Anything Can Happen


Anything Can HappenAnything Can Happen
by George and Helen Papashvily

I first discovered this delightful book when I was about 13 or 14 years old, in that wonderful semi-circular fishbowl of a library at Britton Road Junior High. Ten years later, when the school closed, I stumbled on this book at the library discard sale and snapped it up. It has never failed to give me a lift and a smile during all the years since.

It’s the autobiographical account of the author’s journeys from Vladikavkaz, Georgia, Russia, to New York City, and after that to Detroit, California, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and assorted roads in between. Along the way, he meets people of every culture — both locals and transplants — with open-minded interest and open-handed generosity — and takes the reader along for the ride.

It’s a laugh-out-loud funny book. His embarrassing predicament when his package of yeasty dough — for making k’hinkali — squirms out of control and starts a panic on a crowded streetcar always makes me smile. The story of “How Chancho Sold My Nose” is another good one. So is the day they took the depressed Ilarion on a quiet beach picnic to cheer him up, and got into a a fight with armed men who seemed to be bootleggers, only to end up drinking wine and cooking shashlik on the beach together with their attackers. But probably the funniest story of all is the multi-chapter account of the road trip from Detroit to California with Anna Feodorovna, her father the General, the children, Ermak, and Madame Greshkin — and the samovar and the canary cage and the General’s sword. Sometimes, when I haven’t read this book in a long time, and I come across it on the shelf — well, it’s the story of the California trip that I turn to first. And that usually draws me into starting over at the beginning and reading the whole book again, chuckling happily.

But it’s not just a funny book. It’s also a cheerfully philosophical book. Giorgi Ivanitch has an outlook on life which enables him to travel with equanimity through its ups and downs, and an outlook on humanity which enables him to see friends in the most unexpected people. He has been through war, poverty, wandering, and yet he doesn’t let the dismal side of life get him down. There is always an interesting new sight to be curious about, a lovely small moment to appreciate and savor. There is always hope that something wonderful is just around the next bend. As for the people he meets along the way, they are all members of the same human family, and all are greeted like long-lost cousins. Some are a tad annoying — he has his exasperated moments with the drama queen Anna Feodorovna and the slow-thinking Chancho — but the annoyance is irrelevant when measured against the deeper value of the human being. We are reminded that we are all laughably flawed creatures. It’s simply an inescapable aspect of being human. We judge each other gently, remembering our common vulnerability.

As the characters in the story meet and get to know each other, America reveals herself as the place where all the world meets and gets to know each other. Russians and Syrians, Italians and Turks, Californians and New Yorkers, farmers and factory workers, all bringing their own customs and viewpoints into the mixture. The author is sometimes ignorant about the customs of those he meets, but always curious and open-minded, ready to learn and happy to find common ground. At one point, he says, Now I didn’t feel bad about my broken language any more or my stranger ways. I saw everybody is a foreigner. Only difference, some came early and some came later.

Food as the glue of good fellowship is a running theme all through the book. When some Plains Indians pull his truck out of a muddy river, he trades recipes for lamb with them, cooking them some shashlik while tasting with interest the lamb recipe they cook for him. He shares good red wine with Italian farmers on a California beach after they initially mistook each other for bootleggers. His American wife Helen has the idea that on orange juice runs everything but steam engines, so he learns to like orange juice. Cornbread and corn whisky — and Kathleen’s whisky concoction Boilo — are all delights he picks up from Virginia kitchens, and his Maine-bred mother-in-law introduces him to lobster and the New England shore dinner.  When people sit down to eat and drink together, even if it’s just box lunches, something in the way of bonding can happen.

The larger-than-life glorious figure of Dzea Vanno — Uncle John — is threaded all through the stories. The author first met him when he was a miserable lonely apprentice boy in Vladikavkaz. As Giorgi lamented, “What I’m living for? Might as well I be a dog, too?” he was startled by a man who overheard him from the other side of the fence.  Must be he was seven feet tall with fierce mustaches and hair black like a devi’s. Only his eyes was laughing. “Have a bone … If you like to be dog, that is. But if you rather be a man, and believe me you gonna enjoy it a lot better, I been a man now fifty years and I’m not sorry yet, why then climb over the fence and eat at the table with me.” So I did and he was right.

Whenever Dzea Vanno turns up somewhere in America, it’s always the occasion for food and drink, storytelling and singing, friendship and happiness. When Giorgi marries the American Helen, it is Dzea Vanno who stands in as the family of the groom, the caterer of the wedding, and the life of the party. In the end, Giorgi wonders, “How could a man like Uncle John be dead? Man who loved so deep the world. Man who made such friend of life. … What good he did was wrote on the faces around his casket. But then comes the feast in his honor, and the quarrels made up and friendships restored as they ate and drank together. “… All for Uncle John’s remembry. Is good this, even if an old-time way. It lets a man be sure he will finish from the grave, at least, what he has a duty to work for through his whole life — bring peace among his friends.

To bring peace among friends. That seems like as good a way as any to follow through our lives. The central idea of life is that we are all in this together. The miser, the misanthrope, the loner, these are to Giorgi the saddest figures imaginable. Connecting with our fellow human beings is the only way that we ourselves can be fully human — the only way in which our own selfish selves can fully develop and flower and become fruitful.

After all — If you’re not father or husband or son or brother or neighbor or friend to somebody, who are you then to yourself?


The Secret Service, the Field, the Dungeon, and the Escape

Leave a comment

Secret Service Cover PictureThe Secret Service, the Field, the Dungeon, and the Escape
by Albert Richardson

Last summer, I read Junius and Albert’s Adventures in the Confederacy by Peter Carlson and wrote about it in a post on this blog.  Afterwards I looked online for copies of the original memoirs of the two subjects, and after browsing them to see which one appealed to me as the more interesting, settled for this one by Albert Richardson.  Over the course of about six months, a team of three LibriVoxers have produced this audiobook version of Richardson’s memoir.  (GregG and I split the reading of the chapters, and AnnB was our coordinator/prooflistener.)

Here I’ll simply quote the book summary which I wrote for the LibriVox catalog listing:

  • Albert Richardson was a reporter for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune when he volunteered to hazard an undercover journey through the American south, reporting incognito on the growing secession crisis in that region. With the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861, he attached himself to the Union armies as a war correspondent, sending dispatches from the fields of battle for the next two years. Then, in May 1863, while attempting to pass a Confederate battery outside Vicksburg, Richardson found himself thrown from a burning barge into the Mississippi River, swimming for his life with a squad of Union soldiers and several other reporters. Captured as a prisoner, he was at first confident that as a civilian newspaperman he would be quickly exchanged. Instead, he was to spend the next 18 months in various prisoner of war camps. Seizing at last an opportunity for escape, he set out to cross the snowy Appalachians in the dead of winter, heading for Union lines in Tennessee, assisted by a secret network of slaves, Unionists, and bushwhackers. Albert Richardson’s own personal memoir of his wartime adventures, published in 1865, offers readers a rousing historical narrative presented with a journalist’s eye for detail.

The Woman Who Dared to Vote

Leave a comment

Woman Who Dared VoteThe Woman Who Dared to Vote
by N. E. H. Hull

Those of us who are natives of Rochester, New York, have two big hometown heroes — Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass. They were friends and allies in the two greatest causes of their age. Schoolchildren growing up with these heroes learn to see that freedom means not only my freedom, but your freedom as well, that we must desire for others the same good we desire for ourselves.

We also learn more complicated truths, especially when we see how these two friends sometimes argued fiercely over serious differences on matters of tactics and priorities of timing. Yet arguing strongly for what you honestly believe to be the best course of action, though it may put you head-to-head opposite a friend, is a very different sort of argument from invective denigrating your opponent’s honor, intelligence, or patriotism. The causes these two fought about were close to both their hearts. That gave them a common core of agreement, however much their strategies diverged. They were never disrespectful of each other’s priorities, even when their own priorities were different.

Anthony and Douglass at teaIn a park near Anthony’s house here in Rochester, there is a sculpture depicting Anthony and Douglass opposite each other across a tea table, in earnest yet relaxed discussion. They look deeply involved and thoughtful, gesturing to make their points, yet also focused on each other, listening intently. When I see this sculpture, I imagine that this meeting occurred in the midst of their post-Civil War disputes, and I see in it the strength between two friends willing to hear each other out, and while yet unconvinced, to drink tea together.

Two of the greatest speeches in American oratory have their roots here in our western New York soil during those years of struggle. One was Douglass’s Fifth of July speech, given in Rochester in 1852, in which he asked bitterly, “What, to an American slave, is your Fourth of July?” The other was Anthony’s 1873 reply to the Judge at her sentencing for illegal voting, in which she passionately protested “laws made by men, interpreted by men, administered by men, in favor of men, and against women.”

There are times in history when we are ready, as individuals and nations, to expand our minds and hearts in wonderful new ways. It’s often after agony that we discover clearer vision. We see as plain and good some truth we’ve been rejecting. We see as brothers and sisters people we’ve been ignoring. We suddenly are disgusted by rot and decay we had taken for granted as normal and inevitable. We are inspired with the energy to break from apathy and build something fresh, something better.

The years immediately after the Civil War were one such graced moment. People who had worked a lifetime for the abolition of slavery saw their hopes become reality, while  people who had been indifferent to the question were inspired by the idealism of the times to become supporters, and even those who had hated abolitionism were ready to accept it as inevitable. In the aspirational mood of the age, so many hopes of other reforms began flying high. There was a general sense that this was the hour for a new age to begin. The trouble with such periods of zeal is that they eventually grow cold and die. So much seems to be achieved in sudden spurts when there is this general enthusiasm for national betterment, with long stretches of backsliding in between. For people with hopes of their own, there is a sense of urgency to these moments, a push that says, “Now — quick — before we lose the momentum –“

The women had hoped that during this wave of post-war reform, they too would become voters. Knowing that such ripe moments are brief, they chafed at advice to “wait — one thing at a time — your turn will come later.” In their agitation at risking a lost opportunity, they even threatened withholding their support from the 15th Amendment enfranchising black men, unless it also included women. When that amendment was adopted with no mention of sex, a movement immediately began to launch a 16th Amendment, specifically enfranchising women.

In the midst of all this agitation and argument, some voices began suggesting a fresh viewpoint on the problem. In 1869, Virginia Minor and her husband Francis began to say, in effect, “Just vote!” Could it be that simple? Could it be that women already had the franchise and needed only to exercise it? In 1870, Victoria Woodhull presented a memorial to Congress setting forth the same reasoning as the Minors’. The 14th Amendment, one of the three Reconstruction amendments, had declared: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States … are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” The Woodhull Memorial argued that one of the “privileges and immunities” of a citizen was the right to vote. By this reasoning, the 14th Amendment guaranteed voting rights to all citizens, though it had not specifically mentioned voting.

The best way to clarify this point was to put it to a practical test. Leaders of the woman’s suffrage movement called on women across the country to turn out for Election Day in November 1872, to assert their right to be registered and to vote. If they were refused and turned away, as was thought likely, they were to file lawsuits against those officials who had denied them their guaranteed right as citizens, carrying their cases through appeals if necessary, hoping to get a definitive ruling from the Supreme Court which would settle the question in their favor.

In Rochester NY, Susan B. Anthony and fourteen other women were ready for the battle. A few days before the election, they presented themselves at a local barbershop which was serving as a voter registration location and announced that they wanted to be registered as voters. The three local election inspectors were thrown into some consternation. Their first reaction, to simply say “no”, was countered by Miss Anthony inquiring whether they had ever heard of the 14th Amendment, which she produced and read to them, along with an explanation of its present applicability. Two election supervisors were called into the consultation. One of them was convinced enough to throw his influence behind the women, carrying two of the inspectors with him. The third, while not so convinced, surrendered to the majority and the women were registered.

On Election Day, however, when they turned out to vote, they were faced with a challenge at the polls from an onlooker. The law provided that, if a voter’s eligibility was challenged, the voter might take an oath to tell the truth and then answer whatever questions were put concerning his eligibility. If the challenge was not withdrawn, the voter might still vote if he were willing to take a second oath stating that he was indeed eligible. Susan and the other women took the required oaths, and the inspectors then received their ballots as the law directed.

Letter to Stanton excerptWhen Susan got home, she quickly wrote to her friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton — “Well, I have been and gone and done it!! Positively voted –” There was a sense of giddy excitement. A precedent had just been established, one that might set the stage for larger numbers of women at future elections. The excitement took a sharp turn a couple of days later, though, when arrest warrants were served on all the voting women and on the three complicit inspectors.

We all know “Aunt Susan’s Trial” as a set piece. We visit her house, stand in the parlor where she was arrested, and gawk at her worn alligator handbag. But without context, it’s crushed into an iconic tableau, a myth, rather than an encounter with a woman as real as ourselves. This book fits the trial into a carefully nuanced context. It’s not a complete biography of Anthony or a sweeping history of the women’s movement. It provides just enough context to carry us intelligently through the situation as it stood in November 1872, when Susan and the other women went to the polls, and in June 1873, when Susan’s case came to trial.

The story of the trial is a story of legal maneuvering and counter-maneuvering. Susan and her friends campaigned on lecture platforms throughout the Rochester area arguing their cause, winning an unexpectedly large public response. The prosecution, fearing the Rochester jury pool had been biased toward the women, moved for a change of venue to the nearby city of Canandaigua instead. Susan’s legal advisor, Henry Selden, who had given his opinion before the women registered that they were within their rights in doing so, agreed to represent Susan in court. But he found himself facing a judge who seemed to have already decided the case before it was even argued. Judge Ward Hunt refused to allow the jury to give their verdict, on the grounds that there was no point for a jury to consider, and directed that the jury’s verdict be entered as “guilty”.

Susan B. Anthony had been refused the right to take the stand as a witness in her own defense, and had been forced to sit silently throughout the trial. But when the Judge asked the standard question before sentencing — “Has the prisoner anything to say why sentence should not be pronounced?” — Susan took the opportunity to burst out with one of the most famous speeches ever made by an American woman. “Yes, your Honor, I have many things to say –” And she went on to say them with spirit and directness.

I’ve been working on a recording of the trial transcript for LibriVox, and when I got to Susan’s speech, I found myself reading that entire section straight through in a single take, without careful re-recording and editing. As a non-fiction reader, I usually read in a calm and neutral tone of voice. With Susan’s speech, that just wasn’t possible. I was back there in her parlor, seeing her picking up the old alligator bag and marching firmly off to take her case to court, and she was 100% real and alive to me. Even my impossible Rah-chester accent was suddenly called into service, as I realized that Susan was a Rochester woman too, and may have sounded just like me. This time, when I spoke her words, they weren’t a set schoolroom speech — I had walked with Susan through all the events leading up to that speech, and the words arose out of all that had gone before. They were part of a whole story for me now.

A Diary Without Dates

Leave a comment

Diary Without DatesA Diary Without Dates
by Enid Bagnold

LibriVox is busy producing an audio collection of short nonfiction pieces to commemorate the 100th anniversary of WWI. It’ll take awhile to complete; LV is aiming to have it ready for release in July. But meanwhile, it’s been influencing my reading, as I browse through the available material. I signed up for three slots in the project, and one of the items I recorded was a chapter from this book, which proved so interesting that I had to go on and finish the entire book.

If the name is familiar, it’s because Enid Bagnold wrote that childhood favorite, National Velvet.  But nearly 20 years earlier, she wrote this little memoir reflecting on her experience as a V.A.D. in a military hospital during WWI. The V.A.D. was a Voluntary Aid Detatchment, a civilian volunteer. V.A.D.’s were nurses, hospital ward assistants, cooks and kitchen workers, laundry helpers and office clerks, filling the need for staff in wartime hospitals. As civilians, they fell into an odd middle ground, subject to the regular hospital disciplines yet not part of the military. While some served in field hospitals, the majority were in homefront hospitals and convalescent homes for wounded soldiers. Bagnold’s book is based on her life in a hospital in Woolwich, England.

It’s an intriguing book, because it reads more as personal musings than as organized reportage. In researching material for the LibriVox project, I found many other WWI medical memoirs, most of which tried to be complete, explanatory, factually descriptive. This one felt very different, as though the author wrote for herself alone at the time of writing, just to clear her mind of thoughts. When it came to publication, the raw writings were allowed to remain raw, without attempts to revise, expand, clarify, or explain what had been written.  For instance, I had to look up the meaning of the acronym V.A.D. and what a V.A.D. actually did on my own, because the book never explains these matters. The book doesn’t explain anything. The incidents simply float up out of the passing days into conscious memory, without systematic efforts to pin them to times, places, dates. The mood of the writer, sometimes weary, sometimes amused, sometimes sad, sometimes philosophic, colors the way each incident is remembered.

Because of this personal style of writing, this book drew me very deeply into the hospital experience. The bigger picture, the larger hospital structure, the world outside the hospital, the conduct of the war itself, were “out there”, where the author — and with her the reader — rarely glanced at them. The ordinary details of the daily hospital routines had become her whole life. Because of this inward-turned sight, small incidents were experienced so intensely that they revealed depths of meaning.

I don’t really know that there’s anything I can write about the book that would be better than simply reading what Bagnold herself wrote —

  • Let them pile on the rules, invent and insist; yet behind them, beneath them, I have that strong, secret liberty of an institution that runs like a wind in me and lifts my mind like a leaf. So long as I conform absolutely, not a soul will glance at my thoughts—few at my face. I have only to be silent and conform, and I might be in so far a land that even the eye of God had lost me.
  • It unsettles me as I lay my spoons and forks. Sixty-five trays. It takes an hour to do. Thirteen pieces on each tray. Thirteen times sixty-five … eight hundred and forty-five things to collect, lay, square up symmetrically. I make little absurd reflections and arrangements—taking a dislike to the knives because they will not lie still on the polished metal of the tray, but pivot on their shafts, and swing out at angles after my fingers have left them. I love the long, the dim and lonely, corridor; the light centred in the gleam of the trays, salt-cellars, yellow butters, cylinders of glass….
  • One has illuminations all the time! There is an old lady who visits in our ward, at whom, for one or two unimportant reasons, it is the custom to laugh. The men, who fall in with our moods with a docility which I am beginning to suspect is a mask, admit too that she is comic. This afternoon, when she was sitting by Corrigan’s bed and talking to him I saw where her treatment of him differed from ours. She treats him as though he were an individual; but there is more in it than that…. She treats him as though he had a wife and children, a house and a back garden and responsibilities: in some manner she treats him as though he had dignity.
  • He has time before him. But in a hospital one has never time, one is never sure. He has perhaps been here long enough to learn that—to feel the insecurity, the impermanency. At any moment he may be forced to disappear into the secondary stage of convalescent homes. Yes, the impermanency of life in a hospital! An everlasting dislocation of combinations. Like nuns, one must learn to do with no nearer friend than God. Bolts, in the shape of sudden, whimsical orders, are flung by an Almighty whom one does not see. The Sister who is over me, the only Sister who can laugh at things other than jokes, is going in the first week of next month. Why? Where? She doesn’t know, but only smiles at my impatience. She knows life—hospital life. … Impermanency…. I don’t wonder the Sisters grow so secret, so uneager. How often stifled! How often torn apart!
  • To-night, as I went quickly past him [Mr. Wicks] with my load of bath-towels, his blind flapped a little, and I saw the moon, shaped like a horn, behind it. Dropping my towels, I pulled his blind back: “Mr. Wicks, look at the moon.” Obedient as one who receives an order, he reached up to his supporting handle and pulled his shoulders half round in bed to look with me through the pane. The young moon, freed from the trees, was rising over the hill. I dropped the blind again and took up my towels and left him. After that he seemed to fall into one of his trances, and lay immovable an hour or more. When I took his dinner to him he lifted his large, sandy head and said: “Seems a queer thing that if you hadn’t said ‘Look at the moon’ I might have bin dead without seeing her.”  — “But don’t you ever look out of the window?” The obstinate man shook his head.
  • I knew what was happening down at the station two miles away; I had been on station duty so often. The rickety country station lit by one large lamp; the thirteen waiting V.A.D.’s; the long wooden table loaded with mugs of every size; kettles boiling; the white clock ticking on; that frowsy booking clerk…. Then the sharp bell, the tramp of the stretcher-bearers through the station, and at last the two engines drawing gravely across the lighted doorway, and carriage windows filled with eager faces, other carriage windows with beds slung across them, a vast Red Cross, a chemist’s shop, a theatre, more windows, more faces…. The stretcher-men are lined up; the M.O. meets the M.O. with the train; the train Sisters drift in to the coffee-table. “Here they come! Walkers first….” The station entrance is full of men crowding in and taking the steaming mugs of tea and coffee; men on pickaback with bandaged feet; men with only a nose and one eye showing, with stumbling legs, bound arms. The station, for five minutes, is full of jokes and witticisms; then they pass out and into the waiting chars-à-bancs. A long pause. “Stretchers!” The first stretchers are laid on the floor. There I have stood so often, pouring the tea behind the table, watching that littered floor, the single gas-lamp ever revolving on its chain, turning the shadows about the room like a wheel—my mind filled with pictures, emptied of thoughts, hypnotized.
  • The hospital is alive; I feel it like a living being. The hospital is like a dream. I am afraid of waking up and finding it commonplace. The white Sisters, the ceaselessly-changing patients, the long passages, the sudden plunges into the brilliant wards … their scenery hypnotizes me. Sometimes in the late evening one walks busily up and down the ward doing this and that, forgetting that there is anything beyond the drawn blinds, engrossed in the patients, one’s tasks—bed-making, washing, one errand and another—and then suddenly a blind will blow out and almost up to the ceiling, and through it you will catch a glimpse that makes you gasp, of a black night crossed with bladed searchlights, of a moon behind a crooked tree. The lifting of the blind is a miracle; I do not believe in the wind.

This book felt as though the writer came to me in a dream — and in the dream took me by the hand and silently showed me her world.

Long Walk to Freedom

Leave a comment

Long Walk to FreedomLong Walk to Freedom
by Nelson Mandela

Something in those first two words, “long walk“, says so much. Long — long time, long distance, long wait, long patience. Longing — tasting the flavor of the thing you crave, tasting as if you already have it, knowing your mouth is still empty, but still the taste is there. And walk — always one foot on the ground, moving yourself along without being carried, the effort and the slowness, but also the time to look at things and notice them and think about where we are. And other thoughts that cross my mind — a long parade of picketers on a walk, like the march from Selma — the phrase “one’s walk of life”, a vocation that calls for a long-haul commitment, becoming who we were meant to be. Phrases that stick in my memory from who knows what source — “I’ll keep putting ’em down, Lord, so long as you keep picking ’em up” — and “No place is beyond walking distance, if you’ve got the time.”

I learned a lot of factual information while reading this book. Names and dates, acts and laws, political parties and prisons. I have a clearer picture in my mind now of the steps by which certain things came about, who and what and where and when. This was worth finding out, because it’s too easy to get lost and confused without the details as a foundation. For instance, the official and systematic apartheid which I had associated with South Africa all my life, I assumed had been created about a century earlier, drawing from what I knew of Jim Crow law in my own country. I was a bit surprised to discover that the legal structure of apartheid was much more recent, dating from only a few years before I was born. At a period of history when the first tremors were shaking apart the legal underpinnings of racial apartheid in one country, when the courts were beginning to call “separate but equal” unconstitutional, another country was simultaneously building a firmer structure of the very same injustice. I realized how easy it is for me to slip into assumptions based on what I know, extrapolating incorrectly into things I really don’t know.  It made me wonder, though, why — just as one group of people say “We tried this and it was a disastrous and horrific mistake,” — others would choose that same moment to say, “Now let us try it.” Aren’t we watching and learning from each other? But obviously we aren’t, or I’d have known the things this book had to tell me.

So many of the events, though, did strongly remind me of stories I remembered from our history here at home. When the women rose up to protest the law requiring them to carry pass books, filling the jails, it made me think of the Freedom Summer stories here. When Sophiatown was razed and the residents uprooted to make way for a white neighborhood, it started echoes of Urban Renewal fights here. And the mass arrests on treason charges recalled memories of McCarthyism. Human nature, after all, isn’t one way in one time and place and something else in another time and place. To hear another person’s story and be able to say, “This rings a bell, I can understand this”, to recognize ourselves and each other as brothers and sisters whose stories are all part of one big story, this is how we grow in the understanding that we are all one family.

Two seemingly different discoveries, but closely related. The details of your story are unique to your story, not the same as the details of my story. I must not mix up the facts. But the human heart of your story and mine are both the same. You and I are not strangers, unable to see our human likeness. This is something we know, if we stop to think about it. The trouble is, we often rush headlong through our days without pausing to remember what we know. It’s good for us to stop, sit down, listen to a story of someone else’s life. We pay attention, we learn their unique details. We pay attention, we recognize a brother or sister. We come back into the world’s noise with a bit of quiet fresh wisdom, a little stronger than we were before.

The book seemed to fall into two distinct parts, as Mandela’s life fell. Before prison, a life of active effort, the struggle of a battlefield, the pressures of whirlwind crises and of difficult decisions with unexpected backlashes. A public duty that left no time for privately catching his breath, being with his family, escaping from the avalanche of work. Then, the years in prison, a life of enforced isolation, all the struggles interior ones, crises of faith and of hope, decisions taken deliberately. The man who emerged from prison 27 years later was both the same man he had always been and also different. Unjust suffering can break a person, or it can deepen a person. Mandela wasn’t broken, but deepened.

Cut off from the whirlwind of politics and revolution, he seemed to have looked back at what was happening with a broadening perspective, a view that looked past the crises of the moment to the long road into the future. Where does this struggle take us, all of us, in the long run? Yes, the present injustice must die, that’s a given, that’s the reason for present struggle and suffering. But when this injustice dies, what will come in its place? In a vacant field, will new injustices sprout like weeds? Or will something better be planted, something that may take a long time to bring to full harvest? When he came out of prison, he came out with a vision for the future.

Here’s the strange thing — When I put down this book, I wasn’t sure anymore what the title referred to. The years of Mandela’s life told the story of a Long Walk to Freedom, an agonizingly painful walk, a walk that finally got to the mountaintop. Yet the book leaves us looking at the view, seeing another Long Walk to Freedom still ahead of us, and another mountain in the distance, and more after that. The Long Walk is ongoing, Freedom is an expanding view that keeps calling us to new places. In this world, every Freedom gained is just one more step on the Long Walk, and we have to keep going on to the next one.

How do we manage not to feel exhausted at the very prospect of such endlessness? I find rest and strength and hope when I pause to listen to the stories of people like Mandela, who show us how it’s done with perseverance and grace.

How Can We Keep From Singing

Leave a comment

ImageHow Can We Keep From Singing
by Joan Oliver Goldsmith

I’ve read this book before, but it’s one of those that’s always worth reading again. Especially now, in this season of music. I’ve been wandering gently though its pages for the past few weeks, letting it mix with my thoughts as I’ve sung my way through Advent and Christmas and New Year’s and Epiphany.

This is a book for singers like me, probably like you and like most of us. We just like to sing, that’s all. Singing feels good, physically, emotionally, spiritually. Singing opens up the lungs, the heart, the whole personality. Singing heals hurt and repairs brokenness. Singing sets joy at liberty and invites us to ring like bells. Yes, singing just feels good, and that’s the reason why we want to do it, as often as possible, both alone and in company.

  • Human beings sing because we have to. When we’re happy or sad or angry, energy builds up inside. Then, before the pressure can do damage, a valve opens and we cry or laugh or sing. And once those tears or notes are outside of us, the universe shifts a little. Tears dry cool on the cheek. Laughter infects those around us. And as for notes, well, “the blues is celebration,” Odetta said, “because when you take sorrow and turn it into music, you transform it.”

Most of us have fairly average vocal equipment. We are not Maria Callas. We are not even Judy Garland. We’re just your average Jane or Joe. We can carry a tune if it’s in our comfortable range. We can even harmonize a bit as long as it’s not too unusual a harmony. We don’t aspire to be soloists or stars. We just want to sing.

The author quotes a few statistics — how many millions of people sing in choral societies, community choruses, church choirs, folk-singing societies and barbershop groups. Twenty million Americans — about ten percent of the population — sing in such public ways. More folks out there are actively singing than the star-focused music industry would suggest. And, as the author points out, these are only people singing with officially counted groups. There are also all the uncounted folks jamming with friends in basements and living rooms, singing at family reunions, school picnics, and in the privacy of the bathroom shower. These numbers reassure us that we aren’t alone; we’ve got plenty of company.

Chapter by chapter, Joan Goldsmith explores the links she sees between Music and Life, as viewed from her place in the third row of the alto section of the Minnesota Chorale. She draws out the meaning of amateur music in her own experiences, and invites us to do the same from our own life’s perspective. When we look at ouselves in a state of music, what else do we see happening? What do we grow to understand about friendships, about failure, about leading and following, about living with suffering, about discovering the place we’re most at home, and about beginning new challenges?

Different chapters have resonated more strongly with me at different times, depending on where I’ve been in my life at each reading. A few years ago, the first time I read this book, I was drawn to the lessons on leading and following. I had been learning to really appreciate an exceptionally good supervisor at work, and at the same time learning to understand why my own brief stint in a low-level leadership position had been both uncomfortable and unsuccessful.

Why was my supervisor, or any good leader, so good? The author’s eye for good — and not-so-good — conductors shows us what good leaders are. A good conductor is not an autocrat drilling his choir to respond like a machine. He is more like a scout or guide, exploring the music ahead and charting a course through it, then showing the others the lie of the land so they can learn to see it, too.

As for my own failure, I was learning to see that although I didn’t have the qualities of a good leader, I did have a healthy dollop of the traits of a good follower. But first, as the author points out, we need to stop thinking of followers are mere robots or bleating sheep. We need to recognize that being a good follower also requires certain talents. Following intelligently demands a certain amount of self-direction, an ability to read the overall direction of movement and adjust course without waiting for specific orders, to respond to the needs of the moment in a way that serves the overall mission. These are the gifts of a good follower, gifts that are worth a lot to a good leader.

On this re-reading, one chapter that caught at me strongly was the one about “Finding your Tessitura”. The author discovered, after several bouts of laryngitis, that she was more at home in the alto section than in amongst the sopranos, a discovery of her “tessitura”. She explains that tessitura means that part of your vocal range where you’re comfortable and at home. Your range is wider than this; your range stretches to the highest and lowest notes you can reach. But your tessitura is where you want to be most of the time. A song that is mostly in a comfortable range, while including occasional notes that test your voice, is a very different thing from a song that is almost entirely in the top notes of your ability. What is a very do-able challenge now and then can become exhausting to the point of tears if we try to stay there constantly.

The lesson extends beyond music. A job which tests us beyond our comfort zone once in a while is good for us. It stretches our living and working range in the same way occasional high or low notes stretch our singing range. But a job which keeps us constantly stretched beyond comfort day after day after day, until we are stressed and exhausted, is not a job that fits us well. Let us not forget to periodically stretch for those top and bottom notes that limber up our muscles. But let us center ourselves for normal daily living in our natural tessitura, the place where we are at home, because that’s where our best work comes most reliably. That’s where our strength lies, where we’ll be able to endure for the long haul.

The other chapter that grabbed my attention this time was the one on “composting” mistakes. Composting is a more productive alternative than either whisking my life’s messes directly out of sight into the trash or letting them just lie there stinking up the house. A mistake, given enough time to marinade and stew, might just turn into richly productive soil.

This is an encouraging thought for someone my age, who has a lot of decades of mistakes to look back at. To give up attempting something, simply because I keep getting it wrong every single time, is like tossing it into the trash. It may seem like a quick clean-up to the mess, but it does nothing but pile up landfills of accumulated mistakes. Composting means being willing to put up with the smell of the mistake for awhile, during the composting stage; that is, to keep on trying to do whatever it is I’m messing up, but to do it without losing the hope of eventually getting it right.

  • In this life, we make the best mistakes we know how to make. Then, with any luck, we go out and make new ones. I don’t make mistakes when I watch TV or take a walk. These activities are pleasant and restful. But I could not make a life of them. After all, the easiest way to avoid wrong notes is never to open your mouth and sing. What a mistake that would be!

The Underground Railroad

Leave a comment

Underground RailroadThe Underground Railroad
by William Still

Today marked the completion of the massive five-volume Underground Railroad project at LibriVox, as the fifth and final volume was catalogued. I’ve been so deeply involved in this project that leaving it behind isn’t immediately possible. I feel as though it was somehow the defining theme of the entire year 2013 for me, my personal book of scriptures. This is a book that’s going to stick with me for life, one that I’ll carry with me wherever I go from now on.

I joined LibriVox last January. Shortly after I joined, they launched a new project — Volume 1 of William Still’s UGRR memoirs. I signed up to read a few chapters, and was gripped by the power of the stories, dozens and scores and hundreds of individual stories. After 11 months, the LibriVox crew has recorded all 43 hours — 280 sections — about 650 individual stories of escape from slavery — a flood of individual lives. I recorded 52 sections over the course of the project, and then went back and listened to all of the others as soon as they were available. I felt the weight of so many witnesses gathering around, calling out their names, shouting out to be heard. William Still told every story of every single man, woman, or child who passed through the Philadelphia Underground Railroad offices, with names and places and dates and family and destinations. Some had unusual stories to tell, full of drama and excitement. Others had only the barest of matter-of-fact accounts to give. But Still recorded every single story, giving each of them the same respect.

One of the first stories Still told was his own story, the story of his family. William Still’s father had purchased his own freedom; William’s mother seized hers by flight. She escaped with two of her children, joining her husband in New Jersey, where the rest of their children were born. William was the youngest of fourteen, though the two oldest boys had been left behind in slavery and had never met the rest of the children. When William was in his mid-20’s, he moved to Philadelphia and began to work for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, at first as a clerk, and then as the chairman of the Committee which assisted escaped slaves.  One day, a recently emancipated slave named Peter Friedman arrived in the office, hoping to trace members of his family. The story Peter told was familiar to William; it was the same story he had learned from his mother, the story of the two boys left behind and later sold South. “I believe you are my brother!” A coincidence almost too good to be true.

The story wasn’t all about happy reunions, though. Peter’s wife and children were still enslaved, waiting for Peter to arrange a rescue. Peter made a dangerous visit to the south to see how things stood and returned to discuss possible ways and means. A white abolitionist named Seth Concklin offered to fetch Peter’s family and bring them north by river. On the border of the free states, though, the group was arrested. Concklin turned up dead in the river, and Peter’s wife and children were returned to slavery. The tension, anger, and grief with which William tells his brother’s story is impossible to forget or to shake off.

Two things in particular seemed most striking, like two clear threads that ran through all these hundreds of individual stories. One was that the oppression most often found unendurable, the straw that kept breaking the heavily laden back, wasn’t the hunger or hard work or physical abuse or verbal abuse or restrictions on personal movement. Strong people bore up bravely under all these. But the one thing there was simply no accepting, the “deal-breaker”, was the threat of being sold. One narrative after another said something along the same lines. “I stood it all until I heard that I was to be sold, my family was to be sold, we were to be sold and scattered and never see each other any more. That’s when I decided to run.” This was for so many the moment when the risk and danger of making a run for freedom was no longer a factor. Human beings can endure a lot, as long as we have each other. Without each other, we die inside in ways more painful than any physical pain. The cruelest and most inhuman part of slavery was its callous breaking of vital human bonds.

The other point which jumped out at me, a repeated theme in one narrative after another, was the freedom of individual thought and choice. No matter how strongly the world insists that “the way things are” rules us all, this book makes it clear that we are not mere sheep, captives of our circumstances. People raised in a system of slavery, sheilded from any hint that another possibility might lie outside that system, managed to discover that possibility anyway, and to choose it despite the risks, to trust that in running away they were making a leap of faith. Even more surprisingly, perhaps, were the white people raised in the same system, assured that this is the way it was meant to be, that God himself supported the status quo, who somehow managed to escape from stifling conformity and dare to rock the boat.

Some of the slaves who ran away to freedom became leaders and crusaders like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. Others simply settled down in Canada and lived quietly with their families. Some white abolitionists risked their lives like Seth Concklin. Others simply knew what their bolder neighbors were doing and approved and supported them. If the common thought of an age is made up of all the separate individual thoughts of each unique person, then every one counts. A family of emancipated former slaves living an ordinary life in the midst of their neighbors is helping to change the common thought about social possibilities by actual living example. A sympathetic white neighbor who approves of these winds of change, who expresses disgust with the Fugitive Slave Law, helps change the atmosphere in his own circle just by where he gives his approval.

Every drop helps fill the bucket. As Jesus said, “Anyone who isn’t against us is for us.” But the opposite is also true. You can support an evil system passively. If you are the neighbor who stands with your hands in your pockets and says not a word, while the slave-catchers surround your neighbor’s barn, then you are assisting them. Jesus also said, “Anyone who isn’t for us is against us.”

Tiny individual acts, decisions, and attitudes are of such immense importance because they are the quirky, mismatched, hand-made bricks that build the kingdom. Average aggregate statistical theoretical people never really did or thought anything. Only actual individuals, in the often trivial and repetitive little details of daily life, make history. Reading these hundreds of stories of real flesh-and-blood individuals, building up a memory of one encounter after another, I found out something much more true and real than any abstract generalized history of the Underground Railroad could ever have shown to me.

This has been a good project for me to be involved in, filling my mind with people who linger there and seem to be strong friends, people like Euphemia Williams and Frances Harper and Samuel Green — and William Still himself. I’ve been drawn into their stories, moved by their courage and hope, angered by the many unnecessary cruelties we humans heap on each other, uplifted by the sheer kindness we are capable of giving each other, inspired by evils overcome and chains broken in the past, strengthened for the struggles still all around us today.

Links to listen to —

UGRR Volume 1

UGRR Volume 2

UGRR Volume 3

UGRR Volume 4

UGRR Volume 5

Older Entries