Sunday, September 25, 2016

American History, the Great Migration, and Grandma Burnie

From the first pages of Laura Ingall's Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods, I was hooked on pioneer stories. I loved to read about old-time frontier families crossing the country in a covered wagon, homesteaders, Indians, and girls in calico and sunbonnets. Since I grew up in Washington state, social studies class and school field trips reinforced those themes. They featuring tales of Lewis and Clark and the Oregon Trail.

Either missing altogether or mentioned without emphasis were stories of a migration that began a few decades after the covered wagon days came to a close. The Great Migration did just as much to shape our country, probably more. But I'm learning about it now.

You see, here in South Carolina, those Lewis and Clark stories don't do so much to capture the imagination. Not like tales of the day in 1865 when General Sherman and his troops burned down two-thirds of our town... and other important events from the Revolutionary War, the Civil War (sometimes called by other names), Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights movement.

And probably everybody knows something about the Great Migration. It was a series of several waves between 1910 and 1970 during which more than six million African Americans moved from their rural lives in the South to in the cities of the Northeast, Midwest, and West to take up industrial jobs (starting with WWI war factories). They were driven away by crop failures and Jim Crow laws, and drawn by job offers and the hope of a great new life in places that seemed to be Promised Lands: Chicago. Philadelphia. Detroit.
"Around 1916, when the Great Migration began, a factory wage in the urban North was typically three times more than what blacks could expect to make working the land in the rural South." (
They may have escaped sharecropping, segregation, and the Ku Klux Klan, but they still faced prejudice and discrimination. There were culture clashes, housing shortages, and race riots. But there were also things like the Harlem Renaissance and the rise of black civic culture. The early waves created thriving black communities in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Indianapolis, with later settlements growing in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Phoenix, Seattle, and Portland. No longer was the African American experience a rural one, but now, much more, an urban one. The migration far exceeded the number of Irish, Italians, or other immigrant communities whose stories are part of our national narrative.
"By 1970, when the Great Migration ended, its demographic impact was unmistakable: Whereas in 1900, nine out of every 10 black Americans lived in the South, and three out of every four lived on farms, by 1970 the South was home to less than half of the country’s African-Americans, with only 25 percent living in the region’s rural areas." (Learn more from
My interest in the Great Migration was piqued in learning about a local, 110-year-old African-American lady who recently passed away. She lived through all that, as explained by an SC House Resolution offering her birthday congratulations. Burnie, a sharecropper's daughter, dropped out of school in the fourth grade when her mom died; she had to help take care of her siblings and work on the farm. Married, widowed, twice. Raised children and buried some. When the land could no longer support them, Burnie and her family moved north in 1955 to seek a better life. She worked as a housekeeper in a few DC hotels. Didn't return to the South until she was an old woman. Never stopped praying, says a brief video on our local news.

An obituary states that Burnie Montgomery was survived by four of her children, 21 grandchildren, 46 great grandchildren, and 50 great-great-grandchildren, among others.

Added to my reading list the best-seller The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration by Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Need to Relax? Take the Train

After a busy week—including three days attending a conference at a nearby Christian college—followed by a busy weekend—with a 5K run and “afterparty” Friday night, three festival events downtown on Saturday, church, and two trips to the grocery store—I was ready to chill.

We found a soporific ending to our Sabbath with a dose of something soothing on Netflix: the Norwegian “Slow TV” program that takes viewers on the lovely train trip of more than seven hours from Bergen to Oslo. Although, just as I might on a real train, I indulged in a little multi-tasking (the Sunday NYT crossword puzzle), I couldn’t keep my eyes open past Voss.

See How a 7-hour train ride started a Norwegian TV revolution (CBC).

Interested? Take a look, or pull it up in higher resolution on Netflix. If you don't fancy the all-black portions from when the train went through long tunnels, find the edited version on YouTube as well.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

When Life Goes Off-Script

One of the things that seems to really increase post-traumatic stress (says Hubs who studies these things) is that the traumas we experience break our narratives. They don’t fit in with what we tell ourselves and what we tell others about ourselves… the definitive stories of who we are and what are lives are about and how the world is supposed to work. And many of us really want to think of ourselves as mature and healthy people, good people living good lives in a basically good world. But then bad stuff happens and it doesn’t fit.

Trauma shakes us and messes up our stories and with them our sense of self. Our sense of justice or truth is violated. It's hard to accept. Sometimes we can’t find a redemptive thread in the experience to reconcile it with the whole.

We may not be able or willing to let go of or loosen our hold on our narratives and let them develop another direction that fits better in with reality rather than wishful thinking.

We may not know where to find a story worth telling, one that’s not so bright and shiny that it doesn’t ring true, nor so dark and hopeless that it deflates us and leaves us living lives devoid of purpose and meaning.

If we can’t change the narratives we started out with when trauma comes or find a way to make sense of that trauma and see how it’s part of the story, we may get stuck.

I wrote about this some years back, quoting a friend who explained that most definitions of health include an organism’s ability to make continuous adjustments to the stresses of its environment: resilience. A healthy person is able to change with life’s circumstances and recover from difficult situations. We can let go of an inadequate narrative and let the story of our lives and our understanding of what has happened to us change.

“People who walk closely with God know this kind of healthy. They know that God is the source of their ability to adjust,” she added. The gospel can provide a narrative that recognizes and acknowledges the power of evil at work in our world and in our lives, but also providing answers, strength, the promise of God’s presence and redemptive power, and an affirmation of our sense of and longing for what is good, right, and true. I know I have found it a much stronger, resilient narrative than what I started with.


All this came to mind while reading an interesting book this week.

In A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War, author Joseph Loconte explores what two young men suffered during World War I and its aftermath, living through terrors that cost them many of their closest friends and trying to find something to hold onto in the years of disillusionment that followed. The idealism that propped up the idea that civilization was just going to keep getting better and better, and that this war was going to end all wars (and quickly) and usher in a season of peace and prosperity, well, that was shattered. It was as if the world, the world most people though they knew, had come to an end.

While hundreds of “war novels” in the 1920s and 1930s characterize all war as savage and absurd, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis wrote epic tales that tell a different story, a story influenced by their experiences in the trenches but ultimately validating the possibility of things like a good death and the hope of a new world beyond this one. And Loconte makes the case that this is exactly what they were trying to do.

Though (like Lewis and Tolkien) Loconte often leaves readers to draw their own parallels, it seems clear that the normlessness that characterizes our society today is not unlike what Europe experienced in the twenties and thirties. People who still hold onto a sense of right and wrong and purpose, who believe in sin and sacrifice and judgment, may be mocked and dismissed now, but no worse than they were then. Consider what Virginia Woolf said in a letter quoted by Loconte, after a fellow intellectual, T.S. Elliot, was baptized and confirmed in the Church of England in 1927:
“I have had a most shameful and distressing interview with dear Tom Eliot, who may be called dead to us all from this day forward. He has become an Anglo-Catholic believer in God and immortality, and goes to church. I was shocked. A corpse would seem to be more credible than he is. I mean, there’s something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God.”

Sunday, September 11, 2016

What if everyone had an ocean?

For a big chunk of my childhood we lived on an island. The waterfront was never far away; any drive around Vashon was punctuated by glimpses of Puget Sound. An easy bike ride would take me to the beach or fishing pier (though riding back home might be too much for little legs). Seattle, where we lived next, was much the same.

Soon, though, life took me further inland, first to college a vexing hour-long drive from the Pacific (but at least surrounded by broad, beautiful rivers heading that direction), and then to Colorado, where the nearest beach was 1000 miles distant and nearly every body of water was a man-made reservoir.

I pouted. No water? "We should flood Nebraska and put in an ocean!" I quipped, privately pondering whether I'd prefer having one to the east of me, for sunrises, or west (so long, Utah), where it would have to be on the other side of the mountains, but better suited for sunsets.

Never did I really think that, short of massive climate change, such a thing might happen.

Turns out that half a dozen US development companies have been been formed around the idea of inland seas. Well, something like that: a chain of surf parks. 

It's not about strolling on the beach, soothed by rhythms of waves on the pebbles and changing tides, or birds, bonfires, and boats. Such things, though widely appreciated, might not be able to provide the financial drive to support this move.

But competitive sports might. With surfing set to become an Olympic sport at the 2020 Games in Tokyo, the appeal of acres and acres of perfectly designed waves may find its audience.    

To learn more, see For Developers, the Surf Is Always Up (New York Times, via Eugene Register Guard) or visit Inland Surfer.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Ways to Keep from Keeping up with the Times

Meet 13-year old Morgan Pozgar, 2007 winner
of the LG National Texting Championship.
It may be part of why so many beginning writers try their hand at memoirs about their early days (as vulnerable as that can make you feel) or historical fiction (which require a ton or research, or leaves you open to a great deal of criticism). Writing about contemporary life is harder than it seems. That's because the world has changed so very much, and it doesn't seem to stop!

How do you keep the language or behavior in your young adult novel from sounding like they came from 20, 30 years ago, when you were a young adult yourself? How do you write a kid's book that reflects the world today's kids actually live in? And if you do happen to get the contemporary references right, is your book going to sound out-of-date before it gets out of its first printing?

Movie making would be even harder in this respect. Pour millions of dollars into a piece that before you know it, attracts jeers from viewers or would-be viewers who make fun of the clothes, hair, language .... and the technology.

Novelist Ann Patchett doesn't like technology. And especially she doesn't like the way the ubiquity of technology screws up her intended plot lines. She doesn't want readers or reviewers exclaiming, "Why didn't she just Google that?" "Why didn't he text her and tell her where he was?" Because it would kill the suspense, wouldn't it?

So she writes the story the way she wants to, but has people's cell phones lost or stolen, their batteries and computers die... whatever it takes to get magic techno solutions out of the way. Patchett is a Luddite herself, perhaps unsurprisingly. On the side, she owns and helps run a brick-and-mortar bookstore in Nashville, TN (and refuses to upgrade her flip phone).

I just read and enjoyed her book State of Wonder, carefully set off the grid in the Amazon jungle. That isolation factor itself plays a significant role in creating the novel's tension. I read it from the glowing rectangle of my iPad, of course, though characters in the book pass around carefully plastic-wrapped hardback copies of a set of Dickens.

See Author Ann Patchett Talks about How She Avoids Modern Tech in State of Wonder (Washington Post).