Our Aural History

aural historyWhen two of my newborn babies spent time in the hospital due to serious medical problems, one of the many things that distressed me was all the noise surrounding them.  I wanted them to be introduced to the world differently. I wanted to wrap them in the sounds of home — voices of people who loved them, clatter of dishes at dinnertime, wind in the trees, lullabies sung, books read aloud. Instead there were loud beeping devices, intrusive announcements, squeaking wheels on equipment carts. They heard all sorts of strangers’ voices too, often while those strangers (for the very best reasons) imposed discomfort or pain. When they came home, both times, I noticed the sounds around them more than I normally would just because it was such a blessed relief.

My concern wasn’t overblown. In utero, a baby hears a symphony of prenatal sound that includes the mother’s heartbeat, breathing, and movement.  The baby’s auditory system is fully developed by the sixth month of pregnancy and what sounds it hears is a particularly big deal from that time until it reaches six months of age. Here’s what one medical journal has to say:

The period from 25 weeks’ gestation to 5 to 6 months of age is most critical to the development of the neurosensory part of the auditory system. This is the time when the hair cells of the cochlea, the axons of the auditory nerve, and the neurons of the temporal lobe auditory cortex are tuned to receive signals of specific frequencies and intensities. Unlike the visual system, the auditory system requires outside auditory stimulation. This needs to include speech, music, and meaningful sounds from the environment.

The preterm as well as the term infant cannot recognize or discriminate meaningful sounds with background noise levels greater than 60 dB. The more intense the background noise, especially low frequency, the fewer specific frequencies (pitch) can be heard and used to tune the hair cells of the cochlea. Continuous exposure to loud background noise in the NICU or home will interfere with auditory development and especially frequency discrimination. The initial stimulation of the auditory system (speech and music) needs to occur in utero or in the NICU to develop tonotopic columns in the auditory cortex and to have the critical tuning of the hair cells of the cochlea occur. The control of outside noise, the exposure to meaningful speech sounds and music, and the protection of sleep and sleep cycles, especially rapid eye movement sleep, are essential for healthy auditory development.

Hearing is also said to be the last sense to leave us at the end of life, as indicated by electroencephalograms of people in their last hours. (Oftentimes music can reach unconscious and dying people when other stimuli cannot.)

Sound has a way of sinking into us, linking with sensation and emotion to form lasting memories. When I read about refugees forced from their homes by war or famine or rising seas,  my sorrow for them (and my admiration for their courage) leads me to think about what sensory experiences they can never fully recapture from their homelands. Keeping one’s own language, foods, and faith alive is vital but I wonder if hunger for the unique sounds left behind ever goes away.

We carry aural memories with us forever. I suspect sounds from early childhood are rooted the most deeply. Here are some of the happiest I can remember. A summer of locusts, the sound cresting and falling like waves. The screen door’s awwaak as it opened and my mother’s voice from somewhere in the house calling “don’t slam it!” The shriek of a swing hung on chains as I swung on my belly watching ants scurry below.  My father whistling as he tinkered with some project. News on the radio my mother listened to for a few minutes each morning, all of it inane chatter to me except for ads that lodged in my memory like this one.  Planes taking off from nearby Cleveland Hopkins Airport,  curving overhead like toys even though adults insisted they were big enough to hold actual people inside (pffft!) Music my father listened to as he graded papers — classical, pop, big band. The creak of our old rocking chair. The indescribable security of lying in bed hearing my parent’s muffled voices. 

Imagine sounds from 100 years ago in the place you are now. Perhaps horses on stone-paved streets, vendors hawking their wares from open carts as they traveled through town, afternoon paperboys calling out the latest headlines, church bells tolling the hours, the whistle of steam engines passing in the distance, children playing outdoors everywhere.

Or maybe imagine sounds 100 years in the future, if you can.

What sounds surrounded you as a baby? Your children in infancy? What aural memories make up who you are today?

Ask For Rejection Letters

ask for rejection letters

As a writer, I get my share of rejection letters. (As an editor, I write my share of rejection letters too.) I’m occasionally heartened by a kind word or two, indicating a publication would like to see more of my work or letting me know a piece of mine made it to the final round. It’s not the same as an acceptance, but it helps.

There’s actually a bit of relief in rejection. It usually comes after waiting months, when likelihood of acceptance already seems nil, and I can say to myself, Okay, I no longer have to pin my hopes in this direction. This frees a little unpopped kernel of aspiration to go back on another burner. (Because you must always, always try again.)

Sometimes, however, it takes much longer than a publication claims is necessary for them to review queries or submissions.  When there’s no response I assume their editors are working long hours for low pay and preoccupied by other pressing matters. (At least that’s what being an editor is like for me.)  But over a year? That’s ghosting. So I ask for a rejection letter. At this stage there’s not much to lose. I simply want to know. And maybe have some fun asking.

Here’s one such message I sent a while back.

Greetings *unnamed little literary print magazine,*

I can take rejection, really. But it’s nice to finally get rejected. I sent a creative non-fiction piece titled _____ on _____. I know, I know, I should have given up by now but hope is a feisty creature, not easily strangled by silence.

In case the clarity and understated wit of my piece knocked an editor to the floor, unintentionally hurtling my submission under a desk, I’ve included my cover letter and submission again.  Less dusty this way.

ever optimistically,
Laura Weldon

Turns out they were in the process of going out of business and wouldn’t even be publishing  previously accepted pieces. Their website said nary a word about this.

Here’s another such message, sent after a longer wait.

Ahem, Under the Slush Pile, You There!

Enclosed are copies of a cover letter and book proposal sent to you over 16 months ago. I received acknowledgement that you were in receipt of these materials on ________.

I am a busy writer and editor involved in a number of projects and only recently noticed just how long the interval has been. Now I’m concerned. Even at the rate of a single word per day, surely you would have completed reading my one-page book proposal quite some time ago. Something must be amiss.

Should I offer my editing services, as it’s apparent _______ Press is completely bogged down by unread manuscripts?

Should I consider a rescue effort, breaking down the doors blocked by stacks of paper in order to liberate your staff?

Or am I to assume that you are in the business of collecting SASEs while never intending to use them? I’m enclosing yet another in hopes of getting a response. This time, do tell.

most sincerely,   Laura Weldon

They sent me a form rejection.

My absolutely favorite rejection letter was one I got after applying for a job around the time I graduated from college. I had volunteered and interned, doing my best to enter the professional world with relevant experience, and it appeared I met the job requirements. The rejection letter I got back was so short and to-the-point that I still remember it verbatim:

We do not now, nor do we ever anticipate, having a position for which you are qualified. 

I wish I’d framed it!

But the best rejection letter I’ve ever seen is one sent to a New Zealand writer nearly 90 years ago. It was shared recently by Letters of Note.

Did this poet give up? No.  The fervent F. C. Meyer went on to publish this volume.

It’s a testament to his ambition that he persisted, since his poetry appears to have been as bad as that rejection letter indicated. His verse was quoted in a Scoop article about candidates for“Poet Nauseate.”

I think – I understand thee well,
Rub my nose now for a spell!

couplet from”Maori Maiden”

 

Pluto! come here my dearest little dog,
Don’t get mixed up with every rogue,
And do not run into a fog…

from “My Pet Dog”

If you’re a writer, keep pressing on. The publications rejecting you aren’t where you’re meant to be right now. Let each rejection motivate you to send out three more submissions. To inspire you, here are some authors who kept going despite rejection.

 “[Your poems] are quite as remarkable for defects as for beauties and are generally devoid of true poetical qualities.”   Rejection received by Emily Dickinson.

“An irresponsible holiday story that will never sell.” Rejection of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind In The Willows, which went  on to sell 25 million copies.

“Too different from other juveniles on the market to warrant its selling.”  Rejection letter sent to Theodor Geisel, whose rhyming books went on to sell 300 million copies under the pen name Dr. Seuss.

“We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.”  Stephen King ignored this rejection letter and found another publisher for Carrie, which sold 1 million copies the first year.

“Hopelessly bogged down and unreadable.” Rejection letter to Ursula K. Le Guin. That book, The Left Hand of Darkness , went on to become the first of her many award-winning books.

“We suggest you get rid of all that Indian stuff.” Rejection letter advice to Tony Hillerman, about work that later became his series of best-selling Navajo Tribal Police mystery novels.

“Too radical of a departure from traditional juvenile literature.”  Rejection sent to L. Frank Baum. The author persisted,  finally getting a publishing house to take on the book only when the Chicago Grand Opera House manager committed to making The Wonderful Wizard of Oz into a musical stage play to publicize the novel.

“He hasn’t got any future.” Rejection of the first novel by David Cornwell, retired spy from the British Security Service, MI5.  Yet, the author kept submitting. Publication of that novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, under the pen name John le Carré, launched his second career as writer of international best-sellers.

“I haven’t the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say. Apparently the author intends it to be funny.” One of 21 rejections for Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, which is said to have gotten its title at a “yes” by the 22nd publisher. The book has sold over 10 million copies.

“Stick to teaching.” Louise May Alcott was told by a dismissive publisher, who said she should give up writing. She went on to see Little Women published. It is still in print 150 years later.

“The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the ‘curiosity’ level.”   One of the 15 publishers who didn’t think The Diary of Anne Frank had literary merit.

 

9 Questions To Launch The New Year

  • How do I enrich other lives and how do other lives enrich me?
  • What are the most meaningful things I do? Do I want to expand my time doing them?
  • What centers me and me helps me feel whole? How can I offer myself more time for wholeness?
  • How can I let myself be guided by what delights me?
  • In what ways can I pay more attention to my intuition, especially the promptings of my body, and how can I allow my inner wisdom to more fully emerge?
  • Where do I connect with people dissimilar from myself? How can I reach out to build a wider, more inclusive community? What can I do to better understand and be understood?
  • What do I want to remember long after the experience is over? (Maybe create a personal version Life List?)
  • What gets me in the flow, lets me lose track of time and feel energized by what I’m doing? Can I free up more flow time for myself and others?
  • What’s holding me back? How can I step into the future with greater hope and enthusiasm? How can we help each other step into the future with greater hope and enthusiasm?

You might meditate on these questions. Write with them. Draw or collage or paint with them. Walk with them. Talk them over with someone else. Discuss them at a gathering. Use them to prompt a letter to yourself. Let a single question capture your attention and let it accompany you into the new year. Or contemplate your own questions as you dance into the future we share on this lovely, complicated planet.

 

Just Pluck the Day

Horatius Reading His Satires To Maecenas by Fedor Andreevich BronnikovWay back in 23 BCE, the Roman poet Horace exhorted people to carpe diem. Those two words have been translated by schoolchildren and repeated in pop culture for so long that we all know carpe diem means “seize the day.” Except, it doesn’t. Not exactly.

Seizing is much more sudden and forceful than my days appreciate. I don’t feel called upon to fling myself from bed and stomp through the day taking giant bites of ever more amazing experiences.  Yet we live in a culture that admires people who grab what they can, chew it up, and reach for more.  As Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society tells his students, “Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”

Many of us aren’t quite that driven.

Thankfully, what Horace more likely meant by the word carpe is “pick or pluck.” Those words come across quite differently to me. To pick the day, I’d reach for it as I would a peach on a tree, knowing the ripest fruit nearly falls off at the touch. To pluck the day I’d grasp it gently as I would a daisy, nipping it off low on the stem to keep the flower fresh. This approach has to do with paying attention and carefully harvesting what’s ready. It has to do with cherishing the fullness of the day itself.

This makes more sense in the context of Horace’s poem as well. He was writing, in this passage, about each of us facing an unforeseen future. We may plan for tomorrow but cannot count on tomorrow.  As he writes, “In the moment of our talking, envious time has ebb’d away.

Tu ne quaesieris, scire nefas, quem mihi, quem tibi
finem di dederint, Leuconoe, nec Babylonios
temptaris numeros. ut melius, quidquid erit, pati.
seu pluris hiemes seu tribuit Iuppiter ultimam,
quae nunc oppositis debilitat pumicibus mare
Tyrrhenum. Sapias, vina liques et spatio brevi
spem longam reseces. dum loquimur, fugerit invida
aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.

Ask not (’tis forbidden knowledge), what our destined term of years,
Mine and yours; nor scan the tables of your Babylonish seers.
Better far to bear the future, my Leuconoe, like the past,
Whether Jove has many winters yet to give, or this our last;
This, that makes the Tyrrhene billows spend their strength against the shore.
Strain your wine and prove your wisdom; life is short; should hope be more?
In the moment of our talking, envious time has ebb’d away.
Pick the present; trust tomorrow e’en as little as you may. 

Time is a mystery contemplated in every era. It’s also a simple wealth we can enjoy right now. Don’t pressure yourself. Just pluck the day, my friend.

Peaches by Elizabeth Jaynes Borglum

(Translation from Odes 1.11 by John Conington, 1882)

Space Any Can Soften Into

out of body

Out of Body

 

Before I knew how to make my eyes march

in rows following shapes called words,

before I could cross the street

without a taller hand to hold,

I worked to stay in the small body

my being was given.

 

If not for careful attention I drifted.

Became a squirrel on the branch

muscles ready to leap,

nose a nervous twitter, ever wary

though I only wanted

to see furry playfulness.

Became J.P. down the street

licking lips already chapped and bleeding

jeering smaller children loudly

to silence a chest ribbed with sorrow.

This made it harder to hate

the bully he seemed.

 

At night I kept blankets pulled tight

but still, the room grew so large

my bed became a tiny speck

and me, a traveler.

From a vantage point I didn’t seek

I saw dark houses hunker on endless streets,

cars pull like magnets along lines of light.

Within them people carrying their lives

with so much effort when all around them

was this space any could soften into.

 

I pulled back and back and back,

searching for and sharpening

my own edges.

Even though I stay in this body

sometimes I drift

sliding through as we all can

from me into you.

Laura Grace Weldon

Find more poems in my collection, Tending.

Secret to Longevity

secret to long lifeWe humans, along with several other higher species, need elders and elders need us. From our early ancestors to today, this need is coded into our biology and shapes how we survive.

Take elephants as an example. They live in family groups led by the oldest females and walk long distances as they search for food. When the group encounters potential danger such as possible predators or unfamiliar elephants, the matriarch signals if they should continue grazing or gather into a defensive huddle. Researchers say families with the oldest matriarchs are best able to determine genuine threat.  The older the matriarch, the less energy wasted on false threats and the more calves  survive, a clear connection between wisdom of elders and success of the community.

Or take orcas. Female orcas stop reproducing around the ago of 50 and can live another 40 years. (Male orcas tend to die much sooner.)  Older females take on a leadership role. When hunting, the matriarch generally swims at the head of the pod and directs its movements, using decades of hunting experience to find elusive prey. Researcher Lauren Brent is quoted in a Smithsonian article saying,  “One way post-reproductive females may boost the survival of their kin is through the transfer of ecological knowledge. The value gained from the wisdom of elders can help explain why female killer whales and humans continue to live long after they have stopped reproducing.”

(I wonder if one of the many reasons elephants and orcas die many decades younger in captivity than they do in the wild has to do with being robbed of their essential roles as providers and wisdom-bearers.)

Which leads us to the evolutionary benefit of human grandmothers. Decades ago, anthropologist Kristen Hawkes developed what she called the “Grandmother Hypothesis.” Dr, Hawkes demonstrated (now with an updated mathematical model) that women historically live so far into their elder years because  there’s a significant survival advantage to the family when grandmothers pitch in. From the earliest roots of humanity, grandmothers gathered food, helped raise the young, and reinforced social cohesion. Children whose grandmothers helped nurture them were more likely to survive, perpetuating genes that selected for women who experience mid-life menopause and vigorous old age.  Dr. Hawkes argues that grandmothers, in our evolutionary past, helped bring about bigger brains, pair bonding, even a doubling of the human lifespan. Grandmothers, she contends, make us human.

But what about grandfathers, aunts, uncles, other elders who live nearby? It seems the Grandmother Hypothesis doesn’t go far enough.  Evolutionary anthropologist Michael Gurven says increased survival and group cohesion has to do with “embodied capital” — the kind of knowledge that is acquired by experience and transmitted to others.  More effective hunting strategies and more skilled foraging is passed on by example, helping one’s people thrive.

Our very biology is rooted in and stirred by the need to protect our community. Even the sleep patterns of elders may stem from what benefits our tribe.  The dark hours have, throughout time, been the most dangerous for humans. But if we look at variations in sleep patterns across a spectrum of ages, we see why it wasn’t necessary to post sentinels at the campfire or at the doorway of the hut. Healthy old people tend to go to sleep earlier, don’t sleep as deeply, wake more easily, get up earlier, and may need less overall sleep.  Teens and young adults stay up later, sleep more deeply, and wake later.

As evidence, consider a recent study of members of a Hadza tribe living on the Tanzanian savanna. It was found that sleep variability meant at any point during the night, 40 percent of adults were wakeful and able to call an alarm if they perceived danger. Researchers call this the “poorly sleeping grandparent hypothesis.”

Today we consider the sleep habits of teens and elders aberrant compared to adults,  pathologizing variations that came to us as a legacy of ancestral strength built by diversity.

Elders need to live as long as possible in order to pass along their earned experience  to the youngest generations. But elders are valuable to a community for another evolutionary reason— essentially living on or sacrificing themselves to benefit the young. At least that’s what  theoretical biologist Josh Mittledorf  speculates in Cracking the Age CodeHe says our species long ago passed out of individual Darwinism into a sort of collective evolution as a way of protecting our communities from collapse.

According to Dr. Mittledorf, elders live longer or die younger based on biological responses to different community conditions.  Here’s how.  When times are very hard the population is at risk, particularly because it takes a great deal of exertion to get enough food to raise the young.  Elders feel the imperative to work hard and eat less for the good of their community. In many cases, they are also vitally needed to care for children.

In contrast, when times are easy the population is not at risk. Abundant food gained with less exertion means the young are likely to live to adulthood. Elders don’t feel compelled to do taxing work and they have plenty to eat. The community’s overall need is for more space to make room for an expanding population.

Let’s look at the messages an elder’s mind and body perceives in these two very different circumstances.

When times are hard, elders are needed by their families and communities. They sense they must thrive to keep their people going.  As research on aging tells us,  humans live longer in response to strenuous exertion, restricted calories, strong social connections, and a deep sense of purpose — precisely like these conditions.

But the imperative for survival may not be as strong when times are easy, food is abundant, and an elder perceives he or she isn’t essential to the family. Again, research on aging tells us that abundant food and minimal exertion, and perhaps a sense that we’re unnecessary or even in the way, leads to an earlier death.

We humans thrive when we are needed. That starts in our earliest years. Watch any toddler beam when he’s allowed to turn on the coffee grinder or run the hose over the car —- children yearn to take on real responsibility and to make a real difference to others. Strong social connections throughout life are so important that research affirms loneliness is as great a health risk as substance abuse, injury, and violence. In fact, chronic loneliness increases the chance of developing dementia by 64 percent and the risk of early death by 45 percent.  Our survival is linked to having an essential and valued role in the lives of others. 

Our whole beings know at the deepest levels that we live for one another. Time to embrace that, for the sake of our own lives and the sake of our collective lives.

“Your life and my life flow into each other as wave flows into wave, and unless there is peace and joy and freedom for you, there can be no real peace or joy or freedom for me. To see reality–not as we expect it to be but as it is–is to see that unless we live for each other and in and through each other, we do not really live very satisfactorily; that there can really be life only where there really is, in just this sense, love.”

~Frederick Buechner

Rescuing a Desperate Creature

empath humor

Early mornings are dark and quiet in November. I put on my boots, coat, and hat to walk out with a bucket of kitchen scraps in hand. I pause to appreciate mist rising from the pond and autumn’s complex scents. Some mornings I chat quietly with birds and trees as I head back to the barn. Other mornings I sing.

This particular morning I’m wearing a heavier coat against the cold, a bright orange hat, and carrying a bigger pail than usual. As I walk I notice a muted squeaking sound. Immediately, I picture it coming from some small creature. I imagine its dark desperate eyes. Maybe it is trapped or injured.

I slow. Already the squeaks have become harder to hear.

I stop. The squeaks stop too.

Poor wary little thing, I must be close.

I walk slowly toward tall grasses lining the creek. A few distressed squeaks can be heard. I pause, hoping intuition might tell me where this little animal is hiding. There’s probably nothing I can do, but if it’s trapped I can free it. If it’s injured I might be able to move it to a place safer than the side of a flood-prone creek.

I stand still, listening.

Nothing.

Okay, I say to myself. It’s your imagination.

I head back toward the barn.

The squeaking starts up again, rhythmic and anguished.

Logic is late to this adventure, but it finally clicks in. I’m carrying a large bucket, one we left out on the cold porch overnight. The squeaking noise I hear is the frozen handle rubbing against the sides. I stop to confirm. The squeaking stops. I feel silly. I also feel, against all reason, enormously relieved for the imaginary creature that’s no longer in distress.

I take a deep breath and continue on toward the barn, ever more grateful for the peace of the day.

I hope your morning is less emotionally fraught.

Only imaginary animals were imperiled.

This post shared from our farm site, Bit of Earth Farm

Time Turns Back on Itself

 

A post from the wayback machine, although it feels like yesterday to me…

memoir, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer

“He fit right into the palm of my hand,” my mother always says.  Her arm trembles now when she holds it out. “His head here,” she gestures to her fingertips, “his little bottom here, and his legs curled up at my wrist. They never gave poor patients the incubators. They said babies that small didn’t make it anyway.  But he looked right at me and I knew he would live. I held him every night in the nursery until he was discharged. I wish I knew what happened to him.”

My mother’s stories of her early years as a registered nurse are becoming more common topics. I settle back and listen, encouraging her with my questions. The house seems darker each time I visit, curtains drawn against the daylight although family photos on every surface still fade in their frames. The cluttered rooms are hard to recognize as the same ones from my childhood. Time seems to stretch and bend out of proportion on these long afternoons.

“I nearly died of a staph infection when I was in nurses’ training. It was all through my bloodstream. The doctors were amazed I pulled through.” She shakes her head.  “It was a miracle.”

My two teenaged sons come in from doing yard work. They wash their hands, eat the snack she loves to offer them, and politely chat with her. She has tales to tell them too, usually emphasizing the value of working hard and saving money. Today she asks them to retrieve a bit of laundry she can’t reach. Somehow it sailed over the washing machine lid to fall somewhere behind the washer. Tossing anything while hanging on to a walker is an accomplishment for someone whose movements are as uncertain as hers. I thought I’d heard all her stories, yet she tells the boys that her laundry throw probably stemmed from her teen years when she used to be quite the softball pitcher.

“I never was never much of a runner in gym, but I had a great throwing arm.”

I am surprised. “You never told me that, Mom!”

“There’s plenty I haven’t told you,” she says.  Her gaze seems to linger on a field of high school girls from 60 years ago.

My father doesn’t settle down for long conversations during these visits.  He likes to work in the yard with his grandchildren, making use of their youthful energy, while my mother and I talk. I go outside to spend ten or fifteen minutes with him, reveling in the quieter connection we share, fully aware that my mother waits for me to return through the full length of each minute I’m away from her.

I see my parents bridging the passage beyond old age in their own ways.  My father redesigns the garden and invents odd labor-saving devices, always thinking ahead. My mother goes back to revisit her stronger years.

I am greedy for time. I want decades more with my parents despite their poor health. Their tradition of waving goodbye at the door as I back the car out always brings tears to my eyes.

On the long drive home my son comes across an old Emerson, Lake, and Palmer tune on the radio. Time twists around itself again.  I recall listening to this record in the late 70’s, from the same house we just left, although the raspberry-hued carpet of my girlhood bedroom is now under a pile of boxes. I used to climb out the window of that bedroom to lie on the rough-textured roof, looking at the stars. I paid such close attention to the music of my teens that I felt wrapped inside the notes and the lyrics.

“You see it’s all clear. You were meant to be here.” While the song plays I remember being a wispy 14-year-old  who bought batik scarves from the forbidden head shop in town. I twisted them into halter tops which I wore under more demure shirts until I was safely out of the house. I’d tell my parents I was going to see a girlfriend when I was really meeting my boyfriend. He and I kissed so much I was surprised my mother didn’t notice I’d return with chapped and reddened lips.

When the song ends I’m almost startled to find myself driving a car—a woman in her forties accompanied by two nearly grown children, married to the boy she kissed so long ago.

As time turns back on itself in our memories it reshapes and teaches us. It occurs to me I loved Emerson, Lake, and Palmer because they honored the two sounds I couldn’t imagine converging. I had rejected my parent’s organized religion, and with it the evocative strains of organ music. Instead I spent my babysitting money on albums with sounds that stirred my soul.  Emerson, Lake and Palmer put hymns and rock back together for me. As I head south with my boys, I’m also lying on the roof with my back safely against my childhood home and my face lifted to the sky.

I try to say something to my kids about how odd time and memory can be. But they’re young and the radio dial needs flipping. I guess we’re bridging our own passages. I take a breath, choosing to hold on to the peace of this moment so this exact car ride with my sons will always feel as close to me as the palm of my own hand.

Originally published in the anthology,  Here in the Middle: Stories of Love, Loss, and Connection from the Ones Sandwiched in Between

We Are Not Powerless

Clarion Reminder

 

The powerful provoke the powerless

to push against one another.

Their power grows by keeping us

in all kinds of prisons.

 

Yet we are not powerless.

 

Remember the black bear

roaming Clarion County, Pennsylvania,

its head trapped a month or more

in a metal-ringed pail.

 

Remember those who chased it for hours,

grabbed it in a perilous embrace,

carefully sawed loose those tight bonds.

Imagine what they felt as the bear

ran free into the woods.

 

Imagine too, the bear.

 

Laura Grace Weldon

Originally published in Writers Resist.  Find more poems in my collection, Tending.

Accused

Witch trial Salem, Massachusetts, lithograph by George H. Walker, 1892.

Nearly 20 years ago we moved to the small Ohio township where we still live. We were taken aback to find we weren’t entirely welcome. Soon after settling in I was told by several neighbors I should remove our Halloween decorations, since that marked me as being on the side of Satan. I was also informed I should take down my sign supporting the local library levy, because the library allowed children access to that bastion of evil — the Internet.  A few weeks later, simply admitting we weren’t the correct brand of born again Christian resulted in a de facto death threat.

But we hung in there. We planted fruit and nut trees, along with raspberries, asparagus, and other perennials. We built barns and fenced pastures. We intend to live here until we’re so damn old that we can’t feed livestock or preserve our harvest or take a daily walk. If nothing else, we’re resilient.

Still, it’s not always easy.

Here’s one example. A few years ago, our regular postal carrier actually asked me if we were devil worshipers. He was apparently alarmed by a large outdoor mosaic I’d made out of broken dishes and other memorabilia left to me after my mother died. He perceived the crescent moon shape, a shape we all see every month in the sky above our lovely planet, as somehow malevolent. I was too surprised by the question to  answer him.

But, of course, I have no concept of what it’s really like to be perceived as a dangerous influence.

An ancestor of mine paid for that with her life.

My cousin Becky recently dug through all sorts of records to complete a family history. She confirmed stories we heard when we were growing up, that we were descendants of a woman convicted and executed in 1692 during the infamous Salem witch trials.

My sister and I remember being told that this woman had been exonerated after her death so that her children could again attend church. We were wrong. She wasn’t officially exonerated until 2001.

Scott was accused of ‘certaine detestable arts called witchcraft and sorceries’ that she ‘wickedly, mallitiously and felloniously hath used, practised and exercised’.

Margaret Stephenson Scott was one of the last women hung for the crime of witchcraft in this country. Unlike depictions in popular books and shows about the Salem witch trials, she wasn’t young and pretty. She was elderly. A victim of class structure. A victim of other people’s guilt. A victim of a rigid us-versus them culture. Another victim in a long history of women who were slaughtered for being different.

Margaret was born in England around 1615 and came to the colonies with her parents as a child. She grew up to marry an indentured man, Benjamin Scott, in 1642. They moved to Rowley, Massachusetts in 1651 and Benjamin was declared a freeman in 1664. Of their seven children, only three survived to adulthood. Margaret’s husband died when she was 56, leaving her nearly penniless. Still, she survived on what he left her for nearly 21 years. By the time she was 77 years old, she was reduced to begging to survive.

She asked wealthy townsman Thomas Nelson for wood in payment for a debt he owned her. He refused to pay, and claimed his cows acted strangely afterwards, with one of them perishing. He blamed Margaret. She asked another wealthy townsman, Jonathan Burbank, if she might glean corn from his field. He refused, although his wife gave Margaret some corn. Later when his oxen refused to move, Burbank accused Margaret of bewitching them.  Historians call this “refusal guilt syndrome.” When people of means refuse to help those in need, they feel guilty, and deal with their guilt by aggressively vilifying the person who caused such feelings.

A teenaged servant formally accused Margaret of sorcery after what may have been years of rumors.

Margaret was convicted on the basis of spectral evidence ( the accused person’s spirit or spectral shape appeared to a witness in a dream and maleficium evidence (misfortune to one’s property or health blamed on someone who was a nuisance in society). She fit the profile of women accused of witchcraft in New England; loss of children, low stature in the community, and poverty.

Margaret was the only person from Rowley, Massachusetts to be accused of witchcraft. She maintained her innocence throughout her imprisonment and trial. She was found guilty on September 17, 1692 and hanged five days later — in the last group of people to be executed for this crime.

William Phips, newly appointed governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, overruled and disbanded the court soon after, perhaps because his own wife had been accused of consorting with the devil. He ordered that courts disregard spectral evidence, pardoned several people sentenced to die for witchcraft, and released over 100 people awaiting trial.