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

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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.

A Diary Without Dates

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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

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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

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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

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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

Mount Allegro

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Mount AllegroMount Allegro
by Jerre Mangione

I’m named after two immigrant great-grandmothers, one Polish and the other Lithuanian. No Italian ancestors anywhere in my family. Yet there were a lot of things about this book that resonated for me with echoes of my own grandparents’ stories. This was my hometown the way it was in the 1920’s, when Grandma and Grandpa were growing up in another immigrant neighborhood just a couple of miles from the one described in this memoir.

When I read of the author’s father’s “compare”  going to work in the piano factory, I know it must have been that same Aeolean piano factory in East Rochester where Grandma’s father worked. When I read of the author’s mother and aunt sewing for the tailor shops, I remember Grandpa’s mother and sisters doing the same, and recall the names of some of them – Fashion Park, Michaels-Sterns, Hickey-Freeman, Barheis. When I read of the author’s father taking the trolley up through Charlotte to Lake Ontario, or his aunt taking the kids on a jaunt over to Sea Breeze, I remember Grandma’s stories of similar holiday trolley rides. I can see Grandma and Grandpa’s world here in this book.

Whether Italian or Polish, the experience of these generations was the experience of so many families during those same decades, turning gradually from the Old World to the New over the course of two wars and a depression. For example, Mangione writes of the confusion of languages spoken by his family. The kids all learned English at school, but at home, amongst the older relatives, they spoke Italian, because his mother “considered it sinful for relatives to permit their children to speak a language which the entire family could not speak fluently.”  I’ve heard from Grandma about the weekly Sunday dinners at Grandpa’s parents’ house, at which Grandpa and his brothers and sisters all spoke only Polish for the ease and comfort of their parents, while Grandma’s conversational options were the other non-Polish-speaking spouses.

Yet the Polish spoken by Grandpa wasn’t the language of a native speaker. It was always, for him, a second language, and one which grew more and more rusty as the generation of native speakers before him died out until there was nobody left to speak it with. The same linguistic breakdown happened to the Italian spoken by the Mangione family —  “If my relatives were under the impression that they were speaking the same dialect they brought with them from Sicily, they were mistaken. After a few years of hearing American, Yiddish, Polish, and Italian dialects other than their own, their language gathered words which no one in Sicily could possibly understand. ” What happened to generations of Italian and Polish speakers is still happening today, as Spanish and English gradually become “Spanglish”.

What I loved best about this book was the feeling that I’m sitting in a crowded kitchen or on the front porch, just listening while everyone joins in recounting favorite family stories. Reading Mangione’s memoir, I can imagine him sitting over supper with family, saying — “Now about Uncle Nino — remember him? He’s the one who used to make those wonderful toasts at dinner — yes, the one who played the joke on the coal dealer and Uncle Minicuzzu — yes, that’s the uncle I mean. Anyway, there was this time when two robbers came to his house –“

In every family, there are the classic stories of our ancestors, stories that are told and retold over the years until what remains is a lean thing with only the bones and muscle left. Which stories are the ones that end up being remembered and passed down? I think the ones we latch onto and keep are the ones which tell us something about the people who lived before us. Knowing the facts about our ancestors isn’t enough. Collecting names and dates and data give us little sense of who they were as individuals. A good story, though, can bring them to life again.

Some of Mangione’s stories are moving, others are painful, and still others are comical. But all of them are colored by the author’s personal memories of the people who figure in them. It’s that personal connection that gives them their richness and vividness. When I heard stories from Grandma, I was hearing from someone who had personal memories of the immigrant generation of our family, people who had died before I was born. When I retell the stories to my nieces, I’m never going to be able to tell them the same way Grandma did, because I’m speaking of people who live for me only in stories I’ve heard.

Mangione begins this book with the question of what makes an American. His schoolteacher told him that being born here made him American. But when he put the question to his father, “my father wasn’t very helpful. ‘Your children will be Americani. But you, my son, are half-and-half.’” Trying to figure out what that means is the thread which runs through all the rest of the book, taking the author at last on a trip to Sicily to examine the roots of his own background. Having always felt a bit of an outsider as an American, he ends up discovering that he’s even more of an outsider in Sicily. In writing this book, looking back on these experiences, he brings that perspective as an outsider full circle, looking curiously at his own half-and-half childhood with the eye of an interested observer.

I think about this passage in connection with my own family. My great-grandparents were immigrants. Some lived long enough to eventually become citizens, but they always spoke their first languages, with Grandpa’s mother, so I’ve heard, never completely comfortable with the English language. Grandpa’s generation, on the other hand, were easily bilingual, with English as their first language and Polish only spoken to please the old folks. Grandpa and others of his generation also had their surnames legally changed in the 1950’s to appear less “foreign”. Yet the half-and-half element was still there. Grandpa always loved his pirogi and golumki, never forgot to splash water at us on Dingus Day, and taught me to dance the polka when I was five years old. By my dad’s generation, there was no longer any half-and-half. My dad never spoke a word of Polish and never danced the polka. Dingus Day died out with Grandpa. Yet there are a few things that linger — mostly the foods. Though Grandma is gone, I still use her recipe to make pirogi for my dad, to whom those frozen objects in supermarkets are not and never will be pirogi, regardless of what it says on the box.

It’s strange that reading a book about a Sicilian family should have started me thinking so much about my own decidedly non-Sicilian family. But if my family had been Irish, or Pakistani, or Mexican, who knows but that I’d have been led into similar reflections. For all the differences between people at first glance, I keep finding that at the deepest levels, our stories have similar roots. We listen to each other’s stories attentively enough and suddenly we find ourselves saying, “But yes, that’s familiar — I understand where you come from after all!”

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