Black History Month: finding Frederick Douglass on my bookshelf

f-douglass-wm-fisher-wye-house-1The amazing display of ignorance at the White House yesterday reminded me of something I discovered last summer when rearranging our bookshelves. Back in the late 1970s, everyone in our extended family received a book from our great Aunt Virginia Stewart Fisher entitled Some Old Houses of Maryland. Her late husband, William H. Fisher, known as Uncle Billy, was an early adopter of photography at the turn of the 20th century, and he took many photographs of houses and landscapes near their home on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. When he passed in 1938, he left an archive of glass negatives and hand-written notes about the places and people he photographed. Thirty-four years younger than her husband, Aunt Vi kept the archive for decades and in the 1970s she shared some of the images and stories with the Baltimore Sun, which led to my mother helping her self-publish the book.

I confess I barely glanced at it over the years, looking mostly at the photos and not bothering to decipher the handwritten text – I don’t know whose idea it was to publish it just as he had written it but I am grateful they did. The words are so much more powerful on the page this way. It is a strange read, this book, with odd anecdotes sprinkled among the arcane details of architecture and ownership of the homes the book is meant to document.

I’ve never visited my grandfather’s home town of Easton, Maryland, and so the locations and homes in the book do not resonate with me as much as others in my family. My memories consist of stories and recipes passed along by Aunt Vi, whose visits to our home in Iowa and annual Christmas care packages were eccentric (and delicious) but not the stuff of history.

So last summer, as an excuse to sit down and stop rearranging shelves, I began flipping through Uncle Billy’s book and near the end, in an entry about Wye House, a name caught my eye. “Frederick Douglass,” Uncle Billy wrote, “the mulatto boy who in later years became Marshall of the District of Columbia, spent much of his boyhood at Wye House.” That’s all. If you didn’t know who Frederick Douglass was (and apparently a lot of people in the White House don’t) you might think he summered at Wye House and that being the Marshall of the District of Columbia was his most notable accomplishment. I struggled to understand the context of what seemed like a begrudging, coded reference to one of the great men of American history in a book that is, admittedly, meant to be about houses. Great pains are taken to detail the homes and the families who built them, but the slave trade that dominated that place and time is not-so-neatly papered over.

The comments and stories in the book allude to the vital role of slavery in the culture and history of the Eastern Shore with tacit acceptance and no insight. I recall my mother (born and raised in Philadelphia) saying that she saw something like the Confederacy when she visited Easton as a girl. Aunt Vi, Mom told me, offered her left hand to African Americans when meeting them, and warned of drinking too much coffee because it could “make you into a darkie.” When I heard this as a girl in the 1970s it was made to seem like that kind of racism doesn’t exist any more, but even then I knew it wasn’t true. Still, until recently,  I didn’t fully realize how much Americans – myself included – need a daily civics lesson.

f-douglass-wm-fisher-wye-house-1I turns out there is a vast archive that can be traced from that one sentence of Uncle Billy’s. As I write, the University of Maryland’s Hornbake Library has an exhibition called Frederick Douglass and Wye House, Archaeology and African American Culture in Maryland (see what happens when you Google something, WH speechwriters?). On display through July 2017, the exhibit details the scientific research conducted over the last nine years at the Wye House site and the artifacts and independent though intertwined cultures of the back and white people who lived there.

What Uncle Billy called Wye House was called the Great House Farm by the slaves, and that detail alone underscores for me how much I do not know about the complex roots that connect our family stories to the larger arc of American history. Some Old Houses of Maryland has more stories and photos that deserve an even closer look now, and that is how I am going to observe Black History Month.

For future reference.
For future reference.

 

 

 

Note to Self: Time to Rethink Social Media

It's evening in America.
It’s evening in America.

The Inauguration and the marches are behind us and now the work begins in earnest. On the radio earlier this week I heard a Russian journalist warn against being distracted by “chaff” news, and the example he gave was the inaugural crowd size kerfuffle from the weekend. In Russia, ridiculous lies about non-essential news is a tactic used to distract from significant news that consequently gets underreported. To paraphrase, he said that they deliberately draw attention to what they are saying to distract reporters and the public from the things that they are doing.

My new mantra: We cannot allow things that are tangential or invasive to distract us from what is important, nor can we ignore the glimmers of good even as we expect the worst.

I am totally guilty of pouncing on the snark currently dominating Facebook, even though I also try to share substantive news.  Recently I shared numerous pieces about the departing First Family, the stark differences in style and manners, the copycat cake, and signs from the march. I didn’t march myself, but all month long I wrote emails and made calls about cabinet appointments and pending legislation. I am grateful to those who did march, and I try to be sensitive to those that felt the march was not as inclusive as they had hoped. Can you appreciate enthusiasm and check privilege at the same time? I hope so. I’m trying.

No amount of fire could challenge the fairy tale he had stored up in his heart. – F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby

I keeping picturing the green light blinking in the fog across the sound in The Great Gatsby. The careless carnage of the Buchanans is playing out in front of us and sometimes it feels like we are helpless to stop it. The voters are Gatsby, who thinks the billionaires club is itching for us to join when really we will just be taking the fall for them.  If we let the pomp and the parties distract us – if we let the real news sink under the weight of the confetti – the careless couple (Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway, to be precise) will blithely continue to put their interests before ours and we will end up face down in the water.

Meanwhile, the media will chase the confetti. NBC has plundered FOX News’ anchors not to improve its journalism but to improve its ratings. In 2015 Trump hosted SNL playing a candidate and now they have Alec Baldwin coming back to host SNL playing Trump (February 11). CNN is only “discovering” now that broadcasting lies upon lies with real-time coverage is tacitly endorsing those untruths. For 18 months Donald Trump got all the live, unedited, un-factchecked coverage he could ask for at his rallies and only now is CNN delaying broadcast of a White House press conference so they can decide whether it is newsworthy. I’m hard pressed (pun intended) to believe that the only reason they are doing that now is that it won’t cost them much in terms of ad revenue – the people who ate up Trump’s rallies with a spoon will not give the same attention to a White House press conference. But if a conference is deemed “newsworthy” they can take the juicy bits and tart them up for prime time, right? Talking about what they say and giving short shrift to what they do. Putin will approve.

2008-01-04-015All last fall we heard the allegedly liberal media speak admiringly of how brilliantly Kellyanne Conway was taming Trump and keeping him on message. They looked on her lies and deflections with bemusement, thinking surely the sideshow would never make it to the center ring. They must be rubbing their hands with delight now that the Kellyanne and Donald show will go on and on, right up to the impeachment, which will also be fantastic for ratings.

And Congress wrings its hands and explains wanly that what we thought were checks and balances are actually gentleman’s agreements: it turns out tax returns, blind trusts and anti-nepotism rules are not codified, really, just suggested.  Who knew? And Mitch McConnell has proven that even the rules that are codified in the Constitution, like those governing Supreme Court appointments, can be completely ignored as long as you have a big enough majority.

But it was the targeting of the President’s young son on social media that made me stop short and reassess my own social media priorities and boundaries. There is a lot that could be said about this young man that might be insightful and helpful, but the fact is it’s really not our business to speculate about how the fishbowl of the White House might affect him. The best we can do is leave him alone and hope that he never has to feel alone.

So from now on I am going to try and be more careful about how I use my accounts and platforms, drawing a more thoughtful line between fun and news. I will be bypassing pussy hats for corgies in the snow, posting fewer retweets and more legislative alerts, and sharing the kinds of art, food, and literature that keep me optimistic. I will continue to emphasize news about disability and autism (saving Medicaid and the preserving the protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act) and trying not to overshare the “chaff.” I hope people will share my posts that matter to them without my asking.

This post is my way of holding myself accountable: to keep my social media eye on the ball and pay less attention to what people in power are saying and more attention to what they are doing. Words matter. Actions matter even more, and sharing and retweeting alone do not count as action.

 

Homeland Insecurity: Seeking Refuge from Ourselves

As a kid in the 1970s, I was shaped by current events like everyone else. A news junkie even then, I was glued to the TV:  Walter Cronkite, political conventions, Watergate trials, absorbed the details of the Viet Nam war, the Soviet menace, the Cultural Revolution, and the decline of America’s cities. Even though so much in the news was discouraging I was optimistic. I still was fascinated by government, I still wanted to travel the world (Nixon went to China – yes!), and I still wanted to live in New York City, bankrupt or not.

The only fear that took root in my heart was sown by Charles Manson and a murder case in which a local family was murdered in their beds on Halloween night. Random, hate-filled crime kept me up at night, paralyzed with fear. In an Iowa town where doors were always unlocked and keys left in the car, I drove my family crazy by locking all of the doors before I went to bed at night (as the youngest it can be assumed I regularly locked out most of my many siblings). I slept fully dressed sometimes, down to my sneakers.

My Mom hated herself for leaving the copy of Helter Skelter out on the coffee table that, with its graphic crime-scene photos in the center, triggered my not-so-latent anxiety disorder. She did everything she could to help me gain perspective, and, over time, the words of the Memorare  and Franklin Roosevelt’s  “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” lodged themselves permanently in my psyche. I recite them both regularly even now. Especially now.

DSC01780 - Version 2If the internet had existed then my head very well may have exploded.

And so what are we to do today, when the worst of humanity is on display 24/7? Plenty of people are writing about that. Understanding that electronic media is here to stay, I’ve tried to engage my kids about all that is happening so I can get a read on how they are managing the flow of information. It’s all a work in progress – I claim neither victory or defeat in the parenting wars. My kids seem to have a grip on what makes the current situation scary, but they are as confused as I am by how people who should know better are talking about it.

As an eleven-year-old it was understandable that, at one point, I feared the entire state of California because Manson was there. But my wise mother insisted on taking me there, plying me with Agatha Christie books for the plane ride so that I could see that most crimes were not random and that the perpetrators were caught and brought to justice – just as Manson and the local murderer were. It took a couple of years, but by age 14 I came to understand that I could safely exist in the world and that living with uncertainty was fine as long as it did not rule me. I grew up to attend a big city high school, leave home for college, live on my own and hold a job that required I answer security calls in the middle of the night in downtown Boston.

Why is it then, that my 14-year-old self seems so much more rational than so many people in positions of authority today? I came to understand that Manson’s insanity was not a reflection on the people of California, that most murderers have a coherent motive for their crimes, and that the political world is a complicated place in which what you hear on the news is, at best, only partially true. I even learned that people who run for President pretend to know things they don’t, and that being President bears little resemblance to running for President.

We have all watched events overtake every President when he entered office and seen them fundamentally change him – events that could not  have been predicted on the campaign trail. Nixon? Watergate. Ford? Being President and having to pardon his predecessor. Carter? Iranian hostage crisis. Reagan? Assassination attempt. Bush? Saddam Hussein. Clinton? Newt Gingrich and hubris (well, everyone should have predicted that). Bush? 9/11. Obama? Financial crisis and, well, this. Every modern President has had to face unrest in the Middle East, but none of them could accurately predict how they would handle it until they were sworn in.

Most Americans don’t have to dig too far back into their family history to find someone running from something. Religious persecution, potato famine, Nazis, war, poverty. People came here for freedom and shelter, and I don’t think all of them turned out to be model citizens; for every Dzhokhar Tsarnaev you can find a Sacco and Vanzetti. Every family tree has a bad apple if you look back a generation or two.

So why do we think that barring refugees from Syria – the few we have agreed to accept – is either justifiable or practical?  Plenty of Americans commit acts of terrorism against each other; how might we reduce the odds of that happening? Let’s see. Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina all have has a murder rates more than double the one here – can we stop the clearly untrustworthy southerners at the border of of my northern state? How is that less ridiculous than maligning an entire country or religion? What is the difference between opening fire on a theater in Paris and opening fire on a movie theater in Colorado? Mister Trump, we are our own Trojan Horse.

Hate has no home state – or country.

It’s not like the current refugee programs aren’t vetting the refugees from war torn countries who currently enter the US. The idea that up until now refugees from middle eastern nations have been flowing over the borders unfettered is preposterous. Even the translators who aid and protect US soldiers and journalists have a tough time getting the asylum they were promised. The current vetting process is long and security checks are required; it can take as long as two years (and once Congress is finished, will likely take longer). As reported today, of the 1800 Syrians who have been granted refugee status in the last two years, half of them are children and one quarter of them are elderly; only 2% are single men.

The governors and congresspeople say they want to stop the already glacial flow of refugees so they can look to see if our laws and procedures are sufficient to protect Americans to threats from abroad. But most of them are not the least bit interested in protecting us from the threats from our fellow countrymen. Regardless of heritage (or religion), there are more American citizens murdering other Americans now in the space of a year than terrorists have, ever. We all know there are few barriers to anyone who wants to procure an assault weapon in the US. I’m all for a review of the laws and procedures that affect our national interests and personal safety –  as long as gun safety is on the agenda.

I hope we can learn from history and look at the facts about what and whom we really have to worry about. Meanwhile, I’m saying a  prayer for the world.

Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary,
that never was it known that anyone who fled to your protection,
implored your help or sought your intercession,
was left unaided.

Inspired with this confidence,
I fly to you, O Virgin of virgins, my Mother;
to you do I come, before you I stand, sinful and sorrowful.

O Mother of the Word Incarnate,
despise not my petitions,
but in your mercy hear and answer me.

Amen.

A Machine with No Message or Heart: How the Democrats Blew It in 2014

It’s your President, stupid.

Democrats failed to stand by or tout the many successes of their sitting President, instead trying to distance themselves from him. Barack Obama is – and deserves to be – their standard bearer, their moral compass, the sign of all is that is good about their party. If they’re disenchanted with their leader then we have every right to be disenchanted with them.

Lesson? You can’t whine or scold your way to victory if you are an incumbent, and you can’t mobilize voters by talking about how good you are at mobilizing voters. People will listen to outsiders who complain about insiders, but when incumbents complain about the opposition (who don’t have to back up their claims with facts, it seems), voters don’t take them seriously.

Democrats cut and run on Barack Obama because that is what the pundits told them happens in mid-term elections, and now they don’t have any credibility with which to pave a positive road the White House in 2016. They could have talked about the good points in the economic recovery, the improved oversight of Wall Street, the benefits of Obamacare, the greatly reduced budget deficit, the ascending housing, job and stock markets and (just this morning, preliminary reports of 230K more private sector jobs in October) and then gone on to talk about how there is so much more work to be done in all of these areas. If they don’t know how to tout their own success and go forward with a vision, why should we vote for them?

Instead, Democrats not only bailed on a President they should have been supporting, they focused on all the wrong issues – things like reproductive rights, voter ID laws and gay marriage. Those are not local or economic enough to sway a voter that thinks Congress is stuck – they smack of telling people what is good for them because they are too dumb to figure it out for themselves. Voters are smart enough to know that their congressman or governor has no real control over those non-paycheck issues and women don’t want to be shamed into a feminist vote. When in doubt, vote for the one who promises to leave you alone and not to raise your taxes – the latter is a key promise people can keep track of very easily.

It was wrong to let Elizabeth Warren, Al Franken and Bernie Sanders (an Independent, it should be noted) do all the heavy lifting, but at least they each had something to say that was worth hearing. All three of them delivered messages that were rich in facts but also exuded warmth and humor and a desire to connect with people – everyone else seemed to be talking to a demographic. Elizabeth Warren was able to be candid about missed opportunities during the present administration but she never lost sight of the passion and core ideals that have people talking about her as a presidential hopeful – but apparently most of the people who heard her speak liked her, but not enough to elect the people she was stumping for. (Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, didn’t do herself or her party any favors by joining the chorus and disparaging the administration that gave her the gravitas she needed to bolster own run for the White House.)

The good old days: Deval Patrick is elected Governor of Massachusetts, 2006
The good old days: Deval Patrick is elected Governor of Massachusetts, 2006

In Massachusetts, the most inspiring speech I heard all election season was outgoing Governor Deval Patrick’s eulogy for Boston Mayor Tom Menino. The Governor reminded us that the best public servants do their work not by belittling their opponents and getting out their base but by listening to individual people and making their daily lives better, one street at a time. He praised the famously mumbling Mayor by saying that “you always knew what he meant and, more importantly, that he meant what he said.” Governor Patrick and the late Mayor share what was so woefully lacking in this election: the ability to show us what is good about our world and demonstrate the ability to deliver on a promise to make it even better.

Why is that so hard?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not Crazy About Halloween But I Am Mad for Cemeteries

IMG_0051Halloween does not thrill me beyond a smiling Jack-O-Lantern and a Butterfinger. The Shining still gives me nightmares after 30 years and my heart aches with empathy at the sound of Charlie Brown saying “I got a rock.” If I never see or hear of another zombie or vampire again it will be just fine with me. But I love cemeteries and I visit them all the time.

Growing up, we used to go to the  cemetery with our Dad to visit the family plot. A beautiful spot overlooking the Cedar River, Greenwood Cemetery in Cedar Falls, Iowa, hasn’t even a whiff of Halloween spookiness to it, at least not for me. It is twentieth century tidy: groomed, pretty linear with elegant but largely unremarkable gravestones, and those fabulous old growth trees that are probably the real reason I love all cemeteries so much. The trees stand like guardian angels. Under their branches is a sanctuary for the living among the dead.

So today is Halloween and earlier this week a blanket of fog curled around our old New England cemetery and this one is made to order for All Hallows Eve. Thus, I am compelled to chronicle my early morning walk among the long departed.

IMG_0066

The morning sun, masquerading as a rising moon, kisses the tops of an 18th century family plot. When I see stones like this so identical and lines up so perfectly I always wonder who designed it and whether they ordered them made all at once. My great grandfather was an undertaker back in Newton, Iowa, but I am woefully uneducated about cemetery protocol. I see research in my future.

IMG_0100This family’s plot didn’t account for nearby trees upsetting their row of markers – not only are they out of line, one grave has only the base left. And this causes me to think that, in the digital age, for some people it’s entirely possible that markers such as these might be the only tangible thing we leave behind.

IMG_0072And then I look up and see that this baby, gone for over 100 years now, is no known to me because I walked by on this day. I am always touched by the nameless children who are so lovingly remembered by their families. Some people – okay, a lot of people – think it’s morbid to visit and speculate in this way but I am intrigued comforted by the directness with which previous generations faced and commemorated death. These days it seems like people will do anything to avoid acknowledging the inevitable. I am grateful for the people in my life – yes, Irish – who are unflinching and (sometimes) celebratory in facing death. I don’t always share the revelry but I deeply appreciate the sentiment and faith that unpin it.

IMG_0118Above, conjoined on the left if you can see it, is something you don’t encounter as often in more modern cemeteries: the roles take precedence over the names. We know that mother and father rest here, but their given names are long obscured by time and weather. It’s also often true that the flags of soldiers are affixed to the telltale star-shaped holders but the names are no longer legible: all we know is that they served.

IMG_0109And then there are the various lines of demarcation between family plots. Chains certainly send an interesting message from the hereafter; there will be no fraternizing with others ghosts for these folks. I would love to eavesdrop on the conversations and circumstances that led to the placement of these chains. There’s a story here for sure.

IMG_0090

I always mean to look up the science behind the stone itself – why is it that Martha Pierce’s 1848 stone is so legible while others that are centuries newer have been wiped clean by the elements? I love everything about this – the color, the use of type, the spacing, even the weathering, it’s all perfect.

IMG_0060

Space is at a premium in the oldest cemeteries (though this town has one that is even older than this, aptly named The Old Burying Ground), and some folks bought space near the storage house. It all adds to the charm, and probably the politics, too.

IMG_0080Finally, there are the colors – the leaves and mosses and vines – and how they complement and define the incredible shapes that show the styles and workmanship of centuries. Modern public spaces value uniformity but history is random and people are finicky even in death (or maybe especially in death). They had one more chance to make their mark, and most of them made it count.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur parents are buried in a National Cemetery in the Midwest and when I visit, the rows of white stones take my breath away with their undulating precision. But then, for a moment, I’m not sure I’m even in the right section and we are lost to each other until I can make their names out and know that I am in the right place after all. There is comfort in knowing their engravings won’t be wiped away and that the whole area will be well-tended, but it makes me all the more determined to remember them in other ways. I am reminded as I look through the photographs that “mother” and “grandmother” are engraved under Mom’s name – I had forgotten that.

I am too far away to make the weekly pilgrimages my father made to his family and I wish now I knew what he was thinking on those days when we looked down at the river, but I know that even though I am walking among strangers, they are both with me (and laughing).

 

New England Garden Notebook: September Blooms and Colors

September is the time when the trees start to take center stage for the big show in October, but it’s heavenly because the garden is making it’s last burst and no matter where you look something beautiful is going on.

The blue heron is used to the whirr and click of my camera now but still flies away if I get too close (above). Right now it seems odd to post what is just outside the window but winter will be here all too soon and then I will be glad to have these to scroll through when it’s all buried under the snow.

On the porch, the pots hold onto the pinks and blues of spring.
On the porch, the pots hold onto the pinks and blues of spring.
Called Autumn Joy for a reason, the sedum that was the first to emerge in spring finally gets its moment.
Called Autumn Joy for a reason, the sedum that was the first to emerge in spring finally gets its moment.
The geraniums are starting to look a little spindly but have a few fresh summer colors left in them.
The geraniums are starting to look a little spindly but have a few fresh summer colors left in them.
The Limelight hydrangeas are new this year and while a little top heavy they change colors with the season just like they promised.
The Limelight hydrangeas are new this year and while a little top heavy they change colors with the season just like they promised.

But it’s the juxtaposition of leaves and changing blooms that seems to squeeze the entire growing season into one photo. Below are three versions of the same shot, each focused differently: first the phlox, then the hydrangea and then the changing ivy.

The phlox has been blooming all summer long.
The phlox has been blooming all summer long.
The hydrangea (new this year) bloomed mid July and has buds even now.
The hydrangea bloomed mid July and has buds even now.
And the ivy previews what is turning out to be a spectacular fall color season.
And the ivy previews what is turning out to be a spectacular fall color season.

We are at that point where it is too late to put in anything new (no new bulbs going in this year, I think) and not time to cut things down or rake, so we’ll just sit back and watch the show – I already posted some of the spectacular colors of October.