Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Warmth of Other Suns - 2

I have now read about three-fifths of Isabel Wilkerson's incredible book The Warmth of Other Suns, and I am gaining such an important perspective on American history. She describes life in the "black" area of Chicago in the 1930s and 1940s. As I read of the very small area of the city where African Americans were "allowed" to live and how the rents got jacked up because so many people wanted to live in such a small area, I was reminded of the reading I've done about life in the Gaza Strip - a modern small place where a minority is forced to live. In Chicago in the middle of the Twentieth Century (and in most of the other cities in the North and West of the US), there was a color line that was so clearly drawn that, despite the fact it was not enshrined in law, people simply did not violate it. There were some brave people who figured out how to breach the line, and a lot of those people paid with loss of property, money, and, sometimes, their lives.

As I read the stories about life in these areas, I find myself seeing the inner cities of our country in a new way. The explanations I was given as a girl - that "those people" are living like that because they want to - are falling completely away. Wilkerson tells the story of a woman in her mid-20s, married, with three children, a survivor of the cotton fields of Mississippi, capable of long days of hard work; and this woman is at the very bottom of the list of people who could get hired. Jobs available to her and others like her paid the least, had the worst conditions, and were the most likely to have the worker not get paid. Wilkerson tells the story of a factory in Ohio that needed workers and advertised that it wanted to hire 500 white women. When it couldn't find enough white women in Ohio, it recruited workers from Indiana and Illinois; all of this while there were many non-white women eager to work.

The summer I was 13, the summer after my father died, my mother took her four little country kids to Detroit for a couple of weeks. We stayed with her brother (a newly retired police detective) and his family for a week in northwest Detroit and with an old friend in a wealthy enclave near the University of Detroit campus for another week. From those bases, we explored the city and its region. We spent a day a the Detroit Institute of Arts, another at the Detroit Zoo (where my mother and her brothers entertained all of us in the penguin house by naming the penguins after various characters in the ongoing Watergate drama that was tearing apart Richard Nixon's presidency), another at Greenfield Village, etc. Wherever we went that summer, though, we would get to "certain areas" of the city, and the adults would all hiss, "make sure your doors are locked!" We went to the neighborhood in which my mother had grown up, and it was block after block of boarded-up and burnt-out houses (this was just six years after the riots). My uncles explained that when "they" moved in, all of the "decent people" moved out, and this is what happened.

I didn't realize how deeply engrained this racism was in me until the summer of 2002. My husband had a professional society meeting in Atlanta, and we turned it into a mini-vacation. We drove to his folks' place in Durham, North Carolina, then on to Atlanta, and from there we went to central Florida. In Atlanta, while he was in meetings all day, I was out exploring the city via its public transportation system. (I have never adjusted to city driving, despite having lived in southeastern Michigan most of my adult life.) So, I went to the art museum, the Coca-Cola museum, the state capitol, etc. I also went to the Martin Luther King, Jr. center.

To get to the MLK center, I took the Metro train to a certain stop, then walked several blocks through one of "those" areas, and then found myself at the Center. There was an exhibit of photographs about lynching. If you ever get a chance to see one of these exhibits, approach it with trepidation. For me, going in, lynching was just a word with vaguely sinister connotations. The hour I spent with those photographs - most taken by people who were proud to be part of the experience - was one of the most devastating and chilling hours of my life. I walked out of that exhibit a different person, a person who had been confronted with evil beyond all understanding. One photograph showed a little blond girl in a cute little pinafore dress looking up at the dead black man hanging from the tree, and the little girl was smiling. I kept going back to that picture, and each time, I felt as though the ground were giving way under me. The little girl looked like me when I was that age, and I think that's what I found so compelling. How would such an experience warp and change you? Would you ever get over that early imprinting?

I toured the rest of the center and said a prayer at Dr. King's grave. And then I did the thing that stripped off all of the veneers and showed me to myself in a new and ugly light. I took aside one of the staff members and asked if there were some other way to get back to central Atlanta that didn't involve walking back through "that" neighborhood. The look of pity and barely concealed disdain she gave me haunts me to this day. As she gave me directions, I realized what I had just said. You see, when I took her aside, I thought I was saying, "This little country girl from northern Michigan doesn't understand big cities. Please help me." When I saw the look on her face, I realized that what I had just said was, "This middle-aged middle-class woman would prefer to not offend her eyes with how poor people live; and because she feels a certain sense of entitlement because of her skin color and class, she expects that others will ease her way in life." All the way back to the hotel, I tried to tell myself that I had truly meant the first; but I knew that I meant the second. I knew that I had to confront that latent racism and classism and that I had to recognize the sense of privilege I carry with me.

These are not easy admissions to make; this has not been an easy post to write; I spent a lot of time this week agonizing over what to say, what to leave out; and I sit here now looking at these words and wondering if I should say them out loud. I am going to publish this post, and I am going to ask that those who read it understand that until we can look at the faces of those in the crowds of evildoers and see ourselves, we cannot overcome evil. Until we can look in the faces of those we have seen as "others" and see fully formed people, we cannot begin to heal our world. It's funny, as I was writing along, I kept stopping to put in the various museum links; it was my way to keep from getting to the heart of this post.

For the record, when I left the MLK Center and walked to the alternate bus stop the lady had indicated, I saw myself in a new light, and I walked back through "that" neighborhood to the Metro train stop. Like the Magi at the end of T. S. Eliot's Marvelous poem "The Journey of the Magi,"
this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Work in Progress Wednesday - #25

Here it is, another Wednesday already! To satisfy your longings for crafty goodness, please check out the other posts connected to Tami's WIPW.

I'm a little loopy this morning because I had to stay up to listen to the President's speech last night. I am avoiding the radio this morning because I get very tired of all of the analysis and the rehash. At the beginning of the speech, I wound a yarn cake from the next skein of the teal Malabrigo for the Every Way Wrap because I am within a couple of inches of finishing the first skein! Yay!
I have learned to not try knitting something complicated when I'm feeling sleepy, so I sat and really listened to the rest of the speech; breaking into song - "Once in love with Barry!" - only when he was talking about health care reform and otherwise confining myself to the occasional burst of applause. My husband, the moderate Republican, was not amused at my antics. Too bad!

We had a pretty cold weekend here, so I spent a lot of time in the sewing room. I got the third section of the Cone Nebula quilt done:
This thing is already HUGE, and I still have nine sections to go. I had to lay out the first three sections on the bedroom floor, and then sort of shoot the picture around the corner:
I am very pleased with how this is coming along; it's as though I'm seeing a picture in my mind coming to life. While I was setting up and taking this picture, I had an observer:
Baby Boy wasn't quite sure what I was doing, but it didn't seem to be threatening him, so he just watched. On the other hand, I did develop technical difficulties with the sewing machine in the course of Sunday afternoon. For some reason, the fabric just wasn't feeding through very well. Can anyone figure out what the problem was?
When I tried addressing the problem, I got some back talk:
My little cat mommy's heart is swelling with love as I look at this picture!

I am about halfway through Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns. This is a work of history written with a journalist's eye for detail. The book tells the story of the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to the North and West of the U.S. over the middle part of the twentieth century. She follows three people from their childhoods through their lives in the South, their decision to migrate, their migration, and their lives afterward. Along the way, she gives us historical data, sociological studies, and other broader information. I am seeing American history in a new way, and I'm seeing a lot of things in my life and my family's life in a new way - putting into a new context things that were said by my Detroit-area relatives (some of whom were part of the "white flight" from the city in the 1960s).

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Warmth of Other Suns

First of all, thank you to those who sent good wishes my way regarding my bout of illness last week. I have a good friend who got a liver transplant last week; I have friends who have survived cancer; I have friends and family members who have gone through divorce and the loss of children. When I consider that my only illnesses are depression and migraines, I feel as though I am one of the lucky ones. I occasionally have mildly debilitating episodes; but I haven't been to an emergency room for the first one in over 30 years or the second one ever.

I did spend a day home from work this week with a migraine (one of only about four or five days of work I've missed from migraine in my life), but that gave me the opportunity to get a real start on Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns. I am only about a quarter of the way into this book, but I'm already under its spell. I am a "white" woman from northern Michigan - French Canadian on my mother's side (my mother's was the first generation to speak English only) and English-Scotch-German on my father's side (with my generation the first to send a significant number to college) - and I grew up unaware of the sea of privilege in which I lived. As I have read the books I have over the last year or so about the experiences of various groups, I have been forced to step outside of my own life and to see the world from new perspectives and in new ways.

Wilkerson's book is filled with stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things in the midst of circumstances so beyond my understanding that I'm almost treating it as fiction. Surely people who built bus stations in the 1920s South didn't have to build two separate waiting rooms and four separate restrooms (white men, white women, black men, black women)! Surely police officers didn't stop people at train stations and rip up their tickets so that they couldn't leave for the North! Surely grown adults didn't expect other grown adults to step off the sidewalk into the street just because of the color of their skin! No, these things couldn't have happened in this country! Wilkerson's book shows us segregation in intimate details like this. She gives us statistics and broad sociological theories, but she also puts us in a cotton field picking 7000 pieces of cotton in a single day and helps us to feel the pain in our backs and legs.

When I was a girl my mother told me a story from the summer she was 17. It was 1948, and she and her mother traveled from Detroit to Virginia to visit a cousin. One day, as the three of them approached a store, my mother noticed an older (black) woman also approaching the store. My mother, being the polite young person she was, held the door for the woman, who began trembling and held back. A quarter of a century later, my mother recounted with wonder that the woman would not go through the door. The cousin hissed, "Don't make a scene!" and dragged my mother into the store. This was a defining moment for my mother, who was a staunch political liberal to her dying days. She gave her children a view of the world of race relations that looked far beyond the insular narrowness of rural northern life. That older woman who hung back and refused to walk through the door held by a teenager in Virginia over 50 years ago has informed my life in so many positive ways; as I read Wilkerson's book, I've thought about her and am now finally understanding what her life was probably like.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Work in Progress Wednesday - #24

It's been a couple of weeks since I participated in the WIPW, so I'm hoping I'm still welcome to play along. Please be sure to check out the other great posts that can be found at Tami's blog.

Last Wednesday, we had four inches of snow. There are serious perks to living in my corner of southeastern Michigan, and one of them is the mild winters so that four inches of snow seems like a big deal. Anyway, I am the snow shoveler in the family, so I was not the blogger last week.

On Saturday, we had quilt guild, but I was staggering under the weight of a bout of depression so intense it was scary. It had been building up for several days and let loose with full fury during the night. I have spent 35 years with this disease and its flare-ups, and I know that the worst thing I can do when I'm under attack is to go along with it. So, I shoved myself out of bed and out of the house and off to a meeting where I had to be social and friendly and cheerful and not drag anyone else down. After the formal meeting, about 60 people gathered in a classroom and, in small groups, made quilt tops for the guild's charity. Here is the top my group produced:
The picture is a little blurry, but you can get the general idea. I spent most of the afternoon hiding behind a sewing machine mindlessly sewing strips together. It was a good therapy. I was with friends, and for most of the afternoon the conversation consisted of "Press seams open or to the sides?" "Do we want more yellow here or more blue?" Anyway, we were pleased with our final product.

Of course, I got home and was weepy much of the evening. I finished reading The Great Stink. This is a novel about a soldier home from the Crimean War. He is battling PTSD (not a term known in the 1850s) and is an engineer on the London sewer project. Let's just say that this book may have been a contributing factor to my depression. It's well written, pretty gross in places (you can almost see and smell the contents of the sewers - 'nuf said!), and the characters are interesting. If you want a view of Victorian London that doesn't involve high society, this is a good book for that.

Here are some actual works in progress:
This is the Every Way Wrap in full and closeup. It's not very far along, but I'm in the cabling area, and I LOVE doing cables. I use the technique that doesn't use a separate needle. (Basically, if you have a four-stitch cable, you slip all four stitches off the left needle onto the right needle; then, if you have to hold the first two stitches in front, you put the left needle across the front, pick up the first two slipped stitches; then, you slide all four stitches off the right needle, pick up the two "live" stitches with the right needle, and slip them back on to the left needle. At that point, you have crossed the stitches and can then knit them in the correct order.) It's awkward as anything the first few times you do it, but then you realize that you will never again drop a cable needle or have to go scrambling for it in the bag.

December in the sewing room was present-making time, and the room had to be cleaned after the holidays:
So, I spent the first non-holiday Sunday of the year cleaning, and then this past Sunday, I was able to work on the Cone Nebula quilt. It seems that no matter how much fabric I cut, I always have to spend a considerable amount of time cutting more fabric because I don't have the right ones cut. So, this was as far as I got this weekend (yes, the table wasn't big enough, and I had to bring the ironing board over):

I love how, in the lower picture, there is that splash of bright blue off to the left. When I bought that fabric, I bought it as a dark; however, when held up against really dark fabrics, it's bright. Color value is all relative!

I have two three cute cat pictures, and then I'll sign off. First up, the Big Guy just looked SO cute here:
Then, the Princess has her favorite fellow treating her right:
Finally, the Brat Cat is on her favorite perch - mainly because it's mobile!
(I love how she's looking at the phone to see what's so interesting!)

Have a good week, everyone!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

What I'm Watching, part 2

After I signed off this morning, I thought about the movies I saw this past year, and I realized that there was one movie I saw twice in the theater and would gladly have paid to see a third time, and that was the new Star Trek movie (at least I think it was this past year). Now, I have lived in the world of Star Trek ever since I was a little kid in the late 1960s, and my mother was adamant that there was to be no kid-initiated disturbances in the house on Thursday evenings. In my teens I read synopses of all of the episodes (there were books with these synopses in short story form). The year I graduated from college, the first movie came out. In my late 20s the first of the new series started. I have never attended a convention, but I have seen at least some of the episodes of all of the series (I don't remember the cartoon series from the 1970s, though), and I have seen all of the movies in the theater (sometimes more than once).

A few years ago, after we'd been to Galaxy Quest, I was describing it to a co-worker as a parody of Star Trek. "I have never seen any of the Star Trek shows or movies," she said. I blurted out, "You have my deepest sympathies." Neither of us knew what to make of the other, but I have never been able to mention such things around her again in all the years we've worked together. What a tragically limited life she's lived!

Anyway, I just wanted you to know that I'm not just about British history in my tastes in literature and movies. I've definitely earned the geek credentials.

What I'm Reading (and Watching)

If it turns out that I have already read the best books I'm going to read all year, I can live with that. Connie Willis' twinset of Blackout and All Clear are among the most wonderful books I have ever read in my life. Perhaps I exaggerate, perhaps I am still in the spell of these books about time travelers caught in the Battle of Britain, or perhaps these books are full of well-rounded characters, a vivid sense of the time and place, and a palpable overwhelming sense of fear, anxiety, and uncertainty. If you have never read a science fiction novel in your life but have thought you might like to read one some time, these two novels are a wonderful gateway - mainly because the science of time travel is kept mostly in the background and is strictly a plot device that gets our well-informed characters into an important and pivotal moment in world history.

One of the points that these books make is that we are timebound creatures who simply do not know how the big picture is going to work out, and we certainly don't know how our individual actions fit into the larger narrative around us. The people in London during the Blitz didn't know if they would survive as individuals, and they didn't know if their country would survive. They did know that if the nation didn't survive, that the world would be a much worse place; they were holding the line against one of the greatest evils in human history. There is a moment during the VE celebration where one of our time travelers comes across a middle-aged man sobbing profusely right after the sounding of the final all-clear siren. She asks him what's wrong, and he says, "That's the most beautiful sound in the world." This set of books shows in exhaustive detail what lies behind that statement.

I have some minor cavils with these books - there are some passages that would have benefited from more editing - when I would start saying, "Okay, dark room, filled with half-seen dangers, got that. Please move along." I also very much wanted the book to last about 10 more pages, but then about what would I have dreamed if the author had done that work? One more note: I finished the first book, screamed, and ran upstairs to grab the second book. Seriously, have both books on hand when you start the first one. I started reading Friday morning, Dec. 31, went off to a wedding, came home and read into the evening. On Saturday, after church and a walk, I read all afternoon (I am the reason that the University of Michigan lost its bowl game - they were winning until I got back from my walk, and then I sat in the same room as the television - sorry!). On Sunday, after church and a walk, I again read all afternoon (and the Detroit Lions won their game - go figure). I read all Monday morning until I went to work, then spent the evening reading. In other words, about a thousand pages over a long weekend; it's fun to do that once in a while!

During the holiday break, we saw The King's Speech, and while it's not the best movie I saw in 2010 - the 2006 movie The Lives of Others probably was - it was deeply engrossing, well written, and expertly acted (but, get real, I would watch Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush on a bare stage reading the phone directory at each other). It was kind of fun watching this movie in midweek and then reading the Connie Willis books a few days later - at one point, one of the children makes a crack about the "K-k-king's st-st-stammer" and is reproved by a nearby adult. Because of the movie, I had a context in which to more fully appreciate the moment. In other words, don't let the Oscar hype prevent you from seeing this lovely movie.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Happy New Year - Work in Progress

Back last February I posted on my friend's blog some goals for 2010.  I thought it would be fun to revisit those and see how close I came.
  1. read at least two serious books a month - I call this accomplished. I read a lot of really good books this year and not just silly books.
  2. finish the sweater for me and make a sweater for my sister - I finished my sweater, but my sister and I have not yet reached closure on what I'm going to make for her. She wants a knitted blanket, and I'd rather make her a quilt if I'm going to go large and flat.
  3. finish my scrap clearing project and get at least three quilts out of it - I got one large quilt, one wallhanging, and a pillow... hmmm
  4. Make the two or three charity quilts that are sitting in the sewing room glaring balefully at me - done
  5. Be a gracious volunteer chair for the guild's show and then not volunteer for the next time - I so enjoyed being the volunteer chair for the show this year that I've already volunteered for next time.
  6. Finish the quilted wall hanging in time for the show - done
  7. Think really hard about making one or two quilts for the raffle at the hospital - The large scrap quilt will be for the next fundraiser at the hospital - done
  8. Get good at spinning with the spindle - err, nope, not even close, but I am getting better at it. Last week, I realized that I'm still spinning very thick yarn, but it is getting more even.
  9. Lose 15 pounds - ha! I haven't even gone near the scale since the summer.
  10. Stop being so goal oriented - Yeah, right!
Before I get to the goals for 2011, some pictures of kitty cats! First off, the Brat Cat LOVES the new footstool (and matching seat cushion):
Since Hubby hasn't yet gotten around to using this as a footstool, I have moved it over next to his chair, and the cats have figured out that when they are on the stool, they are at the perfect height for Daddy-style cuddling. At least three of them have taken advantage of that; of course the Brat thinks its hers, and she's made her displeasure known...

After finishing the baby jacket, I swatched for and cast on the Every Way Wrap from Interweave Knits Fall of 2009. I started it last year around this time, but the yarn I was using was really wrong for the project - the stitches simply got lost in all of the color changes and the fuzziness of the yarn. So, I'm using a crisper yarn with simpler color changes (Malabrigo Rios in Teal, in case you are wondering), and I'm making it on Size 7 (4.5 mm) needles, which means my gauge is way off (21 stitches per 4 inches, instead of the 16 noted in the pattern). Because of the nature of the pattern, though, I feel comfortable just going up to the maximum number of cast-on stitches and winging it from there.

The next picture was taken just this morning when I was feeding the cats. The Princess Kitty gets a bit imperious when I'm not moving fast enough, but in this picture, she's just annoyed that I keep flashing the bright light in her face instead of putting her dish down.

And now, here are my goals for 2011:
  1. Continue reading serious books - there is so much to learn!
  2. Read up on and attend some meetings regarding the drain commission and its work.* 
  3. Get good at spinning with the spindle, smoothing out the yarn and making it thinner.
  4. Be a gracious volunteer coordinator for the guild's weekend of workshops at the end of July.
  5. Do not volunteer to make soul-sucking quilts - if they hurt to make, maybe they shouldn't be made.
  6. Finish the Cone Nebula quilt.
  7. Play with screen printing and other techniques.
  8. Finish the Every Way Wrap and make other fun-to-knit projects
  9. Post here at least twice a week - Wednesdays and Saturdays
Of course, there are assumptions here that I'll continue to be a very good employee, continue to try to be a good wife, figure out the whole church thing (do I just keep drifting along because I cannot imagine not being part of that community?), and feed the cats twice a day while cleaning their boxes once a day. These are all things that don't need to be listed, right?

Do you have goals for the coming year? What are they? How do you know when you've accomplished them?

*We went to a funeral home last evening for the husband of a friend of ours. I had never met the man, but he was a landscape architect who was responsible for a lot of the public landscape in our area. After looking at his projects and talking to one of his colleagues for quite a while, I really want to learn more.