graciousness, self-sacrifice and abiding love often lead to lives of suffering and depth and in all of that is a gift to the world. When you stand next to or read about a hero there’s a bracing excitement, a thrill and wonder. I don’t know why but it makes you look at your own work differently. It makes you look at love differently.

People like the Roeblings should be our heroes, should be on t-shirts and coffee mugs. I know there’s going to be a movie and the Harry Potter guy is going to play dear Washington (ugh). I probably won’t go see it, but I will recommend you read this book.

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Books I’ve Known and Loved

51HDcX+wyqL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_I sat across from a handsome and earnest white college classmate in an artsy cafe near NYU after our Minorities in the Media class listening to him struggle with his “white guilt” for if he didn’t struggle with this and express how terribly sorry he was for happenings hundreds of years ago or last year that he had nothing to do with the class would erupt as a mob to shut up anything else he had to say. We’d both witnessed the shout-downs when another braver student (also white and male) questioned the historical accuracy or the basic logic of some of the theories put forth by the professor and other students. We noted the almost gleeful look on the professor’s face when things turned ugly. So much for a safe place to explore ideas.

My friend actually said something like this: “You’re so lucky you’re a woman because you have an in with everyone else who feels victimized. None of my struggles matter because they’re not race or gender based.”

I probably agreed with him. I’d found the path to good grades–stick in the race and gender classes and avoid the history classes (too hard and lots of reading). At the time I will confess  my only real interest in college was to avoid work and meet handsome guys.

I’m glad I’m not a slave. Who isn’t? I watched the movie adaptation of Solomon Northrup’s memoir 12 Years a Slave through jaundiced eyes–it was Hollywood after all. I’d heard people rave about a certain whipping scene, but when it arrived on the screen I was already so uneasy about the movie that Patsey’s pain (and Solomon’s) barely fazed me and here’s why: the movie felt like nothing more than a dressed up “torture porn” extravaganza. There was not a single penetrating insight, not a single honest glimpse into the complexities of the characters or the time in which they lived. The actors tried very hard and I appreciated that but there was no soul. Watch Glory for soul and beauty. Anyone remember the mixed feelings, the horror and the humanity of that whipping scene?

But this is not a debate about whipping scenes in movies.

I don’t believe in collective generational guilt. If body shaming and gender shaming are bad then so is white shaming. Sorry MTV but I see through your transparent attempt at race baiting. It’s actually kind of pathetic and a distraction–as was 12 Years a Slave the movie. Should we still hold Jews and Romans accountable for the death of Jesus? Should we hold a young black girl from Harlem accountable for atrocities during the Rwandan genocide based on skin color? Have we Americans fallen under such easy manipulation?

Here’s why we need to look at heroes and read memoirs instead of watching corporate productions which rarely get things right:

Solomon Northrup’s memoir is alive with contradiction, nuance and humanity. He’s honest enough and sure enough of the wrong that has been done to him to not need to embellish. He doesn’t have to make broad generalizations. Solomon can allow for loving one master and hating  another. Solomon struggles with mixed emotions and shares even feelings we find almost impossible to understand today: “During my residence with Master Ford I had seen only the bright side of slavery. His was no heavy hand crushing us to the earth. He pointed upwards, and with benign and cheering words addressed us as fellow mortals, accountable, like himself, to the Maker of us all. I think of him with affection, and had my family been with me, could have borne his gentle servitude, without murmuring, all my days.”

In no way am I saying I condone slavery. What Solomon offers in his book is more than a laundry list of bad men doing bad things. He manages to capture the evil of a system without losing his ability to judge people as individuals caught in that system–some are basically decent  and some are horrible.

For centuries Jews were persecuted for killing Jesus. What did that persecution achieve? Gas chambers. What does white shaming achieve? Picking at old wounds leads only to infections not cures.

As we watch young white boys and girls worry about how their lives offend everyone, real slavery goes on. Men are abducted and kept as slaves on fishing boats for decades, women and children are taken as sex slaves. THEIR STORIES are so similar to Solomon’s it’s shocking. 

220px-Robert_Gould_ShawI question the timing of a movie like 12 Years a Slave. Where GLORY offered an inspiring (and true) story about overcoming prejudice and sacrificing even life for higher ideals, 12 Years seeks to inflame indignation and hatred.

Wounds and pain exist for everyone on this planet. Only the rare person (and I’ve never met one) escapes suffering and struggle. Slavery is not a black issue only. It’s a human issue. Life and death, love and hate, forgiveness and whatever–we are human–even white kids.

“‘torture porn’ made for arthouse moviegoers.”

Books I’ve Known And Loved

Confederate Soldier courtesy http://www.pbase.com

Confederate Soldier
courtesy http://www.pbase.com

“One surviving letter suggests that the men engaged in seizing black civilians may have had no uniform attitude toward the kidnapping.” And here lies a great truth: people are complex.

As much as we would like to think otherwise there are no super heroes–and villains while evil may only be slightly more blind to their imperfections than the rest of us. Most of us think we’re pretty good most of the time. It is the rare event that exposes us to the true nature of our selfishness and hypocrisy. We want to run from such exposure, but without it there is no impetus to change.

When evil exposes itself how easy it is to ignore it. How easy it is to go with the flow. Only blind people do not recognize how thin the veil of goodness and integrity is over our weak frames.

Before the Battle of Gettysburg Southern troops slipped across the Pennsylvania line and into the close-knit towns and villages filled mostly with women and children. The men had gone to war or raced further north with their livestock and valuables in the mistaken belief that the men in grey would leave the young and female alone.

Black women worried with their neighbors. Some remembered escaping from slavery years ago. Some had manumission papers proving they’d been freed and some had never tasted slavery, but as the sound of cavalry horses clip-clopping just outside their nighttime windows alerted them to their danger they gathered their frightened children to their breasts in dread.

And dread they should as the mission of these men was to gather the darkies and herd them south. A witness to this mass kidnapping said that this more than all the political talk proved that the war was about slavery. The marauders refused to be convinced what they were doing was wrong. In a few cases  northern men left behind did fight the kidnappers and win the freedom of some crying children and their frightened mothers but in general the blacks were herded. White women watched unable to help and afraid for their own lives (and virtue as rape was a very real fear) and cried at the sight of their black women friends and neighbors being led away south.

“Do you not feel bad and mean in such an occupation?” a Pennsylvanian asked. The soldier replied that “he felt very comfortable.” A judge in the same town asked one of the invaders “if they took free negroes.” “Yes,” he replied, “and we will take you, too, if you don’t shut up!”

Smugly we look on. How brute-like these soldiers were! Never would I do the same. I ask myself: when was the last time I spoke out about cruelty not from some safe distance in a comment box on a blog post but in the public square? When was the last time I listened to a cruel remark and said nothing to defend the victim? When was the last time I risked myself for another?

A surviving letter from a soldier, Colonel William Christian from Virginia, to his family gives me hope, but not perfect hope: “We took a lot of Negroes yesterday. I was offered my choice, but as I could not get them back home I would not take them. In fact, my humanity revolted at taking the poor devils away from their homes. They were so scared that I turned them all loose.”

Note that his first instinct was selfish: how would he get them home? The second instinct, the braver and nobler: give them freedom. And how many of us get to that second instinct?

Men like William Christian are BETTER than SUPER HEROES because they show us that despite our basic instincts there is a way of choosing better even if it’s not what arises from our first thoughts.

THE WAR WAS YOU AND ME edited by Joan E. Cashin is full of humanity’s constant, invigorating and maddening complexity. Wars are you and me and they’re happening every day with every choice we make to look into another human’s eye with love or turn away.

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Weary of Running by Adrienne  Morris

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by Adrienne Morris

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Books I’ve Known And Loved

Rogers1Many heard the city’s siren call: freedom, freedom, freedom.  In the wake of crumbling farm communities and great and small depressions, many American-born young women (and men) moved to the burgeoning city of New York for work and a fresh start, freed from a “patriarchal”, rural society in the second quarter of the 1800’s.

The void of fatherhood with its moral-ism and lack of privacy had to be filled. The city was the permissive mother, the blind eye to the youths’ experiments with freedom. Into this world stepped MARY ROGERS the beauty. From good New England stock (the Mathers and the Rogers of Connecticut) fallen on hard times she came with her mother(or grandmother) to the city and opened a boarding house for sailors, corkcutters and clerks.

Mary, freed from the moorings of the village and the old-fashioned notions about girls working in sales (you were always selling more of yourself than you knew) took a job selling cigars to the roughs and the Tammany politicians.

She disappeared once leaving a suicide note for mother and the news was big enough to make the papers, but she returned a few days later right as rain–it had all been a joke she said. In the city women had freedom but with freedom came danger. Men thrive on danger (so say the studies), but do women?

On one balmy Sunday Mary went out for a walk and never came back. Mother worried, as did her present boyfriend, the corkcutter, who was to meet her in the evening to go promenading on Broadway as everyone did. On Monday the corkcutter searched Manhattan. He searched the rural retreat of Hoboken (a paradise on Earth). He worried himself back to drinking.

And then Mary was found floating dead on the rocky shores of New Jersey. The beautiful cigar girl murdered! And not just murdered but violated in unspeakable ways!

The papers went mad for the story. The outraged public read in horror each gruesome detail of the autopsy (leaked to the papers a little each day). No newspaper man in his right mind would ignore the story that tapped into the fears middle class people had about the sexualized city. And look what had happened to this pretty girl with no protection!

A great manhunt began. Many men were wrongfully accused. The CORKCUTTER was soon found dead as well–alcohol and laudanum poisoning (most likely self-inflicted, but who really knew?).

Illustration from Poe's The Mystery of Marie Roget

Illustration from Poe’s The Mystery of Marie Roget

Even Edgar Allen Poe was mesmerized and wrote a mystery story:“THE MYSTERY OF MARIE ROGET. But all the men’s stories checked out. Why had Mary gone to Hoboken alone? On her deathbed a tavern owner in Hoboken confessed to helping an abortionist get rid of Mary’s body after a procedure gone awry. Seems the abortionist had connections to Madame Restell of New York, the notorious abortionist.

Despite its growing popularity in the city and lack of enforcement against it, abortion was reviled by most average citizens. As a thing done on the quiet no one really had to think about it. Ironically rural cultures had better infrastructure when it came to dealing with bastard children and out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Until the procedure made headlines (and Madame Restell was all about making headlines) the city could uneasily look away, but no longer.

Huge crowds of protesters threatened the madame in her home until the cops fought them off. Mary remained at once a tragic figure and a morality tale. Alone, young and seduced by men Mary was left to fend for herself and murdered at the hands of a woman who flaunted her skills as a killer of babies (people thought it was murder after the first quickening when the mother could feel the baby move).

Mary’s death was retold in countless fictionalized novels and newspapers; her real story illustrated over and over again for a public bent on lapping up the most grotesque details. Public and private lines were forever blurred in the papers. Mary was one girl, a girl of mystery still, but beautiful. Everyone said so.

MADAME RESTELL committed suicide in 1878 by slitting her throat.

Pulling Mary from the river.

THE MYSTERIOUS DEATH OF MARY ROGERS by Amy Gilman Strebnick

Books I’ve Known And Loved

Live fast, die young or traverse the earth slowly.

Live fast, die young or traverse the earth slowly.

Even as college students and dirty, rotten stay-outs, we poked fun at every artsy person’s need for the right hip place to be on the weekend (or any other night). We drove my father’s two-toned Oldsmobile ironically and on five dollars worth of mostly gas fumes to Hoboken. For a brief, sparkling time we were small city celebrities as publishers of a literary/art/whatever-we-wanted magazine.

Our watering-hole reviews were most appreciated by the many young engineers studying at Steven’s Tech and the artsy crowd living in the still rundown lofts on the edge of town rubbing against Jersey City. Bar owners (who also bought advertising in our magazine) were not always equally impressed.

The true hipster crowd hung at Maxwell’s. We thought them too pretentious, well-dressed and rich for our tastes (except on New Years when we went in search of cute bartenders). Like any true rebels we preferred slumming it at the other end of town where a pitcher of beer was about $7 if memory serves and pretzels were on the house.

Here we sat for hours being served by a bleach-blonde, 25-year-old lady (as 19 and 20-year-olds we considered her past her sell-by date). Only a few years later she’d have to quit with a lung ailment from too much second-hand smoke each night at the bar. By then we’d been banned from most bars and bored of the ones we still were allowed to frequent.

No one died in our circle of “rebels”–though with that big car and pitchers of drinks we were damned lucky not to have killed anyone (a vague memory of racing another crazed drunk on the road home and avoiding the police  pops into my head now and I shudder).

Our magazine wasn’t all that good in the grand scheme of things and because we were lazy our advertisers dwindled when we didn’t bother to keep them happy. As a friends group and editorial staff our egos clashed and our interests pulled us in different directions, none of us quite reaching celebrity status again–and probably that’s for the best.

And so it was for Walt Whitman and his friends group at Pfaff’s Saloon under Broadway in NYC before the Civil War.  “America’s First Bohemians”  were not very different from the legions of young people who still style themselves as unique rebels, somehow above the ordinary Joes. Maybe artists are slightly off kilter in some way, but how funny that from generation to next generation the artsy crowd keeps in line with their own stereotypes.

The seedy bars, the wasted moments, the brief brushes with greatness (or delusions of grandeur) and the inevitable maturity or quick tragic death. Walt Whitman lingered on waiting for his Leaves of Grass to catch fire in a slow, slow burn. He nursed soldiers, kept ordinary jobs and quiet romances at Pfaff’s and beyond. Not so his artsy acquaintances (for they never really were close friends).

Most of the rebel souls died of too much life. One died at war after the best of his drinking days were over, one suffered the calamity of youthful stardom and brilliance–always chasing but never catching a new success and always sinking deeper into his opium addiction. One thought she could write well, but when the first terrible reviews came in she retreated into acting only to be bitten by a theater owner’s terrier. She died a few weeks later raving mad from rabies.

Are rebels rebels if they keep the same rules and hours as the trailblazers before them? Is wearing black as cool as when Johnny Cash first did it? Walt Whitman hung at Pfaff’s but he hung back, too. He retreated to his mother’s apartment. He wore strange boots,  roguishly tilting his hat and keeping his shirt open at the neck, but in his day the stars at Pfaff’s burned quick and bright, most dying in their early thirties like ancient echoes of Jim Morrison and Amy Winehouse.

No one ever knows sitting round the sticky tables in a dark bar when their star will rise and fall. No one knows if maturity or death is better for artists and their work until everyone is dead and gone–and even then when cool people search for cool places tastes change in art.

The names of the famous 19th century actors, poets and comics are mostly forgotten. Walt Whitman’s one masterpiece hangs on. No one knows why.

What Is Your Aural History?

What have you heard?

What have you heard?

For Northerners in Antebellum America the shouts of commerce rang out everywhere in their big cities; police whistles, horse hooves over cobblestone, workers yelling after hours at taverns and children–hoards of them hawking papers while calling out the latest headlines. Progress and wealth had a booming noise to it and with it a sense that things were getting done.

Southerners had their bells and their quietude.* When the slaves ran away the owners stayed in bed waiting for the morning bells that never came. But before that they heard the cicadas and the quiet (though not silent) sounds of servitude. Silence was stark and worrisome–were the dark-eyed fieldworkers readying themselves for rebellion? Quietude was different–a hum of rural bliss, a fairytale of peace and plenty.

When the noisy Union forces tramped into this fairytale of quietude the slaves listened hard. The sounds of big guns and wagon-wheels thrilled their hearts to bursting though they must remain in waiting, lips tightly closed around their excitement, for the right moment to escape to enemy lines.

Church bells were some of the first things to go. Some were melted down into cannons and some were hidden from the locust-like Union men. Bells held memories; the celebrations and mourning services of the Southern people were called out with bells. The heady air of  early war was crowded with the ringing. And then came the mournful bells of death before the bells went away.

No declaring, no owning of sounds any longer. Silence, waiting and defeat. Crass Northern noise moving in jolted Southern sensibilities. Many planters and slaves remembered the intonation of the words spoken from the front yards of lush plantations: “You are free to leave us now.”

And some went and some stayed and all wondered at the changing sounds of life.

As a child I remember the freight trains at 3 am rumbling through the next town. I’d lie awake wondering about cargo and places I’d never been. On sunny afternoons in late summer I’d be carried away by the sound of small plane engines overhead as I swung high on my swing. My father’s laughter and the screen door banging endlessly–these are some of my first aural memories. I live in a quiet place now and sometimes miss those screen doors.

What are some of your aural memories and how have they changed over the years?

*Thoughts inspired by: The War Was You and Me