The Sorrow of Grey Areas

Beautiful Innocent
Beautiful Innocent

In the absence of God we all want perfect heroes, don’t we? We build them up and hate them as we drag them down to earth. I can’t write about characters who don’t get dragged into pits and stomped on. It doesn’t seem real to me. I can’t relate and feel the whole hero thing is a sham.

On the other hand when people struggle with an evil reality, get caught on their feelings of inadequacy and do nothing to address the evil I feel sympathetic. Some people are militant enough to watch PETA videos and give up meat (but we all know you can’t escape the grey areas even as a vegan).

And so it was with American slavery. There were no perfect heroes, but it’s wrong to say that there weren’t plenty of people who hated slavery. Here’s how a lot of Northerners handled it in their heads:

1. We are a loose confederacy of states. I’m not my brother’s keeper.

2. I know slavery is evil and we just had this Great Awakening religious revival thing and as a Christian I feel guilty.

3. Yet, the Constitution is a masterpiece, almost sacred, even. Hmm.

4. I don’t own slaves and no one in my state does. It’s not my problem and I can’t fix it.

5. Then why do I still feel guilty?

6. And why do I hate the Abolitionists?

7. I hate them because without them I can pretend that I’m innocent (since I don’t keep slaves). I just want to live my life in peace–and I have relatives down south. They don’t have slaves either.

8. I don’t hate abolitionists because I hate black people and want them enslaved. I hate them because they pick at that sore, they addle my conscience and I know they’re right . . .

9. But what’s to be done? I don’t want my son fighting a war . . . he’s so young and innocent.

10. I won’t read the papers, I won’t listen to the sermons–oh, slaves and slavery and grey areas! Damn them all to hell!

No, The Other Brother

To be or not to be a survivor.
To be or not to be a survivor.

Edwin Booth had these eyes: dark, large and full of sorrow.They tore people’s hearts out. It was said that no one had ever seen the young actor laugh. That well-earned sorrow matured into frequent drinking binges and sometimes shoddy performances as an actor, but unlike his insane and brilliant father who begot him illegitimately there was a softness to his voice and a winning sensitivity in his acting that drew people in despite Edwin’s faltering.

His father Junius was famous and famously promiscuous having many children and setting up between his illegitimate sons a devastating competitiveness and ambition. Since Junius was nuts, but the one paying the bills, Edwin at age twelve was given the monumental task of caretaker for his father on the road. So long schooling and stability (if there ever was any) and hello late nights chasing down his father at saloons only to be humiliated when his drunk father pretended not to know him.

Maybe that was better than the nights Edwin was forced to play the banjo at his father’s bedside to help him fall asleep. Did he look down at the man he loved and was ashamed of as the old man’s nose hairs fluttered through his snoring? What must a 12-year-old think?

Edwin_booth-staudenbaurTwelve became 13 and 14 and 19. People said Edwin looked pale, neglected and exhausted but still he ran lines with his increasingly insane father who finally died after drinking river water. Imagine having spent years hiding your father under a bed as you try to explain to angry creditors and theater owners why your father is missing. Imagine sitting up late at night in shoddy hotels still a child, your eyes so soulfully taking in every last evidence that you were a nobody.

But people had noticed Edwin knew the lines his father didn’t. They wanted to take him in–those eyes demanded it. And so his acting career began. Once he played along side his infamous brother John. Once just before his brother assassinated the president Edwin saved Lincoln’s son from falling under a train. This was small comfort as Lincoln’s body was taken to be buried, but Edwin was used to small comfort. Fame didn’t erase sorrow.

Edwina healing her father Edwin.
Edwina healing her father Edwin.

People in the 19th century were acquainted with sorrow. They even worried that too much happiness would cause them to fall away from God who in his great love for these little sorrowful people called upon his own son to die for them. Edwin was no Christ figure but he was called upon to sacrifice a whole lot. He married and had one child. I like to think that when he finally gave up drinking and focused on cementing his career as the best 19th century actor that he also had plenty of tender moments with his child. I hope on those occasions the sorrow left his eyes.

Inspired by Rebel Souls

John Singer Sargent's Edwin Booth
John Singer Sargent’s Edwin Booth

“Behold I do not give lectures or a little charity, When I give I give myself.” Walt Whitman

The miserable days of yore . . .
The miserable days of yore . . .

We seem to imagine every last woman of the past in forlorn servitude to a carefree man. But what if things weren’t so simple? What if being human was tough and wonderful at the same time? What if the reason we often feel so at odds with the other sex is because we are selfish? (both man and woman)

Even in a corset she looks joyful.
Even in a corset she looks joyful.

Maybe we laugh about it sometimes. Maybe we grudgingly admit that in every generation there are men and women who smile and make do. These people stay when it’s tough to stay. They play cards with children when they’d rather sail to China.

Aw, c'mon! One more hand.
Aw, c’mon! One more hand.

Some people don’t like to hear it these days but there was a time when men and women thought God, not their partner fulfilled the BIG needs. Our partners strain under the weight of being false gods. They can’t make us what our selfish selves want to be. A partner may take lovely photographs of us on our best days, but despairingly hold up the mirror on those ugly days of anger at having not gotten what we wanted.

A real god sends these partners not as a torture, but as a lesson in humility we should try our best not to run away from. Unhappy partners are often happy five years later if they stick it out–so say the studies. So says the dusty family Bible you save because grandma said to. Things in there are read out of context sometimes. There’s this thing about submitting to a husband I don’t like, but then there’s this thing about laying down your life for your wife. No one gets off easy– even today– but there’s something to the secret of SELFLESSNESS. I admit that this seems absurd and alien.

As I said, life can be tough and unfair, but some people smile and play the cards they’re dealt. They roll up their sleeves looking tough and beautiful.

Give me the lemons and I'll make lemonade.
Give me the lemons and I’ll make lemonade.

Images courtesy Chapman Historical Museum


Provocative Bible Verses: Wives Submit To Your Husbands

Ready to Wear Clothing

Looking pretty snazzy . . .
Looking pretty snazzy . . .

“In the 1800s, cowboys and other manual laborers wore what was called “ready-to-wear” — second-hand clothing that had been discarded by the higher classes.

With few exceptions (such as military uniforms), new clothing was not mass produced back then. If you wanted an outfit, you went to a tailor, who measured you and custom-made the shirt, suit, trousers, coat, or whatever. If you out-grew your duds or just got tired of them, you might sell them to a second-hand (or ready-to-wear) store, where they would be bought by folks who needed inexpensive clothes for work.

That’s why you’d often see cowhands riding the range wearing a suit coat or vest and dress pants (rather than jeans). Also, many veterans continued to wear parts of their former uniforms for work.

By the way, did you ever wonder why chimney sweeps usually wore top hats and tuxedos? Well, the fancier the clothes were, the harder they were to re-sell… and the lower the second-hand price. Chimney soot was tough on clothes, so a black tux at a rock-bottom price was just what the sweep needed!” Cowboy Bob

Baby Contests

Fit. Unfit. Unfit . . .
Fit. Unfit. Unfit . . .

Okay, so this will probably be my last venture into the weird world of baby fitness for a while, but I had to share this fantastic bit of PR with you.

Better Baby Contests. All across America at agricultural summer fairs and elsewhere families waited in line to have their babies assessed for mental and physical fitness in hopes of being awarded  medals for their offspring and a proud sense of doing right by humanity.

You have to wonder how the empty-handed parents must have felt. Imagine you’re the doctor or judge. You see the happy, hopeful family from a few people down the line and note their crooked teeth maybe or their slightly asymmetric features (or maybe their dark hair and eyes). Unfit, you say to yourself, sadly. If only we could have gotten that young girl sterilized.

Baby parade in New Jersey
Baby parade in New Jersey

I suspect that if I had any inkling that my baby would be deemed unfit, I’d avoid the carnival tent all together (like I avoid the constant barrage of flu shot propaganda). On the way out of the tent was often a flashing sign showing how quickly unfit children were being born! Scary!

I like people–even love them– but I would never put all my faith in them. Humans have a habit of getting things wrong even when trying to do right.

Outdoor Nap for Baby.
Outdoor Nap for Baby.

There was a cheerleader in high school who I couldn’t stand. Bold, beautiful and–well, you know– a cheerleader. Occasionally I flirted with doing what it took to be popular and so once I went to her house for the afternoon. Another friend was there and while trying to find the bathroom she opened the wrong door and to our horror found a person. This girl had been hidden (not abused). I don’t know if the parents were shielding her malformed limbs and low IQ from the world in shame or in protectiveness, but it was sad and shocking.

We didn’t stay. How could we? This cheerleader girl and her handsome older brothers lived as if they had no secret. I don’t know their pain or that of the “unfit” child. Maybe she had a high IQ. We never asked. We never mentioned the incident even to each other.

Cats throw their screwed up kittens away. I understand the impulse, but it’s a low impulse. The higher one, the one that we see with really good nurses and many parents quietly raising children with autism or birth defects is the choice of loving. When we save a one-eyed kitten (when there’s too many kittens already) we defy the scientific consensus.

We fall in love with the weak despite their drag on our resources and time. It makes no sense, but then it is written that God makes fools of the wise.

Mrs. Nellie Grant and baby
Mrs. Nellie Grant and baby

Photographs  Library of Congress


Capturing Soul

There was a family and once they were here. Present. Full of possibilities. Serious young men echoing each other in pose. Attuned to the remarkable ability of the camera to capture soul–sort of. It captures a static moment when boys just before manhood take themselves and the world seriously. One boy dapper and the other […]