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Category: power of story

when the history you seek is your own

The Dixie Line of the L&N Railroad

it started over matzo and maror, the staples of passover, when amid cups of wine (they’re commanded, four of them), i started to pepper my mate with question upon question (more than four of my own; again, four are commanded). i was asking about seders of his long-ago past, curious about each of the characters, and the long journey from shtetl to tenement to, well, ivy league colleges and a pulitzer prize. because i tend to poke around in the vaults of history, root around for tidbits and clues, i remembered i’d once tucked away what we thought were steerage records of one isidore kaminski’s arrival on nov. 14, 1912 from russia by way of rotterdam, on the s.s. uranium.

and upon pulling that sheaf from my stash, i felt my curiosities piquing. i was suddenly hot in pursuit of my own irish peoples. and, lo and behold, i found philip mahoney himself arriving in boston harbor on may 9, 1850, on the silas leonard, a steerage ship that only three years later would be shipwrecked off the coast of newport, rhode island.

the deeper i look the likelier i see how often the fact of my existence is but a long, long series of near misses and narrow escapes.

and, often, when poking around long-ago times when survival was iffy, the tales you unearth can knock you back for a while. it’s the price of paying attention. and i welcome it, though it might take a few days, maybe some months to really distill all i discovered this week.

best of all, i discovered a long-lost cousin, a cousin whose tales criss-cross the pages of the new york times, among other adventures. we share a great grandmother and great grandfather. tragedy struck his branch of the tree right from the start, when our great grandmother died birthing joe’s grandmother. my grandfather would have been seven, left without a mother and with a newborn baby sister. i am still filling in all of the pieces of a story far sadder even than that. i am imagining––enlivening––all of the characters in each of the plots, thrusting myself back in time, peeking out from under the tables and around all the corners.

that’s what is often the case for those of us who find ourselves compelled by the stories of the past, stories we know in some way inform who we are and how we got to this moment. the few cousins i’ve met along the way, one of them one of the true treasures of my life, all seem to share a gnawing curiosity, a wanting to fill in the blanks. to step back from the present and take in the whole sweep of the story.

it’s how i discovered an uncle had died in the great battle of iwo jima, slashed with a bayonet in the deep of night before he could leap from his tent. it’s how i filled in so many missing pieces of the grandmother my own father so rarely spoke of, a silence i sensed was fueled by a heart so broken by her absence he chose to stay mostly wordless when it came to talk of her. though he did tell me once––and with my father the less he said, the more emphatically you knew he meant it––that he saw so much of his mother in me.

i am fairly certain i get lost in the mists of family history in my feeble attempt at resurrections. oh, what i wouldn’t give to sit at an old maple table, fueled by tea for the women, scotch for the men, and indulge in the swirl of their stories. maybe it’s reaching deep into the vaults––frustrating as it is to run into the dead ends and cul-de-sacs of hard-to-read 18th-century cursive and records gaping with holes––maybe it’s reaching back into time, barely brushing up against the most basic of biographies, that fills in a sense of just who i am, and propels me to make of my one little life just a little bit more than i otherwise might.

maybe it’s that the long sweep of history puts me more squarely in my place, highlights how tiny a dot is my place in the long ellipsis of genetics and time.

this week i spent a long time looking at the mahany side of my family, a side i knew too little about, a side whose story is much sadder than i ever realized. my dad said so very little, and my dad was gone way before i’d asked even a tenth of my questions. the last significant thing i remember my dad saying to me, one day not long after his very last christmas, was “kid, you have a real sense of history.”

indeed, it seems it’s a hunger.

and all these years later, i’m still trying to ask my next question, to find the stories he never told.

with all the love in my heart, this one is in its own way a love note to my dear beloved p. shannon, a third cousin who more than anyone i know has taken me by the hand deep into the vaults, and pointed the light at each and every turn. bless you paddy, i will adore you till the way end of time…..

the map above is the rail line through kentucky where my choochoo papa (my paternal grandfather) was the locomotive engineer for the Louisville & Nashville Rail Road at the early age of 26 until his retirement some 50 years later. he––along with my dad and the grandma i never knew––started out at the little dot on the map marked “paris,” as in kentucky not france, a dot on the map that will forever be my old kentucky home.

manifest of the s.s. uranium that carried our boys’ great grandfather to america in 1912
my great-great-great grandfather’s record of arrival from ireland in 1850

have you poked around in the attic of your own family’s history? are you propelled by curiosities? i suppose, after a lifetime of bylines, i’ve left more than my share for some curious soul in generations to come. have at it, sweet girl, i only wish i could join you…….

year upon year, truth upon truth…

14th-century rendering of the plagues of egypt

we are tellers and re-tellers of story, a people long bound by the unspooling of truths told in text or in verse, around table or hearth, under moon and star or plaster and beam.

in the geometry of time, there lies both wisdom and instruction in the unfurling of the year, an unfurling that might feel like a circle but that i see as a spiral. year after year, we return to texts––familiar texts––that draw us in more and more deeply, the more closely we pay attention. 

so it is––as i fill my house with matzo and shred it of breadcrumbs, as i shop for both lamb and shank bone, as i steam mounds and mounds of asparagus––that once again we come to this holy stretch of time endowed with foundational story, ancient stories both christian and jewish. the story of a savior who wept in a garden, and soon was betrayed, then flogged and stripped and pierced with a crown of thorns. a humiliation as severe as any i’ve ever read. certainly more than any i’ve ever known. and at the same time in this house, we read and retell the story of the enslaved jews finding their way out of bondage, crossing an isthmus, a sand bar in a sea of reeds, but not before witnessing the scourge of ten plagues. 

the beauty of these texts, and any text meant for endless curiosity––these texts, as if prisms we hold to the light, turning and turning for the making of new rainbows––is that each year some new fragment may catch our attention. new rainbows might scatter against the walls of our soul. 

so it is that this year i am thinking anew of the plagues: water turning to blood, frogs, lice, flies, livestock pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and the killing of firstborn children.

i remember how at the long seder table where my boys grew up, the table would be scattered with wee plastic frogs and broad-winged bugs; ping pong balls would serve as hail. and red food dye would be splattered on plates. the detail was never lost. 

and only this year––a year when both those boys who once squirmed at the bugs and squealed at the blood will be hundred of miles away––only this year have i come to pay closer attention to what the plagues might have meant to the story we’re commanded to tell. 

according to a wise, wise rabbi whose wisdom i found myself reading the other day, the plagues are “commonly read as punishments levied against the egyptian people for the terrible suffering they forced upon the israelites,” writes sharon brous, the senior rabbi and founder of IKAR, a jewish congregation in los angeles, a rabbi who calls it her life’s work to re-animate religion. oh, that we animate it, this vein in our lives that seems to either be bent to fit particular agendas, or shoved to the side altogether. 

but, writes rabbi brous, there is another way to interpret the plagues, and God’s intent therein (and here’s where i buckle my seatbelt, and begin my own homegrown rocket ride): what if the plagues, the sufferings, are meant not to punish but rather to tender the heart. to grow compassion. to breathe and breed empathies. 

we need turn to the 16th and 17th centuries, to the wisdom of a venetian scholar and rabbi named obadiah ben jacob sforno, to find the seeds of this thinking: sforno argued in his commentary on the text of exodus that the plagues were actually brought to awaken the conscience of the oppressor, “to increase the chances that pharaoh would finally see the light and become a genuine penitent.” 

“in other words,” writes brous, “what God desired was a true change of heart. God wanted pharaoh and his people to take responsibility for the injustices they committed. tell the truth. make amends. offer reparations. chart a new course, together with the israelites.”

in a world as plagued as ours currently is––war and pillage, pandemic and pestilence, fire and flood and drought––in a world where it’s too too easy to turn our backs on the sacred, to point to the suffering and insist there’s no God so hard-hearted to look the other way so therefore there must be no God, in a world as replete with reasons not to believe, what if the radical notion, the one that’s hardest to come by, is the dawning idea that with each and every suffering we grow more and more tender. 

there’s the crux, the hard part: to allow the suffering to tender us, not to harden. not to let horrors metastasize, not to let hurt spread like a cancer, nor turn us into walking, talking cess pools of resentment, to leave us every morning, noon, and night with the afterburn of bitterness there on our tongues. 

imagine ten of your own plagues: the time you were double-crossed; the time you discovered a terrible truth, a truth that was crushing; the dying and death of someone you loved. the remembering and never forgetting of a time you caused the suffering. the lie you let grow. the cruel innuendo that crossed your own lips. count your own ten.

now, consider the pain that you felt. how it awoke you in the night. how it haunted you by the day. how it felt like a nest of hornets let loose in your soul. 

now imagine that the pain didn’t harden. imagine it worked to loosen the loam of your soul. allowed room for new seeds to be planted there. tender sproutlings of purer compassion. how, ever after, you knew what it meant to grieve in a bottomless way. how, ever after, you knew how tempting it was to turn away and never turn back. how, ever after, you knew the muscularity demanded to rise up and out from the darkness. 

consider how those plagues pushed you––not without ache, not without wishing you could wish it away––toward a deeper, broader understanding of and connection with the suffering all around.

imagine if the resonance of your own hours of suffering allowed you to look upon the sins and the suffering all around and find common ground, feel your heart open not close.

imagine if the world’s suffering was meant to do the same. imagine if all this is an exercise in tendering our holiest vessel: the one heart made as a chamber for the sacred to dwell. 

what if, instead of growing bitter and hard over time, we grow softer and sweeter? what if we return to the text––the suffering and crucifixion of the one born to teach and live love, the freeing of an oppressed people made to witness hardship upon hardship, ten plagues in all––what if we return to the text and find, for the very first time, a wisdom to carry us on? into a world that never seems to pause in its inflicting of pain.

what if, in feeling the pain, we are moved to be the agent of balm, of healing, of lifting the other out of a pain we know all too well? tikkun olam. “repair the world.” mend the tatters. reimagine the whole.

there must be wisdom, must be reason we circle again and again to the same lines of text, as if we’re meant to meet it again with whomever we are one year to the next. this year the lines that most drew me in were the ones that ask why in the world would ours be a God who not only allows but inflicts plague upon plague, hurt upon hurt.

my knowing next year might differ. but this year i’ve come to dwell on the thought that no one escapes a life stitched with sufferings. and if the sufferings come, how might they make of us souls that pulse with compassion. communion, after all, is the holiness we seek. oneness. with God, with ourselves, and the whole of humanity circling this earth in this long, dark hour.

what plagues move you to compassion? (a question to answer deep in your soul in these entwined holy hours ahead….)

i cannot let this day pass without remembering my beautiful mother-in-law whom i last saw on this day, her birthday, a year ago. we keep her flame alive, very much alive, in the telling and re-telling of her stories. may they never end…..

*the question of the israelites and the plagues––whether they witnessed them or endured them––was a question that prompted much discussion at dinner last night. one of those rabbit holes into which we fall at our house because one of us––either the jew or the catholic––is always fairly new (or newer) to a story, and wonders about it in ways that have never quite struck the one to whom it is more familiar. i’d assumed––wrongly, it turns out––that to be in egypt at the time of the plagues meant to endure them but a closer read of the story made clear that, according to Exodus, for at least some of the plagues, the israelites were protected. certainly, i knew that the whole point of the “passover” was that Jews were to mark the doorways to their home with the blood of a sacrificed lamb, and the angel of death would know to pass over, sparing the firstborn son. i hadn’t realized––nor had my tablemate––that plagues one through three seem to have been endured by all, and four through ten were endured only by the egyptians, except for those who were penitent and thus spared the wrath.