For three nights, my mother hasn’t slept. Since her cousin died, his spirit has visited her each night, for hours at a time. He appears from the waist up on the north wall of her bedroom, facing her directly, blinking but not speaking. He doesn’t frighten her; on the contrary, she hopes that one of these nights he will claim her, escort her to the other side, where he now resides. She prepares me for this possibility.
Interconnectedness. That’s the single word I would use to describe this essay. Everyone mentioned has connections to disparate sources, and they all find joy in every connection.
I can’t even follow the connections – a grandmother from India who went to Guyana as an indentured servant, begetting a father from Guyana who with a mother from Jamaica begat the author herself, now married to a scientist of German descent who never heard talk of spirits before but sits with his mother in law and holds her disease-gnarled hands.
And there’s Briere herself, who is interconnected, not just with the West Indies and America and white and black, but with science and art: after earning a Yale PhD in genetics, she went on to earn an MFA from Bennington. In a world where the arts and humanities are being forsaken for science, she has run the other way, and I love her for it. But she has not abandoned science, not at all; she recognizes that art and science themselves are interconnected, and remain so in spite of our current obsession with dividing them, with declaring one to be a worthy pursuit and the other to be trivial. Check out some high-end mathematicians on Twitter some time: they’re all about the art, the beauty, the symmetry, the elegance of their field. Or read how Briere describes what lab science borrows from history, psychology, literature:
What attracts me to genetics isn’t purely the validation of thought or the process of discovery, but, rather , what it symbolizes. Our genomes contain our complete ancestral history, a record of where we’ve been. The history of our evolution has been transcribed and it lives in every one of our cells. And perhaps more inspiring than this record are the vast open regions that represent where we, as a species, have yet to go. These regions are wide open, ready to be filled with fortitude and endurance.
Genetics, like storytelling, is a search for core truths, for what informs the human condition.
The hand-on-the-back that forms the thread of the piece – an unseen force that crops up for Briere on several discrete occasions, always memorable but never quite categorizable – serves as a psychic symbol for that interconnectedness. The 21st century, too, has poets of the body, and of the soul. And that led me back to Whitman.
A few weeks ago, Jeet Heer tried to draw a connection between Sarah Palin and Walt Whitman: her rambling speech versus his catalogs. I had a pretty strong negative reaction to this. Whitman’s catalogs were meant to enumerate the inclusivity of all things, the unity with him of all: “every atom belonging to me as good as belongs to you”. He was drawing a line from him to everything else. Palin was drawing a line around herself, and those she deems acceptable, to separate them from what she sees as unacceptable. It’s true they both drew lines, but lines can communicate, or rope off, can pull up or tie down. To see Whitman’s interconnectedness as Palin’s division struck me as a hideous miscasting. And yet… Whitman himself considered himself the poet of body, of soul, of slave and slavemaster, of everything. Who am I to argue.
But back to Briere:
I’m a child, impressionable, and my mother’s explanations of the world are bigger than skyscrapers and dinosaurs. She says that our ancestors are always with us, that our dead relatives inhabit our lives…..She says the fabric of humanity is ancient and unfathomable. She says life is infinite and eternal. She says when I meet my ancestors, I will recognize their faces and know them by name.
In other words, heaven is family.
I have to admit, I’m at a disadvantage when it comes to talking about family connections. My family was bizarrely interconnected, yet also dissociated, due to both a divorce that happened before divorce was commonplace, and the immigrant need my father felt to assimilate. There are benefits to assimilation, to be sure, but there are also losses when carried to an extreme. I’m envious of the generations of memories and influences Briere carries with her. In contrast, I should have inherited a kind of stoicism, of hardiness, but as it was stripped from its generative context, it never suited me anywhere near as well as Briere’s always-present ancestors suit her.
Maybe this, then, is the opening theme of this volume: spanning divisions, interconnecting. From Adele in the first story, we have spanning gender, age, culture, all set in New York City, the very model of a modern multiculturalism. The women who sing the blues, sing different blues of different shades, from different places, yet at some deep place, the blue is universal, and that’s why each culture has its own lyric. Interconnections. Universality. Or maybe I’m just reaching for it as a theme because I want it to be there.