Assimilation–some thoughts

It fails…everyone.



“Cultural assimilation is the process in which a minority group or culture comes to resemble a society’s majority group or assume the values, behaviors, and beliefs of another group whether fully or partially.”

Wikipedia

Alchemy of flowers, spices, vegetables and a drop of wine makes an all too wonderful sauce. Melting pots are different because they separate the one from her identity. The things which make her and him unique dissolved into a stew. What advantage is there in homogenizing immigrants–what is lost to them, to us, to the wholeness that loves variety?

What remains is the longing for what you’ve abandoned in yourself–grief, you bet, yes!

Assimilation has also been referred to as Cultural Homogenization–It is an aspect of cultural globalization intending a reduction in cultural diversity.

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What then is the story that wants to be told through anyone’s uniqueness? through me? through you?
Weren’t we all once immigrants?
Weren’t we all once hostile invaders?
Weren’t we invaded?

I was never really ‘white’ never really wanted to be that generic, one-size fits all milk-toast identity grouping on applications. Applications for jobs, apartments, housing, surveys, sundry forms, what have you. Checking ‘Other’ didn’t cover it for me either. Other planet? Other Galaxy? Other sexual orientation, other dimensional, another type of animal, homo-erectus or feline. Yet, doesn’t someone love to classify, label, name and segregate disorienting one from their origins/ancestry and the wonder of diversity?

I can agree that I’m female, belonging to the largest and least represented category (along with children), the culture of woman. Doesn’t that culture span the globe? Don’t we have more in common than not? We search for the exotic and foreign through travel and outside of ourselves, when, in fact, the terrain within is vastly foreign, exotic. Carl Jung was one of our navigators through this landscape but he died and we were left stranded in a sea of distractions and technological advances. All of these diversions from what is going on inside and in the larger world over which we feel helpless to make a difference.

I would have felt more shame had my ancestors been the first to arrive on the Mayflower. I wouldn’t have wanted to claim that perceived glory. It was too close to the extermination of a race of people with whom I feel empathy. The indigenous ones only wanted to protect their lands, their people and the pristine quality of their lives–their connection to the earth–indigenously wise.

Nov.16, 2015
My ancestors came over from Italy and Ireland a few generations ago.
I am third generation here not so long–
Immigrated, assimilated–
but the dreams persist and
I resist the memories they convey.
I am here–America–
born in America.
Why then this strange chanting
in a language that makes me tingle
yet I don’t understand?

Nov.17, 2015
Because when she let go of her heritage, she let go of her birthright and the inherent magic.

Skin–shades of various tones. Beneath it, ah, bones, blood, organs–skin, what perceptions do we have based on shades of skin?

What perceptions do we have based on how much money? Having more money, or with less money, or without money?

Years–accumulation of years–what perceptions do we have based on how many or how few years one has lived on planet earth?

What perceptions do we have based on sexual orientation?

What perceptions do we have based on physical appearance? Height, weight…

On and on it goes, our limiting perceptions.

Once upon a time, I married a young Hispanic man. I gave birth to two daughters. They resemble their Mexican heritage physically. They are also Irish, Italian, French and German. Their father did not grow up speaking Spanish although both of his parents were fluent native speakers. Was there a shame in bringing the language forward? The dream was to have your children be assimilated, an American, and it was presumed that the native language would link them to something undesirable.

Today, when my daughters are in the company of other Spanish-speaking Hispanics and it is discovered that they don’t speak the language, they are looked down upon by the native speakers. Yet, because of their appearance, they are devalued by the “White” ones. It’s all very peculiar, isn’t it?

The Dowry–Part Two

Pap comes home after a day’s work, after a visit to Flanagan’s Pub.  He trips over two wooden chairs, staggering through the small, crowded parlor to get to the bedroom that he and Mum and Willy share.

He mutters as my mum says, “Senior, couldn’t you come home sober one night a week!  If there was any of me dowry left, I’d divorce you!”

My younger sister, Patticake cries “We’ll be orphans.”

Willy harmonizes with Patticake, “I don’t want to be no orphan.”

“Wipe  your noses and pipe down.  I ain’t got no more dowry since  your pap drank it up.  So I ain’t going nowhere now am I?”

A grunt comes from the bedroom as Pap falls onto the squeaky bed.

“Colleen, go help your pap take his boots off so’s he doesn’t get me own Mum’s rose quilt dirty,” Mum yells at me.

“I hear you, Mum,” I snap back as I run to the bedroom.

Pap is already snoring.  His breathing is deep and the stench of whiskey makes me want to be sick.  Pap doesn’t budge an inch when I tug mightily to get first his left boot and then his right boot off.  I’m thinking I could jump full hard on his belly and he wouldn’t wake up.

I look at his grizzled face.  The deep scar on his upper left cheek looks like a cleared ditch bordered with stubble.  He was handsome once.  From the tintype on the dresser he stares, a dark-eyed man with wavy black hair parted in the middle and slicked down.  Now he looks worn from work, hard living, hard drinking.  He doesn’t know what to do with us kids, especially the girls.  He roughhouses with Willy some, but he leaves us girls to Mum.  I feel sorry for my pap and pat his arm tenderly.

“Colleen,” Mum calls.  “Get out here and snap the green beans for supper.”

“Coming, Mum.”

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I sit at the knotty wood table, hands washed, sleeves rolled, opposite Kathleen and Louise.  Kathleen peels potatoes with expertise.  Her face is satisfied.  She is going to be James Flynn’s wife.  Louise is slicing the carrots intently.  She doesn’t have a beau yet.  But she’s pretty enough and Mrs. Donovan, the matchmaker, is always looking for the right fella.  The little ones are napping after their hard play today.

Mum stands at the wood-fed stove, stirring the broth, sweat beading on her forehead.  I snap off the tough ends of the green beans and pull out the string as I was taught to do.  In this rare moment of suspended silence, my mind wanders to my 18th birthday.  I don’t talk back anymore when Mum says that I’m going to have to go into the convent.  I’ve read about some girls who ran away from their families.  They bought their passage and emigrated to Australia.  A girl doesn’t need a dowry there and there’s plenty of men who want a good wife.  The day after I turn eighteen, I’m packing my few belongings, taking the money Mum has stashed in the cookie jar with my name on it and getting on a boat to Australia.

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The Dowry–Part One

Have you done it?  Have you had your DNA tested to see the percentages of your ancestry?  If so, were there any surprises?

My biggest percentage was Italian on my mother’s side.  Followed by Irish on my father’s side.  Then there are the lesser percentages of surprising origins.  And the curiosity around how did that get in there.

All of this to say that a few years ago, I wrote a short story for an assignment in a Creative Writing class.  One can’t always know where their inspiration comes from or how it is going to express through words or art.  Perhaps it is rooted in the DNA and that cellular memory.  Perhaps I channeled one of my Irish ancestors.    There is some historical significance.  It is presented here in two parts.  I hope you enjoy it.

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The Dowry
©by Christine O’Brien

“Cursed we is,” Mum says, “to have so many survivin’ daughters…seven girls and one blessed boy.  If not for young William, we’d have no one to leave the farm to.”

Mum’s voice scratches like grainy sand across a washboard.

My older sister, Kathleen, is getting married in a month.  Mum has saved and put together a dowry for her and one for my second sister, Louise.  The chances of a girl getting a match are next to zero unless she has a dowry.  Kathleen says she loves James Flynn, but love isn’t what’s important.

“A girl has to have something to offer besides what’s under her petticoat,” Mum says often enough.

With a good dowry, she’s more likely to get a decent home.  She should be strong of leg too, not sickly, like my youngest sister, Patticake.  She’s got to be able to get out in the field and work beside her mate when times are tough, which times normally are.

Mum just started putting away for my dowry.  I’m three years from being 18–the marrying age around here.  Mum says she doesn’t see how she’s going to save enough to attract a mate for me.

“Chances are,” she says, “you’re going to have to go into the convent.  Father Cullen says he’ll kindly take you and your younger sisters if I can save ten pounds for the lot of you.  You’ll be provided for then and you can pray for all of us.”

“I don’t want to go to no convent!  I don’t want my head shaved!  I won’t wear those ugly black dresses and stupid veils!” I blubbered.

When I first stood up and said this to Mum, she slapped me hard.

“Be grateful you’re going to have a home and God’s own priests to look after you.  You get to do good works.”

“It’s nothin’ but slavin’,” I said, my nose red and running, a fresh welt on my cheek.

“Who’d want a red-faced girl like you anyway?”  Mum yelled.

Yelling is Mum’s forte.  Forte is my new word this week.  I’ve taught myself to read.  Mum knows I read but it’s a secret from my pap.

“A girl readin’ can make a man feel small,” says Mum.

Mum sticks the bible under my nose and points to the tiny print,
“What’s it say?” she crows.

“And why be anxious about a garment?  Consider the lilies of the field how they grow; they toil not nor spin, but I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed as one of these,” I read.

“Ah,” she says, “the lilies.  Ah well they do not have ten mouths to feed, now do they?  Get back to your work,” she says slamming the book closed and dropping it heavily on the splintered wooden bible stand.

I gather my mending from the willow basket.  I’m the third eldest girl with my share of chores.  The five younger children leave me with a pile of well-worn skirts and knickers.  My brother, Willy, is the worst on socks.  Every day I stitch up the holes in a pair of his socks and every day, there’s two more socks to mend!

“Willy,” I say sounding a bit like Mum, “Willy, can’t you for once keep your shoes on and stay out of the brambles?”

Willy looks at me with a crooked grin and long-lashed blue eyes.  He slowly shakes his towhead “no.”

(To be continued)

 

Unfinished Business

When my friend, Carolyn, died in 2003, it was for me a generous (on her part) initiation into grief and loss.

In the final months of her life, Carolyn pondered the questions:  “What have I contributed?”  and “Did I do what I came here to do?”

My reply at the time was something like “Look at the people you’ve gathered around you.  Look at how they love you.  Isn’t that an amazing achievement?”

We tend to measure our success by the standards of a world that has defined success in terms of “how many toys you have when you die” and how much money you’ve accrued.

One’s life story is not so neat as a Hollywood ending or a well-scripted novel.  It’s a messy business with threads left dangling, unresolved issues, an apartment, room or house full of incomplete projects, and furniture, laundry, unreplied-to-letters, dishes in the sink, dreaded clutter.  There’s the ending that comes too soon before things are properly resolved or healed, put in order or even accepted.

In the small picture, everyone is not a hero.  And probably, it’s an unfair standard of measurement–heroic or not heroic.  One doesn’t often or always come out looking “good,” their life having been resolved by their dying.  Do you think that the works in progress that we are continue beyond this lifetime?  We can’t, though we might want to, make heroes of all of our dead.  They are the ancestors, but not necessarily of heroic stature.  I’ve been to  funerals where superstitiously or sentimentally or desirously, relatives and others search their memories to say something kind, albeit false regarding the dear departed.  Although tainted by loss, grief and fear these words don’t ring true.  Truth is a partial tale told under these sad circumstances.

When my mother-in-law died in 2007, for me there was a confusion of feelings.  I wondered why my feelings were so congested, constricted, why I couldn’t cry as forcefully as I thought that I should.  Was it because I was ignoring a large part of my experience with her?  So much had gone unspoken between us…she rivalled me for her son’s affection.  Finally, after our divorce, he was all hers.

What’s up to me is my part in the story.  A backwards look, a retrospective from the vantage point of a completion of sorts that occurs when someone dies.  And yes, let’s add a dose of compassion for this human condition.

Learning from History…or not

Do we learn from those who preceded us?  Or does each new generation go into a coma of forgetfulness?  Are the hard lessons that our ancestors learned forever lost on us and the generations to come?  Though we study history, we don’t seem to get the magnitude of what history tries to teach.  Inherent in the study of history is the key message, “Don’t make the same mistakes that I did,”  or “Learn from my mistakes.”

We don’t seem to be able to do this–learn from the mistakes of others.  There are definitely some things that we need to find out for ourselves.  However, in the social context of things, the bigger picture, why do we stubbornly refuse to learn from history?  How can society move forward if we don’t extract the lessons learned from previous generations and the history of other cultures?  Why does real growth and spiritual evolution appear to be stunted?

Reading the book, The Underside of History:  A View of Women Through Time, by Elise Boulding, I am naively stunned to see how little we’ve progressed.  Is it because our amygdala (the part of the brain that responds to fight or flight) is constantly triggered (and exhausted) by too much negative media input?  When are we not sitting on the edge of our seats, waiting for the next shoe to fall?  When do we get to rest deeply in our own selves?  It seems that continuous over-stimulation doesn’t allow for the quiet times necessary to go deep and extract wise inner guidance.

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Contemplation:
Do you allow enough quiet time in your daily life?  Do you take time to quiet your system and contemplate?

 

In Retrospect (1)

The next two posts offer poems that revisit the past to inspire present day writing.  At any stage of life, the past might have a new lens through which we view it.  Memories, good and bad, can become foggy, blurred or even dreamlike in retrospect.  Some things STAND OUT while others fade into oblivion.

Beneath the Shadow of the Freeway
by Lorna Dee Cervantes

We were a woman family:
Grandma, our innocent Queen;
Mama, the Swift Knight, Fearless Warrior.
Mama wanted to be Princess instead.
I know that.  Even now she dreams of taffeta
and foot-high tiaras.

Myself:  I could never decide
So I turned to books, those staunch, upright men.
I became Scribe:  Translator of Foreign Mail,
interpreting letters from the government, notices
of dissolved marriages and Welfare stipulations.
I paid the bills, did light man-work, fixed faucets,
insured everything
against all leaks.

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How very real!  I love this poem.  I love where it takes me and who I meet!

Writing Prompt:
How about writing a copycat poem here?  Choose one of your ancestors and in the first stanza, disclose some of your observations about him or her. When you think of him or her, what thoughts pop up immediately?  Go with these.
In the second stanza, shift to yourself and relate something about yourself (back then).  What was the role you played in that family?  Describe it poetically.

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Naming Your Ancestors (part two)

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Story is one way that we carry forth the thread of ancestors.  Clarissa Pinkola Estes, author of  Women Who Run with the Wolves, is big on story. Estes wrote about a childhood experience in The Dancing Grandmas. This story is about four elder women of her foster father’s family who came over from Hungary to America when Clarissa was seven years old.  She first met them as they disembarked from the train “looking like Santa Clauses” because they wore all the clothes they owned. The riches she received from them were all about story.

An excerpt:  “…They brought riches just by being.  Even though bereft now of children and husbands, stripped to the bone of their icons, their roadside chapels of worship, their village lives as they had known them; stripped of the simple solace of the ancestral forest they lived near and all its medicines, the satisfaction of the white cloth they wove, stripped of the ability to protect their daughters, their bodies, their modesty, their privacy–even so, they had managed to hold onto the essential and resilient Self…”

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So it is with each one of us.  We each have women and men who in some way modeled something saving and special for us.  We each have precious stories that we file away. Maybe we even forget them until something in the present triggers us and sends us back to a person, place, time…a positive experience that imprinted us in some way.

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WRITING PROMPT:
1) Choose one of the persons from your ancestor’s list.  Recollect and write down the basic facts of a story from your childhood that involved you and this person.

2) Stories often contain a hidden gem.  Take a moment of quiet reflection. Reread your story. What is the gem or gift to yourself within the story.  In one sentence, write down what you perceive as the gem within.

3) If there is more that you want to say about this, please do continue to write.

Note:  The thing about stories, at different stages of our lives they can take on new or deeper meaning for us.  It is, finally, our personal mythology which speaks to us on a symbolic level.

Naming Your Ancestors (part one)

In a previous blog, I discussed having discretion when writing about family members especially if publication is the plan.  I also mentioned the value of doing your personal groundwork in order to lend credibility and depth to whatever you are writing.  And then, the disclaimer–don’t proceed with this if it is too tender of an area for you; and do have support in place (whether professional or a trusted friend). Depending on one’s family history, there are areas where we face challenges–sometimes we aren’t ready for this type of exploration.  Be self-wise in this regard. There is never force when we pursue our own growth.  Take small steps and lots of pauses and retreats when necessary.
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Following is an exercise I’ve borrowed from Barbara G. Walker’s book entitled, Women’s Rituals.   I’ve used this exercise in a creative writing workshop and found it to be deeply grounding.  It is called NAMING. Conducting this exercise outdoors in nature would be conducive, though not necessary, to this experience.

Depending on if you are female or male, follow the lineage of your same sex ancestors to create a list of names.

Women:  List the first names of your mother and your sister(s); going back as far as you remember, list the first names only of your mother’s lineage–grandmother, great- grandmother, your aunts–grand and great aunts.

When you have finished with this list, do the same with your father’s side starting with his mother, your paternal aunts,  great grandmother and go back as far as you know.

Next list any elder women who influenced you, besides your named relatives, when you were growing up.  This could be teachers, friends of your family, soccer coaches, Girl Scout leaders, whomever.  Be as thorough as you can in your listing.

Finally, were there any historical women, public figures or even actresses whom you particularly admired as a girl or young woman.  List their first names also.

Men:  Using the same listing technique, begin with your father’s lineage and write down the first names of the males in that lineage.  Your father’s first name, your brother(s); your grandfather, great-grandfather, great or grand uncles going back as far as you remember.

Then list the first names of the males in your mother’s lineage, as far back as you can remember.

Continue with the first names of any elder men who have influenced you when you were growing up.  This could be teachers, friends of your family, sports coaches, Boy Scout leaders, etc.

Finish your list with the first names of any historical men, public figures or actors whom you looked up to as a boy or young man.

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When you feel satisfied that your list is complete, stand, take a few deep breaths and read the names aloud, slowly.

Be present with these names for a few minutes.

(When I did this exercise with a group, the energy of these names was palpable.)

Recognizing that these are your female or male ancestors with their multitude of personalities and stories, do you feel their presence, their aliveness, their connection to you?  All of this through the act of naming them.  Does this feel like a place of power?

WRITING PROMPT:
Write about this experience of naming.

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