Snow, Unpublished

“Publication,” wrote Emily Dickinson in 1863, “is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man.”

… We – would rather

From Our Garret go

White – unto the White Creator –

Than invest – Our Snow –

Words of commerce—merchant, sell, parcel, price—mark this small poem (# 788). The implication is clear: to publish is to sell out, to enter the marketplace.

I’ve just spent nearly two decades working at the University of Michigan in what was once a department of “external relations” and for the past several years has been a department of “marketing and communications.” The obsession today is with our “brand,” with selling and promoting that brand, something universities are increasingly wont to do.

I’m glad to be getting out of the selling game, though I’m not in truth getting out. This bit of commercial property, for example: lesliestainton.com. What does that represent, if not myself in the marketplace? My “brand”?

We brand animals. We have branded people whom we regarded as property. So if we “brand” outselves, who owns us?

Dickinson urges that our “thought” belong “to Him who gave it,” not to the marketplace. To publication.

In the age of Facebook and all the rest of it, how quaint, the writer in her garret.

Here sit I in mine, gazing out the window at this week’s latest gloss of snow. Think of it falling, how it quiets the world, blots, sharpens, defines (memo to self: reread The Dead this Christmas). How beautiful the cardinal and woodpecker look against its erasures. How it brightens, makes things new, makes us new. Takes my breath, literally, away.

That’s what Dickinson proposes: don’t turn this stuff into commerce. (Of course we do: we blacken our snow as quickly as we can. We scrape it away, and if not, pay a price here in Ann Arbor, where there’s a law requiring snow removal from public sidewalks within 24 hours of its falling.)

How to use this image to strengthen writing? To remind myself it’s not about publishing—it’s about going out into that snowfall and wallowing in its revelations. The sudden blessing of idea, of language. Old thought wiped clean; that clarifying plunge in temperature. Dwelling in this, rather than shoveling it up the instant it lands and heaving it out into the street.

Unmasked

I’m struck by pictures of Hillary Clinton these days: hair unstyled, face free of make-up, lines and circles visible (though the smile is still radiant). The Times ran a small piece about this yesterday, accompanied by selfies taken with the former candidate in places as ordinary as the woods near her home and an indie bookstore.

Her performance—at least the one conducted over the past two years—is over, the long run ended, the star shorn of props and costume and setting. I find myself wondering whether, had she won, we’d still be seeing the helmet hair and military pantsuit. (Never mind the Kevlar vests.)

There’s so much theater here—so much about the way women, in particular, must gird themselves for the stage(s) of public life.

Just as 19th-century actresses were treated with a contempt and suspicion far beyond anything to which their male counterparts were subjected, so this woman warrior—this actress impersonating a man (did she ever appear in a skirt?)—endured a level of scrutiny her male competitors were spared.

When Victoria Woodhull ran for president in the late-19th century, she suffered accusations and attacks that would have felled someone of lesser mettle. The feminist Woodhull persisted, convinced of her calling. She dressed not unlike a man. When she appeared onstage at the Fulton Theatre in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1874, she wore a plain black dress with white cuffs and collar. Still, critics reviled her. “We do not clearly see what manly privileges Mrs. Woodhull wants that she does not enjoy,” one charged.

Black performers knew something of what Woodhull experienced. I think of Bert Williams, the brilliant, turn-of-the-20th-century, mixed-race performer from the Caribbean who found he was most successful when he performed in blackface. And so he went with it—and died with it, collapsing onstage one night in Chicago and being carried off, his face still caked in burnt cork, never to return.

Why was his real face less appealing—less lucrative?

What truths about Woodhull did people not want to see?

Why did Hillary feel she needed to arm herself with highlighted hair and airbrushed skin?

Perhaps it’s their humanity which, like our own, we know to be flawed. Rather than confront their (and our) mortality, we ask our stars to be larger than life, more resolved, higher-definition.

Williams was profoundly saddened by the discrepancy between who he was and who he pretended to be. He knew that audiences were more comfortable with a cartoon black—a man who knew his place and his limits—and he hated it.

A century later, here was Hillary, masquerading in whiteface. It’s nice to see her dispense with it so quickly post-election. May she persist.

Requiem in Chalk

In the week since the election, I’ve been turning to words for consolation—as I did when I was 13 and spent the summer away from home for the first time and was deeply homesick (I lost six pounds the first week). I was attending a summer boarding school in Virginia, and in the evening, after supper, we’d sit at desks in the gymnasium to do our homework. Because I was taking classes in typing and drama, I had little to do, so I wrote in my journal instead. It was the first time I’d really kept one.

Bathed in citron light from a score of overhead fluorescents, the cavernous gym took on the quality of dream as I traveled beyond that particular time and place into the territory of language. The aches of my adolescent heart arranged themselves into sentences and then paragraphs, which in the instant of their conception made things clearer, if not always better. Night after night, I pinned my fluttering longings onto the lined pages of my journal like so many moths. There they sat: inert, visible, somehow tamed. Writing was power.

I thought of all this last week as I walked across the Michigan campus some eight hours after Hillary Clinton conceded the election. I hadn’t felt so numb since 9/11. Fogged in thought—in fear—I nearly stepped on the first phrase before I saw it. Chalked onto the pavement, in capital letters: “Stay strong.”

And then: “You belong.”

And then: “This is still home.”

The more I walked, the more I encountered. “Estamos juntos.” “Be kind.” “Love>fear.” At the center of campus, the words were so thick I couldn’t untangle them. I began to cry. A student came over and said, “You look like you need a hug.” He confessed that he was worried about his gay mothers. I said I was worried about so many people on the margins. We talked. Then he headed to his next class, and I walked on. More words, more evidence of a godlike voice among us. Praise the anonymous writer—writers—who got up early that morning, or went straight out into the dark just after the news broke, and with the most primitive of instruments (a stick of chalk straight from elementary school) conjured language to soften the hard day ahead. As I stood there, sobbing, a Muslim student walked up to me and held out her arms. Surrounded by words, we embraced.

Totems

Here in Vancouver, on a brief (and surprisingly welcome, given my recent misgivings) trip, I’ve been looking at totem poles. Dozens of them at the Museum of Anthropology; a handful of contemporary ones in Stanley Park; and just today, at the Vancouver Art Gallery, painter Emily Carr’s enthralled and turbulent renderings of the totem poles she saw during her travels along the BC coast in the first half of the 20th century.

I grew up with images of them, as I expect most Americans my age did. But I’d never really looked at them until now—at the intricate and fluid metamorphoses that unfold up and down the length of an individual pole. One creature grows out of another, resides within another, emerges intact from another’s mouth or ears or loins. Animal morphs into human, human into animal. It is an inviting, prelapsarian world—an egalitarian Eden, summoned, literally, from nature itself: those massive cedars I saw yesterday in Stanley Park, the whirling blue-green trees that sent Carr into such spiritual rapture.

But it’s their ancestral role (and work) that most intrigues me. A marker at Stanley Park describes the totem pole as “the British Columbia Indian’s ‘coat of arms.’” Clans identify with totemic animals, and poles narrate family history. It’s a rich image, one I’m eager to milk as I continue to wrestle with my own family’s past. In the presence of these towering structures, I see afresh how the generations build on and spring from and nest within one another—how long-gone ancestors grow into enormous figures whose deeds cast thick shadows. Try though I might to build my own house, independent of ancestral influence, there they are: immense familial poles rising tall on either side of my front door, exerting their power, generating complications, reminding me whose I am.

The View from Oman

Through the window of my hotel in Muscat, Oman, I see the Gulf of Oman, which leads to the Arabian (or Persian, depending on your politics) Gulf. Off in the mists of the horizon sit a trio of oil tankers. They’ve been docked offshore for the duration of my visit here—four days and counting.

I’ve been thinking a lot about journeys—this one, which I didn’t particularly want—and journeys in general. My two grandmothers, maternal and paternal, both set their sights on the wider world, and for women born in the last years of the 19th century showed surprising travel mettle. One took tours to South America and Spain in her older age. The other moved with her engineer husband to the Caribbean in the early 1920s and spent the next 30 years there, raising kids on a sisal plantation in Haiti, battling who knows what illnesses and fears. I’ve inherited their wanderlust but not, it seems to me increasingly as I age, their apparently singleminded devotion to its pursuit.

I find it harder and harder to leave home.

I find the thrill of travel more and more elusive. My curiosity—that faithful driver deep inside the reptilian human brain—is waning.

So why go? In this instance, because the trip was more or less thrust on me. I said yes before I knew what I was doing, and here I am, in Oman, for a conference about cancer, which is its own unwelcome journey, of course, to use what’s both a cliché and a reality for the dozens of people I’ve met here—women, mostly, whose nobility in the face of their unwanted travels I find humbling. I’m here to talk about how stories can empower those who have cancer and those whose job it is to report on the disease, but it’s the stories I’m hearing that are teaching me.

As my flight took off four+ days ago, I thought of that term “liftoff.” You lift off from the earth and plunge like a needle through the clouds, and with luck into the clarity of a blue sky or a starpocked night. Maybe that’s what still impels me to say yes to these less-and-less welcome embarkations—the chance to lift off the mind’s clutter, shed the routines and rituals I take for granted, see those oil tankers on the horizon and know that we’re connected. To meet the intrepid women at this conference, voyagers who in so many ways remind me of my grandmothers: their passports stamped with the record of their travels and their travails, open still, ready for the next page.

Exposures

This odd photo has come down to me along with reams of other documents from my grandmother. I never paid much attention to it until a few weeks ago, when I was rummaging through the family scrapbooks again in search of some detail about my Scarlett ancestors.

The picture—or pictures, for it’s a beguiling double exposure—dates from around 1899. My grandmother (the infant in the wicker baby carriage) was born in 1898. The house under construction behind her is the replacement for the family manse, which burned to the ground in 1897. The setting is Brunswick, Georgia, specifically a tract of acreage called Oak Grove, once the center of my great-great-great grandfather’s cotton empire, worked by hundreds of enslaved men, women, and children.

My grandmother had always told me how poor she was growing up in Brunswick in the first years of the 20th century, in the aftermath of the Civil War and its lingering privations. She belonged to the same generation as Margaret Mitchell, and like Mitchell, she imbibed the stories of the lost South at the knees of grandparents and great-uncles and aunts who had lived the thing. The lessons stuck. “It still makes me mad at those Yankees stripping the Southern families,” my grandmother wrote to her son in the 1970s.

The photograph suggests otherwise. It’s all there: the fire, the ruin, the loss. But there, also, is this baby in a wicker carriage, being tended, as of old, by a black woman. Forty years after the war, my ancestors were re-creating the life their ancestors had known. In the background, I can make out the silhouettes of men—possibly black—building the new Scarlett homestead (which, incidentally, looks a lot like the house of Margaret Mitchell’s grandparents in Clayton County, Georgia).

This is not a poverty-stricken family: the women wear wasp-waisted dresses, mutton-chop sleeves, little straw boating hats, stockings. Renoir could have painted the scene. My grandmother’s carriage sits on enormous bicycle wheels. Her nurse, a woman named Mattie, wears a starched white apron over a dark underdress. They are peering into a new century—one that will claim them all, claim the house under construction, yet still not free the people building it from the attitudes and prejudices of the past.

Here is the double exposure of family I’m trying to untangle: the story behind the story, the second image, the one that accidentally slipped into the portrait my grandmother so carefully composed, the only one she wanted me to see.

Artifacts

“To be astonished is one of the surest ways of not growing old too quickly.” —Colette

 

In late January, on an unexpectedly frigid day, and despite a sore throat, I spent four hours inside Mexico City’s great anthropology museum. I’d been there once before, when I was 13, on a visit with my grandmother and brother. The museum was then four years old. It’s held up beautifully: still that bold stone exterior, at once hard and undulating; that astonishing umbrella-like roof shading its massive interior courtyard.

The day was overcast and damp, and the museum unheated. I’d worn nothing warmer than a summer raincoat. A cold day made worse by the raging wound at the back of my throat.

But the galleries held me. One after another, they told their stories. Mostly in stone and clay; occasionally in wood, fabric or paint. Figures two, three, four-thousand years old engaged in the stuff of everyday life. They watch, they crouch, they harvest and prepare food, they stare down from impossible heights, they give birth. They are noseless, faceless, dead, bleeding, about to kill, grinning. They’re being devoured by a snake, a jaguar, another being as powerful as they.

I lurched between admiration and horror. In each gallery, something whimsical called out: a squatting rabbit, a cat, a man cuddling a dog to his chest. In each gallery, something appalled: the sacrificial altar or slab where hearts were offered to the bloodthirsty sun. A display case holding the deformed and decorated skulls of child slaves who’d been purchased at the market for sacrificial slaughter.

I lingered for some time over the last of these, grateful to the archaeologists who’d excavated these artifacts and deciphered the grisly story they represent. Unnerved by that story.

a2

Reconstructed Slave Cabin, Kingsley Plantation, Jacksonville, Florida

Why unearth the past? A man at the gym asked me the other day why I’m digging up the story of my slaveholding ancestors. I gave the obvious answers: because it’s important, because we need to confront the truth, because this country has done so little to acknowledge the brute realities of our history—slavery and Native American genocide, twin foundations of so much that we regard as American progress. 

Those are easy answers. The tougher one is how are we perpetuating this history in the present? I’ve often wondered how my ancestors could live their relatively comfortable lives within sight of the slave cabins. (How those ancient Mexican civilizations could carry on with business after murdering enslaved children …) But then I ask myself: what are the slave cabins of our era? The inequities on which my comfort depends? The shorn mountaintops of West Virginia? Detroit’s failing public schools? Chicago’s impoverished neighborhoods?

Each generation solves and complicates. We leave behind marvels of beauty, artifacts rich with story, actions and attitudes too callous to explain.

Into the woods

Eat the slick interior of an oyster and you’re left with two shells, layered like mica or phyllo, blues shading into grays shading into lavenders and creams. I’ve never found a pearl in one, though I think of Steinbeck’s The Pearl (first read in fourth grade) nearly every time I eat an oyster.

But today it’s the debris that interests me, those massive piles of shells left after the sweet bivalve has been plucked. And particularly the strong-brittle substance known as tabby, which, like so much else, enslaved African Americans learned to fabricate and then turn into objects of utility: oyster-shell bricks with which to build houses, their own and those of the people who professed to own them. People like my ancestors.

I have such a brick in my family room here in Ann Arbor. It came to me from my late mother, who undoubtedly explained its origins to me, but I’ve forgotten them. I assume it’s from coastal Georgia, where my forebears grew cotton. The land is saltwater marsh, a fragile ecosystem then and now, riddled with snakes, gators, crabs and other crustaceans. In the summer, 19th-century planters used to escape the malarial swamplands by heading inland. They left their slaves to contend with the pests and keep working the land—dredging canals, clearing tick-ridden woods to make fields, hauling supplies from wharf to plantation to wharf, endless labor. And of course picking, sorting, baling cotton. Men and women both were expected to pick 80, 90, 100 or more pounds of cotton a day; a shortfall meant whipping.

A man I met last year at a conference, a former staff member at the Historic Preservation Trust, has proposed a “Who Built America” campaign to mark—and celebrate—the anonymous contributions of enslaved African Americans to the nation’s infrastructure. To date he’s got no takers.

Many of these things came to mind in May as I stood deep inside a grove of tick-ridden woods in coastal Georgia, on acreage my family owned in the years leading up to the Civil War. I’d gone in with an archaeologist who’s been working on a dig to retrieve artifacts from a  a half-dozen former slave cabins on the site. The foundations of those cabins are tabby brick—so much tabby, in fact, that the archaeologists are using some of the bricks to hold down the protective tarps they lay over the sites each evening. Together, the archaeologist and I inspected two of the cabins where she and her team have found the remains of adjoining tabby fireplaces. On either side of a shared chimney, a family of as many as ten would have lived. The space is maybe twelve square feet. It was humid and buggy the day we went in, and when we emerged, we each picked nearly a score of tiny red ticks from our pants and shoes.

Inside one cabin, the team had found a nineteenth-century penny with the word “Liberty” stamped on its surface. Perhaps the enslaved people who lived here studied it with hope? More likely, they doused their fears and sorrows with one of the multiple pipe bowls the archaeologists have also found at the site, along with shards of pottery and glass, all of which will eventually be taken to an archive for storage.

But not the fireplaces. Not the tabby foundations of the cabins. Those will be turned back into the earth and ultimately covered with an asphalt parking lot. My first—and enduring—impulse is to rail against this desecration. Americans are quick to fault others (the Taliban, ISIS) for destroying cultural heritage in the name of religious ideology. But we do it in the name of commerce.

Some small part of me resists, however. Maybe it’s fitting that this awful part of American life—what journalist Charles P. Pierce calls “the mother of all American crimes”—be pushed back into the soil and buried in our humic earth. Maybe it’s fitting that these countless bits of oyster shell—these tabby bricks, molded by nameless, countless hands—be restored to the Edenic place from which they came, a world not yet corrupted by human greed.

Slave Dwelling

The carpenter Sam managed to hide for more than a month before being captured, jailed, and shipped south. The year was 1807. I don’t know Sam’s age. I don’t know where he came from or who in Savannah claimed to own him, but I do know the name of the planter in Brunswick who purchased him that July for $550 and waited nearly two months to receive his unhappy property.

I know Sam was caught in early September 1807 and sailed south two days later, presumably in irons, and I imagine William Crawford, the planter who bought him, sent boat hands to fetch his recalcitrant new slave. What became of Sam afterward is a mystery. Maybe William Crawford was a forgiving man who welcomed the young carpenter gently onto his plantation. Maybe he had Sam flogged. I’d like to believe the captive from Savannah found some pleasure in his new surroundings—maybe a wife, children, friends—and that these were not sold away from him nor he from them.

Joe McGill, of the Slave Dwelling Project, at Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation

Joe McGill, of the Slave Dwelling Project, at Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation

But I can’t know. I have only this faint outline of Sam’s story, culled from a ledger I discovered in an archive in Savannah the day before I joined Joe McGill and Prinny Anderson on an overnight stay at Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation, near Brunswick, as part of Joe’s Slave Dwelling Project. Sam’s story is one of countless narratives, small and large, that hint at the scope of the suffering endured by African Americans in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. As Joe reminds us, there were over four million enslaved Americans at the end of the Civil War. That’s a lot of sorrow.

I thought of these things, and of the carpenter Sam, as I lay in the slave cabin at Hofwyl, courting sleep and trying to fathom what it must have meant to be confined to a place like this for the entirety of your life, knowing you’d never be free. Unlike Sam, I’d driven down from Savannah by choice, confident that after my night in the slave cabin I’d get into my car and head north to Michigan, to that destination we all cherish most—home. I didn’t have to wonder if I’d ever see my husband again, didn’t have to part from friends or children or a familiar and even beloved place. Didn’t have to rise at the clang of someone else’s bell. Didn’t have to forage for my breakfast. Didn’t have to fear being whipped or raped or chained should I exercise my will.

The night was strangely peaceful. My mind wasn’t. Not far from where I lay—from the city where Sam took up a new and unwanted existence in the fall of 1807—my ancestors practiced the dark arts of slaveholding. I thought of them, too, as I tossed in my sleeping bag, wondering why and how. I got no answer, only this image, toward dawn, in some sort of dream state: of a hawk descending on a sleeping cat, talons extended, beak at the ready. The bird caught the cat and soared into the sky, and as it did, drilled its beak into the captive’s head until blood poured down onto the earth where I slept.

Audiences

a1

“Sir, the public is here.”

“Show them in.”

Last week in Madrid I attended a new opera version of Lorca’s El público at the Teatro Real. I’d bought tickets online and was able to walk through the long-ish queue of people waiting to get entradas an hour before curtain (at the civilized Spanish hour of six p.m., so you’re out in time for supper). The crowd—Lorca’s público—were mostly Bohemian types, in jeans and tights, on spindly heels, one or two in something resembling Birkenstocks, many with long gray hair and chic eyeglasses. An intellectual set, or so I want to think, given that I was among them.

Audiences live in obscurity, especially at the Teatro Real, one of the glorious old Madrid theaters that rises in semi-circular tiers around a single orchestra floor. The true believers took the cheapest, most compromised seats high in the opera house heavens. Not quite as ardent (perhaps it comes with middle age), we parked ourselves a tier or two below, in a crowded semicircular box with limited sightlines. We couldn’t see the orchestra (more than 35 musicians, including a guitarist and several percussionists backed by rows of gongs) or much of what took place in front of the curtain. But the stage itself was mercifully deep once the curtain lifted, and we were able to catch most of the action and the critical surtitles, though I had to sit up very straight to see clearly, and by intermission my back ached.

 

a2Lorca left the manuscript for El público with a friend in the summer of 1936 when he took off for Granada days before the outbreak of the Civil War, convinced he’d be safer there than in Madrid. How he might have revised the play had he lived to see it produced is one of those vexing unanswerables. The new opera’s librettist, Andrés Ibañez, says given the unfinished, almost hallucinatory state of the script Lorca left behind at his death, the work “seems the perfect candidate for conversion into opera.”

Music freed the play from the constraints of logic, and for once I yielded with pleasure, not confusion, to its jumble of images and ideas. The text itself became a component of the whole, not the dominant thing, and so its inconsistencies and surprises distracted less. This difficult work about love and erotic force and sacrifice and death made new sense. (A nod to composer Mauricio Sotelo for his captivating use of flamenco in this least-flamenco of Lorca’s plays.)

“One must destroy the theater or live in the theater,” Lorca writes in El público. I’d always understood this to mean you have to obliterate the tedious bourgeous theater (still so dominant—a production of Lion King was playing a few blocks away on Madrid’s Gran Vía) or else abide in it, but the opera made it clear we can’t destroy the theater, because that’s all we’ve got: masquerade and scene-playing, the props with which we perform our lives. Without them, human existence deteriorates into base instinct.

It all has me thinking about the experience of being an audience, part of el público. Crammed into a little box, unable to see, acutely aware of the people around you—the woman who sat beside my husband, for example, who kept turning her head violently away from him, as if he might contaminate her (maybe she craved a solitude she couldn’t afford). The airline had lost our luggage, and I was wearing new pants and a new cotton shirt that wouldn’t breathe, and I couldn’t cool down. I’d had wine with lunch and was thirsty, and my shoes, also new, pinched. The discomforts we endure as audiences aren’t far from the discomforts of travel, it occurs to me. Tight and costly seats. Little to no leg room. Yanked from the known and plunged into darkness with only our carry-ons for comfort. Wondering how the journey will affect us, whether we’ll arrive intact and return safely, whether we’ll be changed. And willing to pay dearly for the experience, again and again.