Trinidad, 1900….

 

Over the last year I have inherited a large number of boxes as my family moved my dad, fast becoming frail, from his assisted living apartment into a nursing home.

IMG_1450

In these boxes my father has been preserving generations of family history, waiting for the day, he said, when his kids were “old enough” to appreciate them.  I guess we’re “old enough” now (we’re all over 50!) because I have been allowed to volunteer for the onerous task of unpacking, sorting, digitizing and distributing the contents of over a dozen banker box repositories of family lore and artifacts.

IMG_2225

Dad is settled in now, my siblings who live nearby have figured out a way to help him Facetime with the rest of us on a pretty regular basis, and now I have to pursue my family archives project in earnest.  I had to get a new scanner–my old one is from the early ’90’s and has some distinct drawbacks with user-friendliness.  I also had to get “archival” supplies to assist in removing the pics from the photo albums (some of them were very damaged and I wanted to try to prevent more of that) and set myself up in a little work station.  No more excuses…I even figured out my “method” for cataloging the stuff.

 

I have been slowly going through the boxes and taking out the oldest albums first, as those are the most at risk.  In the process of doing that, I’ve found some gems:  letters from my grandfather to his younger brother and sister when he was away in the Phillipines in the Spanish American War, roll-top pencil boxes made by my great uncle for his children, nieces and nephews, wedding invitations and christening bonnets from several generations ago, letters in German from my great great grandmother to her grandson–my grandfather, after he graduated from dental school, couldn’t bear the thought of entering practice with his dour uncle, and upon graduating fled the country to join the Army of the Phillipines.  These I have to set aside while I focus on the photo albums first. To date I have about seven albums “done”, several of which have nearly 300 individual pictures in them. It’s quite a volume of stuff, and has given me images of relatives in previous generations I’ve heard of my whole life, but never seen before.  What a treasure trove!

 

Yesterday I found a small leather album which, although it had no identifying words on it, I figured out was from my grandfather’s years in Trinidad.

IMG_2807(2)

He returned stateside from the Spanish-American War and could not get a job–at the turn of that century, no one wanted to hire veterans!  Desperate, he signed onto employment with an oil company in Venezuela, and when he was done there, was sent to Trinidad to work as a civil engineer in the oil fields there because he knew Spanish.  He had a camera and loved photography.  He was developing his photos under primitive circumstances, given the condition of some of them.  Many were not in very good shape, but I did my best to digitize the best possible copy.

Most of them are pictures of the natural environment around the oil fields, some of the workers, buildings, and native villages.  It’s not the artistry of them that is stunning to me, for they are just snapshots of a young man’s working environment, it’s the fact that at this point, they are almost 120 years old.  My grandfather was born in 1873, but he did not marry until almost the age of 50, and my father was born when he was 53.  So my grandfather was the age of my other great-grandfathers.  When I think about the dates these pictures of a working man’s life were taken, it seems so long ago.  But when I  think of all the stories my father told us about his father’s life–for instance, in Trinidad the birds would get stuck in the tar pits, and the oil company men would pay locals to walk a board out, cut the bird out of the tar, clean it up and let it go– suddenly 120 years becomes so…touchable.

Top left: trainyards    Top right:  my grandfather’s friend Tom

2nd row left: oil well   2nd row right: my grandfather on a steam shovel

3rd row left: the town   3rd row right: a typical house

Bottom:  house on stilts in case of hurricane flooding

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Eclipse

Did you see that oh-so-dangerous-and-glorious event that flooded our skies on August 21, 2017? I went down to Kansas to visit a relative who lives only about 9 miles from the region of totality—that coupled with a business trip for my husband during that week meant a 12 hour ride in the car after which we madly tried to locate a small town north of Kansas City where we could  park and watch.

fulleclipse

Our location decided on, we got up the next morning for a grand day of packing five people, a picnic in a cooler, eclipse glasses, a pinhole camera (courtesy of the engineer and the 12-year-old), extra toilet paper and water and a dog into the car, starting early towards our destination to “beat the eclipse traffic.”

Little Plattsburg Missouri was our destination, and they rolled out the red carpet there for the expected eclipse watchers. They have a dandy little park with a playground and flush toilets and when we arrived it was decked out with extra porta-potties, a pulled pork and local sausages concession, free water from the Methodist Church, and a whole bunch of people in the mood for a good time. We had volunteers directing us where to park, and everyone set up a little tailgate party around their vehicle and … waited.

sun

I couldn’t help thinking how similar this event might be to the preparations and celebration of eclipses in the stone age—except that perhaps—only perhaps, mind you, because I don’t think we have a very good idea of how much or how little they knew at that time about the movement of celestial bodies—perhaps they didn’t have as much warning to set up big doins like we did in the USA this year.

But like us in 2017, I have no doubt our ancestors grew quiet as the darkness settled during the interval of totality. In the skies above us in Plattsburg, the swallows appeared from nowhere, flitting through the faux twilight just as they do each and every night. As we listened darkness fell, and the birds and crickets let loose their night-songs.

ireland

I can certainly appreciate more symbolic meanings of eclipse for other events of this year—events where darkness obliterated sources of enlightenment that we have taken as permanent for some time in our democracy, our environment, and our cultures. In the midst of the darkness of the total eclipse, I was engulfed by a strange feeling of containment—breathlessness even—a feeling that the whole earth was somehow becoming less–alive.

It made my imagination soar all the more. I am fascinated with the metaphorical uses of heavenly bodies throughout human prehistory and history to signify the power and powerlessness of human beings.

gila

As the light returned again, I noticed a feeling of relief, as if I had been waiting to exhale throughout the darkness, although I knew I had not. The swallows disappeared, the crickets silenced, the cicadas began to sing once again. The day we expected returned to us and proceeded to shower us with buckets of rain as the ominous clouds that we had watched lumbering towards us over the prairies all morning suddenly let loose.

We made our way home slowly, along with everyone else who had traveled distances to watch this phenomenal event. Pelted by rain and serenaded by squeaky windshield wipers, we began to discuss the next time we might see an eclipse, and where we would have to go to do it. That was sure a day taken out of a busy work-week to just enjoy one of the wonders of being human.

IMG_1591

HALLOWEENING!

dsc_9968
Having a Celtic music band is a great way to continue dressing up for Halloween!

As a small child my favorite holiday by far was Halloween, and when I started to do research on it, it became a focal point for DogMaiden Moons (accepted for publication by DrivenPress)  my working title for the first book in my trilogy. which I call The Saga of the Heroine

American Halloween is a much-diluted descendant of the early religious practices of stone age indigenous cultures of Europe and the British Isles.   The most common name for it surviving is “Samhain”—pronounced “Sow-Inn” (for a variety of reasons, I use a version of this, “Sauin” as its name in my book; both “Sauin” and “Samhain” derive linguistically from “summer’s end”).

Samhain occurs in the middle of an ancient month that ran from mid-October to early mid-November in our current calendar. It celebrates the new year in that 13-month lunar calendar, and commemorates the completion of the last harvest—the harvest of meat (i.e., hunting or slaughtering stock to lay meat by for the winter)—and a celebration of the dead (no doubt relating to the dying of the old year).   Samhain was a time when the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead was thin—remember, back then, when you were dead you weren’t really dead, you were just in another dimension.  The dead and living could pass easily through that veil and into the other world on Samhain (which might or might not be a good thing).

100_3081
Newgrange, Ireland

If you want to celebrate the Full Monte of Samhain you would be partying and observing religious rituals for three days.  The first day of Samhain would be the last day of the old year (this would be October 30th in the present day standard calendar) called “Shogh ta’n Oie” (“this is the night”) in some versions of Gaelic.  It’s currently celebrated as Hop-tu-Naa by the Manx people on the Isle of Man, from the original celebration of New Years “Oie Houney”.  No doubt, the name is a leftover from earlier pre-Celtic languages.

This night brings bonfires and a feast to the dying sun—i.e., the diminishing length of daily sunlight as the winter approaches. The veil between the worlds becomes so thin on this night that it could tear, allowing the dead to walk amongst the living again, setting up conditions for augury, or prophesying, where people could predict the future and speak with the past.

100_1910
Stone circle, Ireland

The second day of Samhain (October 31st in our present day standard calendar) was a curious day called in English “The Day Out of Time,” or “Amach Lá D’am” in Gaelic.  On the Day Out of Time no “turning” was to be done –i.e., such things as using the spindle to spin thread or the grindstone to make flour—because this was contrary to the turning of the year, which is the focus of this day.  Chronologically this is a day without number, an “extra day” in the year, used to annually calibrate the 27 day months of the 13-month moon calendar with the solar calendar, which had a 12-month, 365 day year.  On the second day of Samhain, those two ways humans divided reality temporally became one, thus making it a very sacred and holy day.

If you’ve ever traveled in the UK, among other places, and taken a look at stone circles, you’ve probably noticed that a whole lot of them have 13 megalith stones, and another whole lot of them have 12 stones.  That’s because some of them are moon calendars and some of them are sun calendars.  A stone-age passage tomb at the Hill of Tara in Ireland called “The Mound of the Hostages” is aligned with Samhain sunrise, similar to the way Newgrange and other Neolithic chambers are aligned with the solstices and equinoxes.  These people may have had “only stone” as the primary basis of their technology, but they used that stone in incredible ways to keep track of where they were in the year, thus knowing when to plant, reap, harvest, and celebrate their yearly rituals.

img_2044
Stone circle and standing stones, Scotland

The third day of Samhain (November 1st on our present day standard calendar) is still celebrated as “All Saints Day” or, a day to honor the ancestors, in several cultures.  Prior to Christianity it was called “The Day of the Winter Dead” or “Lá Na Marbh Gheimhridh” in Gaelic. It commemorated the dead time before winter for its power to generate new life in spring.  Traditionally (this belief shows up in an awful lot of folk songs and stories), you could only mourn your dead loved ones “a year and a day” and ABSOLUTELY NO LONGER than that, because if you did, they would stay on the side of the living and haunt you.  It makes sense, given “The Day Out of Time,” for the “year” accepted in those cultures consisted of the time between Samhain and Samhain, plus the one Day Out of Time.  On that day, the opening between the worlds snapped shut again, and woe betide the individual, living or dead, who found themselves on the wrong side of it.

On the last day of Samhain families and whole villages honored their dead and spoke to them, for they would be separated again for a year.  Families in different cultures arising out of this shared past still to this day visit tombs and graveyards, taking delicious foods to feed their ancestors and saying their names aloud so they are not forgotten.

1031161743-00
Good ole Georgie likes to hold our pumpkin every year…

Some other interesting rituals that demonstrate how various cultures have celebrated the different days of Samhain include the smothering of the hearthfire and letting it stay cold until it could be rekindled with coals from the Samhain bonfires.  These new fires were to welcome the returning souls of the dead to the sumptuous feasts their descendants prepared for them. Another ritual was the dancing through and around the bonfires, taking up burning sticks and galloping around the perimeters of gardens and fields in the same direction the sun takes (going “sunwise”), touching the corners with the torches to bless them through the dark winter.  Another is the ritual of the Bride of Samhain, where a woman representing the female divinity prepared sacred breads in the shape of the triangle—the opening to the womb—and brought them as blessings to the feasting. Blessing animal byres with blood from those beasts who were slaughtered was also part of some celebrations.

So, our American Halloween, in case you haven’t heard the story before, derives from “Hallowed Evening” (holy evening), or “All-Hallow’s Eve” (“hallow” is an old word for ghost), a direct descendant of the celebrations of Samhain….

Braving Scotland…

Back home safe and sound from our prolonged jaunt to Scotland–just in time to leave for the summer in Maine!  I’ll be posting a bunch of stories from our journeys through the Highlands and Islands, but it’ll have to wait a bit more until I’m hunkered down in the farmhouse with just the typewriter, coffee, the doggies, and my now insatiable hunger for scones.

But, the gorse was out in flaming glory while we were traversing all those single lane roads through that rugged country, and I just couldn’t resist posting this lovely display.

IMG_1978

Gorse in the highlands

Our itinerary included multiple ferry trips to the western islands, creeping slowly north through the western highlands, then ferrying to Orkney for the Orkney folk festival (and a whole lot of archeological sites that figure in my upcoming novel) and finally an all too brief time in lovely Shetland.  We ate seafood constantly, hiked miles each day, found good music nearly every night–either to listen to, or join in (I brought my fiddle and husband Don brought his hammered dulcimer and whistles).

IMG_2397

Playing tunes ’til 1 am with some fun fellas in Skinnet, Scotland, a small highland hamlet that doesn’t appear on the map…

I already knew I loved scones, haggis and black pudding (even though I know what’s in them), but I never knew how wonderful it would be to have…. haggis samosas, black pudding EVERY morning and scones EVERY afternoon with tea.  Unbelievable slice of heaven.   I guess it must be in my DNA!

IMG_2002

Haggis samosas, Ullapool, Scotland

So, here I am at the mouth of one of the many ruins we crawled down, in, through and across after–often–a long slow trip up a hillside to get there!  I’ll be in touch–

IMG_3247

What is the Worth of Women in the Politics of Men?

GE DIGITAL CAMERA
My great great grandfather’s mess knife during the Civil War

 

This past weekend we celebrated Easter in my household.  When things wound down and the grandkids went home, I got online and was instantly caught up in the current election buzz—not just looking for and evaluating different rumors and stories for their veracity in news sources, but also reading posted arguments about these stories, and contributing my own.   I love history, and elections and all their challenges always feels like an exciting dip into history-in-the-making for me.

A lot of people think the current election has some never-seen-before elements in American history, but as I am once again caught up in writing about the era of Bleeding Kansas—what I call “the civil war before the Civil War”—I have to differ with that thinking.  Like Bleeding Kansas, the current election has corrupt election procedures, purloined and hidden ballots, physical violence between the parties, calls to physical violence by some of those running for office, political murders, bipartisan myths and outright lies, chaos and internecene struggles both within and between political parties and areas of the country, as well as deep seated differences of belief that are shaking the political system as a whole and demanding changes that pit ordinary citizens against the political “establishment” and its ties to corporate economic power.

I’ve been doing my specific research this week on John Brown the abolitionist and his family, focusing on the women—his wives, daughters, and daughters-in-law—trying to get clear on their actions before, during, and after his bloody assaults in Osawatomie, Kansas,  Pottawatomie, Kansas, and Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.  I’m trying to place my great great grandfather, the narrator in the novel I am writing now, in his probable or possible proximity to Brown and his family.

The story in our family is that our great great grandfather knew Brown and his family through Underground Railroad activities and gun-running in Massachusetts, Ohio and Kansas. He told his daughter he was present at Harper’s Ferry during the assault on the arsenal. I am writing fiction, and I’m not claiming to write anything more than that, but I want to flesh out the family story as much as I can with facts, not pure fantasy.  This involves knowing something about the Brown women, and specifically Annie Brown, who along with her sister-in-law Martha Brown kept house for Brown and his men at the Kennedy farmhouse, a place my great great grandfather was supposed to have been.

I found a treasure trove in The Tie That Bound Us: The Women of John Brown’s Family and the Legacy of Radical Abolitionism, a marvelous profile of the Brown women published by Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz in 2013 at Cornell University Press.  It focuses on the beliefs and experiences of the Brown women as they struggled between their expected 19th century roles as women and their deep and fierce commitment to the radical abolitionist beliefs of their father/father-in-law/husband, John Brown. I found a strange congruence between these women’s words and those of some current women about the impact the 2016 candidates for the office of US president are having on their feminist sensibilities in the months leading up to the partisan primaries.

John Brown’s sons were recognized as his “men” and his “soldiers”; John Brown’s daughters, before Laughlin-Schultz’s work, have never been recognized as such.  Annie Brown, the eldest of the three daughters of Brown and his second wife Mary to reach adulthood, took great umbrage with this for her entire life. Her lifetime spanned not only the years of Bleeding Kansas, the Civil War, the end of slavery, and the ratification of the 15th Amendment that gave men of color the right to vote in 1870, but also the movement for Women’s Suffrage which did not succeed in giving the vote to any woman until 1920, six years before Annie Brown’s death.

Like many of today’s women—mostly of a certain age, race, and demographic—who are bent upon seeing a woman in the White House for the first time (after all, a man of color “made it” eight years ago, it’s time for a woman), Annie Brown’s rightful resentment of being pushed to the side of historical narrative was also uncomfortably intertwined with the disturbingly permeable boundaries that shift between justice, racism, and sexism. Women of color and white women were at the forefront of the abolitionism that forced the hand of white men to emancipate men of color, and yet, it would be another 50 years before any woman even got the right to vote.

Racism and sexism persistently dogged abolitionism from the start.  The Brown family was fairly unique in white abolitionism in that the Browns believed slaves of African ancestry were equal human beings with themselves and entitled to the same rights. Most other notable white abolitionists, male or female, wanted to end slavery for humanitarian reasons, but did not believe that the slaves were equal to themselves. Although white men were the only ones who could politically end slavery, and men of color died in droves in the Civil War to bring about their own emancipation, it was actually women of color and white women who were the engine, the fuel, and the vehicle itself for abolitionism from the beginning. But women on both sides of the color line were well below the social status of their men, and as hard as they worked to end slavery , that did little or nothing to change their status as women.

Annie Brown’s need for women’s work to be recognized in a male-dominated world as crucial, and therefore equal, to the very ability of men to do what they did in the grand sweep of male history, forced her to walk dangerously close to the precipice of racism.  After all, since her dedication to Brown’s cause brought on the Civil War that ended slavery, shouldn’t she be entitled to the political rights she had sacrificed much for, to bring to men of color?

Likewise, there’s a whole swath of American women who think that their candidate is owed the office of president by virtue of her gender, and that has become a major narrative in this election process.  It persists regardless of any argument that the realities of environmental collapse, inequality, corruption and violence have eclipsed the advisability of an exclusively gender-based stab at justice and equality.  Especially one that ignores the narrower definition of justice and equality their candidate’s history has shown her to adhere to.  And these modern women, like Annie Brown, have no choice but to walk dangerously close to the precipice of gender bigotry in trying to express that.

I think the lesson we get from this is that the battle for equality and against slavery of any kind is so sprinkled with landmines set by racism and sexism in our Indo-European style culture, that there are no pure heroes and heroines.  There are only strugglers in the mold of John Brown the abolitionist, whose beliefs demanded choices that were seen by some as heroism and by others as murder, by some as what was needed to bring ultimate peace and by others as disruptions of any possible peace. This is reality in what has come to be called “institutional racism” and “institutional sexism.”  America’s got a tiger by the tail in 2016 no less than she did in the mid-19th century.

 

 

Speculative Fiction And Spackle-ative Fact-ioning

FACT-IONING PIC
One of the story-stones surrounding Newgrange ritual site, Bru na Boinne, County Meath, Ireland

Writing any kind of historical fiction is in a large sense speculative. I was reminded of this again last night discussing the novel about Bleeding Kansas that I’m working on. One of my writing buddies said something like, “You really have developed your character and you know how he’s going to act. You could have interpreted the facts this way or this way or this way….” But I didn’t. Why not?

As my brain scanned all the documented evidence I’ve collected and read about my great great grandfather Ephraim Nute, I realized I made decisions about his character, a man I have never met, based on speculative hunches about what the facts I’ve collected mean. And this meaning is gleaned from my knowledge of family stories, and the characters of my relatives on that side of the family that I do know. For me, the phrase “speculative fiction” conjures up things leaning to the side of fantasy, which is not what I am aiming for.

What I’m doing in my writing is what I do with spackle when I’m trying to restore an old house—a hobby I had in my younger and less arthritic years. I’m spackling between the facts in such a way as to present a final product that matches what I know of its original form, as best as I can reconstruct it.

It was the same when I was writing my late stone-age trilogy, the first book, working title DogMaiden Moons, coming out with Driven Press. All of the action in it, and a lot in the subsequent two novels, takes place in a village modeled on what is known about the ruins on the island of Orkney (and its twins in other places) called Skara Brae.

I wanted to create a culture. I’ve always been curious about the impact of Roman Christianity on the paganism of the UK. The first place I started was redacting existing folk lore and very early religious collections to extract what might be ancient stories, beliefs, and a cohesive system that was able, at least in some sense, to be absorbed by Christianity when it came, or conversely, had to be covered up in order for that Christianity to take hold.

Whoa, did I have some great 19th century folk-lore researchers to start from, along with some startling new DNA discoveries that led me to other distinct possibilities. I had gotten up close and personal with a lot of megalithic sites and tombs, and had scads of archeological information on how they were engineered, what it was like when they were built, and explorations of the cultures that peopled them.

I had a whole progressive seminary education behind me to help me layer out the ideas of Christianity, and a deep study of various kinds of Earth-centered paganism.  I could support what I knew from being a gardener, an animal-raiser, a spinner, a weaver, and a musician. I began to understand what my characters would have known, could not have known, how their stone structures were used, and why, and… what were some enduring cosmological questions that religions have always tried to answer, and what those would have looked like during the late stone age.

It’s a great time to be a writer of historical or pre-historical fiction. I was able to download whole treasure troves of information. Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gaedelica was collected in the 19th century, but the much more ancient moon and nature worshipping threads were glaring in it. Then I found a chart of the lunar years going all the way back to 2400 BCE (when DogMaiden Moons roughly takes place) and beyond.

While using the lunar map to lay out the format of my book, I was also able to follow strings of knowledge about ancient pagan practice, and winnow through the current solar holiday calendar to its historical and then pre-historical lunar predecessors. I constructed a pretty plausible ritual year, if I do say so myself. That’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it.

Kansas Takes the Cake…

Nute on Cake, Shawnee Mission UU Church

When I was done writing The Incredible Story of Ephraim Nute I kept getting comments like, “Wow! This would make a great movie!” or “When are you writing the novel?” But after first putting together the annotated documentary biography of all my research, What One Man Can Do For Freedom, and then distilling The Incredible Story from that, I flatly refused to think about writing a novel about it. I was just darn tired.

Three other novels later, I suddenly found that Grandfather Nute still had more to say, and he was gonna force me to channel him. So, I began the novel about six months ago. Is it writing itself? Kind of, but it’s making me go deep into the research all over again as I try to pin my family stories to facts while I sift through cultural and historical contexts to figure out what I can fictionalize, and what just can’t be.

To date I’ve gotten him through his childhood (easier than I thought—I spent some time at the site of the family compound in Dover New Hampshire and there was plenty of historical lore about that place), through his years in seminary (not so bad—I went to Unitarian seminary too) and his early congregational calls (where letters are sparse, I have lots of collegial knowledge about parish ministers). I figured out how to make him meet the abolitionist John Brown—I don’t really know how he met him, but I sure have some smoking guns on that—and how to lay some groundwork for his late-life divorce and remarriages.

Well, just a few days ago I finally got him to Kansas, and now the going is getting rough for me. I have to write a lot now about the violence in Bleeding Kansas, and it’s “so high, can’t get over it; so low, can’t get under it; so wide, can’t get around it” to the point that I’ll have to make some hard decisions about what to include and what not to include so that the reader gets the picture without running away in horror. I’m not fond of violent reading myself, but this has gotta happen.

Just to keep on the bright side, I had to get out my pictures of this cake, which figured prominently in the last stop of one of my “book tours” in Kansas. It was made for the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church (http://www.smuuchurch.org/) now in Lenaxa, Kansas, and portrays Grandfather Nute with his Bible standing on a map of Kansas covered with leaky band-aids. I get the biggest kick out of this cake, which is probably weird, but I’m hoping to do something similar with this horribly painful time I have to write about: show the blood, but also the love and humor. That’s how they survived.