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.

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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

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“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.

Genesis

Through my public health work, I’ve learned something about epigenetics—the phenomenon by which factors in the environment (diet, stress, air quality, whether your grandmother smoked or not) attach themselves to our DNA and become a part of us, capable of being passed on to future generations.

I don’t pretend to understand the chemistry by which it happens, but I’m drawn to  the idea that we absorb our environment—or perhaps it’s the opposite, our environments absorb us. I’ve been thinking about this because I’m just back from a week in Haiti, a country that has been a part of my environment since well before I was born. From 1927 until sometime in the late 1940s, my grandparents ran a sisal plantation outside Cap Haitien. My mother and her siblings grew up there. Talk of Haiti permeated my childhood. We learned Haitian words for body parts (boonda for rear end) and foods (my mother’s egg custard was zeffelie, Creole from les oeufs au lait).

When I was four, my parents and grandmother took me to Haiti on a trip whose particulars I remember far more powerfully than its overall structure or duration. I remember, for example, the number of the hotel room where my grandmother and I slept (12); my encounter with a young girl who pointed to a plant in the hotel garden and uttered the word fleur (and my astonishment that I could understand her); the endless drive on a dusty mountain road; the night we dined al fresco atop a steep hill while Haitians danced the limbo, and my parents ordered  succulent steaks for themselves and a tough cut of cheap beef for me, confident I would never register the affront.

Haiti is not only the locus of my mother’s childhood and site of my own first foreign journey, it’s where my father spent World War II and where my parents met. It is thus, in ways both symbolic and real, primal—the place without which my brother and sister and I would not exist.

After that 1959 trip, I did not go back, nor did my parents. Too much political upheaval, the logistics too daunting. My mother spent the rest of her life savoring the sounds and smells and tastes of Haiti. She kept plantains in her fruit bowl and limes in her refrigerator (even if she rarely ate either), and in her later years, she sometimes danced to Haitian music when my brother played the right CD. She became obsessed with the notion of her life as a bon bagaille—Haitian for a “good time”—and insisted we describe it as such after her death, which we did.

She repeatedly asked us to scatter her ashes in Haiti.

We promised we would.

Specifically: “I want to be scattered in the Caribbean north of Haiti.” The north, where Columbus landed—a place of origin not just for us but for the North American imagination.

“OK, Mom.”

By the time my brother and I made our way to Cap Haitien last week, our father, too, had died, and we combined their ashes in a pair of pill bottles and on an outing to a fish restaurant in a cove near Labadie beach, scattered our parents in the warm turquoise waters of the Caribbean. Afterward, over lunch, a fellow traveler raised his bottle of Prestige beer. “A toast to your parents,” he said. “They’re finally home.”

The day felt as if my mother had orchestrated it.

As I sat on my hotel patio the next morning, absorbing the pre-dawn sounds of Cap Haitien—roosters, the tin clang of cathedral bells, sensations my mother must have carried in her bones—it occurred to me that Haiti had long been lodged in my chromosomal matter and was now, in my 60th year, expressing itself. A latent contagion, adult-onset.

Coming here had been a pilgrimage. We’d found the pink hotel where my mother and her family had lived for two years while waiting for their house to be built, and where I’d stayed as a four-year-old, in a majestic room (# 12) surrounded by gardens of fleurs. The plantation of my mother’s youth lay off in the distance from where I now sat with a mug of coffee (strong and black the way my mother and grandmother always drank it), beyond the bay over which a bright January sun was rising, hidden as primal scenes should be. I sat, sipping coffee, remembering my mother’s memories, knowing they would soon morph into mine, were already, in fact, mine. My inheritance.