Scorched Earth

Every once in a while you suddenly discover in your search through secondhand books an absolute gem, a book that stands out from the rest with its sparkling prose and hidden depths. Scorched Earth by David L Robins (Orion 2002) is one such gem.

The basic storyline is of a white woman, Clare, and her black husband, Elijah, whose mixed race baby, Nora Carol, dies shortly after birth. The white woman’s grandmother, Rosy Epps,  arranges with Pastor Thomas Derby for the child to be buried in her family plot in the graveyard of Victory Baptist Church where Epps is a deacon. The burial takes place, but when the other deacons find out they hold a meeting and refuse permission for the burial on the grounds of the child being mixed race. The child is then disinterred the following morning and transferred to the black cemetery up the road. That night the white church is burnt down and the man arrested for the arson is the baby’s father, Elijah, who declares his innocence.  What follows  is an intricately plotted, insightful and moving story, a legal case that reveals hosts of hidden prejudices and secrets that ignite rage and hatred.

What I love about the novel is that it spoke to me about identity and classification, about where and to whom people belong. I am a white grandmother of a blended family with a mixed race grandson so the issue is quite close to my heart, particularly in these troubling times. The novel raises issues about what it is to be ‘family’ or ‘community’, what part history, tradition and inheritance play in our psyche, and gets us to question, who are ‘our people’? And all this it does  in exquisite prose that delights me, captivating me right from  the opening chapter:

The place where they lie making the child is beautiful. They lie on a bed of ferns, which like a cushion of feathers, tickles them. Only a few strides off the old dirt road, they are beneath a tall red oak, thick as a chimney, bearded with gray bark: the tree is a gentle old presence.

If they were to stand on that spot they could see the fields. South lie forty acres of beans, leafy and ripe for harvest machinery resting now after church this Sunday afternoon. High pines and turning sugar maples make this field a green leafy loch where every breeze riffles. North of the road, beyond barbed wire and honeysuckle, is a cleared pasture for the cows, which are out of sight behind hills that rise and roll down, suggesting by their smooth undulation the couple lying under the oak.

He is a black man, blacker than everything, blacker than the soil of the road, everything but the crows. His name is Elijah, named by his mother for the loudest of the Hebrew prophets, though he has not grown into a loud man. He is silent as his skin, as the dark of a well.

Beneath him, wrapping him like roots seeking water, is his wife, Clare. Her green eyes closed behind white, blue-veined lids. Waist-length blond hair spreads over ferns and under her back. She kisses him and their tongues twine.

A band of starlings crisscrosses the field. The ebon birds strike something invisible at the center of the field and disperse, to clot again and circle some more, somewhat aimlessly. Clare and Elijah, tangled together, white and black, are absolutes, the presence and absence of all colors at once, sharing a smooth, perfect motion.

When Clare falls for Elijah, colour is no longer an issue:

She will remember this moment when Elijah’s blackness became not something missing from what she was but a remarkable presence not bound or described by color. She opens her mouth in a moment of shame, fleeting like a pinprick, fast and sharp, for ever having felt whatever ugliness it was she had just said goodbye to.

The couple are asked to sit on a Diversity committee at the paper mill where they both work but as Elijah says ‘This is y’all’s problem’ and Clare refuses to be used – ‘I’m sorry, but we’re not your damn role models’. However, in the aftermath of the tragedy of Nora Carol tensions escalate and soon both Clare and Elijah feel the effects of the problems others have with their relationship.

At the meeting of church deacons the Pastor is urging them to exercise compassion and leave the dead child where she is, but the response he gets is:

I like Elijah, by God I do, and I feel awful for what’s happened to him. But that don’t mean I want to buried with him or his kin. That poor baby ought to be laid to rest in a place surrounded by her own people, and that place isn’t here, it’s up the road.

And so begins a course of actions that divide a community, entrench latent prejudices where nothing and no-one will ever be the same, not even the reader.

As it says in the epigram for the novel:

The line separating good and evil 

passes not through states,

nor between classes,

nor between parties either,

But right through the human heart.

Aleksander Solzhenitsyn

Silent Spring

It’s spring. Snowdrops have been out for a while, their pristine white heads bobbing in the winds, the green of their stalks rising up out of the crustiness of frost and snow. Spring is the time for hope, the start of a new cycle of re-birth, yet it has been another depressing week.

Listening to the news, watching the Trump machine bulldozing its way over human rights and decency and Theresa May toadying up to him hasn’t helped my mood. Nor has the recognition that 27 Jan was International Holocaust Remembrance Day and today is the 70th anniversary of Ghandi’s assassination. Life is always moving, is in a state of perpetual change, but some of these changes I can do without. They indicate that we have learnt nothing despite the murder of millions of people who happened to believe or worship differently to others, and we seem to be turning full circle to those times again.

It’s easy to get depressed and give up watching the news, of getting media overload and want to withdraw into a cave somewhere. But as Toni Morrison wrote in her essay entitled ‘No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear,’ included in the 150th anniversary issue of The Nation “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” And so I blog.

For the last 3 days there has been ‘The Big Bang Weekend’ in Wigtown, (near where I live) a series of lectures and readings celebrating women in science. Then coincidentally this morning  I read about Rachel Carson, a scientist/writer whose book Silent Spring was responsible for persuading the JFK administration to introduce federal laws to regulate the use of pesticides. As a woman she was up against tremendous prejudice and her critics in big business were keen to have her discredited. Yet nothing, not even dying of cancer, prevented her from doing what she believed to be right.

“She had been diagnosed with cancer in 1960, which had metastasized due to her doctor’s negligence. In 1963, when Silent Spring stirred President Kennedy’s attention and he summoned a Congressional hearing to investigate and regulate the use of pesticides, Carson didn’t hesitate to testify even as her body was giving out from the debilitating pain of the disease and the wearying radiation treatments. With her testimony as a pillar, JFK and his Science Advisory Committee invalidated her critics’ arguments, heeded Carson’s cautionary call to reason, and created the first federal policies designed to protect the planet. “(The Writing of “Silent Spring”: Rachel Carson and the Culture-Shifting Courage to Speak Inconvenient Truth to Power by Maria Popova, Brain Pickings Weekly Newsletter 30 Jan 2017)

What she achieved is amazing in itself, but that she did so during a period of extreme pain in the knowledge that she was dying, is astonishing. If only other people followed through with the same commitment. I find this quote from James Comey, Head of FBI, particularly ironic.

“The need for reflection and restraint of power is what led Louis Freeh to order that all new agent classes visit the Holocaust Museum here in Washington so they could see and feel and hear in a palpable way the consequences of abuse of power on a massive, almost unimaginable scale.”

I wonder if he’s mentioned this to his new Commander-in-Chief? Hmmmm.

However, it is spring, so let’s end on a positive note with this quote from Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

The happiness of life is made up of little charities of a kiss or a smile, a kind look, a heartfelt compliment.”

The big picture can look bleak at the moment, but let’s not forget the little things that can make a difference to someone, and remember the strength, determination and sacrifice of those who have gone before.

 

 

 

 

 

The Holocaust illustrates the consequences of prejudice, racism and stereotyping on a society. It forces us to examine the responsibilities of citizenship and confront the powerful ramifications of indifference and inaction. Tim Holden

Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/holocaust.html

 

I certainly think that another Holocaust can happen again. It did already occur; think of Cambodia, Rwanda, and Bosnia. Miep Gies

Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/holocaust.html

 

We in the United States should be all the more thankful for the freedom and religious tolerance we enjoy. And we should always remember the lessons learned from the Holocaust, in hopes we stay vigilant against such inhumanity now and in the future. Charlie Dent

Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/holocaust.html

 

 

Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/holocaust.html

 

“Ain’t Nobody’s Fault But Mine….”

This traditional song was recorded by Blind Willie Johnson in 1927. My first encounter with it was back in 1967, sung by John Renbourne, but in 1969 it was recorded by Nina Simone and her version became the definitive one for me. The song tells of a spiritual struggle, with reading the Bible as the path to salvation, or, rather, the failure to read it leading to damnation.

“Blind Willie Johnson recorded the song in a time when illiteracy was common in the rural South. Blinded as a young child, Johnson was singing this song as a warning to those who had learned to read, but concerned themselves too much with earthly matters, but Johnson tries to point the way to salvation. He admits to having fault, and he blames himself for not taking advantage of the skill he has, reading, and saving himself. The context of this song is strictly religious. It is a melancholy expression of his spirit, as the blues style echoes the depths of his guilt and his struggle.” Wikipedia

The context of this song may be strictly religious, but my interpretation is: ‘Appreciate your gifts and take responsibility for your actions’. Something that seems to get blurred in today’s blame culture. Being a lover of words I know the difference between ‘blame’ and ‘responsibility’ but recently had to examine those differences in the context of domestic abuse when reading ‘A Suitable Lie’ by Michael Malone.

This novel reverses the traditional view and places the man on the receiving end of an abusive relationship. It charts the escalation of abuse and explores the emotions involved, the attitudes of the victim, police, family and friends of the victim, questioning what it is to be a man and what it means to stay.

Domestic abuse will affect 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men in their lifetime. It leads to, on average, two women being murdered each week and 30 men per year. It accounts for 16% of all violent crime, but it is still the violent crime least likely to be reported to the police,  has more repeat victims than any other and leaving the relationship does not automatically mean that the abuse will stop and the victims will then be safe. People experiencing abuse don’t accept what is happening to them but they may try to cope with it, avoid it, understand it or try to fix it. They may minimise what is happening, blame themselves, feeling ashamed, embarrassed and alone. (Source: http://www.lwa.org)

I found reading the novel very disturbing. I have stayed in relationships far longer than was healthy and whilst I’ve never experienced the level of violence portrayed in the novel, I’ve experienced the same gamut of feelings the victim does. In no way did I ‘blame’ the victim, thinking he brought it on himself, but like an ex-smoker who has an evangelical purge on smokers, I wanted to shout at him.

Emotional entanglements are difficult to cope with, especially if we use love as an excuse for fear. Fear of retaliations, of being alone, seeming a failure, letting people down, abandoning someone with mental health problems etc. We are not to blame for the first act of violence perpetrated upon us but we do have to take some responsibility for staying, for our fears, for seeking help.

Staying is a choice, just as leaving is. What informs those choices has so much to do with life experience, levels of self-worth, support available and awareness. There is much needed to be done with societal attitudes, law enforcement, funding for refuges (the novel raises the issue – where do male victims go?), availability of counselling etc. But if the purpose of art is to reflect Truth, then this novel goes a long way to raise questions about the truth of domestic violence in today’s society.

 

Pray and do what’s right

Anniversary of The Battle of Bear Valley 9 Jan 1918

Today is the anniversary of The Battle of Bear Valley, which was “a small engagement fought in 1918 between a band of Yaquis and a detachment of United States Army soldiers. On January 9, 1918, elements of the American 10th Cavalry Regiment detected about thirty armed Yaquis in Bear Valley, Arizona, a large area that was commonly used as a passage across the international border with Mexico. A short firefight ensued, which resulted in the death of the Yaqui commander and the capture of nine others. Though the conflict was merely a skirmish, it was the last time the United States Army engaged hostile Native Americans in combat and thus has been seen as one of the final battles of the American Indian Wars” Wikipedia

But what I find astonishing is that was less than 100 years ago.

One of my favourite non-fiction books is Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown. It is a meticulously researched and chronicled Indian history of the American West that still enrages me as much as when I first read of the betrayals, broken promises, lies, deceit and land-grabbing, the total disregard for human beings, and the racism, hunger and loss of culture that First Nation Americans had to endure.

On p.40 it tells the tale of Ta-oya-te-duta (Little Crow) a 60-yr-old chief of the Mdewkanton Santee Sioux who had signed treaties that tricked his people out of their land and money for that land. A moderate, he had been to Washington and seen President Buchanan, joined the Episcopal Church, built a house and started a farm.

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(Little Crow. From a photograph taken in 1858 by A. Zeno Shindler, courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution)

But despite his attempts to get along with the white men, he became increasingly disillusioned. In July of 1862 he and several thousand Santees assembled at the Agency on Yellow Medicine River to receive the annuities pledged by the treaties, that they were to exchange for food at the agency. The money never arrived.Because their people were starving, Little Crow and some of the chiefs went to see the agent, Thomas Gilbraith, to ask for food from the well-stocked agency warehouse for which they would pay once the money was received. They were refused. Galbraith sent for soldiers to be drafted in to guard the supplies.

By August 15 the Santee still had not received any money or food and were told the agency had no intention of issuing supplies until the annuities arrived. Little Crow asked again and warned that they were starving and if food was not forthcoming they would take it themselves.

Galbraith then asked the other traders what they should do. One of them, Andrew Myrick, said, “So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry let them eat grass or their own dung.”(p.233 Meyer, Roy W History of the Santee Sioux.  Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1967,  p. 114)

Needless to say this did not help the situation and there was an incident involving the theft of an egg from a settler’s hen which ended up with three white men and two women being killed. Gnawing hunger, years of abuse  and now in fear of repercussions, Little Crow gave orders to attack the Agency. A company of soldiers who went to the aid of the Agency marched into an ambush and less than half survived. The situation escalated, more troops were drafted in, more warriors arrived to fight, there were losses on both sides, the Sioux were defeated and rounded up to be hanged.

It seems that Myrick’s attitude towards indigenous people prevails today. And now we have a similar situation with Standing Rock Sioux interests and treaties being disregarded in favour of corporate financial interests and we have the Dakota Access Pipeline protest.

Water protectors are locked in conflict with a multi-national oil corporation who are proposing to build an oil pipeline under the Missouri River, the tribe’s main source of water supply. A segment of the pipeline is planned to run under Lake Oahe, a reservoir formed by a dam on the Missouri River, which is on Sioux land. After battles with the police where peaceful protesters were hosed with water and shot at, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied a permit for the controversial pipeline on December 4. But it is not over yet as digging is still taking place on the other side of the river and there are fears about what will happen when Trump takes office.

“They’ve been historically abandoned and lied to, especially the Lakota,” Eastman said, referring to the larger confederation to which the Standing Rock Sioux tribe belongs.  “Everyone is sort of holding their breath for Donald Trump’s inauguration.” (Philip Eastman quoted by Danielle DeCourcey in her blog January 7th 2017 http://www.attn.com/stories/14078/standing-rock-far-over)

There are lots of changes ahead with the new administration but I pray that the Battle of Bear Valley really was the last time the US army is engaged in conflict with Native Americans.

“The ultimate end of all revolutionary social change is to establish the sanctity of human life, the dignity of man, the right of every human being to liberty and well-being.” Emma Goldman

Fifty Shades of Power – the responsibility of the writer.

I read 50 Shades of Grey a while ago to see what all the hype was about. As a writer I was disappointed, finding it very poorly written, but what I did find interesting was how popular the subject matter was. Listening to all the debates about it on television and radio, reading about it in newspapers and magazines, what they seemed to be saying was that the book was most popular with financially successful, upwardly mobile, unmarried 30-somethings. Apparently, being successful and having complete control of your life seems to generate fantasies of relinquishing control of your body over to a man who then has carte-blanche to abuse you. Nothing wrong in that, we all have fantasies. The problem starts to occur when we put them into reality.

I’m old enough to have grown up during a time when women had no power or at best it was limited. When women had to give up work when they got married, when marital- and date-rapes weren’t offences, when all boys were given extra marks before they started the 11+ so that more of them were ensured a place at grammar school, when wives couldn’t buy anything on HP without their husband’s signature, or borrow money from the bank, or sometimes even have their own bank accounts. The freedoms that women enjoy today were hard-won and over a long period of time. So how can young people really understand the value of what they have and take for granted, because they’ve had it so relatively easy?

It is hard work being responsible for yourself, for every decision you make, for every aspect of your life. I know, I’ve done for the last 40+ years and being a single parent I also had the responsibility of three other lives as well. But the last thing I would fantasize about is giving away my power to anyone because I’ve had to fight every step of the way to get it and keep it. Even now, when I thought all the battles had been fought and won. Because the pendulum swings back and apathy and fantasies today let power slip out the door tomorrow when no-one’s looking. Already we have a judge blaming young girls for their own rapes because they drank too much. Sound familiar to anyone over 30?

So what do writers have to do with all this? Do they have the responsibility of being the mouthpiece of society? Of a generation? I suppose that depends on what kind of writer you are/want to be, but then that kind of responsibility is assumed by the individual; it’s not God-given. I believe that as writers our responsibility is to the truth of what we’re writing, however uncomfortable that might be for some readers. After all, they still have the power to close the book if they don’t like it. It’s not our job to police society’s morals, it’s our job to hold a mirror up to them and present their truth even when writing about how much we dislike them. Despite all my personal views and fears about women today, as a writer I have to put them aside if I am to portray contemporary society because I believe the only responsibility the writer has beyond her/himself is to the reader.

E L James has tapped into a lucrative market and the publicity machine is doing the rest. The fact so many people want to ban the film, or persuade people not to go to see it, is only fuelling the hype. However, I don’t believe in censorship unless it involves unwilling and/or illegal participation, like child pornography, and looking back through history I see that it only does society ill when you start banning ideas.

Writers are by nature and inclination creative creatures so by definition anything and everything is possible. I may not like 50 Shades of Grey, I may be envious of its success and deplore standards readers are willing to accept, I may despair of young women dreaming that being abused is erotic, but I defend everyone’s right to think, read, watch and believe what they want as long as they don’t interfere with anyone else’s rights to do the same and all actions undertaken are within the law and between consenting adults.

With all the wonders of social media writers can reach millions more people than they ever envisaged possible twenty or thirty years ago. Never have we had so much power but with all power comes responsibility and I mourn the fact that today that seems to be eroding, that subject matter and celebrity seems to over-ride good writing and it is as much an indictment of our society as the popularity of 50 Shades of Grey.

Fear

It’s been an unsettling few days for me, more so than usual. I’m always unsettled as a year ends and new beginnings are on the horizon but this year’s run up to Xmas, the death of Nelson Mandela and illness of friends has knocked me a little sideways. My thoughts have been going deeper to identify the cause of this, always a risky thing to do because I never know what’s going to pop up. Those of you who have read my blogs know that one of the issues I struggle with is unworthiness. I know where those feelings come from and also know that they generate fears that affect and determine my thoughts and actions, but what to do about them?

For as long as I can remember I have been afraid. I was afraid of the dark, of heights, of being submerged in water, of tight places, bees/wasps, spiders etc etc. Some of these fears were generated by actual events, others were just irrational phobias. I’ve learnt over the years to recognize that they were also really about something else; the fact that I feared rejection and never felt safe. We all learn coping strategies and most of mine have been to confront my fears head on. I now never put a light on in the house unless it’s necessary, I’ve climbed mountains, abseiled down waterfalls, been caving, windsurfing etc. I can pick spiders up and put them out of the house and sit still when a bee or wasp lands on me. But I’ve never really successfully confronted my fears of rejection or being safe.

There has been so much press celebrating the life of Mandela and his achievements, not only as a man, but as a black man in apartheid South Africa. What he went though for his beliefs, and then to come out the other end and recognize that in order for all the people of his country to move forward there has to be forgiveness and reconciliation, puts most of us to shame. All that time in prison, the beatings and torture, seeing good friends and family members tortured and killed, and yet he emerged as one of the greatest forces for peace, an elder statesman with a true heart and vision for letting go of the past, that the world has seen. If he can do all that after all he has been through, then why can’t I let go?

Obviously I’m no Nelson Mandela – you don’t get many of him to the pound. Yet he was human, like the rest of us and I’m sure he had his own dark days, was fearful at times and may have given up hope occasionally. But what struck me when I first read Long Road to Freedom was his capacity to put all that to one side and to see the best in people caught up in the political machine of the day, to love them enough to want to change the system for the betterment for them all. And for future generations.

Earlier this year I read Antji Krog’s Country of My Skull, which is a full account of the Truth Commission’s work in 1996-8 using testimonies of oppressed and oppressor about human rights violations committed between 1960-1993. It is a harrowing read. Yet the fact that people survived those years, and were able to draw on inner resources to keep moving forward, is an amazing monument to the enduring strength of the human spirit. I have never been tested in that way but doubt that I would be brave enough.

Of the two motivators – the avoidance of pain and the pursuit of pleasure – I’m a definite avoider. I don’t do things that might make me vulnerable or hurt and therefore feel envious of other people’s success when they have taken risks. I am ashamed of my mean-spiritedness but I own it because it is easier to accept than to acknowledge being afraid. I was bullied for a lot of years and perfected how to cover it up, to pretend everything was fine; it’s a habit that has stuck. But fear of rejection stops me wanting things, reaching for things, even enjoying them, and fears about my safety/security are no longer about my physical being but my emotional health. I’m not afraid to take risks with my physical being but steer far away from any emotional ones because my body heals much quicker than my soul. And therein lies the problem.

The last couple of weeks have caused me to reflect quite seriously about who I am and what I want from life. We never know how much time we have left but whatever it is, it’s never enough. I don’t want to waste my days only half living them, but the old fears of failure and rejection have been bubbling up just under the surface and I need to let them go. I’ve discovered to my delight that there are people around me who I can trust and lean on when I need to. My family have always been a good support but I don’t want them to worry about me, which they do already because they don’t live nearby. I also don’t ever want to be a burden to anyone – I used to worry about falling downstairs and not being found for days or weeks. Not because I’d die alone, but because someone else would have to clean up the mess! I bang on a lot about human rights but always about other people and their entitlements. What I’m learning is that they apply to me too. I have a right to be here; I’m just like other people, a basically nice person doing my best. I don’t need to put on a brave act because I am brave already. I’ve overcome much more than I give myself credit for and although I’m not a Nelson Mandela, that’s okay. I’m a Kriss Nichol and no-one else is like me either.