The many-colored transformations of autumn plants remind me of the beauty in the spiritual practice of letting go. As the leaves let go of their green chlorophyl, so their deep colors are revealed. When I feel encumbered by heavy memories, mistakes, failures. When I feel regret for things undone, unsung, I pray in this way. I take all the feelings and memories and release them into the loving hands of Spirit. Ego desires for acknowledgement, success. I let go. Ego wounds from rejections, betrayals. I let go. Loneliness, weariness, I let go.
Spirit, here I am, all imperfect, yet gifted, all hungering for justice, yet broken with this land and country. I sit alone, yet I feel your presence, and I turn to you, again and again. I let go. I am small, but I am surrounded by and filled with your Love. There is a time for action, and there is also a time for surrender. I surrender to the River flowing. In this surrender there is trust and peace.
Someday, I will let go into the mystery of eternity, the mystery that is death. Each night, I let go into the mystery that is sleep. Each morning, I let go of what is not mine for this day, and I open to what blessings and what actions are here for me to take up. I am too small to try to carry the world. And yet, in this surrender, I am at one with all of the beings who surround me, people, animals, plants, spirits. We are all flowing in the River of Love.
Going through my boxes of old files in the basement, I am now working on files related to activism in solidarity with Indigenous people in Boston back in the 1990s. I found some correspondence with one particular activist, for example, and I am remembering the long process of getting to know each other, building trust, and finding ways to be helpful in that struggle. But when my ministry calling required that I move to another place (Cape Cod, at first, and then Maine), it meant that all of that relationship-building was lost, in a way, and I had to start all over again in a new place to build trust, to make connections, to find ways to be of use.
When white people are moved to act in solidarity with Indigenous people, it requires a lot of work to create relationships of trust. There is such a long history of colonization, of oppression, of theft, of genocide, between us–and a long history of “helpful” people doing damage. And yet, the more I became aware of that broken history, the more I have felt moved to participate in such solidarity. Not without mistakes. But I have continued in these other places seeking to build relationships of trust with other Indigenous people, doing the long work of decolonization.
I am not one who usually has spirit-filled dreams at night. Usually, in my dreams I am at a conference or gathering somewhere, along with a whole crowd of people, only some of whom I am acquainted with. I am trying to find my way around, or find food, or find my way back to where I was before–such mundane anxieties. Sometimes I meet old friends there. Often, I feel lost and overwhelmed by all the people I don’t know in places I don’t know.
I started feeling like that as I was going through these and other files from Boston. So many people with whom I have done work, shared conversations, struggled for justice, had significant experiences, lived in a household together, loved, hurt or been hurt by, and yet, I had forgotten so much of it. If I were not looking through these files, I wouldn’t remember much of what is in them. It all slips away with the effort and energy of building a life in a new place. Only a few relationships carried into long distance realities.
Sometimes I fantasize about not having moved everywhere, living somewhere and staying there my whole life. But I realize it is only a fantasy. This came clear to me a while back when I watched the movie Kuessipan, about two girls who grow up as best friends in an Innu community. In the description, “their friendship is shaken when Mikuan …starts dreaming of leaving the reserve that’s now too small for her dreams.” In reflecting on that movie, I realized, I would have been the one who left. In fact, I did leave a small town to go off to college, and I kept traveling to “bigger dreams.” I guess that journey is also in my blood. My grandmother left Canada to come with a foreigner to America when she was 17. Perhaps she too was seeking a bigger life, bigger dreams.
And now, here I am, sitting alone in the basement, going through memories, looking back on the many people I met over so many years. Sometimes I feel so tired. Sometimes I feel lonely in the midst of the crowded gatherings in my dreams. Sometimes it is a relief just sitting alone with the boxes, trying to make sense of the puzzle pieces of my life. It is a humbling journey. May Spirit help me to remain curious and grateful.
I’m starting to write this early in the morning. The clouds are covering the sky, and the eclipse of the full moon is happening now, invisible, but I can feel it in how dark the outside has become. A funny thing about aging—I saw the most amazing full eclipse of the moon when we lived on Cape Cod—October 28, 2004, the night the Red Sox won the world series after an 86 year “curse of the Bambino.” We were watching the game, and intermittently going to the front door of our house, to watch the passage of the eclipse right there. As it was covered by the earth’s shadow, the moon got full deep red. Then the Red Sox won. What a magical night! So back to the funny thing about aging—after that experience, and with an older tired body, I don’t have the same urge to watch eclipses of the moon—especially if it involves getting up in the middle of the night. Tired body, cloud cover, greater memories. Yet here I am awake.
And somehow, it does seem a fitting time to write about another of the Marie Madeleines I have been researching. I’ll start by saying I don’t think she is my actual ancestor, though there is no conclusive proof to rule her out. At first, she was just another name, Marie Madeleine Utsinitsiu, baptized in Chicoutimi July 16, 1805, at about 4 years old, “fille naturelle” of Alphonse Utsinitsiu and Marie Kukuminash. “Fille naturelle” means she is the daughter of parents who are not married, at least by the church. At first when I began to research her, nothing seemed to fit together. But now I think I do have a picture, and I am not sure what to feel about it.
Her father Alphonse, in other records also called Alphonse Ukuinigsiu, was born in 1745 in Chicoutimi, so he was about 54 when she was born. I was able to find six of his other children, with 3 different mothers, only one of whom he was married to. Then he had one more marriage to Marie Louise Utshisk, in 1797, the record indicating it was “rehabilitated” which implies that there was something irregular about their union, and the marriage made it right.
But then it got weird to me. Because Marie Louise Utshisk is the mother of Marie Kukuminash. This means that Alphonse had a child, four actually, with the daughter of his last wife! I will come back to that. Marie Louise Utshisk has her own interesting series of marriages and children. Born in 1746, she was married to Jean Tshinupesuan, and with him had five children, four before Marie was born around 1781. In 1784, she also had a child with Bernard Pilote, who was French, a trading post clerk. She was 51 when she married Alphonse in 1797.
Her daughter Marie Kukuminash was herself married in 1793, at the age of 12, to Andre Tshinusheu, who was then 40 (and a widower with a child, Margaret Kukuminash, five years younger than Marie). Marie had a child with him, Marie Josephe Enukesh, in 1795, at 14, and then Andre died in 1796. The following year, her mother married Alphonse Ukuinigsiu. Then, about 1801, Marie Madeleine was born, the daughter of Marie Kukuminash at age 20 and Alphonse Utsinitsiu at age 56. Ironically, Kukuminash means “old woman” in the Innu language. Later they had three more children, Protais, Pierre, and Agathe, still unmarried, all these children baptized in 1811, but ages not given. I found a record of the death of Agathe in 1816, where she is listed as 10 years old, and the daughter of Alfonse and Marie Louise. But perhaps this was a cover-up of her actual mother.
This family is kind of the opposite of some of the others I researched, who seemed upstanding members of the Innu Catholic communities of the trading posts. Part of me wants to set aside my judgements and see them as people living in extended family community, freer about sexual relationships than the priests would like, having children, and finding partners in arrangements that enabled the group to function for hunting and trapping and gathering. People couldn’t be “single”—everyone needed a group to belong to, and when a partner died, it was necessary to find a new one, or your family couldn’t survive. And marrying young was not unusual either at that time.
But, I also feel creeped out about Alphonse having those four children with the 20-year-old daughter of his 54-year-old wife. Is it just an example of male creepiness, familiar to us in our own time? Or is there something that is hidden by the passage of time and the inadequacy of any records? The death of Alphonse “Ukunikushu” was May 12, 1813, 68 years old, recorded July 15, 1816 at the ceremony of his burial. (Note: these ceremonies did not happen usually at actual burials, but were a religious ceremony to account for the death.)
But, you see, I don’t really know what happened to most of these women and children. Not all deaths were recorded, and scrolling through the records year after year, I eventually notice that people don’t appear again. I didn’t see any further records for Marie Kukuminash. Into the later 1800s, the priests often recorded only first names of people, and it gets harder and harder to identify them. It is still possible that this Marie Madeleine could be my ancestor. A chaotic family life with many marriages and liaisons would certainly fit with her getting together with Peter McLeod, a Protestant clerk of the posts, without benefit of marriage. And Peter and Marie Madeleine later lived in the Chicoutimi area after 1844.
However, more likely, I think I might have found this Marie Madeleine, in the marriage record of Marie Madeleine Kukuminu to Joseph Akamkash, 06/25/1821 in Chicoutimi, with no other details given. Marie Madeleine “Utsinutsiu” would be about 20, and perhaps she adopted the name of her mother? Also it is in Chicoutimi, the same community. There weren’t other Marie Madeleines that I found in that community. These are the only real clues I have about this. This Marie Madeleine and Joseph appear clearly two more times, with the baptism of their children, also named Marie Madeleine and Joseph, and then appear with just their Christian names with possibly 5 other children, some being baptized, some being buried, and Joseph being married in 1839. All these records are in Chicoutimi or Tadoussac, nearby. So, I think it might be the same person, which is why she couldn’t be my own ancestor Marie Madeleine.
I learned a lot by hunting for this family, sparse though the details were. It raised so many questions for me too, all the important information that was never recorded. Surely some of the Innu people and their relationships were broken by the impact of colonization. I wonder about alcohol, I wonder about disease. I wonder about sexual predation by the clerks or priests. And yet, also, I feel heartened by the possibility of Marie Madeleine Kukuminau and Joseph Akamkash making family once again, and caring for children through many years in the place they called home.
This morning, I watched out my window as a squirrel climbed into the branches of the peach tree, going up and down several branches until she or he stopped at a bagged peach. She nibbled through the small branch it hung from, cutting the branch right off. I could see the leaves and twigs fall to the ground, even though the squirrel was hidden by other branches. Then, she took the unripe peach in her mouth–still in the bag–and carried it down and away from the orchard to some other roosting post in another tree. I didn’t yell or bang on the screen or try to stop her, as I have done on other mornings, because all the peaches have already been destroyed.
Over the last couple weeks, I had to remove over twenty of the bagged peaches after birds or squirrels left bite marks and the fruit had dropped off its stem, to the bottom of the bag. Some of the peaches had only a c-shaped mark that made me wonder about curculio. A couple seemed untouched. But I had seen the squirrels in the trees going after them. Then, a couple days ago I discovered that virtually every peach in a little protective bag had dropped to the bottom of the bag, and all of the peaches that I hadn’t bagged had disappeared completely. The peaches were all still green and hard, nowhere near ripe. I had just read about people using a spray made with peppermint oil and cinnamon sticks to deter squirrels, and was about to try it, when I discovered there were no peaches left to save.
I’ve been grieving the last few days. I put so much effort into this peach tree all through the spring and summer. Pruning it carefully. Six holistic sprays with beneficial nutrients. Three “Surround” kaolin clay sprays. Picking off leaves with peach-leaf-curl one by one. I was so hopeful when hundreds of little peach-lets started growing! I thinned the peaches so that none was too close to another. I put 80 little protective mesh bags on individual peaches. I even bought toy snakes and an owl to try to scare off the birds and squirrels. None of it stopped them. I had gotten only 3 cherries from the cherry trees, but the peaches seemed to be the saving grace for the little orchard I have been tending so carefully. Last year Margy and I had been able to eat only one ripe peach–and it tasted so good. So this year, I tried all the things to care for and protect them, imagining that taste in my mouth. And now they are gone.
I’ve also felt deeply shaken in my capacity as a permaculture gardener. Here is this little food forest with 2 cherry trees, one peach tree, and two baby apples. And no food. (Well–the raspberries did fine–but I already knew how to tend raspberries. And there were a few blueberries on our young plants. We thought we might get some hazelnuts but the squirrels also grabbed those before they were even close to ripe.) I do come away with a deep respect for organic gardeners and farmers.
But I have been harboring much anger and hate in my soul for these squirrels, and I feel very troubled about that. The original purpose of tending this land–this small place on the earth–was about finding our way home to earth community. Putting into practice the desire for healing the broken relationship between our society and the natural world. But when I try to grow food, so many critters become my enemies. Well, they probably don’t share the enmity–they probably think I run a fabulous restaurant. But meanwhile, I am watching them and hating them.
This morning, after the squirrel ran away with the bagged peach, another squirrel started playing with a stick on the path in the orchard. Literally playing–rolling over and over, turning the stick this way and that, chewing on it, then rolling over again. In a very cute way.
There is a lesson in this, I am sure. So I am trying to grieve, to let go, to open my heart. But I am still not sure I know how to forgive the squirrels. I am trying to listen to the deeper lessons.
I am writing on the New Moon day, while in Congress our representatives are debating the impeachment of President Trump. On the New Moon, I always read my journal from the day of the last New Moon, and I note recurring themes in my days. One recurring theme for me this moon has been feeling empty and lost–I asked in my journal several times, “What is my purpose in this time of my life?” I am an elder now, and because of chronic illness, my energy is limited. What does it mean to be an elder in these times?
One of my images for the Divine Mystery is the River–the flow, the great unfolding of all things, the mysterious energy that holds us in its flowing. So one day, I prayed: I do not know my purpose–I open to your flowing oh River, I open to your flowing, and thank you.
I went outside after that, and there were tiny bits of hail on the dry ground. I started on a walk down the street and around the corner and directly toward the Capisic Brook near my house. Part-way there, I slid on a small patch of ice hidden under the scattered hail and landed on my back and elbow. I was bruised but okay, and even continued on to the brook and back, though I felt shaky about it into the next day, and have been sore since then.
So reading my journal, I couldn’t help but notice that this fall came directly after my prayer to the River about my purpose, my surrender to the flowing. I wondered, “What’s that about, Spirit? What kind of answer to prayer is that?” I remembered a story about St. Teresa of Avila, who after a bad day had a fall of her own into the mud. She challenged God then, “Why?” and God said, “That is how I treat my friends.” She replied, “That is why you have so few!” (These were the Catholic stories I grew up on.)
I do know that the Spirit has a sense of humor, but might this fall mean something more subtle, like “Now is not the time to move forward or worry about having a purpose?” “Or, what?” And so today I sat quietly with Spirit, and with Billie kitty on my arm, seeking help to understand. Here is what came to me.
Don’t worry. The answer is to live into the answer by a hundred small intuitions. Joy. Love. As an elder, to let go of fixing, to be rooted in joy and love. You learn to end a day, or a life, by living into each day, each life. Feel the feelings. I didn’t knock you over, but it is in the nature of life to fall and to get up, to be wounded and to heal, to encounter hidden dangers without warning, to take time for recovery and to build resilience, to be broken and to be one with the whole.
As an eldest child, you felt responsible for everything. As an elder, you can learn that you are not responsible for everything. And yes, that is frightening. But you can feel the fear and rest in my love. You can lead as you have been leading, by sharing the skills and sharing the responsibility with each other, caring and connecting, just as you are.
And so here I am, in this hermitage life, trying to listen to the flow of the Spirit, learning a new way of being, an elder way of being, not responsible for everything. Even in this hermitage, the storms of the outside world rage into our lives through internet and television, and our power to act is so small. I hope and pray that those who can act, will do the right thing, do the brave thing, will hold fast to the good and resist greed and racism and violence and fascism. I hope and pray for a world in which all people care for each other and care for the earth. It is a frightening time. So I feel those feelings, and remember the next part–to rest in the love of Spirit.
In the early days of my feminist awakening, I began to trace the ancestry of my mother line, to learn who my grandmothers might be, and what land we originally came from. I learned this: my matrilineal great-great-great-grandmother was an Innu woman, identified in the records as Marie Madeleine, Montagnaise. She married a Scottish trapper who worked for the Hudson Bay Company in Quebec. His name was Peter Macleod, and he called her Marie de Terres Rompues, after the place where they came to live on the Saguenay River. Her name might be translated, Marie of Broken Lands, which resonates with what came later.
When I have been able to travel to Quebec, to the place the Innu call Nitasinnan [our land], I have felt the presence of the ghosts of my ancestors in the land. The very first time I drove into Chicoutimi on the Saguenay River, I came upon a book on the shelves of the Welcome Center in the rest area—it was about my ancestor Peter Macleod and his family. There have been other encounters over the years, a feeling of my ancestors reaching out to me as I reach out to them.
Learning about their stories has been an important part of my journey. I discovered many dislocations and relocations that occurred for my grandmothers, ways they were separated daughter from mother, separated from the land and the people from which they came. Marie de Terres Rompues bore several children with Peter MacLeod. Her daughter, Angele, was only twelve when her mother died, and Peter married another wife; Angele’s stepmother was a white woman. I wonder if Angele kept a connection to her Innu relatives? She was married at the age of twenty to a French Quebecois farmer, Joseph Tremblay, and they lived in the area of Peribonka near Lac St. Jean. I only know one story about them, from a census report. One year, all their grain burned in May, and they replanted with fresh grain but all of it was frozen and “not fit to be threshed.”
Her daughter Claudia was only eighteen when Angele died. At twenty-two, Claudia married Ferdinand, and during an economic downturn in their region, they moved over four hundred miles away to the town of Hull in the suburbs of Ottawa. Later, they traveled over seventeen hundred miles to the Black Hills of South Dakota, where Ferdinand worked in the mica mines for five years, during the boom years when Westinghouse Electric was producing over $100,000 per year in mica. Then the mines closed.
Their daughter, my grandmother Yvonne, was born in Hull in 1897; she was nine when they moved to the Black Hills, and fourteen when they returned to Quebec. She became a chamber maid in a hotel in the Canadian capital city of Ottawa, where she met Johann, an Austrian immigrant working as a waiter. At seventeen, she followed him five hundred miles to the United States, marrying at the border in Detroit Michigan.
My mother tells me Yvonne and her sisters worried that someone might think they looked Indian. Did she fear prejudice learned in Quebec, or in South Dakota? In Detroit, she became fully assimilated into the white and English-speaking world. Most of the stories were lost, but she did tell my mother they were part-Indian, and my mom grew up feeling proud of that heritage. There were occasional visits to family in Canada. When my mother was a four years old, the news came of Claudia’s death at the age of seventy-three.
My great-grandmother, Claudia Tremblay, age/date unknown
My mother was not quite twenty-one when her mother, Yvonne, died. I was a baby then. I have a picture [below] of my grandmother holding me in her arms. When I ponder this story of my mothers and grandmothers, I am struck by how most of these women lost their mothers before, or just as they were entering, adulthood. None of them had a chance to be with their grandmothers. They each turned to the life and the culture of their husbands. And I am struck by the many miles each generation traveled away from the place in which they might have felt a sense of belonging to the land. My mother, too, followed her husband on his travels across the United States. I grew up during those travels and none of those places ever truly felt like home. I didn’t know any other way.
My grandmother Yvonne holding me as a baby.
It has been a long and important process for me to reclaim these stories and reweave a connection to my grandmothers.
After spending a week going through soil to remove bittersweet roots, I have been thinking about invasive bittersweet as a visceral metaphor for colonization. Bittersweet comes into an area by seeds or roots, and then reaches for the sky. It vines around any support, living or dead, to keep climbing higher and higher. When its vines first wrap around a tree trunk, like in this photo, it may look green and healthy and beautiful. It may even seem to appreciate the tree on which is grows. But eventually, it can kill the tree, either by suffocating its trunk, or by the sheer weight of its leaves and branches.
Below is a photo, taken by my partner Margy Dowzer, of a huge bittersweet vine, 4-5 inches in diameter, tightly wrapped around the trunk of this tree. It has been cut near the bottom, which is the way to stop it growing. But you can see how it has warped the trunk and become embedded in its flesh. A huge maple tree next door came crashing down after it was covered in bittersweet vines and flowers. Bittersweet will spread to a whole area, and kill other plants that are trying to grow.
And this is like colonization. When Europeans first came to this land, they planted themselves in several locations and tried to grow as much as possible. They wiped out many Indigenous communities through disease and warfare. They used the lands cleared in this way to grow crops and build towns. They kept spreading out across the whole continent, bringing destruction to Native peoples and ecosystems as they took over. They imagined that their own growth and reaching for the sun was the only thing necessary and valuable, and took no notice of the harm they were causing. And of course, it isn’t just past history, it keeps happening today. Our whole economic system is based on continual growth. “More and more and more!” might be the mantra of the colonizers and the bittersweet.
Might there be another option? There is a different sort of plant that was brought to this continent by colonizers. In fact, it was called “English-man’s foot” or “white-man’s footprint” by Indigenous peoples because it appeared wherever the settlers showed up. Its familiar name is broadleaf plantain (plantago major). It too spreads all over, and especially in disturbed soils. However, it is a humble plant, and a useful medicinal herb. Indigenous peoples soon discovered its healing properties and added it to their herbal pharmacies.
I was reminded of this a couple weeks ago when I had a bite from a black fly appear on my hand, itching like crazy. My friend Sylvia (who is an herbalist) suggested plantain. I made a poultice by chewing up some leaves and then putting that mash on the bite, letting it remain until it dried. It helped to ease the itching right away. Plantain is also good for all sorts of wound healing, stomach troubles, fevers, and is anti-inflammatory. You can eat young leaves in salads, and cook older leaves in stews. It is also useful for breaking up compacted soil, and combatting erosion.
So perhaps we who are not Indigenous to this land might learn from the plantain a new model of how to be here, in this place we now find ourselves. Perhaps we too might become humble and useful, growing only close to the ground, paying attention to healing and the easing of pain.
It’s ironic: since I am using the “free” version of WordPress to publish, they occasionally place ads at the end of my posts. I want to point out that I have no control over the content of any ads that appear, and sadly, they usually advertise products that are the very opposite of the values that I am writing about.
I apologize for these incongruities! Isn’t that the position in which we find ourselves so often? We are embedded in systems that infiltrate all aspects of our lives, even as we imagine a better way of living.
It must have been a big machine that cut down the grandmother pine tree. I found no disturbance around the stump when I climbed up to it to offer my grief and respect. The weeds and small brush nearby were there as before, with only fresh wood shavings and pine sap falling over the edges of the stump. Nothing huge crashed to the ground when they took her. So it must have been a big machine.
I discovered her absence on my walk near Capisic Brook the day before, but didn’t have the strength to approach her while there were lots of workmen in the Rowe school construction zone nearby. Ironically, they were making a children’s playground, spreading wood chips and such–perhaps that was that her wood they were using? But why?
I met this tree last winter when I was measuring old white pines around my neighborhood, after I discovered that our white pine was definitely over 100 years old, and perhaps even 160 years, according to her circumference. At that time, I was also mourning all the cut pines for the construction of the new elementary school. I found this pine with a yellow tape around her trunk. She was one hundred and two inches in circumference, just like the white pine in our yard. That is when I knew she was one of the grandmother trees. I made an inquiry on the school’s Facebook page, but the person who responded didn’t know about the situation of the tree.
And now the white pine is gone. I went to the place where she had stood, and expressed my sadness, and I did the best I could to honor her. I counted her rings, making small markings after each 25. (You can see those marks if you look very closely at the photo above.) I got to 100, and then the outer rings were too difficult to see clearly–but I guess there were at least 20 more–so 120 years old? Maybe even 130? That would mean she was likely a small sapling in the year 1897 when both of my grandmothers were born. She observed a century of animal and human life from her vantage point above the brook.
People in U.S. society are still thinking of trees merely as resources for our needs and wants. But we have to begin opening our minds to the idea that the trees have their own lives, their own being-ness. Scholars are learning that the forest is a living community of trees and other plants and animals and fungi, all interconnected in a network underground, supporting each other and all of life.
Recently, I had a chance to read The Overstory by Richard Powers. The novel tells the story of several people, all with some significant connection to a tree or trees, who come together to protect old growth forests in the northwest United States. Powers borrows from actual science and activism in telling his fictionalized version. I especially loved the character of the woman botanist whose research suggested that trees were communicating and caring for each other. Because of that hypothesis, she lost all her funding and academic connections. Eventually she found her way into work as a forest ranger, until decades later when other scientists caught up with her insights. Two other characters spend a year living in one of the oldest redwoods, to try to protect it from the logging company.
Of course, the forest between the Rowe School (formerly Hall School) and Capisic Brook is already badly degraded. It is not old growth or pristine. It is encroached upon by invasive plants and runoff pollutants. But it is still a living system, a wetland, a wild community in the midst of city streets and buildings. And so I walk along its path, I cherish it, I pick up litter. I try to bear witness.
I had almost forgotten about the incredible doom of the draft lottery of 1969 and the years following. But recently, I happened upon two fictional accounts of lives being undone by this lottery, and it all came back to me. One came in the television drama This Is Us, in an episode about the back story of Jack’s time in Vietnam. (Spoiler alert!) Jack and his younger brother Nicky are at a bar on December 1, 1969, waiting to see what birthdays will be chosen for the draft call-ups. Nicky is portrayed as a gentle, glasses-wearing kid, not tough, not cut out to fight. Jack is his protector. Nicky’s birthday, October 18th, is chosen as number 5, which means he is sure to be inducted. Their dad tells him only, “Make me proud.” Jack and Nicky consider options, maybe Canada, but Nicky succumbs to the pressure and joins up. We learn that Jack himself had had a deferment because of a rapid heartbeat condition. But when Nicky writes from Vietnam that he has gotten himself into trouble, Jack finds a way to enlist, so he can watch over his brother.
I had almost forgotten about the lottery. The feeling of foreboding, its random terrors. My own age peers were affected by the lottery of February 2, 1972. We were freshman in college, then, and my male friends would have received college deferments, but if they dropped out, or when they graduated, they would once again be vulnerable to being called up. My friend Tom’s birthday was September 16th. He was sorting out what options he might have as a conscientious objector to the war. When his number was above 200, we all breathed a sigh of relief.
Before watching that episode of This Is Us, I had been reading the novel, The Rules of Magic, by Alice Hoffman. She introduces us to a family of young witches: two sisters, Franny and Jet, and their younger brother, Vincent. Their history included an ancestor tried for witchcraft back in the 1600s in Massachusetts, and continuing suspicion towards their magical family. Vincent is an artist, a singer, and a young playboy, though he eventually comes out as gay and finds true love with a man. He has eerily known for years that he faced doom: it comes in the form of the number 1 pick in the draft lottery of 1969. His birthday is September 14th. (The actual number 1) The family is devastated and knows he cannot serve in the military–a witch must “harm none” lest it come back three-fold. They try to figure out a way for him to escape, but ultimately it means that he is forever cut off from his family.
Hoffman compares the lottery to the witch hunts of earlier times, and writes the most haunting description of its effects. Her words stirred that memory in me of our fear and our relief, of the randomness of horror cast upon the lives of young men and those who loved them. How we were divided into the lucky and unlucky. How we almost took it for granted.
It came on the wind, the way wicked things must, for they are most often weighted down with spite and haven’t the strength to lift themselves. On the first day of December 1969, the lottery was held. Men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six would be drafted to fight in Vietnam according to their birthdates. Lives were interrupted and fortunes were exchanged. A cold drizzle hung down and flurries of snow fell in swirls. There were no stones thrown or drownings, no pillories or burnings. Those chosen were computerized, their fates picked at random.
Life went on in spite of the lottery: traffic headed down Broadway, men and women showed up for work, children went to play. The world breathed and sighed and people fell in love and got married and fell out of love and never spoke to one another again. Still the numbers drawn had the weight of ruin and sorrow; they turned young men old in an instant. A breath in and a man was chosen to walk on a path he’d never expected to take. A breath out and he must make the decision of a lifetime. Some would leave the country, some went to jail, some were ready to take up arms and die for the country they loved despite the heartbreak of leaving families and friends. All were torn apart. It was said that fate could not be altered, except by one thing, and that was war.
After Vincent watches the lottery, he gets drunk, and is brought home by two veterans, who “pitied him the war of his time. Theirs had been terrible, but it had also been just and worth fighting.” From Vietnam onward, I believe that none of the wars fought by our country have been just or worth fighting. In each war, so many were wounded, so many broken in body or spirit. And always, some resisted. So strange to recall these old tragedies that linger beneath the surface of so many new tragedies. And as always, some resist.