Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Jaki Jean on how I ended up in the archives of a Presidential Library


 

So, it really doesn’t matter why I googled myself but it had to do with my domain & I googled Jaki Ettinger instead of Jaki Jean Ettinger.

I wasn’t interested in references to my blog or Facebook & I no longer care about my presence in the bankruptcy courts representing a company I worked for a decade ago.  I do find it amusing at my credit for participating with my voice in a crowd scene in an anime movie back in the late 1990s.

My eyes zeroed in on one entry:         

1989 Presidential Inaugural Committee - George Bush ...

bush41library.tamu.edu › files › donated-collections

I clicked and there was my name, followed by the name of the company I represented all those years ago.

I never meant to work on an inaugural committee for George Herbert Walker Bush.  I never envisioned working on any inaugural committee for any President, Republican or Democrat or Other.

But there I was after the 1988 election, in Washington, D.C., working for a fairly new entrant into the lucrative world of florists in the District.  Bush HW had been elected & the air was full of excitement & anticipation & the promise of profits from parties.

The company I worked for was approached to bid on one of the Inaugural Balls.  It is prestigious to be asked, prestigious to be awarded the job.

I do not know how Inaugural Balls were handled before or after GWH, but that year, floral companies received a flat fee for the design.  The ultimate profit for a company working on an Inaugural is exposure & status & a line on a brochure.

Decades have passed & I no longer remember if I had any part of winning that contract – if I even typed the proposal.  It was my boss’s project – he worked with one of our most experienced floral designers – the vision & details were theirs.

Inexplicably, my boss decided to take his girlfriend to Belize.  The designer on the project left because he was pissed about not getting a raise. 

I knew nothing about the project, about its implementation.  I had no one on the staff to give me  details.  And my boss was virtually unreachable.

Calling Belize was not easy in those days – it was similar to calling ship to shore. 

Because my boss was staying at a resort owned by friends we shared, I found out how to contact him.  It was not easy, but I got through & I began expressing my extreme dissatisfaction with my current plight.

How dare you dump something this important in my lap?  How dare you leave the country during this?  I have no designer, no written instructions!  What the hell am I supposed to do?   Etc., etc., etc.

His response, no matter what I said, was Stop yelling at me.

Seriously, dear readers, I was not yelling.  Had I been in full Jaki Jean fury & force, there would have been no reason to use a phone line.

I lost a great deal of respect for my boss that day.  There was a crisis & the only help he offered was to wine & tell me he believed in me.

It was not the first time, or the last time, that my boss dumped something in my lap with no warning or preparation.

But this was an Inaugural Ball.  Shit.

In the end, I had to put on my big girl panties & cope.  An amazing designer on staff, Miguel, guided me through the process.  Orders for flowers & equipment from the floral association providing them meant listing every piece of wire, every piece of floral foam, of tape, every stem of flower.

I could not have done that without Miguel.  Miguel walked the space of the hotel where the inaugural ball with me as we talked about what needed to go where.  Or rather, Miguel told me what needed to go where.

Our company had a distinct style – Miguel took it & his mind moved beyond that style to a presentation that would take viewer’s breath away.

We did this together, everything revolving around meetings at the Old Navy Shipyard.

Because at any moment, I could receive a phone call that I had to go to the shipyard for a meeting the players of the Inaugural Ball my company was working on.

Each ball had its own set of players – assigned Secret Service, representatives from hotel management & catering departments, the person in charge of music.  I represented the florist, chosen by a friend & tennis partner of Barbara Bush.

The first time I went to a meeting, I lost a pair of floral scissors & a floral knife I kept in my purse.  I walked through what seemed like an endless stream of cubicles occupied by young Republicans dressed in suits & business attire.

I walked in dressed in jeans & the only pair of cowboy boots I have ever owned –  red George Straight ropers – wearing my Mickey Mouse watch & a pair of really fine giant cubic zirconia earrings.  My east Texas accent resurfaced.

It was good to be a Texan in Washington. 

In the midst of being on call for Inaugural meetings at the shipyard, there were other parties – inaugurals are fraught with parties, not just the balls. 

While Republicans may have been fiscal conservatives at that time, they were known for spending big money on entertainment & parties.

My company was also asked to bid on the Texas Black Tie & Boots Ball.  Even without a president-elect from Texas, that ball is huge & popular.  The 1989 stage was to be flanked by giant cowboy boots, with spurs lighting & rotating.  Giant urns needing decorating would complete the picture.

I decided on massive dozens of yellow roses in each urn – there is that whole yellow rose of Texas thing – She is always here when you come home again.  I did not get the bid, but a favored florist brought in from Texas got the job.  He used my design & stipulated that I receive two tickets to the Black Tie & Boots Ball.

Truthfully, I did not give a damn about attending the Texas ball – I wanted to get credit for those here we are when you come home again yellow roses.

Somehow all the parties & installations prior to the Inaugural came together.  The flowers & floral materials for our Inaugural Ball supplied by national floral associations arrived.  And to my surprise, every stem I ordered – the topicals, the greenery, the roses, the orchids, the lilies – everything arrived. & other organizations.

The team assigned to us, volunteer members of AIFD & other floral organizations from across the country, took Miguel’s vision & carried out an installation to perfection.

My boss arrived from Belize. Eventually, he walked through the installation with me.  After I & Miguel & the leader of the team that carried it out rendered it perfect.

He was pleased.  I was pissed & tired & weary. As we talked, two men entered across the room.

Two very fit, very tan, very serious men with earphones.

One said, “I have tickets for the Inaugural Ball.”

My boss held out his hand & said, “I think those are for me.”

“I don’t think you look like Jaki Ettinger, sir.”

Then they walked across the room & handed the tickets to me.

My boss was stunned, but I had been sitting in on meetings in the Old Navy Shipyard & I recognized those two very fit, very tan, very serious Secret Service men.

It was a crowning glory for me. 

Of course, I gave the tickets to my boss, who did not use them.

But it was a moment.  And over the next year, I encountered those Secret Service dudes who knew me by name.  They were no less stern, but there was always a smile.

So, that is how my name is on a line in the archives of the George H.W. Bush’s library in College Station, at Texas A&M.  This is enormous in light of my Aggie father, my Aggie upbringing, my Aggie sister & my Aggie niece. 

I can only imagine how my mother Jean is laughing, appreciating the irony of my father Jack’s grooming me to be a good little Republican & my guilt for not living up to that expectation.

So, dear readers, I have to visit that library.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Thoughts on Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

 


I told my dear friend Cate Poe that I would share my reaction to reading Attica Locke.  Cate has never steered me wrong with a reading suggestion & she did not fail to deliver with Attica Locke’s Bluebird, Bluebird.

This is a gem of a book for anyone who enjoys well written, well crafted mystery & detective novels.  It reads, as more than one reviewer has pointed out, like a classical blues song.

Bluebird, Bluebird is the first of two in Locke’s Highway 59 series.  Most Texans know that part of 59 runs across East Texas, from the border at Laredo & winding up at the Arkansas border. And along the way, there are dozens & dozens of small towns embedded between cities.

Locke draws on her own family history in this novel.  Although it isn’t necessary, if you choose to explore this read, I recommend all potential readers to google Attica Locke & read her family story.

Locke’s family story was not anything I ever learned in all those years of Texas History in public school – not even the required course in college. 

Both my parents were born & raised in small East Texan towns.  I was born in Dallas, but I traveled with my parents to places like Canton & Tyler & Lake Jackson.  My accent was so deep East Texas that Papa Field, the speech teacher at Coronado High School in El Paso gave me a list of phrases to read & record on a cassette & then reviewed them until my accent was completely neutralized.

As a native East Texan & someone who has lived & traveled along the 59 corridor for decades, with only two short deviations to northwest Houston & Washington, D.C., this novel is rich with personal recognition & memory.

I have been to that single street light in the center of Cold Springs.  I have been to Shepard.  I have been to Jasper.  I have lived in a rural county bordering Houston, when the 59 freeway tapered down from multiple lanes to two lanes on either side of a massive field between.

So, when I read Bluebird, Bluebird, I was there.  I knew the landscape, the food, the music & too much about the rules governing small East Texas communities.

This was the only novel I have read cover to cover in one sitting since my mother died this past August.  It was exactly the novel I needed to read.  I was drawn in & completely immersed.  For the hours it to complete the reading, I was transported outside myself & my grief, traveling down 59 & trying to solve two murders.

Locke’s characters are well drawn, the plot so well crafted that my immersion in solving the intertwining mysteries of deaths in a small town was not enough to predict all the details of the final solution.

Which made it enormously satisfying.

Locke left me wanting more, eager to read the second volume of this series.  Literally, she left me hanging.  In a good way.

I am picking up Heaven, my Home from the library this week.

As always, thank you, Cate.

For anyone interested in this wonderful read, or just in the blues:  check out Lightnin’ Hopkins’ Bluebird Blues on YouTube or anything with his name attached.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=muYBCO9YYNo

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6JU2oQPCmB4


Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Revisiting "Thoughts About Necks Turned Scarlet"

 

Photo by Rachel Halperin Plotkin El Paso August 3, 2019

Over the past few years. I have struggled to compose my thoughts on the endemic racism, resentment & ignorance that continues to haunt & threaten our nation, our world & our souls.

In the aftermath of the October 2018 assault on the Jews attending Shabbat services at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, my childhood friend, Betsy Davis posted the following: 

Growing up in El Paso and living a half a short block from Temple Mount Sinai, I always felt blessed to have the diversity of friends. Going to temple on Friday night, being in a home honoring the sabbath, and learning and understanding the Jewish traditions broadened my understanding of religion. I always admired the close bonds and shared customs of the Jewish people. I do have to admit I was even a little jealous that Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur allowed my friends time away from school to watch the World Series.   I cannot imagine not having these friendships because of a religious difference. My heart and love is with you all.

 

A discussion enued among El Paso peeps & I thought, not for the first time, but with a different perspective, about the trajectory of my life.  A life that lead me from Dallas to El Paso & from El Paso to Houston to Washington DC & back to Houston.

As I thought about how my life has moved, I recalled something from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power.  It is a book I keep reading – composed of eight essays published in The Atlantic, one for each year of Obama’s presidency, preceded by the author’s notes looking back at each essay, each year & at himself.

Coates employs history, personal experience & interviews to discuss what it was like growing up as a black child in a segregated world.  Specifically, about what it was like for those growing up in a segregated working to middle class black community.

In a world with little or no interaction with whites.  Where everyone was the same & skin did not define you. 

Coates’ narrative & my friend’s post merged together in my thoughts.

For the first twelve years of my life, I grew up in segregated world.  In segregated white neighborhoods.  Where everyone was the same & color did not define you.

Because we did not experience difference.

What we did not know, because we were too young, was that color did define us.  We were all born with a skin that placed us in a position of privilege.

The only black person in the first twelve years of my life was the woman who cared for me while my father Jack attended Texas A&M & my mother Jean worked for the telephone company.  She once brought her granddaughters with her.  Both of whom joined me on my swing set & explained that green flies would one day engulf me.  Or, at least bite me.

For the first twelve years of my life, outside of my caregiver & her granddaughters, I never knew a person of any color than my own.  I never knew a person of any religion but my own.   Different denominations, but all Protestant Christians.  I never knew any Jews.

I never heard anyone speak any language but English.

Moving from Dallas to El Paso expanded & enriched my life.  My entire world was rewritten & rearranged in that landscape of desert & mountains & sunsets. 

The landscape was so very different from Dallas & east Texas.  At first the desert felt empty the mountains made me nervous.  I felt barren & closed in.

Because our house was under construction, we rented a house on Palo Alto, a walkable distance from our final destination on De Leon.

On Palo Alto, I met people with exotic last names like Paredes.  I met the Catholic family at the end of the block, living with half a dozen children in a house not much larger than our three-bedroom rental.   Across the street was a family whose first born was a little person. 

I got shot in the leg with a BB gun on Palo Alto.  I heard Spanish for the first time in my life on Palo Alto.

That summer, between church & the eclectic residents of Palo Alto, the move to our house on De Leon & endless hours at the neighborhood pool, I met & made friends who young people who just happened to be Jewish.

It was the late sixties & early seventies.  So much of what happened during those times eventually formed the person I was destined to be – the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam war, the Women’s Movement, the fight for the right of eighteen- year-olds to vote.

All while living in El Paso.

What once felt empty & barren & confining evolved – I discovered the beauty of the desert & felt the comfort, the protection, of the mountains. 

Our move to Houston, a city my father Jack once announced he would never move to because of the heat & humidity, opened another world, another reality.

Houston was flat, so wet I felt that I was drowning with every breath, so open that I felt exposed & vulnerable.

There were no sunrises or sunsets serving as gifts of wonder & calm.

We moved into a rural county bordering Houston in what is now one of the most diverse counties in the country.  It was not so diverse when we moved.

But it was the county that first inaugurated my awareness of having lived in a segregated society. 

In El Paso, it rarely dawned on me that my friends of Mexican heritage were Other to me.  In my naivete, it never dawned on me that we were not of the same race.

In El Paso, I believed that every person defined as black was a potential Martin Luther King, that my Jewish & Mexican friends were not Other. I did not recognize the kind of Difference I came to experience at my new high school.

It was a difficult & life altering experience.  And I was totally ignorant of the hierarchy & division along racial lines within John Foster Dulles High School.

The house that Jack & Jean built was not quite done when we arrived, so we lived, along with two other neighbors, at a motel in Houston, just outside Fort Bend county.

Every morning Jean dropped us off in front of the school.  And every day I faced minions of black students who cut me no slack. 

Eventually, the crowd crowned Weinie Legs.  And every time I walked past, trying to find a space safe from that coronation, I wondered why they did not like me.

In truth, I was very thin – perhaps I really did have weinie legs.  But the reaction to my presence confused me.

After a few days of taunts, I wandered into a patio.  Where all the Mexican students gathered before school. 

I thought, these kids are familiar.  But no one was particularly interested in hanging out with me.  And I was too wrapped up in feeling alone, taunted as Weinie Legs to walk up & bravely introduce myself.

Eventually, I gave up.  On everyone, including myself.  I found a bench in a breezeway & spent the time before the opening bell reading.

Then a week or so later, in Charlotte Moore’s English class, my classmate who sat in front of me, who checked every day to make sure I had both a pen & pencil, paper & the required texts turned around & said:

Jaki, you need to leave the bench & come inside the cafeteria with us.

Us.  Inside with Us.

Us included a very pale majority, interspersed with Mexicans & blacks who had successfully integrated into the majority.  Athletes, band members, Honors class students.

Navigating my new reality was not without challenges. 

In May of my senior year, dismayed, discouraged & defiant, I wrote an op-ed for the Viking Shield.

Recently, in the process of preparing for foundation work, my sister Janet found a black case fraught with treasures from the past.

Including a faded, yellowed copy of the May 9, 1972 Viking Shield.

While I remember the day it was published, I no longer remember exactly how it came to be  published.  I was not on the Shield staff.  I think I submitted it as a letter to the editor.

It was titled My Thoughts About Necks Turned Scarlet, with an accompanying cartoon & took up half of page 3.

Jaki Jean was verbose even then.

Caption reads:  “Hey!  Doesn’t she know he’s BLACK !”

 

Reading that 18-year-old Jaki Jean was both difficult & enlightening.  But in her text, I recognized the beginnings of my personal mantra:

Union without loss of Self, Integration without Assimilation, Difference without Dominance.  Inclusion.

I remember that May 9th, after the paper was distributed.  I was genuinely trepidatious about its reception.  I was an idealist living in a reality I believed unnecessary.  I wanted a world where Us was inclusive, not exclusive.  Where Us was diverse.

That May 9th, as I stood at my locker to retrieve books for the next class, a young woman of color approached me & asked if I was Jaki Ettinger.

When I told her I was, she hugged me & said Thank you.  I never knew that white people felt or thought like me.

She was not the only black classmate to reach out to me.  A dozen classmates gathered behind her, waiting to talk to me.  There were tears & smiles, hugs & handshakes, introductions.

In that moment, I realized I was not alone.  And I knew that the hope I felt crossed racial barriers.  Even in a reality defined by skin tone & difference.

I also realized that sometimes it only takes starting a conversation to find common ground.

Moving from El Paso to that not quite yet diverse county outside Houston changed my life, widened my world & enriched my experience.

Just as El Paso changed me.

Anyone who was born in or called El Paso home understands its unique & welcoming community.  It was true when I lived there, forging out my belief system, & it is true now. 

It never occurred to me when I lived in El Paso that a white supremacist, anti-Mexican,  would travel across the state to retaliate for an imagined invasion & infestation from Mexico & slaughter 23 people, wounding almost two dozen others.

We do have an infestation in this country.  But not one brought here by immigrants from across our southern border or our northern, eastern & west borders.

It comes from within.  It is who we are as a people.  And as human beings.

It is endemic, deeply drilled into our collective cultural conscious & memory.  From our very beginnings.  It is immoral, divisive, & destructive. 

The true infestation is comprised of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, ignorance, prejudice, fear of & the need to dominate the Other.  All fueled & legitimized by the rhetoric of the current leader of the free world.

I never envisioned that I would lose that moment of hope from 1972.

In these perilous times, I am not sure I can hold onto my youthful hope for change.  But I refuse to abandon my belief that difference is something to be embraced, not a call for exclusion.  It is our strength.

We will need all of that strength to ignite hope & work for a world that embraces diversity & difference.






Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Jaki Jean on Jean

 

Jaki Jean on Jean

 


On Sunday, August 23rd, I went to wake up my mother so we could watch online services at Sugar Creek Baptist Church, as we did every Sunday morning.  She looked as if she was sleeping, her eyes closed. 

But Jean was gone.  She died peacefully sometime during the early morning hours.

It was a moment I was not yet prepared to face.  A moment neither I nor Jean’s home health care worker expected at this time. 

Over Labor Day weekend, we put Jean’s ashes to rest next to our daddy, Jack.  It was a simple, lovely graveside service, & exactly what Jean wanted. 

Jean was born in Van Zant County, at home on her parents’ farm near Canton, Texas.  The youngest of nine, she was the last surviving of the original siblings created by Rush & Luna Sims.  She was preceded in the journey to eternity by her husband Jack & his parents John & Helen, her son John Simpson, her parents Rush & Luna, her three brothers – Ronald, Mansel & Edsel - & her five sisters – Lorine, Alyne, Janette, Melba & Barbara.

She is survived by myself & my sister Janet Susan, our brother Jason Alexander, her grandsons Nicholas Jordan, Samuel Jean & John Alexander, her granddaughters Felicia Marie, Emily Kate & Sarah Jane, her great-grandson John Timothy & a myriad of nieces & nephews & extended family.

Over the years, especially during our journey together leading to that Sunday morning, Jean talked about life on the farm, about her parents & siblings, her friends & neighbors.  Sharing a bed with her sisters, listening to her mother read them books from the library, the time when her sister Alyne gave her a store bought dress – the first Jean ever owned.  About the years when Alyne was her teacher in a one room schoolhouse.  Jean would finish her work & then proceed to complete the work of the grade above her & was allowed to skip a year of school.

About stealing watermelons from a neighbor’s field, dinners with fried chicken & hoping that as her daddy filled each plate, her plate would have a drumstick.  And the conversations with her parents when she decided to marry a divorced man with a child.

Our mother was beautiful, fierce & kind, witty & creative, passionate & devout.  She helped me raise two sons & stood by & with my sister & brothers as they raised their children.  She was there as each of us faced challenges & disappointments.  She celebrated every birth, every accomplishment, every victory.

Jean never stopped reading, never lost her thirst to learn.  She took college courses at a local community college & made the Dean’s List every semester, she took art lessons, she took continuing education courses for her job as an insurance claims processor, she learned to belly dance.  (And performed for us – in costume.)  Both Jean & Jack were readers & Jean made sure each of her children spent time reading.

She never lost her sense of humor or her ability to zero in to the center of the note of a matter.  Or her interest in the world, in the present or in history.

Jean’s faith was steadfast, she never stopped reading the Bible.  When a visiting pastor brought her a copy of Max Lucado’s Fearless, she was hooked in the same way she had been hooked by the multiple mystery series we once followed together.

Jean was 85 years old – her life here was a long, productive & giving one.   I wanted her to stay a while longer.  A selfish wish on my part.  I needed her.  In many ways more than she needed me.

On the last full day of Jean’s life here, she called me in for two discussions.  The first was about our nation & its future, a subject of great importance to her.  Every time a minister or a friend from church visited & asked if there was something specific that she wanted to pray for, she replied, Pray for our nation.

That Saturday before she left, she said:

Donald Trump is trying to take everything away from us.

I told her that we had a super power – our right to vote him out of office.  I assured her that our mail-in ballots would arrive & we would fill them out immediately & send them in.

(Over the past weeks, I cannot help thinking that Jean must be just a little pissed off that she did not get to send in that ballot.)

Later that evening, she called for me (meaning she blew the whistle on the lanyard around her neck) & told me:


One of my sons came to visit me.  He wants to spend the night in this house.

 

When I asked which son, she said I don’t know, he didn’t say. 

I thought she had awakened from a nap & remembered a dream.  Or that it was another hallucination, common with Parkinson’s patients.

So I explained that her eldest son John was in Heaven with Daddy & all our family members who were there too.  I assured her that her youngest child Jason was upstairs in his room.  I suggested it was a dream.

The next day, after Jean’s body was gone, I called my dear friend Muriel.  From the very first of my journey with Jean, Muriel has been my advisor, my sounding board, my supporter & my touchstone.  Muriel took her own journey with her mother Daisy, & guided me as I traveled with Jean.

I texted Muriel that morning.  We had been in daily touch – she knew that Jean had an upper respiratory infection & a UTI & that I was navigating the health care labyrinth.  I had shared the story of Jean’s dream / hallucination,

When I called her, Muriel said I knew what you were going to say before I opened the text.

Puzzled, I asked her how.  And when she answered, I understood:

Because her son came to her.

I can’t explain it, but I have always known that it would be my brother John who would come for Jean. 

Years ago, when Jean’s friend Marilee Marks asked If you could choose which of your children you would spend the rest of your life with, who would you choose? 

Jean answered John.  I have never been able to fathom why she told me that story – I was still in high school & a little pissed she did not pick me. 

It was John who came & stayed the night with her, who helped her let go, who led her home.

My journey with Jean isn’t over.  She is too much a part of me, of who I am, of who I need to become. 

The scripture I asked my sister to have read at Jean’s service was from 1 Corinthians (First Corinthians, not One Corinthians – that whole Two Corinthians thing infuriated her), because it was the way our mother lived her life:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.

 

Jean is at peace, without pain or limitations or frustration.  As promised, Love & her Faith never failed her.




Friday, September 11, 2020

Remembering that morning 19 years ago . . .

 



This morning, after watching the coverage of the anniversary of a day that forever changed our country, I received an email from a friend.  A friend I love, with whom I share many values – faith, family, community.

And with whom I am on the opposite side of the aisle, whose truth differs drastically from what I believe.  A friend who loves me although there are truths upon which we will never agree.

The email read:

God bless America & United We Stand as we remember the heroes of 9/11 and the cowardly unprovoked attack from Radical Islamic Terrorists.

It is true that our country was attacked.

It is true that Americans came together in many ways that day & the months after.  It is also true that some Americans began to draw lines – to shun & blame all Muslims as complicit in a horror planned & played out by a small, radical segment of Islam.

But on this day as we remember those first responders who gave & risked their lives, as we remember those we lost & their families, should our focus be on the idea that “Radical Islamic Terrorists” attacked our country?

We have been attacked in the years since that day – but not just by those radicalized by a fringe group claiming to follow the tenets of Islam.

Today we are attacked from within. 

Not by radicalized followers of Islam, but by groups that claim white supremacy as a God given right, by groups who cannot & refuse to accept difference without feeling threatened.  By groups who seek to destroy our institutions & bring about a racially charged civil war.

By individuals radicalized by home grown radical philosophy – individuals who attack synagogues, mosques, churches, shopping malls – all in the quest to restore a non-existent world without color or difference.

What is it we should take away from the roll call of names at Ground Zero?

Today was not about those who attacked us or their motives.

Today’s anniversary of September 11th, 2001, was about remembering those names & all the names of the first responders & ordinary citizens who lost their lives saving people they didn’t know.  People of all shades.

This anniversary was about remembering what we lost & how coming together gave us the strength to survive that loss.  It was about moments of silence & prayer.

So I prayed the same prayer today that I sent the Lord last night during the moment of silence prior to the Texans vs. Chiefs football game.

That in this moment, when the threat to our democracy & our survival is as great as it was 19 years ago, the Lord will move His people to come together & choose to follow Christ & vote for hope rather than division & fear.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Jaki Jean on Reading, & Reacting to American Dirt




Before the reality of COVID-19’s threat to our lives, I told my friend Cate Poe that I would read & share my thoughts on Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt once the library notified me that my hold was next in line.

COVID-19 closed libraries & when my local library “reopened,” it was only for drop up & curbside pick-up. 

Initially, my choice of this novel was based on a review – before the controversy it inspired emerged full force.  It was depicted as the “definitive immigration tale.”

As a “Grapes of Wrath for our time.”  -- Don Winslow

The reaction to this novel is multi-faceted.  It is a migrant story written in an American white woman’s voice (with an occasional gratuitous Spanish word in italics).  Every character’s thoughts & stories are written through that filter.

Criticism of the novel raises the question of cultural appropriation, the use of clichés & stereotypes.  And the question of who gets to tell which stories.

The controversy brings to light the reality that the publishing world is more likely to publish & promote a novel about the experiences of people of color – written by white authors than works by authors of color.  By those who have actually lived those experiences & narratives.

I approached this novel fully aware of the controversy & my reading was filtered by it.

Additionally, I approached it as someone who has, over the years, listened to first-hand accounts of crossing the southern border in desperation.

As I read American Dirt, it was those voices of those who had actually made the journey & survived in the background.

While I understand that reading any novel involves a willing suspension of disbelief, Cummins stretches that suspension until it breaks.

There are too many moments in the plot that lacked authenticity.  And too many moments when the language & symbolism is so overwrought with meaning that it is exhausting as a reader.

There is our heroine, Lydia.  An educated woman, a business owner, married to a journalist whose focus in on exposing the cartels & their leaders.  Taken in by Javier, a ruthless cartel leader over poetry & literature & chocolate.

Until he orders her entire family slaughtered at her niece’s Quinceanara  celebration.

The entire romanticizing of Javier is offensive.  His complexity – a loving father, a reader, a sensitive man on one side & a man of violence & unmitigated cruelty on the other.

I doubt that any victim of a cartel would find anything socially or culturally redeeming about a cartel monster.

There is Sebastian, Lydia’s journalist husband, who does not prepare a plan to protect his family as he writes article after article exposing the cartels & their leaders.

I won’t even go into Luca, Lydia’s extraordinarily gifted son or Lorenzo, a member of Javier’s cartel who follows Lydia on her journey to the border under orders from Javier.

Lydia’s journey is not particularly fraught with danger or threats.  Her crossing of the border did not ring true to me.  It was too clean, too neat, too conveniently enabled by random acts of kindness by strangers.

The novel ends after Lydia & Luca & their two young companions have settled into life in Maryland.  With no mention of the journey from the border to the east coast of the United States.

Outside of mentioning that Lydia works cleaning houses & Luca cannot compete in a geography contest because he is undocumented, there is nothing about what truly happens after Lydia crosses the border illegally.

The journey immigrants, migrants & refugees take does not end at crossing.  It is a grueling, challenging, frustrating experience to obtain papers & permits.  The path to citizenship is not easy or without cost.

Not to mention culture shock, the experience of displacement, & the mixed reception immigrants & migrants & refugees face.

Cummins chooses to end the novel in an Epilogue.  A rushed ending to a story that in many ways began again once the border was crossed.

What begins with an incredible act of violence ends with references to two texts.

In the Epilogue, Lydia buys a book of poetry from the local bookstore.  It contains Pablo Neruda’s “Song of Despair.”

The book is water in the desert. It costs
twelve dollars, but Lydia buys it anyway. She keeps it tucked into the waistband of her pants where she can feel it against her skin.

The novel closes:

In their new home, Lydia rereads Amor en los
tiempos del cólera, first in Spanish, then again in English. No one can take this from her. This book is hers alone.

Why?  Why those texts?  Have I missed a brilliant self-reflective weaving of the nature of text itself?  Is it significant that Lydia stocks books she knows no one will ever buy until Javier comes along & buys them?  What do either of the texts by Neruda & Gabriel Garcia Marquez that the novel tell us about the narrative, about the plot, about Lydia’s journey?

Why American Dirt?  Dirt as in earth or soil?  Dirt as something to be tossed aside, thrown away – filth, excrement?  Dirt as in moral filth & corruption?  Or is it nothing more than an overwrought with meaning reference to American soil & what it represents? 

If I were in a classroom, studying this novel, I would no doubt explore these questions in preparation to write a paper. 

But I am not in a classroom.  

In its way, American Dirt is a compelling novel.  But it is not the definitive immigration, or the definitive migration tale of this moment in time.



Now, I can let go of American Dirt, & await notification from the library that I can pick up Allende's A Long Petal by the Sea . . .