Archive for the 'family history' Category

Failure in Translation

amywink June 14th, 2018

A friend I knew in graduate school used to tell the story of how her friendship with the cluster of Italian graduate students began at a museum in Italy, where she, speaking Italian, had constructed her sentence in the language she was still learning and instead saying “I have made a mistake” she had, in her usage, said “I am a mistake.” To which the kind Italian stranger standing beside her had responded effusively, “Oh, you are not a mistake!!” and had helped her understand the difference in translation so that she would not longer announce that she was some kind of “mistake of the Universe” and had only, like humans do, made a small mistake.

Our American cultural narrative of success provides no such nuance and moving home at 36 means only one thing: failure, as in “you are failure.” Our belief that if we work hard, do the “correct” things, follow the conventional path, we will be rewarded for our efforts has no room for what happens when a person does all those things and still cannot find the job. The external cultural narrative exerts a great deal of force on the understanding of experience, even if the knowledge of what has happened complicates the prevailing idea. Add to that the popular misconception of work in higher education as some kind of easy life in the ‘Ivory Tower’ completely divorced from reality (and therefore the target of a fair amount of cultural hostility) from which no one can ever be fired. Let me just say, I have never encountered this utopian vision of academe and when people talk about the “liberal” slant of higher education and the feminist paradise that exists there, I laugh (but that is another essay for another time.)

I had not lived at home since the summer of 1987, when I left Austin to pursue my graduate degrees at Texas A&M, after completing 4 years of undergraduate school at Southwestern, also not living at home. I had not lived at home for a long time, for good reason. Our cultural narrative of “moving home” implies that home is a safe place; that one is returning to the nest seeking the comfort of a welcoming family. The cultural narrative has no room for the problematic return to an environment complicated by mental illness. When I knew that the only path before me was the road home, I was afraid. Afraid because it seemed right and afraid because I knew what I was heading into, except I didn’t really know that what I was about to encounter was worse than I had expected. Yet, failed and afraid, I came home in May of 2001. My parents did welcome me and were also afraid.

It would be unfair of me to claim that they did not want me home or thought I was a failure just as it would be unfair to claim that I was not relieved I had a net at the bottom of my fall from grace. They both worried, about what this meant for them, what it meant for me, what it meant for us, and a lot about how would we all afford this. My mother was a retired teacher, my Dad also, though he was working at Home Depot. Our home, the house we had moved into in 1974, was not large, 1300 square feet. I moved most of my things into storage and tried to figure out what to do with the rest of my life, since my conventional plan had not worked at all. I was about to have a book, I had a lengthy vita, I had years of successful teaching experience. This was the thing I was made to do. I had a gift that no one wanted, a calling that culture refused to answer.

It was a hard place to be.

When people say “embarrassment won’t kill you,” I have often responded “No, it’s worse because you have to live through it.” The same goes for failure, you have to live through it. I understood, on most days, that I was not failure, that the system was the problem. While academic and popular culture might push the narrative that I was a failure because of my own fault–something I hadn’t done, some step I hadn’t taken, something wrong with me– I understood that the story people might be telling themselves was a story for their own comfort, whistling past the graveyard of failure themselves, holding onto their ideas of rewarded merit. I had tried to follow convention and it had not worked at all.

I had fallen. I was flat on my back. I was no longer looking down at the frightening fall. I had to look up. I also looked around. My parents were in serious trouble. My mother’s bi-polar disorder was poorly treated. My father, though we did not know this at the time, was beginning to feel the effects of Parkinson’s disease (which would be diagnosed in 2005). The house was in disrepair with half-finished renovations my Dad could no longer manage and also filled with things my mother refused to part with (yes, it was a hoard). I knew I could not live like that. I knew they could not live like that.

I had come home hoping to leave as fast as I could and suddenly I understood I could not leave.

“I cannot leave.” I told Stacey, who said she always remembered the moment when I said that. And it didn’t matter what culture said about failure. What mattered was not abandoning my parents in their difficulty even if that is not what I wanted.

It did not look like my calling, and yet, here was what I was being asked to do: care.


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Lent: Kansas

amywink March 1st, 2018

Traveling out of those Flint Hills
or through the tall grass prairie
and wheat the landscape
always reminded me
gently, kindly,
of my insignificance,
as if to say
it all matters
so very little,
this trouble
you have now,
breathe instead
and think of
the enduring ways
of time and change.

Yet, for a long time after
my life there ended,
my recurring nightmare
was a quiet dream
of going back,
returning out
of no choice,
back to the place
I had begun to
hollow and fade,
and I would wake,
as if without breath,
in full despair
of that returning.

“Tell me a story”

amywink October 14th, 2017

“Tell me a story”

I watched my mother
once swept away
in the riptide
of her mania,
stories of her life
spilling from her
without thematic
without narrative
or any patterned
of oral history
or storytelling.

Desperate, she seemed,
frantic to find
the threads of
meaning and reason
in stories spinning from her,
to do like I was doing
in my own life,
writing and living
my own story.

She kept trying
to create the story
that would carry her
forward into the battles
of her life, like me,
but the distance
between us was
a chasm opening
before me,
wide and deep,
into which we
both might go,
in that same
daring leap
the difference
between diving
and falling.

Forgive and Remember

amywink August 25th, 2017

[Love] does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.

1 Corinthians 13: 6-12

Among the artifacts of my grandmother’s life, my mother and I found one of her high school yearbooks, a mid-1920’s collection of youthful Jazz Age faces living in a Texas oil-field town, about as far from West Egg as anyone might imagine. Yet there, in the curated view of her generation, bound in a single book to commemorate the year, my grandmother the flapper seemed to dance out of the pages, the daring girl ready for adventures beyond the dirt and derricks of her surroundings.

From my vantage point almost three-quarters of a century later, I looked through pages and marveled at the styles, thinking of my grandmother in her girlhood, surrounded by classmates, high school activities, the ubiquitous football coverage. Her girlhood culture, illustrated with photos, stories, jokes, and student drawings, a genial and benign book of high school life in the mid-1920’s. And I keep turning the pages until the page is a rudimentary drawing of a hooded boy, on horseback, staring down a hill at a burning cross and I stop on another reality of my grandmother’s girlhood.

“Maybe it is a joke” my mother sighed, half-heartedly. But of course, we both knew it was not a joke. This is not the moment of our awakening. This is not a revelation.

As much a part of my grandmother’s girlhood as the flapper clothing and oil derricks, the unrepentant image of white supremacy bound in the pages of her high school yearbook reminds us again of what we know.

It is moment of reckoning.

It would be easy enough for me to close the book and let the image fade from my consciousness. I could ignore or deny the weight of it, allow nostalgia to gloss my perspective on my grandmother’s life and separate her from the surrounding culture. The drawing of the hooded boy, looking down on a burning cross makes that impossible.

I cannot make this story beautiful.

I could choose to see history dimly, like a mirror hazed by willful ignorance.
But I want to see completely, as sure as Eve chose to understand the knowledge of good and evil.

I cannot make this story beautiful.

A dear friend once said “I don’t know what I’d do if I found out my ancestors had slaves. I’d just be so ashamed.” I wondered how we could look at our ancestry through such rose-colored glasses. Of course, as a descendant of Russian Jews who arrived after Emancipation, she had that privilege, if few others.

I am four generations from the Confederate soldier my grandmother knew as her grandfather just as I am four generations from the Union soldier whose grandson married her. I know the names of my slaveholding ancestors. I have the photographs. I know the plantation was “lost” in Sherman’s March to the Sea. I know there are African-Americans with whom I share more than one ancestral name.

I do not fool myself with the ignorance that keeps rising in every generation, drawing us back into the primordial sea of our nostalgia before we are pushed further onto shore. I wonder when we will desire the land enough to be redeemed from the sea.

Jack Kornfield writes “extending and receiving forgiveness is essential for redemption from our past. To forgive does not mean we condone the misdeeds of another. We can dedicate ourselves to make sure they never happen again.” We also have to know the past, to understand the complexity of history, to know fully what we remember and what we choose to forget, personally and culturally.

In his poem “[the] north [ern] [of] ireland” Pádraig Ó Tuama writes:

And at the end of the day
the reality is
that whether we
or whether we stay
the same

these questions will remain.

Who are we
to be
with one


How are we
to be
with one

I have to ask myself now the same questions. How are we to be with one another? How do I hold this ugliness in memory along with what beautiful? How do I rejoice in this truth?

Ó Tuama’s only answer is present action:

I wake
You wake
She wakes
He wakes
They wake
We wake and take this troubled beauty forward

We wake. We.

We must rejoice in the truth of our waking. We must recognize this troubled beauty of our history. We must reckon with the troubled beauty of our past, dedicated to making sure it never happens again.

John Lewis, interviewed recently by Krista Tippett for said “You have to be taught the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence. And in the religious sense, in the moral sense, you can say in the bosom of every human being, there is a spark of the divine. So you don’t have a right as a human to abuse that spark of the divine in your fellow human being. We, from time to time, would discuss if you see someone attacking you, beating you, spitting on you, you have to think of that person — years ago, that person was an innocent child, innocent little baby. And so what happened? Something go wrong? Did the environment? Did someone teach that person to hate, to abuse others? So you try to appeal to the goodness of every human being. And you don’t give up. You never give up on anyone.”

My grandmother was a human being, flawed and wonderful, petty and generous, frightened and brave. She loved and feared. It is my recognition of her complexity, acceptance of her humanity, remembrance of her whole life that allows me to see her face to face, to put away the childish delusion of wistful nostalgia that she might be less complex but also less human, the childish hope that she not contain the “and.” She went into the world and grew. She did not remain bound with the hooded boy looking at the burning cross. She put an end to childish ways. She loved. She opened her life with love, welcoming black, white, gay, straight, Buddhist, Christian into her family. For all her human foibles, she never closed her heart. She never gave up on her own divine spark.

“You are amazing. You are great. You are cool.”

amywink July 29th, 2017

This weekend marks one year since I lost my best friend, Stacey. We, as a culture, are not very good at acknowledging grief, recognizing it as part of a complex human experience, but we are better at recognizing the grief that is shared through familial relationships. There is precious little written about the lost of a long-time and deep friendship. Searching the blog posts on What’s Your Grief leads to one article: When Your Best Friend Dies. At least it’s a very good article.

When your best friend dies, many people don’t notice. When your best friend dies, you have to tell them if you want them to know–and when you tell them, they might forget you’re grieving. When your best friend dies, people don’t perceive that you might be the right age to have lost someone close. When your best friend dies, some people don’t even understand the concept of best friendships.

It is a kind of solitary, singular loss.

But grief is not a competition but a frame through which we, changed, now see the world, like Emily Dickinson wrote “I measure every Grief I meet With narrow, probing, eyes – I wonder if It weighs like Mine – Or has an Easier size.”

I am very lucky, both to have known Stacey, and also to have more than a single best friend (which as an adult, is not longer the hierarchical term we use in childhood, the Number 1 friend, but a description of the kind of friend a person is, the best kind). Those friends closed ranks and carried me through the worst of the loss, some old friends stepped up to the plate, some new friends stepped forward. But when Stacey died, a chasm opened and into it fell our shared memories, our collective experience, the tangential connections I had to her husband, her family, her friends. Suddenly, the bridge to her whole life vanished. At the same time, a few of those connections became stronger as we also became closer to share our grief, her husband, her best friend from college. What had been tangential has become central, like healing around a collective wound, a web across the chasm we were left with. But the chasm is still there and every time I think “Stacey would have loved this” or “Stacey would have said….” or “I’d have asked Stacey about this” or a thousand other small thoughts that drift through my days, there is only a deep and reverberating echo for an answer.

Stacey was born into a religious tradition in which the only afterlife was in the continual remembering of the person. While she happily left most of that religion behind, she did believe, and I believe, that the active remembering of a person, her life, her relationships, her stories, keeps that person among the living. I remember her. I am writing her into the fabric of my life, and in contemporary parlance, weaving her into the Web so she will never be forgotten. She didn’t want to be discussed on social media but she can’t stop me from making her presence known and her memory valuable. (Sorry, Stacey, I’m breaking your rules, but I think you knew I would because, well, you knew I was a writer.)

I wrote the following piece for her memorial service, though I did not attend (which I explain in The Difficulty of Blue, if you’re curious). And I still think of this as my favorite memory of our friendship, an allegorical story about the meaning of best friendship.


I met Stacey in graduate school at Texas A&M. We had circled each other but our gravities had
not yet achieved the closeness required to pull us together permanently until one day she asked
a fateful question “How are you?” And I answered truthfully “I am having the worst day of my

It’s a good thing Stacey didn’t scare easily. In fact, Stacey didn’t scare. And I was so lucky
she accepted my truthful response and chose not to run but instead to bring herself closer and
offer her friendship even though it would have been easy to walk away.

But Stacey was a First Responder at heart and she walked directly into my disaster and worked to pull me through.

And eventually, I did the same for her.

Because that’s what friends do.

Despite her chronic delusion that she was “just a normal person” she was most extraordinary, a
person who became a best friend to me through the some of the most difficult years of my life
but also my writing partner, who helped me be as creative, helped me flesh out ideas in
conversation and correspondence, helped me articulate the insights we searched for together.
She helped polish my work for publication and the many conference papers I wrote as I tried to
make an academic career. Our twenty year daily email correspondence– “our sharing thoughts
in writing”–was an amazing work of art between the two of us, a living conversation.

Our best work together, a presentation of our family history title City Ancestor/Country Ancestor” traced
the amazing stories we both had of our families. Blending her prose with my poetry, illustrated
with family photographs from both our family archives, we presented together at a Popular
Culture Association conference in San Antonio.

It was a fantastic performance piece. We were a hit and we were so pleased and proud of our own brilliance. Late, late, late in our hotel room, neither of us asleep but soaring alone on our triumph until one of us spoke:

” I can’t sleep.”

“Neither can I”

And we flipped on the lights to celebrate

“That was so great! ”

“We were so great!

“We were amazing!”

“We were so cool”

And we were great. We were amazing. We were cool.

I will miss writing with her every day. And I will miss her every day but like I told her in the last
weeks of her life, she will always be with me. I’ll always be hearing her say “You are great, You are amazing,
You are cool.”

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