Let Me Tell You a Story My Dad Told Me About a Girl Who’s a Bird and a Dad Who’s a Tree

Oh, you guys, a while back my dad brought me a faded print-out of a story he had written for me when I was a little girl. As far as I know, it’s the only copy. He wanted me to have it because of Flock. And it’s the story of a little girl who’s a bird who goes around to an alligator, a toad, and a tree and asks if they’re her father.

I can’t be sure, but I feel fairly confident this is the kind of story a man writes after about the 24th time through Are You My Mother? and he decides it’s not nearly weird or charming enough, so he’s going to write something better.

And I kind of love that all the things my dad imagines himself to be in the story have similar coloring.

Anyway, he brought me this story and I was just blown away. And then I lost it! I couldn’t find it anywhere in the house and I was just heartsick about it.

But last night, as I was brushing my teeth, I began to wonder if I was smart enough to have stuck it in my closet “for safe keeping.”

And thank the gods, there it was.

Settling

This morning, I was completely in my head on my walk. Not even paying attention to anything but my own thoughts. And I had just turned around when I was like “Did I not go up the hill?” when I realized “well, I must have, because, here I am, coming down it.” But I didn’t feel out of breath or feel my heart racing or anything. I just walked up the hill like it was flat land. It felt good.

Since there are two other Harpe brothers, I have two more stories about women trying to figure out what to do with them and their skulls. I’m trying to sell them, but I’ve kind of decided, depending on how things go with Tom Under the Tree, just in terms of production and such, I might ask Lesley Patterson-Marx if she’d like to do something together. I love her stuff and I love how she gets how the past and present are tied together.

I mean, look at these things: Mother of Known Things and Mother of Mysteries. I look at those and I feel like I’m looking at some secret truth of the world. They’re amazing.

Hurray for Stories

On my walk this morning I was thinking that seeing your story in someone else’s formatting really is one of the nicest things in the world. I fret a lot about whether my stuff is any good, and then, there it is, in someone else’s formatting and it lets me finally see if I like it or not.

One thing that I really like about “Zilpha Murrell” is that I can see how I’m becoming a better writer in it. I don’t know what all my own writing shortcomings are (maybe you don’t until you learn how to fix them?), but I’m definitely getting better at holding the reader’s attention how I want it held for as long as I want it held. Pacing, I guess. I’m getting much better at pacing.

I’m also lately, and obviously, if you’ve been trudging along here, obsessed with which stories get told and passed along and why.

But I feel like I should say that, I now feel pretty confident that Zilpha Murrell wasn’t ever a prostitute. I don’t think we can blame that part of the myth on Virgil Stewart–it seems to have come a little later–but it’s from that same made-up vein. But it is kind of cool to see that, in some versions, Zilpha is the one actually running the Mystic Clan, not her son. Which, I guess, explains how it went on even when he was in prison.

Poor Dog

Both the Butcher and I slept in, so the dog didn’t get his walk. I’ve been sleeping like shit for a long time, but I’m finally sleeping better, so I guess I’m trying to catch up on it.

I was hoping my medical bills would all come in at once, but you’d be amazed at how they can drag out. I mean, I have a deductible. Certainly, at this point, I’ve met it. Can’t I just pay someone that whole lump sum and get on with my life?

I had a long email exchange with the Professor yesterday, because I miss the fuck out of her and rely on her to explain my life back to me.

But I admitted to her that I’m not doing fine. I’m not not doing fine. I don’t need sympathy or understanding (yet, though who knows?). I just am not doing fine. I feel fine, but it’s a fine with no foundation. I don’t feel like I’m standing on solid ground. And yet, I feel like not being fine is inconvenient. Like how can I not be fine? Everything turned out fine. I should be grateful or relieved. And I will be, but I’m just not there yet.

I’m also deeply suspicious that some people think that, if they give me lots of tasks and things to do, that they’re helping because they’re giving me a purpose or a reason to live or something. I don’t know. I know they mean well. I experience it as overwhelming and patronizing. And since I haven’t worked through how I feel about all this, it makes me feel like I’m being lead away from important, if unpleasant, work I need to do in order to make sense of all of this and assigned tasks that make their lives easier. “For my own good.”

I keep looking at the incision and waffling back and forth between whether it’s large or not. Sometimes, I look at it and I’m like “Oh, good, it’s not that big.” and then sometimes I put my finger next to it to measure it and I think, isn’t a slit along the side of your boob that stretches over half the length of your boob large?

I don’t yet know how I feel about things. I want time to just be alone with myself and figure it out.

I mean, at the least, I used to have a curve that fit into the natural resting shape my hand makes and now I have a long, flat stretch.

My landscape has shifted. I need to get used to the new view.

Things Drag Out

I had thought I’d learned the kind of patience you need to be a writer–waiting, always waiting, to hear “no.” But there’s another kind of waiting, where people have said “yes,” but you’re waiting for the printer or the internationally famous superstar who doesn’t even know you exist, but who is, for convoluted reasons, holding things up or for the returned phone calls.

I’m having to learn a new kind of patience.

And lately I have been longing to have a church dinner, to walk into a cement basement painted light gray or white, with long folding tables covered in strangely fancy table cloths with a dish in my hands and we’ll all eat together.

It turns out that’s what I miss about not going to church. Eating with a large room full of people who care about me and who I care about.

Octobering It Up

I’m excited about this October. I’m going to tell you a story called “All Heart, No Brains.” It’s a story about Rufus, if our lives were a tall tale. It’s a genre I enjoyed writing in a lot. So, there is a dog in peril, but I promise you, no one dies. And I don’t have 31 parts. I just don’t have it in me with everything going on. So, it’s just going to run on the weekdays. But then, I do think I’ll have something nifty and special for you on the 31st, so it will all work out.

Plus, the story makes me laugh, so I think it will make you laugh, too.

1835

Keeping in mind that John Murrell gave this kind of speech to people he later murdered, if Stewart was telling the truth, or didn’t give this speech at all if Stewart was a big fat liar, liar pants-on-fire, it still fucking blows my mind. Here’s what Murrell was going to say to slaves as he attempted to incite them into a nation-wide rebellion:

We find the most vicious and wicked disposed ones, on large farms and poison their minds by telling them how they are mistreated, and that they are entitled to their freedom as much as their masters, and that all the wealth of the country is the proceeds of the black people’s labor; we remind them of the pomp and splendor of their masters, and then refer them to their own degraded situation, and tell them that it is power and tyranny which rivets their chains of bondage, and not because they are an inferior race of people. We tell them that all Europe has abandoned slaver, and that the West Indies are all free; and that they got their freedom by rebelling a few times and slaughtering the whites, and convince them, that if they will follow the example of the West India negroes, that they will obtain their liberty and become as much respected as if they were white, and that they can marry white women when they are all put on a level. In addition to this, get them to believe, that the most of people are in favor of their being free, and that the free States, in the United States, would not interfere with the negroes, if they were to butcher every white man in the slave-holding States.

I remain stunned to see someone so clearly articulate that the wealth of this country comes from black people’s labor in 1835. Even if they meant it to be evil and ridiculous.

Good vs. Good

What’s striking about the antebellum South is that there’s an informal definition of “good” (at least among white men) as being “that which is pleasing to God.” What was pleasing to God was knowable, because “good” white people were rewarded–literally rewarded with financial success. One’s fortunes rose and fell based on whether one was pleasing or displeasing God. You can see a lot of this playing out in Gordon Belt’s book in reverse, where Confederate soldiers were admonished to stop sinning so much in the camps so that the Confederacy could get back to winning.

So, in a very simple way, when a slave-owner took the opportunity to fuck a slave–in spite of her protestations, crying, and traumatized behavior afterwards (clues we expect “good” people to recognize now as being evidence that they’ve done something “not good” to someone else)–and he remained wealthy, he understood it as God giving the okay to that kind of behavior. After all, if it was a problem, God would have punished him, probably with financial difficulties.

And as Bridgett pointed out in the comments the other day, “good” men who feared putting their wives through pregnancy often found other people to “have sex with.” This was seen as a loving choice.

White men got to equate “goodness” with prosperity.

Slaves were supposed to equate “goodness” with obedience. Possibly everyone in the South was supposed to equate “goodness” with obedience with slaves supposed to be being obedient to their masters the way that slave masters were obedient to God, and everyone knew when they were being good, because there was a tangible measure of it–masters got rich, slaves got to live.

The thing that strikes me hardest about this arrangement, though, is that, when slaves talked about who was a good master, they never talked about a master who was overwhelmingly financially successful. It’s always about how the master treated his slaves.

The definition most of us accept as the definition of goodness is the slave’s definition–that one’s goodness is measured by how little misery you spread to others.

(Importantly, though, even slaves with good masters, by their own reckoning, wanted to be free. You could have “good” masters, comparatively speaking, and still think slavery was not good.)

I was browsing through Nietzsche and Hegel trying to decide if this is what they observed and I don’t really think so.

Whose Stories Get Heard and Whose Don’t

So, last night I stumbled across information that some of the descendants of Jackson’s slaves believe they are also descended from Jackson himself–that he “had an affair” with his slave, Hannah, and that, at the least, her daughter, Charlotte, is his child. Hannah’s an interesting person in that she did a few interviews before she died and she seemed quite delighted with being Jackson’s slave (she was there when both Andrew and Rachel died). Of course, actions speak louder than words and she did escape during the chaos of the Civil War, so one gathers it wasn’t “being a slave” that was so great, but that, if she had to be a slave anywhere, being a slave under (um, no pun intended) Jackson was the best bad option.

I am, of course, curious as to whether this can be substantiated.

On the other hand, I have now read a lot of Nashville histories. And it’s like Nashville spent from 1850-1880 just making shit the fuck up about our history. “Oh, remember when Jackson wiped out the Chickamauga at Running Water?” “Oh, yes, right. All gone. Every last one of them. Terrible tragedy.” And then people study that story of how Jackson wiped out the whole village of Running Water and jot down the names of the people killed there. And it gets passed along–those names of the dead–without anyone checking to see if the source of those names isn’t full of shit.

Like I thought White Man Killer died at Buchanan’s Station because all the history books say so, but it turns out he was just injured and that the U.S. government kept close tabs on him until he disappeared into an Arkansas swamp where he then reappears in Arkansas history. He’s not a hard guy to follow through primary sources. He didn’t die at Buchanan’s Station. That’s a fact. We just went with the legend instead.

So, here’s part of what I want to get at. At first glance, I’m inclined to believe these descendants. It’s not just one person saying this. It appears to be a pretty wide-spread family story.

But true or not, the fact that a great number of people believe it to be true and yet it can’t gain any traction in the general public’s imagination when “Yep, Jackson wiped out Running Water” (when we know Jackson didn’t lead that campaign and that captives were taken at Running Water because they flat out said that among their captives were Richard Finnelson’s wife and son) still does, tells you a lot about whose myths get to become public legend.

I Felt It

Okay, I had a chance this morning to give it a really good look. It’s about as long as my finger, just this straight line with a little bruising on either side. One end is near my arm pit the other closer to my nipple. It feels kind of hard, especially at the ends. And it’s very sensitive. The surgeon said that the hardness will go away after a long while. The incision strikes me both as being enormous and too small, but I think that’s just on account of its narrowness.

I got to sleep without a bra last night and, for the first time in two weeks, I slept really well.

I want to say something about how it felt to stand naked in front of my mom at this age, because I could not get dressed or undressed without help, or shower without help, or brush my own hair. How it made me feel so tenderly toward her to know that this is what she did for me when I was growing up and that this is what she would do for me, even now, when I needed it. But I don’t know how to put it into words.

I also want to say something about how much it meant to me, when I was hungry and I was convinced that there wasn’t anything to eat, I went to the fridge and found the last piece of the One Ton Lasagna or how much it meant to me that people called and came by and checked on me, even though I was a grouchy mess.

This blog is going to turn ten years old in a little over a week. And most of the good things in my life have come to me because of it. Because of you guys.

Let’s all get drunk, throw our arms around each other, vow we’ll see each other soon, even if we know we might never see each other again, and sing.

All is Well

I went back to the surgeon just now and it turns out that the reason the phyllodes tumor didn’t look quite how they expected during the biopsy is that it was just an ambitious fibroadenoma. And I have almost no scar. It’s just like a straight line _______. Well, longer, but that’s it. No stitches, no puffing. Just a long straight line _________________. I guess about like that. I don’t know. I’m not putting my boob to the screen to compare.

But the best news is that I don’t have to wear a bra to bed anymore! Because that is unpleasant in the summer.

The Year Life Had Other Plans

Each year kind of has a theme. Last year was “No, Not California!” and this year, I’ve decided is “But Life Had Other Plans.”

Not all in bad ways, either, just that a year ago, I wouldn’t have guessed that I’d be right here in many ways, though I rightly would have predicted I was sitting on the couch.

Hits

It irritates me so much, too, that everyone is like “Oh, Ray Rice! He’s so terrible.” and yet they’ll pass along quotes from Bill Hobbs.

Also, I guess I’ve read some good arguments for why people shouldn’t view the video, but I’ll also say this–when “sources” inside the NFL, who all mysteriously seem not to have seen the video before yesterday, were saying this summer that the video in the elevator gave more context and made what happened outside the elevator more understandable, when they were saying that the events in the elevator were why they could still stand by Rice and why the Ravens felt comfortable having a tweet talking about how Mrs. Rice apologized for her role in the altercation. This video was supposed to explain things.

So, those sick fuck liars made the elevator video an issue by making it an excuse for their unwillingness to do what decent people who just saw how he treated her afterwards thought should be done. I watched the video not to see what happened to her–I knew what happened to her–but to see if the surrounding events matched up with what I’d been told was on the video.

Those surrounding events did not. To put it mildly. And that’s on those sick fuck liars, who watched that video and then lied about what was on it so that they could keep their meal ticket on the field.

The Thing about Franklin

I think the thing that bothers me most about Isaac Franklin, which is both why I want him in my book and why I’m finding it really unsettling to have to ponder him as a human being, is that, as far as I can tell, he was “one of the good ones.” By the standards of his time, he was a respected businessman who, while occasionally upsetting the people of Natchez by leaving dead enslaved people all around the outskirts of town, was a lot of people’s preferred trader to do business with.

The other successful slave traders who were at Franklin & Armfield’s level–or at least who could reasonably aspire to be–had some really shady business practices that people at the time found shadier than Franklin & Armfield’s, a fact Franklin & Armfield regularly used to their advantage to increase their own sales.

In their own context, these were good businessmen and good people (which is why the University of the South took Armfield’s money) who, yes, had the distasteful job of slave trading, but aside from that. In other words, they had reputations similar to how we view used car salesmen. People kind of thought the job was icky and involved a level of them trying to pull one over on you, but success spoke for itself.

When white people in the South say that their slave-owning ancestors were good people, here’s the rub–if they’re telling the truth (and let’s not doubt that they are), a good person in the early 1800s would have, if he needed to, bought his slaves from Franklin & Armfield. That would have been the “ethical” choice.

And they seemed to have raped a lot of the female slaves that passed through their business. If you bought a woman from them, you likely bought their victim from them. The scale of their rape cult is just mind-boggling (can you have a three-person cult? I don’t know what other word to use here.) Franklin & Armfield sold about 1200 people a year. If half of them were women and they “only” raped half of those women, that’s still almost a rape for every day of the year. The very least you can say is that, if you fell into the clutches of Franklin & Armfield, you were going to witness a rape.

One place I read said that Franklin & Armfield controlled about 5% of the U.S. economy. A nickle of every dollar passed through their hands.

I don’t know.. I don’t know what I want to say, exactly, except for that we, here in Nashville, talk about slavery like the worst of it happened someplace else. And yet, if you want to see those Franklin & Armfield nickles up-close and personal, you can stroll around Belmont or drive to Suwanee.

The First Day Back, a Halftime Report

I have a little pain. I think in part just because I’m moving my right arm around a lot more than I have been. I also may have just a little PTSD about the wire in my boob experience, because my co-worker asked me how it went and I just both couldn’t talk about that part and couldn’t think of anything else to talk about.

I feel overwhelmed by how behind I am.

But oh well. I guess. Something about the whole thing makes me feel like I could use a real vacation, one where I go someplace other than my house and do something other than nothing.

Two Games?

I watched the Ray Rice video, the inside the elevator footage. It’s pretty amazing. She gets in one side of the elevator. He gets in the other. She’s clearly standing away from him. He reaches over to touch her, hit her, though possibly in a playful way–I mean, if the video ended there, you’d think it was playful. She turns to confront him, approaches him, and he knocks her out. Thus recontextualizing his initial contact with her as setting up his second hit better.

That you could watch that and give him two games off is mind-boggling.

That you could watch that and then watch his girlfriend apologizing for “her role” in the incident, when her role appears to be being unfortunate enough to run into his fist and give him two games off is horrific.

I hope he doesn’t someday kill her.

But the other thing I can’t wrap my head around is how there seemed to be this assumption that the video would never get out, that they could spin what happened in the elevator however they wanted, because no one would see it. And I get how that kind of shit happened even twenty years ago, but in this day and age?

In this day and age, can you really count on your misdeeds staying buried?

Chapter Three May Do Me In

Chapter Three is divided into three parts–the Harpes, John Murrell, and Isaac Franklin and John Armfield. Basically, if you ever cut open someone’s belly and dumped them in a creek, I have room for you in this chapter.

But Franklin is just such a sick fuck it’s kind of ruining the fun of the chapter for me. The research is just grueling. UNC has some of Franklin’s letters scanned in so that you can read them yourself without having to travel to North Carolina and, good god damn, it’s just so fucking… Like I was relieved when I couldn’t make things out, because his handwriting is so crappy.

And, on a more minor note, I swear, there’s no way to do even a tiny bit of research into John Murrell before you start to suspect he was framed. Not very well, but framed. Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure he was a “thief of horses and negroes,” but to the extent people claimed he was? No, that was a frame-up job by a guy I think was a great deal scarier in his own way. No one can put a body count on Murrell, but his “biographer” leaves a trail.

Historians, Hear My Plea

So, I’m working on the third chapter, which is now called “In Which Quite a Few People Get Sliced along the Belly, Stuffed with Rocks, and Thrown in Creeks.” And the point I want to make is that, while Indians did attack Nashville and while the Harpes were really evil and really did bad things, we also can’t ignore that their stories all start to have a certain shape–and not just the Harpes, but on into John Murrell and Isaac Franklin and Nathan Bedford Forrest. I’m trying to trace a narrative trope across historical (and, in John Murrell’s case, semi-historical) events in order to make the argument that there’s this kind of “ur story” that Nashville loves, which goes something like this:

Out there in the woods are some scary-ass people. You could be just minding your business in your own home or walking along the road or out on vacation and you’re going to run into a small band of them. They’ll seem fine, if very different than you, but you go a little further and you’re in deep shit. More of them are going to appear. They’re going to attack you and your group. People are going to get raped, killed, and, likely, you’re going to be assaulted with a blade, stuffed with rocks, and tossed in a river (hence the title). If you luck out, you may escape and may have some sort of revenge.

How powerful is this story? Ask yourself this–how closely does the plot to Deliverance hew to it?

But is it cool? I feel like it is–that you can say, “Yes, these things really happened” and acknowledge that the way they got told, what elements were played up and which were played down, is to give the incident the right shape so that it fits a preferred and expected narrative structure. And that I can then trace that narrative structure a hundred years or so.

But some part nags at me that maybe it’s unfair to facts to do this to them.

An Evening of Movies

First, I watched Thale, which is short and sweet and amazing. Maybe it’s because I’m emotional and I have all kinds of feelings about my parents coming down and being genuinely helpful and tender, but I cried at the end. I guess this is supposed to kind of be a creepy movie, but it’s more like a beautiful fairytale. Yet again, well done, Scandinavia. (Though, fair warning, one of the main characters is named Elvis, which, I suspect, in Norway isn’t funny, but it kind of colored how I saw the character.)

Then I watched The Punk Singer, which is a documentary about Kathleen Hanna. It’s really, really good. I was too isolated to have been plugged into the whole Riot Grrrl thing as it was happening and I kind of thought that I knew nothing about Kathleen Hanna, so I was really pleasantly surprised to discover how many of her songs I knew and to see how influential her–and her peers–had been on me, three or four or a million ripples removed from the actual impact. I don’t really have a huge punk rock influence, but I do believe that this world sucks and that the only way to survive it in any meaningful way is to band together with like-minded people and to make and do things that matter to you. Art, to me, is the court jester’s fuck you to the human condition.

So, yeah, I really liked it. Though it’s impossible to watch and to not wonder what the fuck is wrong with Courtney Love (though she’s mentioned very, very briefly) which I guess is why Netflix then recommends Hit So Hard, the documentary about Hole’s drummer, Patty Schemel. It’s also really good, but it’s heavy and I can’t quite shake the feeling the documentary gave me. It’s weird to finish a movie about a band you love and end up feeling like you wish almost every one in it’s lives could have gone better.

The Day the Whistles Cried

This afternoon, I read Betsy Thorpe’s The Day the Whistles Cried, which is about the Dutchman’s Curve accident, which was the worst train accident in history. It’s a quick read and really interesting. It’s arranged kind of like an episode of Law & Order. The first half is all about figuring out what happened and the second half is a courtroom drama about who’s to blame.

I’m thinking a lot about how to write about history in a way that’s interesting for people who aren’t scholars, so I was paying special attention to how Thorpe handled it. She takes a narrative approach, where she’s telling you the best story she can based on the facts she knows. And she seems to have run down just about every fact a person can still get his or her hands on this many years after the fact. I cried. I found it really moving and effective.

I think she also does a really good job of bringing up a lot of issues that you need to know if you want to do more research into the accident without overwhelming you if you don’t care to know more than she shares with you. I mean, you come away with a pretty thorough understanding of how trains in the South were set up to be death traps for black people and how black people in Nashville were taking huge risks to get that changed. So, if you want to know more, you know there’s meat on that particular bone and can go look.

I want to say that Thorpe’s book is an excellent place to start, but I’m afraid it sounds like an insult and I really mean it as a compliment. I think her volume is the place you should start if you want to learn about it. For some folks, this book will definitely be enough–it’s very thorough–and for others, Thorpe’s laid out clear paths to other interesting topics.

Whew

I’m feeling so much better today. Even if I did get woken up at a quarter after 5 in the morning by a dog jumping and making “mrph mrph” noises at the back door. I appreciate his efforts to bark quietly, but they didn’t really work. The Butcher did not take him for a walk this morning, so he’s been moping around all day, waiting for the Butcher to return.

I have, too, because, when he gets here, I’m going to take a shower! And it is going to be awesome.

Anyway, because I was feeling so much better today and the dog hadn’t had a walk, I thought I would walk him around the yard. This was a mistake. Almost a falling-down mistake. But I made it back in the house, so that’s good.

I’ve been a reading fool and I got a piece on Sleepy John Estes written for October. My brain is so happy to be working again.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll work some on the Nashville book.