Wednesday, March 1, 2017

week 71 75 77 - listening to history : fire & water





I took a walk shortly after the first snow.  Just after the first week of November 2016.  A date that already feels historic.

It was so bright and blank that day that it made me think of my great-great-great grandmother, a refugee from religious persecution in England, who went snowblind from day after day of staring at the snow as she walked her weary way from the end of the railroad in Iowa City, pushing and pulling a handcart to the end of the Mormon trail in the promised valley -- in the valleys where I am now.

The whiteness of everything -- the sky, the snow, my own eyes filled with all this whiteness.

A blank page for me to write my way into?

But my eyes couldn't find a way in.

I had been here in the summer and again in the fall and knew this valley for a place of refuge -- green fields nestled beneath the cool blue slopes, creeks and rivers like cupping hands around each separate settlement, eventually pooling together to fill the smooth sheen of reservoir -- a lake where families splashed and fishermen rowed out to the quiet center, while motor boats weaved around dragging their white skirts,  and sailboats glided almost silently, drawn on by the breath of God.

But that first half of November, in this new climate,  after that snowfall, everything seemed changed.  The cold white sky above the cold white ground, marked only by bare branches and blank rock.  I couldn't see any way in.

All I knew was to keep walking.



When I was a child we didn't play cowboys and Indians.  We played cowboys and cowboys, which ended with everyone dead.  We showed we had died by lying down on the ground with our tongues sticking out.  Our eyes were supposed to be closed, that was the rule, but we always left a glitter of light flickering between our lashes so we could keep an eye on each other and be the first to spring up in the imminent resurrection and resumption of hostilities.

Later, when my brothers and I had learned more, the game we played was Hiding from Nazis.  No one was ever the Nazi.  We hid behind trees and crawled behind stands of tall grass.  We walked very carefully, laying down one foot and then another as soundlessly as the autumn leaves allowed.  We curled into dark corners, peering around tree trunks, watching the path.  We listened very hard, so hard it sometimes seemed we heard things coming.

I think now this was as close as we could get to the game we couldn't comfortably play - Running from the Mob.  That was something our Mormon pioneer ancestors had done and was the root (I always knew this, though I couldn't bear to say it aloud) of my childhood fear of fire and later fear of fear.


I still have that childhood book of mine with the picture of a family fleeing their farm set afire by the mobs. I keep it on my shelves, unopened, never looking until a few weeks ago at a picture I once pored over, memorizing its lurid landscape so well I could walk there in my dreams.  I have never read this book to my children or suggested they make it theirs.  I wanted for them our hearthside fire to be a source of comfort, an emoticon of safety and cheer.

I wanted my children to walk out into the world without enemies to fear -- except the ones they made and could unmake themselves, individually -- not carrying the heavy history of our ancestors so weighty on their tiny backs.  So I resisted telling them the story of my great-great-great grandmother Anne Jewell Rowley who begged her husband to stay inside their tidy farmhouse in Worcestershire, England, when a muttering crowd of neighbors gathered around outside:
They were noisy and troublesome. William started for the door to quiet them down and I begged him not to go, but he said, "Why Ann, they are people I have known all my life, they are my neighbors and I'm sure they'll listen to reason." He opened the door and was immediately seized and beaten up severely.
Mobs do not listen to reason.  That is what I have learned from my family history.

When I tried to write about this before, my darling Fritz dissuaded me, suggesting it was not good to make root-space for fear; not safe to give rope to the hangmen who always are still out there, hating; not smart to parade my weakness in this very public square.

And so, back then, nearly seven years ago,  in the place of one picture I gave another.  For fiery curtains blowing wildly from a window in a storm of smoke --



-- I gave you a curtain, draggling sadly through a broken pane on a wet winter day.  It was close enough to the pictogram of my fear.

But damped down.

It's the same way I've made myself more watery.  Not just through these past seven years, but for longer, for as long as I can remember.  It's the way I face fear, schooling myself to turn more and more reflective and cool, allowing for depths and darkness, but making no room for the flame with its dangerous brilliance, its painful fervor, the threat of conflagration.

There is a wisdom to water, I wrote one autumn afternoon long ago, staring through the windows of the university library, looking up from some record of ancient hates and present scholarly squabble.


It wasn't a good poem, but that central pool has held untroubled sway within the clearing of my mind for all this time.

Silence is silver.  Courage is gold.

I thought I had enough precious mettle to face this out for once.
But I have sat on this post for four six weeks, writing and rewriting.

And erasing what I have written.  Every time I come back to try to write this particular post I end up with my own silence.  I can talk about the silence but I can't talk through it.

Here's the thing.  I'm not afraid of fire anymore but I am afraid of the danger we can do to one other.  The danger we do.  How anyone who has been born a baby into this world, who has looked at feathers and petals and the scales of butterfly wings with a child's eyes, can bear to twist and smash and burn the flesh of another who was also born a baby into this world and also looked at starry skies and danced before the wind.

How is it neighbors can turn on neighbors?



I have a many-greats grandfather, Joseph Towne from Topsfield, Massachusetts, all three of whose sisters were accused in the Salem witch trials.

Rebecca was his grown up sister, 18 when her little brother was born.  However, his sister Mary was only five years older than my great+grandfather.  Like their older siblings, Mary was born in Great Yarmouth, twenty miles out of Norwich, England, and shortly after her birth the family immigrated to the Massachusetts colony.  The first children of the family born on American soil were Sarah and then a year later my forefather Joseph.

When the mass hysteria of Salem first began to swirl, its first victims were outsiders: a homeless woman,  a dark-skinned slave, a woman who dressed oddly and rarely attended church.  But then Martha Corey, a churchwoman of good reputation who had expressed skepticism about the accusations was accused herself.  And with her:  Joseph's oldest sister Rebecca Nurse, a grandmother now who had a reputation for piety and benevolence, as well as standing in the community as the wife of a prosperous landowner.  But by that time the excitement of the mob had engulfed all reasonable thought.

The trial of Rebecca Nurse
Joseph's sister Sarah, an upright Salem matron who would have been one of his closest playmates growing up, was so outraged when their frail 71-year-old sister Rebecca was arrested that she stood up in the middle of the minister's sermon against Rebecca about traitors in the midst of the body of Christ and  "how close the devil had gotten to the heart of the church." Sarah marched out of church, slamming the church door behind her.

Fifty-four year old Sarah Cloyce was arrested the next day.

In court, Sarah attacked her accusers, "Oh you are grievous liars!" She petitioned the court to be allowed to show evidence of her innocence.  She petitioned the court to exclude the ghosty arguments of spectral evidence.  But to no avail.

And then it wasn't long before people remembered the rumors arising from a neighborhood quarrel twenty years before, rumors that the Towne sisters' mother Joanna Blessing Towne might actually be a witch because she had defended a drunken clergyman against her son Joseph's outraged in-laws, my own line: the maternal cousins and aunts and uncles of my many-greats grandmother Phebe Perkins Towne.  Less than two weeks after Sarah's arrest, Joseph's other sister Mary, who was 58, was also arrested.  Mary remained calm and dignified in court, but nevertheless was bound in shackles and sent to jail.

My family history teaches me that neither stomping and slamming nor calm dignity will necessarily save you from a crowd who have given over thinking.

"The Towne Sisters" in Salem's Wax Museum.  Plaster statue depicting Rebecca Towne Nurse, Mary Towne Esty, and Sarah Towne Cloyse, wearing shackles.

I've wondered what Joseph did when all three of his sisters were in prison, accused of witchcraft.   At Rebecca's trial, thirty-nine members of the community signed a petition in her favor, testifying to her innocence and her excellent character, including one of the men who had first brought the accusation.  But Joseph's name wasn't on the petition.

Maybe it was too dangerous?  However, Rebecca's brother-in-law Peter Cloyce had signed.

Maybe it would have done no good, as son of a rumored witch and brother to three accused?

Maybe there was bad blood between the sisters and their brothers' families? After all, not only were my Joseph's in-laws, the Perkinses and Goulds and Putnams, enthusiastic witch-hunters, but also the granddaughter of another (deceased) Towne brother John (another Rebecca) was one of the afflicted girls who accused both her great-aunts Mary and Sarah.

In any case, the petition and Rebecca's repeated insistence of her innocence failed.  Feelings ran so high that even though Rebecca's jury came back with a "Not guilty," they were sent back to reconsider how poor half-deaf Rebecca, her good ear turned away, had sat like stone when asked if she had consorted with the devil.  Joseph was 53, not much older than I am now, when his oldest sister Rebecca was hanged.

Here's something else I've learned from my family history:  the protections of the law we live under are a treasure:
Many protections that modern defendants take for granted were lacking in Salem: accused witches had no legal counsel, could not have witnesses testify under oath on their behalf, and had no formal avenues of appeal. Defendants could, however, speak for themselves, produce evidence, and cross-examine their accusers. The degree to which defendants in Salem were able to take advantage of their modest protections varied considerably, depending on their own acuteness and their influence in the community.
And these distant great-aunts of mine were certainly acute, even if it did them little good personally.  After Rebecca's hanging, both Mary and Sarah were stuck in prison, when suddenly Mary was released and her family believed she had been saved.  Two days later though, just as suddenly, she was re-accused and at the second trial was condemned to death.  Waiting on death's row, past all hope for herself she wrote a petition:
I Petition to your honours not for my own life for I know I must die and my appointed time is sett but the Lord he knowes it is that if it be possible no more Innocent blood may be shed which undoubtidly cannot be Avoyded In the way and course you goe in
Mary Easty, calm and dignified to the end, suggested practical and reasonable ways the judges could check the validity of the accusations:
that no more Innocent blood be shed I would humbly begg of you that your honors would be plesed to examine theis Afflicted Persons strictly and keep them apart some time and Likewise to try some of these confesing wichis I being confident there is severall of them has belyed themselves and others as will appeare if not in this wor[l]d I am sure in the world to come whither I am now agoing



Mary's saintly demeanor at the gallows along with her moving petition were instrumental in stemming the mob's bloodlust and are credited with turning the tide:
“Hers is an expression of submission without servility. It is a statement of one person’s faith that New England can still be saved from itself.” 
Sarah's husband, Peter Cloyce, a "rough and tumble woodsman" unlike the husbands of her sisters,  "did more then just gape at their 'witch' wives in amazement at the trials."  After Mary's hanging in September and as every legal maneuver failed,  "Peter did the only intelligent thing as the shadow of the hangman’s rope drew near in the new round of trials of January 1693. He broke Sarah out of jail and fled south" until the madness of her neighbors began to clear and the charges against her were dismissed.  Sarah and Peter had no surviving children and she spent her remaining years working to exonerate the names of her sisters.  

But where was my grandfather Joseph (not to mention his wife, my grandmother Phebe) in all this?  Was he afraid or was he complacent?  Was he one of the bloodthirsty mob?  Was she?

The possibility of the mob being within our own hearth and home, within our own hearts is another thing I have learned from my family history.

I only know that Joseph lived until 1713 in the same town he had been born in, Topsfield just outside of Salem.  

I only know that "a brother of Sarah Cloyce" helped pay the bond to release William Hobbs who had been accused and imprisoned at the same time as Joseph's sisters.  William's  daughter Abigail had been one of the first accusers, one of the most vehement against Goody Nurse, Goody Cloyce, and Goodwife Easty, before she became one of the accused herself.  William Hobbs' wife Deliverance had also been accused and had confessed ("belyed" herself as Joseph's sister Mary had described it in her petition).  But I don't know if that brother was Joseph or not.  

I hope it was.



As I've walked through snowy streets this winter, as I've plowed through news reports and Facebook posts, I've thought of these stories, the ways mobs have shaped the stories of my family.  I've been listening to the world around me as hard as I can hear.

And what I've heard in the months since November 2016 is rockets and collapsing buildings in ancient cities of refuge, the anxious gabble of voices I don't understand as babies are dug out of the rubble.  I've heard posturing and plosives, sneers from high places, denials, fictional facts, and reasons why no one is responsible.  Bomb threats to Jewish community centers, Heil shouted by blond men in fancy hotel conference rooms and hate's triumphalism reanimated from the dingy 1930s.  Broad brush recriminations.  Verbal hand grenades lobbed from either side of any inconvenient wall.  The wailing of children held in detention at airports, jingling handcuffs on third-graders, chanting in the streets, a boastful cruelty that seems to stamp everything with the mob's fury. Hardworking mothers rounded up when they go grocery shopping and others hiding at home for fear of deportation. Children who can't sleep at night because their fathers were taken from their homes while they slept.  And closer to home, close to my heart, friends and neighbors crying out against each other, blame and anger beginning to swirl.

But I have also heard voices that call me to reflect, to keep cool. To be like water, like Mary Easty, submitting but not servile, persistent in reasonable petition.

And I have heard voices speak with fire, calling me to stand up like Sarah Cloyce, stomping out, calling out all grievous liars.

I need fire and water to speak together.  I need them both: the convivial warmth and the cleansing purification, the soothing coolness and the powerful flood, the nourishing broths simmered, the river-clay pots burned watertight in the kiln, swords melted and remade as plowshares to open up the good earth, awaiting heaven's rain.


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