How endless the visual and historical delight is here! This morning I went back to visit San Rufino, a cathedral I’ve now been to seven or eight times. Since I went on the Roman Antiquities tour yesterday — an absolute subterranean wonder, medieval Assisi having been built on top of a first century Roman town– I paid more attention to what is under the Cathedral… the layers of civilization and time in plain view.
Above: the front rose window from the outside on Good Friday and from inside this morning, reflected in the glass flooring that’s been used in order to reveal Roman wall work underneath.
On one side of the cathedral, next to statues of Jesus, Mary, David, Isaiah and others, is a preserved arch opening into an ancient Roman space.
Here, a hokey inclusion of my own shadow to hint at the insubstantial brevity of this life.
Speaking of life passing, one of the blessings of being here has been distraction from the last months of my sister’s struggle. I’ve lit candles for her all over the city and shared a little about her with a new friend, but otherwise not much — not much memory or hand-wringing. This morning, I threw coins into a pool at Santa Chiara (my sister’s middle name being Claire, recall), one each for K, the boys, me, and her.
Not three minutes later, there was a beautiful and perfect feather in my path. Some say finding a feather means an Angel is near. I thought cynically, it also means pigeons are near. But then, not two feet away, I found a sticker emblazoned with a pentagram, a symbol important in magic generally and to my sister personally. And so, there she was. Hello, Noreen!
I took out the little owl that I’ve been carrying around in my pocket (one of hers) and photographed it near a new picture of Francis in her honor from my favorite perch of this visit — my chair by the windowsill. Need I say — I am a sucker for religious iconography?
I finished the first Assisi-inspired quilt (below) and am rushing to finishing another to give my host before I leave.
Didn’t get to share pix of the sweet cafe where I had breakfast or the many incredible street views returning home, but look how long this is already. I’m going to load some wall and door pix on Flickr and otherwise will be posting about this trip for weeks to come!
Home Tuesday. Apologies for not commenting on blogs right now. Can’t wait to catch up with Jude’s class and Happy Birthday, Nancy!!!
I can be an unabashed braggart when it comes to food — moaning my approval before anyone else at the table has a chance to comment, for instance. But, you know what? Every now and then I just hit it out of the park! These sugar cookies sailed right over the Green Monster* into my happy, happy mouth (*for those who don’t know, that’s a Fenway Park reference).
I don’t bother with their laborious flour concocting and instead use whatever gluten free flour is to hand. These cookies feature almond meal — always a boon for this nut-lover’s palette — and cream cheese, which probably accounts for the confections’ creamy softness. I happened to be out of vanilla (what? – I know!), so I subbed a smaller amount of almond extract. Pow — these cookies are to die for. And that’s saying something for gluten free!
It’s Friday and it finally stopped raining. I’m reading Michael W. Twitty‘s food memoir and just got to the part about his conversion to Judaism and the parallels between Jewish and African American culinary traditions. Left me with a hankering for pastrami (I must trust my dear readers to be openly lusting for sugar and red meat in the same post!). There may be a run to Zaftig’s in my near future. There happens to be one near my favorite Christmas Tree Shop in Natick (please stop, Dee — too many confessions for one post).
Ever since the senseless murder of nine black congregants during a Bible Study circle at the Emanuel AME in Charleston, it has been hard to think of much else. It is sickening to realize that we now all have enough experience with these tragic events to recognize what could be called the ‘one-two-three punch’. First comes the awful, heart-rending racist violence itself. Second comes the media distortions, in which various denials and weird angles continue the racist harm. Third, we get to wait and watch for the possible failure of the political and judicial systems to prosecute or make a finding of guilt (or take down the Confederate flag). These very distinct kinds of harm overlap and blur into what for me is an increasingly intolerable state. What must it be for families of victims? For all African Americans?
Which is part of why I want to make a quilt. It’s not quite the ‘fearless action’ I consecrated myself to in a Solstice circle yesterday, but it is not nothing either.
A nine block would fitting. If each heart was secured atop a square of woven strips (in the style of and with techniques taught by Jude Hill), I think it would convey something about hope and love uniting us all – whatever hue our stripe.
Unlike the flurry and fury of my online activity (facebook and twitter), this would be a gesture with a little heft. What I have in mind is a modest wall hanging. More of a sympathy card than an heirloom quilt but still, something with literal and metaphoric heart… something that the members of the congregation in Charleston could touch and hold. That feels important to me.
Anyone in? I only need EIGHTSIXFIVEFOUR others ONE MORE. Thank you Sandi and Donna! And Ginny! And anonymous. And Dana, Mo and Gillan.
I ask Mercury, with his missing limbs and weathered face, what did you see? Perched atop a folly – shaped like a cupola and positioned to afford views of the Mystic – surely a bit of everything? An ornament for the Royalls, but a god with power nevertheless. From your vantage in the garden, could you see the enslaved men chopping wood, shoeing horses, forking hay into mounds? Did you see the women whose ancestors were left behind, carrying trays of delicacies, which they prepared, from the kitchen to the folly under your feet? Did you see those same women carrying greasy fleeces into a barn to wash and card and eventually spin? Did you strain to overhear the chattering, silk-drenched visitors as they strolled out of the folly through the garden, admiring its composition and variety? I suppose you might have snickered as the guests gushed their praises – as if the host had dug the beds and all the rest… I wonder how well you gauged the feelings of the enslaved women as they bent to clip flowers for bouquets — from the garden that they planted, fertilized, weeded, and staked? Did you wish you could crane your neck or flutter forward on those winged sandals to see inside the manse, so as to watch them fill Chinese vases atop polished mahogany buffets? With what hidden thoughts.
I wonder what you might have recognized about inequity here beside the Mystic River, being, afterall, the only god capable of travel between Mount Olympus and the Underworld? What did you recognize as Heaven and what as Hell? Did it confuse you to have the two realms divided as they were, not by a steep ascent to a mountain peak above, and a costly river crossing and long descent down a winding path, below, but divided, instead, by merely a breath and the color of skin?
Whom did you root for, fickle god, and whom did you condemn? Or is that just a human thing – taking sides… constantly contriving to make sense of our world. But surely you detested your fixed station – stuck there as you were in all kinds of weather in your tin cap. So unable to prank and spy! And, what do you think of the scene in front of you now? Pegged to the wall at one end of the renovated room. Twelve bodies at dawn. We occupy the quarters once inhabited by the enslaved. Sleeping lumps covered in down-filled bags – REI logos scattered about, emblems of the modern world. At first, some are asleep and quiet. Some asleep and restless. Then, one in the bathroom. One with a pen in her hand. Another sitting in meditation. Then two, erect, with eyes closed. Fred. Ellen. We’ve gathered, not in your honor (sorry, Mercury), but out of respect and concern and curiosity and love for those who slept here on pallets before us. Those who served and labored and loved and spun and cooked, pickled, canned and polished and harvested. Those listed on inventories. Those whose dreams took them back to the banks of the Niger. Those who prayed in tongues lost to their daylight business. Those who carried embers in copper disks to warm the beds of their owners even knowing that their own sleep would find them atop barely stuffed pallets on a cold floor. We are the children of slaves. We are the children of slave-holders. One of us might be descended from both. Some of us from neither – to the extent we know.
We come from the North and the South. We are ministers, writers, historians, and artists. We tend account ledgers, chair nonprofit boards. We have run restaurants, saved for retirement, and prepared notes to lecture on the Civil War. We lead plantation tours. We have dug into archives and probate records up and down the Atlantic Coast. We have made ourselves accountable.
We have made phone calls to landowners to say, “May I sleep in your tool shed?”
The asker of that question has brought the rest of us together. He has slept in dozens upon dozens of former slave dwellings – most more primitive and open to the elements than this one. Educator, Civil War re-enactor, visionary man of heart: Joe McGill. The birds start up. I am awake and relieved it is six and not four. The glare of the EXIT sign and rumble of snorers made for abbreviated sleep. Not the hard floor. Not the disturbing thoughts of those who slept here before. Soon, one of us sits up and leans into his palms. Does he pray or merely allow the spine to lengthen before trying to stand? Two phone screens already glare across the room. A cough. A nose being blown. One of us brought a box of Kleenex expecting to cry the night before and then, did not. But I think perhaps she cries now. Yes. She cries now. A second libation. Her tears — a second libation on the wooden planks, not far from the first. Ase! Ase!
The air coming in and out of my body animates me, lets me breathe with her grief. Does that make you angry and jealous, Mercury? Or are you glad to be spared the entire mess of humankind? Would you, too, cry, if afforded lungs?
A white hand on a black shoulder. The grief of ages pouring through one, the power of touch through the other. The minister meditates. Ellen does too. I hope Fred will pray for us all. Joe gets up. He has done this before. Penny puts on her glasses. Maddie, stirs – hips hurting despite her youth. Ife cries and Ruth rubs her back. Ife cries and Ruth rubs her back. Clennon sits, his head bowed, forehead resting in his palms. Robert looks up and about, inquisitive, intelligent – a morning person? Then Catherine sits up, too, and soon, Jerry leans his back into the southern wall. They will turn to each other and speak.
I write and write as daylight enters the dark room, hoping to find myself. Hoping to find some band of truth. I write and write and write, hoping to craft a place from which to extend my hand…. Not asking for forgiveness, but rather, connection. Mercury — since you are here, since you famously travel across disparate realms — can you make mercy and justice strong enough to bind us? We twelve share this intention — to honor and respect the past and to peer with bravery into its darkest corners. This makes us a family, for a moment. But our legacies are not the same and never will be. One affording privilege. One not.
Can any amount of humility, especially if paired with a life turned inward, ever generate enough credibility and trust?
I did not come here for friends but may have found a few. I’ll give you credit for that Mercury!
I also did not come to atone, though perhaps I should have. Even with relatives starving on the West Coast of Ireland for the entire ignominious chapter of slavery – I am not exempt. Even with an ancestor who served in the Union Army — the muster, aged and framed, spelling out the name that came down to my father and my brother – I am not exempt.
And how could I be? Safe. White. Well-educated. Never hungry.
To make quilts honoring the Middle Passage and quilts grieving the lopsided losses of Katrina or the execution of Trayvon Martin is not enough (– though a start). To educate myself through slave narratives and excellent histories is not enough (– though doors crack open). To visit plantations, and Chalmers Street, and the Avery Research Center, and to dye cloth with indigo in a pole barn near where the Stono rebels marched, again, not enough (– but gaining texture — making the history, the legacy, more real).
Safe. White. Well-educated. Never hungry.
What could ever be enough? And, if I recognize that perhaps that’s the wrong question, then what is the right question?
I will stop by saying ‘thank you’ and ‘maybe’ and ‘who knows why or how’ and ‘thank you’ again. And: ‘I am sorry’. I am sorry. Lame words? Lame gestures? Yes, perhaps. Maybe even, as the minister noted, ridiculous — but how much worse to fail to make the attempt. Am I wrong?
Here I am. Here you are.
Mercury could care less, I suspect.
But I do. I care.
*** This post springs from a night spent in the Slave Quarters of the Royall House, in Medford, Mass. Read more about The Slave Dwelling Project here. And there is much to be read about Joseph McGill online, but here is one particularly nice article. The Project has a Facebook page and is on Twitter.
As many of you know, awhile back I was commissioned to make a quilt for Wendy Golden-Levitt, a Jungian therapist in Canada who uses cloth in her work with children.
Wendy sent the fiber artists whose work she employs a beautiful book as a thank you. It is filled with the most moving testimony from the children, including wonderfully wise and curious speculations about the cloth makers.
Here are just a few gems:
“I am getting better working with the cloths. I can feel the people who made them. I think they understand what it is like to wait…”
“You step towards it [the cloth] and it whispers something. By the time you are holding it, you got a real relationship going. You can trust it completely.”
“Were they sad or stitching themselves into serious happiness? Do they have days when they are not feeling good in the heart? Do they listen to their dogs or cats? Do they eat waffles while they are sewing?”
I was so moved to see a young woman using “my” quilt as a prayer rug.
(and, by the way, check out how completely color-coordinate she is with the quilt — right down to her fingernails!!)
I blogged about genesis of the idea of a “Treasure Island” theme here and about it being in progress here, but apparently never blogged about its completion. So here are some pix. Fabric depicting a treasure map got me going with the idea of healing being like a sailor looking for gold. I wanted there to be lots of animals in the cloth, too — both as guides to the children, and as characters in whatever stories they were busy telling. I bound it with ‘baby-blanket satin’ to make it as touchable and inviting as possible.
Receiving the book was so moving, that it inspired me to send another piece — that Crow I’d been working on. I’ve heard from Wendy and the Crow has landed!!
I took a gazillion pictures of The Crow for some reason, so I plan to dedicate a post to it. But for now let me say that once I knew I was sending it to Wendy, I mounted it on velvet and added satin binding to the lower section… soft textures that will be inviting to the touch!