Tribe

Bigmanstool

Big Man’s Stool from the middle Sepic River region of Papua New Guinea. This was a wedding gift to us many years ago from my husband’s uncle, an expert on Melanesian art.

 

Tribe“Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.

It’s time for that to end.”

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger

I was fascinated by David Brooks’ recent column in The New York Times, “The Great Affluence Fallacy,” in which he says that, back in the day, many Americans joined Native American tribes, either voluntarily or because they were captured. Often, whites who were allowed to return to their original culture chose to stay with Native Americans.

This rarely happened the other way around: Native Americans never willingly chose white society.

David Brooks read about this phenomenon in Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger, (Junger is the author of The Perfect Storm and War) which inspired me to read this short, well written extended essay on the plight of the lonely, autonomous individual in modern American culture.

I highly recommend Tribe if you feel that we’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere along the way in our relentless pursuit of autonomy and self-actualization, and if you feel we’re in need of a course correction. At about 130 pages, it is a quick but memorable read.

Here are a couple more quotes that spoke to me:

“A person living in a modern city or a suburb can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day–or an entire life–mostly encountering complete strangers. They can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone.”

“We are not good to each other. Our tribalism is to an extremely narrow group of people: our children, our spouse, maybe our parents. Our society is alienating, technical, cold, and mystifying. Our fundamental desire, as human beings, is to be close to others, and our society does not allow for that.” – Sharon Abramowitz

Family Reunion

Speaking of tribes, connection, and meaning, this summer I went to a family reunion held every three years or so by my husband’s large extended family of Irish descent. It’s always a great time, and through the years I’ve enjoyed watching four generations gather from the east and west coasts and many places in between. At the reunion we had a memorial tribute to my husband’s uncle, Peter, who recently passed away.

As a young man, Peter emigrated to Australia, started out in advertising and, beginning in the 1960s, spent three decades traveling deep into the interior of New Guinea and collecting tribal art. Eventually, Peter became one of the world’s foremost experts on Melanesian art.

Reading through Peter’s autobiographical material on display at the reunion, I found this:

“…he would spend months at a time traveling in remote areas, living amongst the people and studying their culture and traditional art….he would spend weeks traveling to small, obscure villages…No place was too far. There were trips to the most remote regions of Milne Bay, the Dampier and Vitiaz straits, off the beaten track in the Highlands, even an eleven month trip which delivered a major Kula canoe from Kitava Island to the South Australian Museum.”

Peter’s catalog descriptions make for fascinating reading. I love the vivid, succinct descriptions and the precise words. It’s almost like poetry. Here is one:

IMG_3634A Wood Mask, Kandrian Sub-District, Wosom Village, the oval white face with an hollowed mouth showing teeth and tongue, hollowed eyes, pierced ears, and the high forehead with three cylindrical shafts issuing feathers, strands of shells and pig teeth hanging from the ear lobes, painted with white, black and red pigments. Height 63 cm. (24 3/4 in.) 

This type of dance mask, called ‘Waku,’ was used in circumcision festivities.”

It strikes me that Peter’s fascination with Aboriginal art and life may have been inspired, in part, because he admired their community values and human bonds that ran deep…which is what Sebastian Junger writes about in Tribe. Peter must have resonated with their deep connection to nature, too.

So much knowledge and wisdom can be lost with the passing of intrepid individuals such as Peter. Fortunately, much of his knowledge and many of his experiences have been preserved in books and photographs, which we were able to see at the family reunion. As time goes on, the grandchildren and great grandchildren will be left with some sense of Peter’s remarkable life.

For him, no place was too far.

 

TribeWelcome.jpeg

One of the old photos Peter left behind. I have no way of knowing what tribe this is or which village. Can you imagine pulling up in your canoe at some remote river location and receiving such a warm welcome? Or, maybe it was posed…either way, everyone looks happy.

Mask.jpeg

Snake.jpeg

Dance 1

IMG_3636

Art by Sammy Clarmon of the Lockhard River Art Gang, in Gatherings II: Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art from Queensland, Australia. This is one of the Keeaira Press books designed by Great Uncle Peter. These esoteric, small press books about tribal culture are invaluable; they preserve glimpses of a past way of life and a unique body of wisdom for future generations.

Are there fascinating figures in your family history? Do you agree with Sebastian Junger that modern society makes people feel unnecessary?

 

 

 

TransAtlantic inspires a look at our family history

Back from an Oregon vacation and an unforgettable family reunion in Cannon Beach.

Several books traveled with me, of course, including Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic, which we’d chosen for our family reunion book club, and Natalie Goldberg’s newest title, The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language. I tore through Goldberg’s book, as anyone who is a Goldberg fan will understand, while I mulled over how to frame our TransAtlantic book club discussion.

I didn’t expect to find this serendipitous connection between the two books on page 3 of The True Secret:

The True Secret of Writing book cover“Writing is for everyone, like eating and sleeping….Slaves were forbidden to learn to read or write. Slave owners were afraid to think of these people as human. To read and to write is to be empowered. No shackle can ultimately hold you.

To write is to continue the human lineage. For my grandfather, coming from Russia at seventeen, it was enough to learn the language. Today, it’s our responsibility to further the immigrant dream. To write, to pass on the dream and tell its truth. Get to work. Nothing fancy. Begin with the ordinary.”

Transatlantic book coverReading Goldberg’s words – get to work, nothing fancy, begin with the ordinary – I thought of Colum McCann’s writing, and of Lily Duggan, the fictitious Irish housemaid in TransAtlantic who could not read or write and came penniless to America, whose daughter became an influential journalist and wrote about the first non-stop transatlantic flight, by Alcock and Brown from Newfoundland to Ireland (see this photo of their landing.)

Reading Goldberg’s words – no shackles can ultimately hold you –  I thought of the former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass and what he was able to accomplish thanks to his education.

Reading Goldberg’s words – it’s our responsibility to further the immigrant dream –  I decided to ask my husband’s family if they identified with their Irish ancestry. Do they ever think about it, do they find it relevant to their lives, or do they see themselves as thoroughly American? If it’s our responsibility to further the immigrant dream (whether we consider ourselves writers or not), what does that mean and how do we do that?

One branch of my husband’s family came from Drummin Parish, Westport in County Mayo on the west coast of Ireland. They immigrated to America after the English Earl of Aran evicted them and 40 other families from the land where they were tenant farmers. Nearly the entire town came to America, including their local priest, shortly after the Civil War. (Again, I think of TransAtlantic’s Lily Duggan and her deep and involuntary involvement in the Civil War.) They settled in Little Falls, New York, where they may have worked on the enlargement of the Erie Canal. Several of the brothers started a construction and masonry company and built the Beechnut Plant in Canajoharie, locks in the Mohawk River, and many buildings in the Mohawk Valley.

In our discussion, my father-in-law said he thought of himself as American, while his sister identified strongly with her Irish Catholic heritage. I wondered why there was such a difference in the same family. My sister-in-law thought it might be that it had been the man’s responsibility to be successful and earn a good living; to do that he had to shed his ethnicity in the workplace and become “American.” The woman had stayed home, preserving family rituals and traditions, passing on family history, perhaps assimilating more slowly.

Someone said she thought it unusual TransAtlantic’s Lily Duggan was not religious and not raised Catholic, and that led to a discussion of Catholic identity. My mother-in-law, like my husband’s aunt, strongly identified as Irish Catholic, and said when she was growing up being Catholic was more important than being Irish. She told the story of an uncle who wept bitterly when one of his children married a Protestant. Someone else commented that in the New Jersey town where he grew up, there was an Italian Catholic church, an Irish Catholic church, and a Polish Catholic church.

I wanted to know which TransAtlantic characters made the deepest impression. My father-in-law was especially taken with the brilliance, dedication, and integrity of  Senator George Mitchell, who negotiated the peace talks in Northern Ireland. He did some research and found a fascinating interview with Mitchell after he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Almost all of us loved Lily, of course. Some of us didn’t know anything about Frederick Douglass and his connection with Ireland, and we’d never heard of Alcock and Brown or their amazing flight.

There were at least four generations at our family reunion. I’m so glad some of us shared the reading of TransAtlantic. I, for one, could have kept our discussion going longer than we had time for.

I don’t think we answered the question of how to further the immigrant dream or whether that is something we’ll even think about, and I don’t know how strongly the younger generation will identify with their Irish heritage. But I do find it fascinating how McCann weaves fiction and nonfiction together to form a narrative arc that extends through time and across generations. It’s much larger than any single life, and yet every individual has a role to play.

I think I see similar through-lines across time in my husband’s family, whether they’re passed down through familial and social influences, or encoded in their DNA, or both: a mechanical and engineering aptitude, keen intelligence, a predilection for risk-taking, an independent spirit, a deep curiosity about the world, and a strong sense of justice. When all of us get together for these reunions that are way too brief, you can see these commonalities.

Have you ever had a book club at your family reunion? If so, what did you read? Tell us about it in the comments.

If you would like to learn more about Natalie Goldberg, her new book, and the true secret of writing (I’m not going to spill the beans), listen to this wonderful 30-minute podcast on Natalie’s website.

Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach

Haystack, Cannon Beach

Cannon Beach and bonfires

Evening bonfires

Family reunion reading: TransAtlantic

It occurred to me it would be fun if all the book lovers attending our extended family reunion this summer read the same book. Similar to what we do here in Rochester, NY once a year: “If all of Rochester read the same book,” a great project started by librarian Nancy Pearl in Seattle.

At the reunion, we could have an optional, one-time-only gathering to talk about the book.

Wouldn’t it would be interesting, I thought, to read a book that explored my husband’s family’s Irish heritage?

Easier said than done, because we all know what great storytellers the Irish are. When I asked for book suggestions on the family reunion Facebook page, the list got longer and longer.  I hoped no one would suggest James Joyce.

Fortunately, no one did. (Librarian and former book editor that I am, I haven’t read a single book by James Joyce. Like every other avid reader in the universe, I intend to. Someday.)

Angela’s Ashes was on the list, of course. But with all due respect to Frank McCourt, his ship sailed some time ago, and we have to make way for younger authors.

I’m no good at conducting family polls and other administrative tasks, so I made an executive decision. I chose Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic, because it’s hot off the presses, getting lots of attention, and Irish through and through.

Transatlantic book cover

I hope my husband’s family doesn’t mind I made this unilateral call, especially since I don’t have one ounce of Irish blood.

One of the things I most admire about my husband is his unshakeable sense of justice and fairness. I’ve seen this in my in-laws, too. In fact, I’ve seen it in many members of the family I was so fortunate to marry into. This is not just something they give lip service to. In many different ways, they live their beliefs.

Maybe being Irish has something to do with it.

I work directly across the street from Mount Hope Cemetery where former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, a prominent figure in the history of Rochester and our nation, is buried. There is a riveting scene in TransAtlantic that captures the essence of Douglass’s trip to Ireland in 1845.  I hadn’t realized Douglass had traveled to Ireland. That made TransAtlantic, for me, all the more relevant.

Members of our extended family have married or plan to marry into families from Nicaragua, Thailand, Saint Lucia, and other countries I can’t name simply because there are too many relatives to keep track of. (They are, after all, Irish.) If you’ve read my blog, you know I’m fascinated with the idea we may inherit from our ancestors a unique sensibility and way of looking at the world. I’m also intrigued by the wonderful new possibilities that may arise with the union of different cultures, possibilities inherent in the children who will be coming to our reunion.

Upcoming post on Transatlantic

In my next post, thoughts about Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic, as well as his Let the Great World Spin. which won the National Book Award.

Here is a link to an interview with Colum McCann on Charlie Rose.

If you’ve read either of these books, tell us what you think in the comments. Are there books that speak to your own family’s ancestry?  Let us know!

 

IRISH FAMILY REUNION READING

The Sea, by John Banville

Circle of Friends, by Maeve Binchy (and other titles)

My Left Foot, by Christy Brown

Ireland, by Frank Delaney (and other titles)

The Gathering, by Anne Enright

The Wild Colonial Boy, by James Hynes

Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt

‘Tis, by Frank McCourt

Charming Billy, by Alice McDermott

The Mammy; The Granny; The Chisellers, all by Brendan O’Carroll

Trinity, by Leon Uris

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