I have been careful, and I have been patient

“My master! and who made him my master? That’s what I think of - what right has he to me? I’m a man as much as he is. I’m a better man than he is. I know more about business than he does; I am a better manager than he is; I can read better than he can; I can write a better hand, - and I’ve learned it all myself, and no thanks to him, - I’ve learned it in spite of him; and now what right has he to make a dray-horse of me? - to take me from things I can do, and do better than he can, and put me to work that any horse can do? He tries to do it; he says he’ll bring me down and humble me, and he puts me to just the hardest, meanest, and dirtiest work, on purpose!”

“O, George! George! you frighten me! Why I never heard you talk so; I’m afraid you’ll do something dreadful. I don’t wonder at your feelings, at all; but oh, do be careful - do, do - for my sake - for Harry’s! “

“I have been careful, and I have been patient, but it’s growing worse and worse; flesh and blood can’t bear it any longer; - every chance he can get to insult and torment me, he takes. I thought I could do my work well, and keep on quiet, and have some time to read and learn out of work hours; but the more he sees I can do, the more he loads on. He says that though I don’t say anything, he sees I’ve got the devil in me, and he means to bring it out; and one of these days it will come out in a way that he won’t like, or I’m mistaken!”

“O dear! what shall we do?” said Eliza, mournfully.

“It was only yesterday,” said George, “as I was busy loading stones into a cart, that young Mas’r Tom stood there, slashing his whip so near the horse that the creature was frightened. I asked him to stop, as pleasant as I could, - he just kept right on. I begged him again, and then he turned on me, and began striking me. I held his hand, and then he screamed and kicked and ran to his father, and told him that I was fighting him. He came in a rage, and said he’d teach me who was my master, and he tied me to a tree, and cut switches for young master, and told him that he might whip me till he was tired; - and he did do it! If I don’t make him remember it, some time!” and the brow of the young man grew dark , and his eyes burned with an expression that made his young wife tremble. “Who made this man my master? That’s what I want to know!” he said.

- Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1852

(Red Country Reading List)

It was beautiful and more inspiring than anything I’d seen in my own place of worship

“I could only nod. Nell began a new verse, and several people moved forward to line up before Brother James, where they spoke and prayed with him one at a time, some openly weeping. Others knelt where they were, heads bowed toward the rustic benches, issuing unspoken requests directly to God, without a human intercessor. It was beautiful and more inspiring than anything I’d seen in my own place of worship, where we sang the same hymns over and over, and our minister, who’d been there more years than I’d been alive, delivered the same fire-and-brimstone messages Sunday after Sunday, so monotone, nobody shook with fear unless called out publicly by Reverend Creech for dozing during his sermon…

When the last one reached Brother James, and no others stood to follow, Nell began humming the song’s chorus quietly, and the choir joined her in a soothing, almost lullaby. James raised his hands high again, beckoning his congregation once more, and when no one else responded, he lowered them and clasped them behind his back. He offered a spoken prayer to end the service.

After his benediction, the choir sang again to send out the members, this time in a fast and rhythmic chorus. Some sang and clapped along; others gathered up sleepy children or embraced one another. I’d never seen such a joyful group. The state of their clothing, threadbare and outdated in most cases, indicated they struggled with poverty, barely hanging on even as American finally emerged from terrible times, yet they seemed thankful regardless.”

- Julie Kibler, Calling Me Home, 2013

(Red Country Reading List)

Idaho, January 2019

pink = where I went

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This trip was my first time in Idaho, aside from driving across the skinny northern part a few times. I was invited by the Sun Valley Center for the Arts (known as “the Center”) to stay at the Ezra Pound House in Hailey for a week, and I chose January so I could be in snow.

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I flew into Boise and drove with heart leaping at the colors the whole drive to Hailey. Butter yellow and ochre of the grasses in the snow, pink and periwinkle with white and olive and black.

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The Ezra Pound House is in fact where Pound was born and resided during his toddlerhood. (Were his tantrums poetic?) The house is owned by the Center and has been beautifully restored and maintained. Birds and lions whisper in complete sentences from the wallpapers.

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That first night there were green sparks in the blankets when I moved in bed. I woke up with a feeling of having had electric dreams. The next day I drove 20 miles north to the Center in Ketchum and met curator Courtney Gilbert and artistic director Kristin Poole, who were both so warm and welcoming and gave me recommendations of places to go.

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Courtney and Kristin said I should drive through the Sawtooth Mountains to Stanley, a tiny town of ranchers.

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In Stanley, I went to the Mountain Village Inn and asked the guy behind the counter where he thought I should go.

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A few other guys came out from the back and they all brainstormed about places to send me.

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They told me about the town hockey rink, which is a main hub of activity. There was no one at the rink when I got there but soon a family arrived, all of them skating. The mom had some moves!

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These sections of carpet were laid out near the rink. There was a twin/shadow stain where one had been moved, I think.

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After my time at the ice rink and wandering around in the snow, I headed back to the Mountain Village Inn.

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I sat at the bar with men in baseball caps watching football. When I got there they were all riveted by the game and I don’t think they really registered my presence. Then when the game cut to a commercial break I saw a faint ripple of surprise pass over them. I stuck out so thoroughly I figured I might as well order tea. And it might as well be herbal, which is what my stomach really wanted. I tried to look friendly and approachable, smiling hopefully whenever one glanced in my direction, but they didn’t talk to me. So I sat and drank my chamomile tea and wrote in my sketchbook and they sat in a row and watched the game with a new level of concentration.

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At lunch one day, Kristin and Courtney told me about Ezra Pound, whom I didn’t know much about. He was an anti-Semitic fascist who adored Mussolini. (!) After he was imprisoned for being a traitor of the U.S., Hemingway petitioned for his release, and was successful, though eventually Pound ended up in an asylum. Idaho was a significant landscape in the life cycle of both men: Pound was born in Hailey, and Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls in the Sun Valley Lodge and killed himself in a house nearby.

The Ezra Pound House in Hailey

The Ezra Pound House in Hailey

I spent a lot of time in this quiet house in the snow. My favorite room in the house (as is often the case) was the kitchen. I sat, ate, stared out the window, wrote, and read at the kitchen table. It was such an odd sensation to be in this kind of quiet. It had been a long time since I’d been physically alone in this way, unmoored from all of the people and responsibilities and surroundings that tell me who I am. I found myself in an existentially questioning land that I totally recognized but hadn’t been in for a long time. For me Idaho was as much about being in this place as it was about being in Idaho. I was telling a friend about this experience and he aptly pointed out that I was in my own private Idaho.

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Courtney said that Galena Lodge is one of her favorite places in the world, that there are beautiful trails for snowshoeing. She generously loaned me her snowshoes and I went snowshoeing there and other places around town nearly every day.

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Kristin invited me to dinner at her and her partner Melanie’s house, with their good friend Jeanne Meyer and Jeanne’s son Lucas.

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Kristin made a delicious dish with polenta and gruyere. They all told me about the issues dividing Idaho at the moment: wolves and abortion. Ranchers are vehemently against the conservationists’ reintroduction of the grey wolf to the ecosystem. Abortion is the same as everywhere else. Kristin and Jeanne said I should go to Twin Falls on my way back to the Boise airport in a few days, and Jeanne connected me with her friend in Twin, Jan Mittleider.

The drive from Hailey to Twin featured a lava-formed landscape of black soft clumps and crumbles, like crumbled Oreos. It was otherworldly in the fog.

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My first stop in town was a McDonald’s to use the bathroom. On my way out I saw a mom with a baby in a car seat and a little girl sitting at a table. They looked nearly done with their lunch, so I went over to talk to her. She was startled when I came over but was happy to talk to me. She grew up Buhl, a town nearby, then moved to Las Vegas, but then came back to Buhl. When she was little her mom used to take them to a nearby park with waterfalls. She told me about a bench near the waterfalls where people would carve their names. She didn’t remember the exact name of the park, but I said I’d try to find it. She hadn’t been back since she was a kid. She was clearly so fond of the park, I wondered if she would go back, maybe with her own kids.

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I sat in my car and googled “Buhl park with waterfalls” and actually found her park! On my way there I passed this spectacular vision. I googled that too - “farm mound white plastic with tires” - and found out that it is cow food under there.

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In the vicinity of the park, I drove on many muddy side roads and thought I’d taken another wrong turn when I landed at a trailhead that looked promising. I got out and walked up the trail and found waterfalls! And lo! Her bench! With names carved in it!

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I met Jeanne’s friend Jan at the cafe inside a strip mall Barnes & Noble. Our meeting was a last-minute thing; she is a busy lady and was only able to do it because she was getting over a cold and had taken the week off. She admitted that rather than resting she had mostly spent the week cleaning the house. She was fabulously stylish and full of energy and drove me around town to her favorite places, all while sharing stories about her life. Her generosity and passion were totally inspiring.

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Jan grew up in the Boise area and came to Twin Falls for a job at the community college. She said Twin Falls has two lifebloods: the Snake River, and the community college, where she taught for over 40 years. The college is accessible to all; 80% of people get scholarships. “I love the mission of a community college, doing more with less money. Less red tape.”

Jan was hired by the college’s first president. Shaking her head, she told me how shortly after she was hired he took her to a playboy club in Denver when they were there for a conference.

On the campus of the College of Southern Idaho

On the campus of the College of Southern Idaho

Jan has worn many hats in leadership roles in town, including serving on the boards of the community college and the Idaho Commission for the Arts, and is president of the Magic Valley Arts Council. She told me with wonder and reverence that in the middle of the 2008 financial crisis, people in this agricultural town raised enough money to sustain the Arts Center.

Twin Valley Center for the Arts, Magic Valley Arts Council

Twin Valley Center for the Arts, Magic Valley Arts Council

Driving down the 486 feet to the bottom of the Snake River Canyon, Jan told me about her neighbor, an older man whose childhood home was on the bottom of the canyon. He had a homemade cable car that would take him up the canyon to go to school.

On our way down the windy road, we passed two women in a convertible, which totally delighted her. She waved a big hello and hooted “How’s that for optimism!”

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Jan said, “I think it’s so healing to come here. It’s inter-generational and appeals to everyone. Refugee families, Hispanic families, everybody. In summer people will come here after work and go kayaking.” Also, people jump off the bridge.

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Jan’s son worked on the trail that leads to the base of the bridge for his Eagle Scout project. It’s the trail used by rescuers/retrievers when someone jumps. Years after the trail was complete, her son had this sign made in honor of his Scout leader, Frank Mogensen, who was a state cop and scout leader for decades. Jan credits the scouts for teaching her boys how to cook.

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Back in the Barnes & Noble parking lot after our whirlwind tour, I thanked her profusely and she said, “It’s my pleasure. We’re all connected in powerful ways; we all need to help each other when we can. Besides I would just be at home cleaning out closets and coughing my head off.”

our continental dream

“We arrived in St. Louis at noon. I took a walk down by the Mississippi River and watched the logs that came floating from Montana in the north - grand Odyssean logs of our continental dream. Old steamboats with their scrollwork more scrolled and withered by weathers sat in the mud inhabited by rats. Great clouds of afternoon overtopped the Mississippi Valley. The bus roared through Indiana cornfields that night; the moon illuminated through Indiana cornfields that night; it was almost Halloween. I made the acquaintance of a girl and we necked all the way to Indianapolis. She was nearsighted. When we got off to eat I had to lead her by the hand to the lunch counter. She bought my meals; my sandwiches were all gone.”

- Jack Kerouac, On the Road, 1955

(Red Country Reading List)

displays of anger showed poor rearing

“Our good fortune and long line of self-sacrificing forebears led me to another belief: complaining about anything was out of the question. Physical and emotional hardiness were parts of the same whole. Unrestrained emotion was seen as a weakness, unless of course it came in the form of a happy yelp at a notable golf shot or tennis slam. Displays of anger showed poor rearing; pride was gauche; sadness, anger jealousy, and and fear were just plain pitiful - all worthy of being shunned with silver-clinking-on-china silence or a swift change of subject. A “good attitude” was highly valued and rewarded. I learned to stuff down my negative feelings and to buck up with expected chipperness. Each cultural norm motivated me to fit in while judging others who didn’t. I learned to become deeply uncomfortable around people who exhibited any of the disapproved emotions, especially anger.”

- Debby Irving, Waking Up White, 2014

(Red Country Reading List)

with the quail and the plover

Alexandra drew her shawl closer about her and stood leaning against the frame of the mill, looking at the stars which glittered so keenly through the frosty autumn air. She always loved to watch them, to think of their vastness and distance, and of their ordered march. It fortified her to reflect upon the great operations of nature, and when she thought of the law that lay behind them, she felt a sense of personal security. That night she had a new consciousness of the country, felt almost a new relation to it… The chirping of the insects down in the long grass had been like the sweetest music. She had felt as if her heart were hiding down there, somewhere, with the quail and the plover and all the little wild things that crooned or buzzed in the sun. Under the long shaggy ridges, she felt the future stirring.

- Willa Cather, O Pioneers! , 1913

(Red Country Reading List)

North Carolina, July 2017

pink = where I went

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One of my dearest humans lives in North Carolina; she has been my reason to travel there a handful of times in the past twelve years. At this particular time it was a bonus that she lives in a red state. I stayed with my friend Kim and her partner Gaby at their house in Asheville for several days. Kim has lived in North Carolina her whole life and Gaby moved there from Los Angeles several years ago.


I flew into Atlanta and then drove north through Georgia and into North Carolina through the Smoky Mountains.

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Kim works for the University of North Carolina at Asheville, training UNCA undergrads to be tutors/mentors for local middle and high school students. UNCA is a predominantly white campus. Asheville Middle School, Asheville High School and SILSA High School are multi-racial; the middle and high school students participating in the program at UNCA are primarily students of color. Kim explained that an important part of her work is helping the white UNCA students understand what their identity is, what their place is, and what they bring to every interaction they have.

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For the summer program Kim leads, called AVID Summer Bridge, a group of students from Asheville Middle School, Asheville High School and SILSA High School come and spend two weeks on the UNCA campus, where they engage in meaningful discussions and work that relates to their life experience. Students work collaboratively and independently on projects with such themes as clean water access, media literacy, gentrification, immigration, the criminal justice system, and activism. The guiding principle of AVID is systemic change. Students that are members of underrepresented groups [which includes students of color as well as, this year, a white student who grew up in rural Appalachia] are selected for the program based on their GPA, a desire to go to college, and an interview. Most will be the first in their families to go to college.  

In line for lunch at 12 Bones

In line for lunch at 12 Bones

Lunch with Kim at 12 Bones

Lunch with Kim at 12 Bones

The AVID students are often surprised and taken off guard by the way they are treated on the college campus. They don't have to ask to use the bathroom! They are gently told before sensitive discussions that if difficult emotional material comes up, they can step outside if they need to. Their final project is something they present in front of their families; there is accountability, yet no grades. 

Walking through the River Arts District (RAD) toward Livingston Apartments

Walking through the River Arts District (RAD) toward Livingston Apartments

A few months before my trip to North Carolina, Kim and I decided to invite her AVID students to participate in my project. Kim told them she had an artist friend visiting from Seattle and then relayed messages between us. My message to them was, “Where do you think I should go in your state? It can be a place that you feel is important personally, or culturally, or historically. It can be a beautiful place or an ugly place. It can just be a place you go a lot.” If they wanted a more specific prompt, I offered these as options:

1. choose a place that changed you in some way

2. choose a place where you feel like you are in nature

3. choose a place that makes you feel proud of your state

4. choose a place where something shameful happened

The Good Vibes tank is a popular place for teens after school

The Good Vibes tank is a popular place for teens after school

Kim passed out paper and thirteen students wrote down where they thought I should go; some sharing personal details, some drawing maps. When I arrived in North Carolina, Kim gave me these notes, and they became the basis for our itinerary.

Walking over the freeway on the fence-enclosed bridge to Hillcrest

Walking over the freeway on the fence-enclosed bridge to Hillcrest

Places they suggested included Vance Elementary School (“The garden is a peaceful environment”); Black Mountain; the Chocolate Lounge; the Good Vibes tank; the housing projects where some of the students live: Hillcrest (“It’s where I live and where most of the accidents happen”) and Livingston (“It’s a place that makes me feel ashamed of my community. Not the people inside it but the people that come and go starting drama”); the Grove Park Inn (“because I go there a lot)”; the mountains; waterfalls; downtown; Biltmore Park; the park near Charlotte Street with the mural; Depot Street (“because you have the River Arts District [RAD] then it goes right to the projects. The RAD is super artsy and beautiful and the hood is where you’ll see regular people just living their lives”) and West Asheville.

Crossing the street from the River Arts District to the stairs up to Livingston Apartments

Crossing the street from the River Arts District to the stairs up to Livingston Apartments

When I told my Pacific Northwestern [liberal] friends that my visit to North Carolina would be based in Asheville, they unanimously responded with variations of "Asheville doesn't count!" [as "red" state material] because it is considered a little liberal haven in the South by liberals in the rest of the country. Compared to surrounding towns, it is. There are a lot of wealthy white people moving to Asheville. But there are a lot of other people who were there before, are still there now. Kim said she felt like her students, in their responses to my prompt, and in their eagerness to be included, were saying to me and anyone who will listen, "WE are here too!"

Livingston Apartments

Livingston Apartments

If you do google image searches for Hillcrest and Livingston (the two housing projects mentioned by Kim’s students), you will get collages of tragic photos of fires, shootings, and cop cars.

Livingston Apartments

Livingston Apartments

It was quiet as Kim and I walked through Livingston in the heat. I was telling myself that it was ok that I was there because the students told me to go. The premise of this entire project is that I have essentially been given permission to go to a place if someone who can claim that place tells me to go there. But in this place, the reasoning suddenly seemed flimsy and I was keenly aware that if it collapsed I would just be a privileged, trespassing outsider.

Hillcrest Apartments, Asheville

Hillcrest Apartments, Asheville

Kim and I talked about the physical safety afforded by our whiteness, along with the imaginary cultural Green Card granted by my artist-ness, as we walked through these communities. If these residents walked through many white neighborhoods across town they certainly wouldn’t be as safe.

The father of one of Kim’s students (the one who told me to go to Hillcrest) was killed by police the previous year.

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At Hillcrest there were more people out and we were greeted warmly by a few people on their porches. We were admiring this thoughtfully laid out garden that spells L O V E, and its creator, a man named Charles, came down from the porch to talk.

Hillcrest Apartments, Asheville

Hillcrest Apartments, Asheville

Charles said people always ask him, “Why are you doing this?” or say “You need permission to do that!” He tells them, “I was raised to make my home beautiful! Why would I need to ask permission to plant flowers in my yard? I was raised to think of the place I live as mine.” He told us about how he goes to his construction job for ten every day, then comes home and works in the garden for four hours with a headlamp on after it gets dark. It’s his meditation. I feel the same way about my garden.

Charles and his garden

Charles and his garden

On another block we met Mary Jo Johnson and talked with her on her porch about gardening and President Obama.

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Mary Jo’s roses

Mary Jo’s roses

Mary Jo told us about the part of Asheville that has been important in her life - a neighborhood, a block, that was the center of black-owned businesses and community. Due to gentrification, all that’s left now is the church and the cultural center. A new mural commemorates the community that once thrived there. Kim and I visited the mural, which was a site one of her students had said I should go.

Triangle Park Mural, Asheville

Triangle Park Mural, Asheville

Triangle Park Mural, Asheville

Triangle Park Mural, Asheville

We walked around the beautiful campus of Warren Wilson College. Once a farm school for boys and now a liberal arts institution, the college’s mission has sustainability as its guiding principle. Kim said that a few of her former AVID students have gone on to go to college at Warren Wilson and have had wonderful experiences there.

Warren Wilson College, Swannanoa, NC

Warren Wilson College, Swannanoa, NC

When we were there students were selling fresh produce from the campus garden in a mini farmers market. Some vocal neighbors of Warren Wilson insult it as being “the most liberal place in North Carolina.”

Warren Wilson College, Swannanoa, NC

Warren Wilson College, Swannanoa, NC

West Asheville is one of Asheville’s more recently gentrified neighborhoods. One AVID student (the one who said I should go to West Asheville) lived there as a child. Her parents both immigrated from Mexico undocumented. She said they live in fear of being rounded up.

West Asheville

West Asheville

Kim talked about Asheville in comparison to other cities in the South, like Charleston and Atlanta. By erasing nearly all traces of its unsavory history, Asheville allows a myth to be perpetuated that there wasn’t slavery there. While Charleston has maintained sites that stand as witness to its history (like the slave market), Asheville has erased them. Meanwhile, monuments to the wealthy slave owners remain.

Vance Monument, Asheville

Vance Monument, Asheville

Since several of Kim’s students recommended that I visit waterfalls, we decided to go to one that Kim and Gaby hadn’t been to yet.

Kim, Birdy, Gaby

Kim, Birdy, Gaby

The one we found was in Rosman, and though it was listed as a waterfall open to the public, it was on private property. We arrived at a nondescript family home and handmade signs directed us where to park. With Birdy the dog we enjoyed the  short hike to a beautiful waterfall.

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We wondered about the people who live in the house, who have this wonder in their backyard, and who were willing to turn their front yard into a parking lot in order to share it.

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Leaving North Carolina, driving back to Atlanta on the freeway, I passed a bad car accident, cars and people strewn in the median before any help arrived. I saw a man in a baseball cap frantically doing CPR on a man on the ground. The stricken man's big white belly shone in the sun as it heaved up and down violently with each thrust. My mind replayed this scene for a few days afterward. I googled the date, time, and location of the accident to see if I could find out if the man survived but there were so many pages of accidents to sift through I eventually gave up.

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Days of healing, ease and real-talk

“Sethe had had twenty-eight days - the travel of one whole moon - of unslaved life. From the pure clear stream of spit that the little girl dribbled into her face to her oily blood was twenty-eight days. Days of healing, ease and real-talk. Days of company: knowing the names of forty, fifty other Negroes, their views, habits; where they had been and what done; of feeling their fun and sorrow along with her own, which made it better. One taught her the alphabet; another a stitch. All taught her how it felt to wake up at dawn and decide what to do with the day.”

- Tony Morrison, Beloved, 1987

(Red Country Reading List)

The longer you are here, the more you start to get it

“Understanding America for the Non-American Black: American Tribalism

In America, tribalism is alive and well. There are four kinds - class, ideology, region, and race. First, class. Pretty easy. Rich folk and poor folk.

Second, ideology. Liberals and conservatives. They don’t merely disagree on political issues, each side believes the other is evil. Intermarriage is discouraged and on the rare occasion that it happens, is considered remarkable. Third, region. The North and the South. The two sides fought a civil war and tough stains from that war remain. The North looks down on the South while the South resents the North. Finally, race. There’s a ladder of racial hierarchy in America. White is always on top, specifically White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, otherwise known as WASP, and American Black is always on the bottom, and what’s in the middle depends on time and place. (Or as that marvelous rhyme goes: if you’re white, you’re all right; if you’re brown, stick around; if you’re black, get back!) Americans assume that everyone will get their tribalism. But it takes a while to figure it all out. So in undergrad, we had a visiting speaker and a classmate whispers to another, “Oh my God, he looks so Jewish,” with a shudder, an actual shudder. Like Jewish was a bad thing. I didn’t get it. As far as I could see, the man was white, not much different from the classmate herself. Jewish to me was something vague, something biblical. But I learned quickly. You see, in America’s ladder of races, Jewish is white but also some rungs below white. A bit confusing, because I knew this straw-haired, freckled girl who said she was Jewish. How can Americans tell who is Jewish? How did the classmate know the guy was Jewish? I read somewhere how American colleges used to ask applicants for their mother’s surnames, to make sure they weren’t Jewish because they wouldn’t admit Jewish people. So maybe that’s how to tell? From people’s names? The longer you are here, the more you start to get it.”

- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah, 2013

(Red Country Reading List)

a kind of safety word

Travels with Charley is John Steinbeck’s memoir of his road trip around the U.S. with his big poodle Charley in 1960.

“We could not go fast because of the ice, but we drove relentlessly, hardly glancing at the passing of Texas beside us… We stopped for gasoline and coffee and slabs of pie. Charley had his meals and walks in gas stations… The blue-fingered man who filled my gas tank looked in at Charley and said, ‘Hey, it’s a dog! I thought you had a nigger in there.’ And he laughed delightedly. It was the first of many repetitions. At least twenty times I heard it - ‘Thought you had a nigger in there.’ It was an unusual joke - always fresh - and never Negro or even Nigra, always Nigger or rather Niggah. That word seemed terribly important, a kind of safety word to cling to lest some structure collapse.

And then I was in Louisiana, with Lake Charles away to the side in the dark, but my lights glittered on ice and glinted on diamond frost, and those people who forever trudge the roads at night were mounded over with cloth against the cold… I scudded on toward New Orleans… So, well on the edge of town I drove into a parking lot. The attendant came to my window. ‘Man, oh man, I thought you had a nigger in there. Man, oh man, it’s a dog. I see that big old black face and I think it’s a big old nigger.’

‘His face is blue-gray when he’s clean,’ I said coldly.

‘Well I see some blue-gray niggers and they wasn’t clean. New York, eh?’

It seemed to me a chill like the morning air came into his voice. ‘Just driving through,’ I said. ‘I want to park for a couple of hours. Think you can get me a taxi?’

‘Where you from?’ the driver asked with a complete lack of interest.

‘Liverpool.’

‘Limey, huh? Well you’ll be all right. It’s the goddamn New York Jews cause all the trouble.’

I found myself with a British inflection and by no means one of Liverpool. ‘Jews - what? How do they cause trouble?’

‘Why, hell, mister. We know how to take care of this. Everybody’s happy and getting along fine. Why, I like niggers. And them goddamn New York Jews come in and stir the niggers up. They just stay in New York there wouldn’t be no trouble. Ought to take them out.’

‘You mean lynch them?"‘

‘I don’t mean nothing else, mister.’”

- John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley, 1962

(Red Country Reading List)

I take the woods

My Side of the Mountain is about a teenaged boy in the 1940’s who runs away from his home in New York City to live in the Catskill Mountains.

“While I prepared trout baked in wild grape leaves, Matt sat on the bed and told me the world news in brief. I listened with care to the trouble in Europe the trouble in the Far East, the trouble in the south, and the trouble in America. Also to a few sensational murders, some ball scores, and his report card.

‘It all proves my point,’ I said sagely. ‘People live too close together.’

‘Is that why you are here?’

‘Well, not exactly. The main reason is that I don’t like to be dependent, particularly on electricity, rails, steam, oil, coal, machines, and all those things that can go wrong.’

‘Well, is that why you are here?’

‘Well, not exactly. Some men climbed Mount Everest because it was there. Here is a wilderness.’

‘Is that why?’

‘Aw, come on Matt. See that falcon? Hear those white-throated sparrows? Smell that skunk? Well the falcon takes the sky, the white-throated sparrow takes the low bushes, the skunk takes the earth, you take the newspaper office, I take the woods.’”

- Jean Craighead George, My Side of the Mountain, 1959

(Red Country Reading List)

they can kiss my ruby-red asshole

"I'd like to tell you how my grandparents thrived in their new environment, how they raised a successful family, and how they retired comfortably middle-class. But that is a partial truth. The full truth is that my grandparents struggled in their new life, and they continued to do so for decades. 

For starters a remarkable stigma attached to people who left the hills of Kentucky for a better life. Hillbillies have a phrase - "too big for your britches" - to describe those who think they're better than the stock they came from. For a long time after my grandparents came to Ohio, they heard exactly that phrase from people back home. The sense that they had abandoned their families was acute, and it was expected that, whatever their responsibilities, they would return home regularly... 

That stigma came from both directions: Many of their n ew neighbors viewed them suspiciously. To the established middle class of white Ohioans, these hillbillies simply didn't belong. They had too many children, and they welcomed their extended families into their homes for too long. On several occasions, Mamaw's brothers and sisters lived with her and Papaw for months as they tried to find good work outside of the hills. In other worlds, many parts of their culture and customs met with roaring disapproval from native Middletonians...

One of Papaw's good friends - a hillbilly from Kentucky whom he met in Ohio - became the mail carrier in their neighborhood. Not long after he moved, the mail carrier got embroiled in a battle with the Middletown government over the flock of chickens that he kept in his yard. He treated them just as Mamaw had treated her chickens back in the holler: Every morning he collected all the eggs, and when his chicken populations grew too large, he'd take a few of the old ones, wring their necks, and carve them up for meat right in his backyard. You can just imagine a well-bred housewife watching out the window in horror as her Kentucky-born neighbor slaughtered squawking chickens just a few feet away. My sister and I still call the old mail carrier "the chicken man," and years later even a mention of how the city government ganged up on the chicken man could inspire Mamaw's trademark vitriol: "Fucking zoning laws. They can kiss my ruby-red asshole." 

The move to Middletown created other problems, as well. In the mountain homes of Jackson, privacy was more theory than practice. Family, friends, and neighbors would barge into your home without much warning. Mothers would tell their daughters how to raise their children. Fathers would tell sons how to do their jobs. Brothers would tell brothers-in-law how to treat their wives. Family life was something people learned on the fly with a lot of help from their neighbors. In Middletown, a man's home was his castle."

- J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy, 2016

(Red Country Reading List)

 

Gustavo Milhojas

"My name is Gustavo Milhojas. I was born in Chinique, El Quiché, Guatamala, in 1960, the year hell came to that country. I arrived in the United States on November 14, 2000. Before that, I resided in México...

I came to the United States to earn more money for my children. They are living with a family friend now while I'm here. I did not think of it so much as a choice as an obligation. It is my obligation to provide a good life for them. My son is in college now, and my daughter will start college next year at Universidad Veracruzana in Orizaba. This makes me happy because I believe it means they will both get to do what they want to do. There are not many people who can say that. 

I thought it would be very difficult to cross. It was after September 11 and the security was supposed to be high. I crowded with a group of men into the back of a van with tinted windows. We were all on the floor, under a heavy black burlap blanket and, on top of that, a lot of empty cardboard boxes that were meant to look like freight. We drove right up to the checkpoint. A guard examined the driver's papers, which were legitimate. The guard did not know we were in the back of the van. He did not even look. The driver simply told him he was transporting construction supplies for a job in El Paso. There was a long pause. All of us in the back held our breath, waiting to be discovered. And then the guard let the driver through. That was it. It was almost unbelievable to me. 

I found a job as soon as I could and began sending money back to my children. I started off in a mattress warehouse, dragging mattresses down metal ramps at the back of the store and loading them onto delivery trucks. When a mattress was defective, sometimes, one of the employees kept it. The bed I have today is from that job. 

For a while, I worked at a canning factory were we packaged chiles and salsa. It wasn't very clean. There were maggots everywhere. The owners blamed the conditions on the workers. Besides that, I didn't like standing in one place for ten hours. We got only one break for fifteen minutes. 

Now I have two jobs. Five mornings a week I work at the Newark Shopping Center movie theater, cleaning the bathrooms and the theaters. I make sure there's toilet paper in the stalls. I mop the floors. I have a wire brush I use to clean the sinks. In the evenings I work at the Movies 10 movie theater in Stanton. That job is harder because there are so many theaters. If too many movies finish all at once, it's a challenge to clean the theaters before the next group of people comes in. I have been reprimanded for leaving an empty cup in the seat arm. Usually I don't have time to go home between my shifts, so many times I eat popcorn and soda for dinner. 

But I am very grateful for these jobs. They allow me to send money to my children to pay for their schooling. When both of them graduate, I would like to go back to México to be with them. My wish is that they'll do something worthwhile with their lives, something more important than sweeping popcorn. I have done what I can for them. I would like to see them give something back."

- Cristina Henríquez, The Book of Unknown Americans, 2014

(Red Country Reading List)

this isn't really a small town

I finished this book on the day Robert M. Pirsig left this earthly realm. He's riding through Montana in this part:

"We ride down out of the pass onto a small green plain. to the immediate south we can see pine-forested mountains that still have last winter's snow on the peaks. In all other directions appear lower mountains, more in the distance, but just as clear and sharp. This picture-postcard scenery vaguely fits memory but not definitely. This interstate freeway we are on must not have existed then. 

The statement "To travel is better than to arrive" comes back to mind again and stays. We have been traveling and now we will arrive. For me a period of depression comes on when I reach a temporary goal like this and have to reorient myself toward another one. In a day or two John and Sylvia must go back and Chris and I must decide what we want to do next. Everything has to be reorganized. 

The main street of the town seems vaguely familiar but there's a feeling of being a tourist now and I see the shop signs are for me, the tourist, and not for people who live here. This isn't really a small town. People are moving too fast and too independently of one another. It's one of these population-fifteen-to-thirty-thousand towns that isn't exactly a town, not exactly a city - not exactly anything really."

- Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, 1974

(Red Country Reading List)

it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor

I finished this book the week before Sherman Alexie was in the news, and in my Facebook feed (we share some colleagues), for having sexually harassed many female writers. I am glad I read it Before. Now, he joins the category of other Fallen male culture producers whose accomplishments smell faintly of fridge-with-moldy-food. [But note: there are other categories in the spectrum of Fallen male culture producers whose accomplishments now smell much worse.]

"Seriously, I know my mother and father had their dreams when they were kids. They dreamed about being something other than poor, but they never got the chance to be anything because nobody paid attention to their dreams. 

Given the chance, my mother would have gone to college. 

She still reads books like crazy. She buys them by the pound. And she remembers everything she reads. She can recite whole pages by memory. She's a human tape recorder. Really, my mom can read the newspaper in fifteen minutes and tell me baseball scores, the location of every war, the latest guy to win the Lottery, and the high temperature in Des Moines, Iowa. 

Given the chance, my father would have been a musician. 

When he gets drunk, he sings old country songs. And blues, too. And he sounds good. Like a pro. Like he should be on the radio. He plays the guitar and the piano a little bit. And he has this old saxophone from high school that he keeps all clean and shiny, like he's going to join a band at any moment. 

But we reservation Indians don't get to realize our dreams. We don't get those chances. Or choices. We're just poor. That's all we are. 

It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing that you're poor because you're stupid and ugly. And then you start believing that you're stupid and ugly because you're Indian. And because you're Indian you start believing you're destined to be poor. It's an ugly circle and there's nothing you can do about it. 

Poverty doesn't give you strength or teach you lessons about about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor."

- Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, 2007

(Red Country Reading List)

 

 

all good folks, colored and white, abided by that

"I parked the truck and got out. The way it was in Kentucky, in the South back then, was that going into a colored neighborhood was more or less like going into a whole other country. Your neighborhood could be on the edge, you could live three blocks or not even that, maybe just the distance of a field, be as close as from here to there, but the chances of you ever getting there, assuming your business was good, were about as much as you getting to California. Folks didn't mix, plain as that. There was no town meeting, no drawn-out line that said this is where you don't cross, but there was an understanding, and all good folks, colored and white, abided by that. 

So when I had the opportunity to find myself on the other side, I looked around. That particular road was dirt and dark, but the snow on the ground spread around whatever light was left. I looked at the same porch on every house, each with a couple of chairs, a stack of empty bushel baskets, some firewood, maybe a flat of empty Coca-Cola bottles. I watched the curtains draw back, a face peer out and disappear. They wanted to know what a white man big as me was doing out in their road come nighttime, though it was clear enough whose house I was standing in front of. They wanted to let me know they'd seen me, that if anything was to happen, they would have seen my face." 

- Ann Patchett, "The Patron Saint of Liars," 1992

(Red Country Reading List)

a well-loved colored woman whose lover was the horizon in any direction

"The South in her, the land and salt-winds, moved her through Charleston's streets as if she were a mobile sapling, with the gait of a well-loved colored woman whose lover was the horizon in any direction. Indigo imagined tough winding branches growing from her braids, deep green leaves rustling by her ears, doves and macaws flirting above the nests they'd fashioned in the secret, protected niches way high up in her headdress. When she wore this Carolinian costume, she knew the cobblestone streets were really polished oyster shells, covered with pine needles and cotton flowers. She made herself, her world, from all that she came from. She looked around her at the wharf. If there was nobody there but white folks, she made them black folks. In the grocery, if the white folks were buying up all the fresh collards and okra, she made them disappear and put the produce on the vegetable wagons that went round to the Colored. There wasn't enough for Indigo in the world she'd been born to, so she made up what she needed. What she thought the black people needed." 

- Ntozake Shange, Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo, 1982

(Red Country Reading List)