Family Magic

September 29, 2009

“Danny Wetmore?” Vontrelle leaned over me, her eyes wide open, intent; she had stopped laughing, smiling, and was about two feet away from my face as I lay on the grass. “Yes?” “Are you white? or are you black?” She was confused and earnest. “What do you think?” I answered, feeling strangely and suddenly blessed by the question and equally earnest and alert. “Well, you look white, but Daddy, he says that black is family and you seem like family. So, I don’t know.”

Roy, her daddy, had been my best friend in sixth grade. He was one of the only black  kids who went to my elementary school. He lived just across the railroad tracks that passed along the back of our backyard, by our vegetable garden. I knew he was black and that I was white, but that didn’t matter, or come between us; I just liked him, liked playing with him and talking, and racing him up and down his street. Our friendship was a bit of a scandal, I guess, but I didn’t know about that at the time. Our white neighbors didn’t approve of Roy visiting my house or yard, but Mom held her ground and encouraged us. Her big fear of moving south to Virginia from Connecticut was that her children might become racist.

Actually it did matter, that he was black and my friend, because I got to go where other white kids were afraid to go. I hung out with him in his backyard on the weekends and would watch Roy, Sr. boil up great vats of blue crabs. My father was a ship captain, a Coast Guard officer, but he never went crabbing. And I got to walk to school through Roy’s neighborhood. My white friends had to walk the long way, to the end of our street and then along the highway as it arced around what we rudely called “colored town.” But I could run out my back door, cross the tracks, pick up Roy and walk directly to school, along a road that was more interesting than the ones in my neighborhood, with different kinds of houses, some small and a little tattered, some made of brick, with cars out on the broken asphalt up on cinder blocks in mid-repair by the owner, some yards without grass, some yards with chickens wandering around, and then, when the road ended, the footpath. Narrow and worn, it followed a brook that wound its way finally to the steep graveyard behind the black Baptist church. We would ford the stream and then pick our way up through the damp and shaded tombstones, and find ourselves facing the school, just across the street, way ahead of my white friends.

It was a great year, 1969, but it ended in July when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and the Wetmore family bundled into our station wagon for a six year stint in New York City where my father had been transferred. I lost touch with Roy and my thick southern accent but was glad to be challenged by the robust and sometimes rough racial diversity in NYC’s public schools. I was no longer the magical white boy who could walk unscathed through colored town; I became just another mark for the Puerto Rican kids bent on other people’s lunch money.

I did travel to Virginia, after high school, but my white friends told me to steer clear of Roy, that he wouldn’t want to see me. “He’s changed,” they said. “He’s angry.” Sadly, stupidly, I took their advice, not wanting anything but a happy reunion, leaving to my imagination the myriad things that might have made Roy angry, or resentful, towards whites. Easy to imagine, difficult to face.

And that was it, until four years later when I found myself again in Portsmouth, and did find Roy and the reunion was strained, not joyous. While I had been in college he had been working as a rigger at a shipyard, raising his beautiful daughter Vontrelle, and recovering from a serious injury. His life seemed hard, constrained, painful. Could I relate? Me, the perpetual seeker, pilgrim, the magical boy who had managed to extend his precious idealism and adolescence through four years of college.

That was the summer of 1979, thirty years ago, and I hardly ever think of Roy now, but I did last November, on election day. All I could think about was Roy and our friendship and what Obama’s election might mean to him, if anything. And now, I wonder, what must he think, and what does Vontrelle think, she must be in her thirties, about the racist backlash that is spreading among vulnerable and confused white folks who have seen their racial world order turned on end?

It was a shining moment that day in Roy’s old front yard when I played with four-year old Vontrelle and confused her about my color. And we were just feet away from the road where Roy and I used to race each other after school. We were both magical then and neither black nor white.

These days our society is facing a less blessed confusion, the anxiety and disarray of a vocal minority of white folks who are frightened. Can they pull it together?  Can we all pull it together? Find some transcendence in this moment, engage in  some magical thinking, look each other in the eye, and enlarge our understanding of the simple word, family? “You seem like family,” Vontrelle said. Is it possible for us all to treat each other more like family? One race? One nation? One world.

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every moment

September 19, 2009

every moment is that moment

It was probably the hundredth meal I had eaten with them and this time I was going to figure it out. How they ate. Without utensils, without getting their hands dirty. I sat on the floor with seven-year old Menahil and her two younger sisters, our plates neatly placed on a rectangular cloth laid on the rug. She pressed her fingertips hard into the parata, the pita-like bread that lay round and flat on her plate, pushing her rigid right hand straight down like a spatula and rocking it, weakening it, forcing a fault line, a rip line, and then with her middle, third and little fingers holding down the larger part, she gripped the smaller with her thumb and first finger and tugged until, single-handedly, she tore the piece away.

She then manipulated the fragment in her fingers, pinching it, forming it into a kind of cup and then shoveled it into the curry, the chunks of chicken, the chickpeas, using it as a flexible, edible spoon, bringing the food up to her mouth, using the piece a few times before it too was eaten, and then she repeated the process – pressing her fingertips in, then spreading, pushing and pulling, ripping.

All the while her left hand rested. Unused. Ahhh. I understood, finally. I looked around. All the left hands, her younger sisters’ and her father’s, sat passively on the rug. Some old fear was present here, fresh and alive in a seven year-old, and her six and five-year old sisters. Three little girls eating their food with one hand tied to a taboo and the other clean, efficient, and artful. They had learned that the left hand was bad, dirty, only used for dirty things, and it had lead to this skillful, single-handed style of eating.

I first met Menahil in February of 2003. I thought of her as baby girl Jesus. It was winter, she was a toddler and was traveling with her young mother and somewhat older father. They were the holy family, fleeing Herod, on Amtrak, homeless, depending on the kindness of strangers; only it wasn’t quite Herod, but a hostile political party in their home country of Pakistan, and the anti-dark-skinned-Muslim xenophobia that had gripped the United States after September, 2001. They were too liberal (left-wing?) for Pakistan and too Muslim and dark for the US, so they had set their sights for Canada and gotten trapped in the no-country land at the border. This was just three weeks before the US would begin to bomb Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

A total of six Pakistani refugees bunked with us that month. Our own children are adopted from India so for Jo and me it was a welcome experience to see them surrounded by people of similar skin color and ethnic background. They loved it. Finally, Mom and Dad were in the minority! And we ate really good food. Sumera (Mary) cooked dinner every night, filling the house with wonderful and spicy smells. And Sajjad (Joseph) and I would stay up late discussing religion and world affairs and humanity and what it means to be a “true human being” and what Westerners think about Mohammed. And Ishmael. We talked about Ishmael, first born son of Abraham, father of the Arabs, pre-prophet of Islam, the chosen son of Abraham, the one that God told Abraham to sacrifice as a test of his faith… “Wait,” I said, “I thought that was Isaac, Isaac was the one almost sacrificed, Ishmael was the rejected one, the one sent out into the desert with his haughty mother Hagar.” “Oh, no,” explained Sajjad, “Isaac was a great man too, he is the father of the Jews, but Ishmael was the first-born, the chosen.” “Really?” I said, but I thought, “ah, a different version of the Abraham/sacrifice story with the sons switched, and the ancient insistence about the primacy of the first-born, the one who “opens the womb.” The first born who is blessed, and sits at the right hand of the father, the hand of power and might, the hand of blessing.

Did you know that the root of bless means blood, that blood and bless share the same root? Because the temple priest would kill the ram, or goat, or pigeon, and spray its blood around the altar. In churches they do not spray the blessed blood, but pour it and drink it, symbolically, as wine. God bless America. Hmmm…

And right. The root of right means straight, stretched. The right way is the straight way, the correct way, the mainstream way. The crooked way is bad. Only crooks and scoundrels walk it, leftists and homosexuals. To be erect is to stand straight up. The righteous are right, by definition, and the right way rules. Rule itself, and royal, regal, reign, Rex (king) all derive from the same rightist root. The Divine Right of Kings, the right hand that holds the scepter, the symbol of power, that holds the weapon, the threat of violence that guarantees power. Right makes might. Might is right and a sign of the deity’s blessing. And there is only one right way. One God. One blessed Son. One Prophet. And so only one right hand. The left, the gauche (French for left), the sinister (Latin), is the rejected other, the one relegated to shit, to dirt. And so with people, races, and nations. One nation rules over another, one race over another, one color, one sexuality.

Or… not. Slavery is abolished (in some places). The working class gains rights. A majority white nation elects a black president. Gender and sexual minorities assert rights — are right. Despite its etymology, and cranky taboos, there emerges more than one way of being right, of being a true human being, and of breaking bread – single-handedly, double-handedly, with utensils, with refugees at your table, or in Montreal, on a rug, with a no longer homeless baby girl Jesus and her sisters.baby-girl-jesus

There was a time when I could pick up any object, stare at any thing, think about anything, and soon enough it would reveal itself to me, it’s self being evidence of life, role, meaning, tracings, connections — a small stone on a beach on Block Island — I would hold it in my hand, round, smooth, a particular weight and color, density, hardness, and I would start to feel/see/imagine the motions of the waves, the sand, the stone being rolled and knocked, rolled and knocked, for years, decades, since before I was born, for centuries ? — made smooth and polished, this one stone. And I’d think of the time when it was part of some larger stone, some rough chunk of rock, being crushed by the weight of ice, being pushed and rolled, pushed and rolled, the way I used to walk and kick a can in front of me, but slowly, inches a year, the can-kicking, can-crushing slow-motion glaciers of the last ice age which scoured the ancient rocky mountains of what we call New England, decapitating, breaking, crunching, crushing. Water crushing stone. Flowing ice shaping mountains, flattening, rounding, smoothing, reducing, reducing.

You can see where this leads. This little stone, warming in my hand, round, blue, polished, was once part of some great mass of solid rock mountain jutting up into the sky. This one little stone has a story tens of thousands, millions (?) of years old – as do every one of the other stones that lie on this beach. And the story keeps stretching back, elastic, to the forming of the mountain, its lifting, to the great floating plates of the earth’s crust, colliding and crushing, lifting and diving, back to the formation of the crust itself, when the planet was young and hot, molten, when the rock was on fire and flowing, and still further, back to the formation of the planet itself, and even this goes back, to the death of a star, some particular star that we shall never see, never find in the night sky, some very particular star that died, that in a final paroxysm of light and heat, collapsed into itself in a great fury of fusion which forced all those light elements like hydrogen and helium with their single and double proton nucleuses and one little shell of one or two electrons to jam together and form the wide fat spread of heavy rocky elements, great chunks of stone and metal, some of which formed themselves into a great sphere which found itself spinning around some new, young, baby star.

Do you realize that the elements in that stone in your hand are older than the solar system? Older than the sun? That the elements that make up the earth are older and heavier than the sun’s? What we think of as the earth was once a vast debris field drifting loosely in space. The heavy molecules that comprise the stone in your hand were once in that debris field. But that is also true of the hand that holds the stone, your warm hand, the molecules in your finger bones, your skin, your blood, transmuted, cooked, reformed, thrown up as flesh, your atoms too were once in that debris field, which means that your electrons were once spinning happy and hot in that particular star, not just any star, not some star, not a generalized star, but that particular star, the one we will never see in the night, because we are it.

Nowadays the question is, what else does that mean, if anything? Does it matter that we are all, in some real sense, one? That we are all made of the same stuff, and that the stuff is really old? So what? Does it help us live together? Live well? Or is it just a fluffy thought that runs through your mind when you pick up a stone?