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Archive for the ‘important stuff’ Category

I’m tired. My body aches all over. It’s been grey and nippy outside for several days.

But life is still pretty good. I’m essentially done with my long-term client, and although I am quite fond of several of the people there, I’m glad not to be going in on a regular basis any more. Tomorrow is the beginning of that, although there’s a celebratory “we’re done” lunch, so I’ll go to that, because I’m responsible for large chunks of the project.

Buster and I took a walk when I got home, and he was a pretty good boy.

I have both family and friends who love me, and I love them back.

B was home over Friday and Saturday. It’s always a great pleasure to see his happy smiling face. He can make me laugh like no other person on earth.

So, see? Life is good. Maybe it’ll even be sunny and warm one day soon.

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Traces of the Trade, my cousin Katrina Browne’s documentary film about the slave trade, my family’s relationship to the slave trade, the impact of the slave trade on racism today, and more, will be on the PBS show P.O.V. on June 24 at 10 pm Eastern time.  I’ll be mentioning this again when the airing gets closer.

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A surprising person

There is a person I know and love who can be crabby, self-centered, and absolutely certain he is right.  And sometimes it might appear that he doesn’t care about other people.  That would be wrong. There are times when he amazes me with his kindness.

I’m a pretty nice person to pretty much everyone, but I don’t think I do that much in a really substantial way except for being friendly.  This person, on the other hand, does deeply kind things for a few people.

He knows a guy who has had serious addiction problems.  This guy, I’ll call him C, has only been a peripheral business acquaintance.  In the last couple of years he’s fallen on really hard times due to substance abuse – lost his wife and child, lost his job, lost his home.  The person I’m talking about here has stepped up to help C – not with money, although there was some of that in the beginning, but with checking-in phone calls, with a listening ear, and with other kindnesses that C, whose bridges are in ashes behind him, is getting from nobody else.

I’m not sure I could do it.  And I’m awed that the person I’m talking about can, and grateful to have him in my life.

That’s all I’m saying, and don’t mention it if you know who I’m talking about, because the person would be embarrassed and possibly irked with me for bringing it up.

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My cousin Tom DeWolf is going to be on CSPAN2 this weekend, at 1:00 on both Saturday and Sunday, reading from his book Inheriting the Trade. The reading was recorded earlier this week in Bristol, Rhode Island at Linden Place, which is the only mansion left standing that was built with DeWolf slave trade money. It’s now a historic site and museum.

One of my worries about Katrina’s film and Tom’s book, which both cover the deep involvement of our forebears in the slave trade, is that the DeWolfs will be perceived as a bunch of rich people, not like you and me. If that happens, the central points of the book and movie will be lost. For one thing, even though the DeWolfs were the ones who owned the ships and moved humans like cargo, everyone in Bristol benefited. Many small investors helped keep the ships going. Many people in town sold goods to be carried on the sea voyages. (One of Mark Antony DeWolf’s sons went on one voyage and refused to go again. But he was a farmer who then supplied the ships with onions.) So when I tell people about my family background, generally the first reaction is shocked silence, the second is reassurance (“Well, you shouldn’t feel guilty for what your ancestors did. You can’t be blamed”), and the third is a personal disclaimer (“My family was a bunch of nobodies.”). This disclaimer is a way of saying “And I’m not responsible either.”

In fact, white people in this country are all responsible for at the very least being aware of the systemic racism that pervades our culture. We receive enormous unearned privilege by virtue of being white. I never have to worry about being mistaken for the maid. I can always expect to see people of my race represented publicly, such as on TV or in politics. I do not expect my behavior to be viewed as representative of the behavior of my entire race (“oh yeah, that’s what white people do”). My husband can walk down the street and not have a woman coming the other direction shift her purse tightly under her arm and step to the outside of the sidewalk. (These ideas come from the writing of Peggy McIntosh, PhD. Here’s one of the many places you can read an excerpt of her paper “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”)

My hope is that people seeing Traces of the Trade and/or reading Inheriting the Trade will see themselves in it, not some remote Eastern elite family, and seeing themselves will become alert to the way white privilege is central to our culture’s systemic racism.

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Eagle, eagle, owl

Today I was driving back from town and took the river road over the oxbow lake near our house. As I crossed the lake, I saw a bald eagle flying overhead. It registered in a sort of matter-of-fact way. “Oh, hmm, an eagle,” in the way you might notice a bluejay. Then I whipped my head back around. “Cool! An eagle!” That’s the first one I’ve seen in a couple of years, although they next along the river less than a mile from our house. So of course then I had an eagle eye out (hehehe, couldn’t resist) the rest of the way home, and sure enough, there was another one roosting in a tree at the river’s edge.

Later in the afternoon I was driving along Highway 40, going 55, and glanced at a road sign. Whoa! A lovely barred owl was perched on top of the sign.

It’s been a good day.

Oh yeah, and I did an hour and a half yoga practice this morning.

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This is really just an ad for another website: http://www.storyofstuff.com/

It contains a 20-minute movie about the stuff of the world – its creation, sales, and removal. Watch it, weep, then do something.

So I think I’m doing the right things, and then I realize I am not. I went to Target today and bought stuff. Our toaster oven has lost its little brain and thinks all toast should be black. I replaced it with a snazzy new toaster oven. Did I really need that? I bought three rubber boot trays to put under the bench in the mudroom. Not really necessary, just a useful item to keep things clean.

The more I pay attention to plastic and its relatives, the more I see. Right now I’m in guilt mode. Maybe I can get more positive.

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I do have the idea that the only people who are reading this blog are friends and family, and all of you probably know about this anyway. However:

Traces of the Trade, the documentary film made by my cousin Katrina Browne, will be in the Sundance documentary competition. 953 films were submitted and 16 were chosen. The film is about the slave trade in Rhode Island, specifically the trade as conducted by my forebears. I’ll quote from the film’s site:

This personal documentary tells the story of first-time filmmaker Katrina Browne’s Rhode Island ancestors, the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history. At Browne’s invitation, nine fellow descendants agree to journey with her to retrace the steps of the Triangle Trade. They soon learn that slavery was business for more than just the DeWolf family—it was a cornerstone of Northern commercial life. The family travels from Bristol, Rhode Island, where the family “business” was based, to slave forts in Ghana where they meet with African-Americans on their own homecoming pilgrimages, to the ruins of a family-owned sugar plantation in Cuba. At each stop, the family grapples with the contemporary legacy of slavery, not only for black Americans, but also for themselves as white Americans.

Katrina has been working on this project for a long time. She initially wrapped up filming over Labor Day weekend in 2001, right before 9/11, which slowed things down for her next steps.

Also in January (and this is not a coincidence), my cousin Tom DeWolf’s book Inheriting the Trade will be released. Tom was one of the cousins who traveled with Katrina and her film crew from Rhode Island to Ghana to Cuba and back to Rhode Island to recreate the triangle trade. The book began as a companion piece to the film but developed into Tom’s own story of coming to terms with the family legacy.

I’m really happy that the book and the film will be out soon, and together.

Every time I talk to people about this, I find myself struggling to find a neutral path. I can downplay it – they traded mostly in Cuba, they weren’t the richest, they ran through all the money in a couple of generations – or I can highlight the worst parts – the captain who threw a woman with smallpox overboard, the businessman who bankrupted the town of Bristol, the sheer numbers of human beings they treated as commodities. I usually wind up doing both, somehow or other. The cousins who were in the movie have talked about it more, learned a better vocabulary than mine, and can speak about it with humility and power. I hope I come to that. Generally when I talk to someone about it, they try to reassure me. “Of course, you can’t be responsible for what they did. It was a long time ago. It’s not your fault.” While those things may be true, it is also true that I come from a family that is enormously proud of the good things our forebears did and of the good people at least some of them were. It’s wrong to take pride in the good without taking responsibility for or at the very least addressing the bad.

My sister Deborah and I are not in the film, although we took part in one of the events in the film, and we both had a hand in early edits of the book.

I’ll write more about this later.

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I plan to write more about what’s in the wastebasket, but for now I have another detritus-themed post.

Willie left for college a year ago last September, and when he left we asked him to be all packed up for our November move to the new house. (Tip: Don’t move in the same year your child goes to college, for a multitude of reasons.) He only packed in a half-assed way, and mostly resorted to throwing junk in boxes without lids, and with things sticking out the top for maximum unstackability.

Several boxes ended up in the garage at the new house, and every time Willie has come home I’ve tried to get him to sort through them. Last week he finally gave them a cursory look through before telling me everything could go to Goodwill. I could ALMOST do that, but it was all dusty and some of it was total junk and I didn’t want to make them throw it away (e.g., old Happy Meal toys, bent spiral notebooks with two pages used, gloves with holes in the fingers, disreputable t-shirts).

This meant that I had to look at everything. The t-shirts will become shop rags for Rick. The good shirts will be washed and folded before they go to Goodwill. I found a huge box of buttons – who gave those to him? My sister? I’m keeping them in my sewing cabinet. A box of Magic the Gathering cards, which may or may not be valuable. A yellow legal pad. And then some things that I just don’t know what to do with – cool rocks, some fossils, a little carabiner flashlight – oh, right, I can put that in the Goodwill box. I hate to throw away the Koosh balls. When we traveled back east when Willie was young we used to play Koosh catch in airports while we waited around between flights. But do I need to keep them?

Then I came back in from the garage and looked at my father’s desk, which he left me when he died last year. I thought we had cleaned it all out the week after he died, but in fact quite a bit was left. Some of it is easy to ditch – the big brochure from the local hospital springs to mind – and some of it is hard. I can’t throw out the list in his handwriting of all the places he and Mom ever lived. I’ll hang onto it, I guess, and then when I die Willie can sort through the desk and decide. Maybe it will have crumbled into dust and he won’t have to.

B.B. King is on TV in the next room. Gotta go.

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Our boy

Our boy came home for Thanksgiving. It was so pleasing to see him. He’s lost that ill-formed look that teenagers tend to have, and he looks and behaves like an adult. Young, but still an adult, and an extremely pleasant and entertaining adult.

After he left, Rick and I talked about how, although we both love our parents, we don’t want to hang around with them. I’m not sure why that is. We have plenty in common with them, and on the whole they don’t bug us or treat us as though we’re 11. And we do enjoy visits with them.

Now Willie has that same point of view. It’s very clear that he loves us dearly, but he’d rather be with his friends. This Thanksgiving he wanted to stay in Chicago to have the big dinner with friends from school. Because we’d already bought the ticket and planned for his trip, we said we’d rather he come home. He did, and it was good. But soon he’ll have vacations where he stays in Chicago, or goes somewhere else. Later he’ll live somewhere else.

We are fine, functioning people without having our child around all the time, and we have a very good child-free life together, but it does make us sad and nostalgic for the times he has needed us to be his parents. Most likely he’ll continue to need us from time to time, but not in the same way as a child at home does.

Parents have to grow up as their children do.

I am very happy about what a good person he turned into. For people who only got one shot at raising a child, I think we lucked out.

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Tomorrow is Buy Nothing Day, initiated by AdBusters, and aimed at reducing consumerism. I’m in. (OK, I hate going to the store on the day after Thanksgiving, but this can make me happy about it.)

And Willie put me onto FreeRice, where you select word definitions, and for each correct answer you put 10 grains of rice into a bowl. The people at FreeRice get money from their advertisers to donate 10 grains of rice through the United Nations to help end world hunger. I’ve gotten up to vocabulary level 48 in 10 minutes. I wonder how many levels there are.

It’s addictive AND it’s good!

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