Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Sling Diaries, Volume III, Love & Adventure: Memory

Go here to learn about the Sling Diaries project.

Being an only child is strange.  Of course, childhood in general is strange, though it usually doesn't seem so at the time.  But there's a special strangeness to only-childhood.  You rattle around.  You have no fixed frame of reference, no one to collaborate with on the interpretation of your existence.  You are the only one.

Memory changes.  Time turns the kaleidoscope; pieces rearrange themselves; the view shifts gently while you're looking away.  Right now, my memories of my childhood in suburban Northern Virginia - a place to which neither of my parents had any social, familial, or ancestral connection - seem delineated by solitude.  It's not that I felt lonely, but rather that I was alone.  In my home, I shared no spaces, I shared no people, and I shared no things.  I did not agree, disagree, or compromise.  My existence was not grouped with anyone else's; aside from my parents, I was responsible for no one, and no one was responsible for me.

A memory.  I was in elementary school.  I was sleeping over at my friend CB's house, and we stayed up late watching television in the den with CB's big sister A, who was three or four years older than we were.  A fell asleep on the sofa, and before CB and I went upstairs to bed, CB gently pulled a blanket over her sister's sleeping body.  I was completely arrested: CB's act struck me with the force of a slap.  CB literally never spoke positively of her sister, and at least half of the interactions that I had ever witnessed between them were argumentative, often to the point of tears.  I was shocked beyond all belief that she would behave so affectionately, so tenderly to the person that I thought of as her enemy - and it wasn't even especially cold in the house!  The gesture seemed, first of all, crazily grown-up, and second of all, like something that would happen in a storybook, or a romance, or a game of make-believe.  It related to nothing in my personal experience, nothing at all.

Another memory.  I had just started high school, and I was visiting my new friend E's house for the first time.  Her little sister was over ten years younger than we were, still in preschool, still in that stage of childhood where you are not quite talking or moving like a regular human being.  She said some babble-y thing or another to E, and E responded to her cheerfully, calling her "honey."  My attention was riveted by that one endearment, and I thought about it for days.  It seemed crazy that E actually lived with a person who she called "honey."  I had never called anyone "honey" in my entire life.  Like what I had seen with CB and E, it spoke to me of something completely outside of my sphere: a fully-formed, mutual, peer-to-peer emotional connection of a sort that could not be had with a parent, or really with any adult at all.

I don't mean to say that there's anything wrong with being an only child, and I certainly don't mean to suggest that my parents impoverished my experience by not having more children.  This is not about "happy childhood" versus "unhappy childhood," and even if it were, I'm not such a caveman as to think that number of siblings is the single all-important determinant of the quality of one's early experience.  Also, I know that nothing is universal: similar metrics, so to speak (like having zero siblings, or one, or seven), will produce different experiences for different people.  I am sure that there are plenty of only children whose emotional memories are entirely unlike mine, and plenty of one-of-fives whose emotional memories are surprisingly similar.

That said, I'm glad that my children have each other.  Each is the third leg of the other's stool; they can think and speak not only of "my mother" and "my father," but also of "my brother."  Their "us" could mean all four of us together, or it could mean just them.  They are on their own team, together.  Not for them the forced inarticulacy of onlyhood: each can speak the other's experience.  I can't help but think that, all other things being equal (which of course they never are), this is the better way to grow up.

My parents still live in Reston, Virginia, on Chimney House Road, in the house in which I grew up.  When we visit, I watch my children move through the same spaces that I did as a child.  They play, eat, sleep, bathe, and pee exactly where I did, and I take them to the same pools, the same zoos, the same playgrounds and parks.  I watch their memories forming amidst the echoes of my own.  I know
that no matter how else their childhood memories may end up diverging from or cleaving to mine, at least one thing will be completely different: their memories will be populated by each other.  I can't help but see that difference as a gift, and I can't help but feel proud that I'm the one who bestowed it.

Colvin Run Mill, 1980.

Colvin Run Mill,  2013.

Colvin Run Mill, 2013.

Colvin Run Mill, 2013.

Colvin Run Mill, 2013.

Colvin Run Mill, 2013.

Colvin Run Mill, 2013.

Colvin Run Mill, 2013.

Colvin Run Mill, 1980.

Chimney House Road, 1980.

Chimney House Road, 2013.

Chimney House Road, 2013.

Chimney House Road, 2013.

Chimney House Road, 1980.

Monday, May 6, 2013


This morning, after showering, my husband could not find his comb.  He walked into the living room, wrapped in a towel.  "What should I use to comb my hair?"

"Use a fork," I suggested.

"Use a fork that has food on it," my older son suggested.

My husband ended up using the ribcage from my older son's model human body, which was lying around disassembled on the counter.

"I don't care, you can use it," my older son said. "That's OK by me."

"It's a Mexican thing, to comb your hair with skeletons," said my husband.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Sling Diaries: Inspiration, Part II, the images

This is the second of two postings on the Sling Diaries theme of inspiration.  Click here for the first posting, which immediately precedes this one. 

The Village Vanguard opened its doors at 178 7th Ave in 1935.  It began by hosting poetry readings and folk music, but by the late 1950s, it was largely dedicated to jazz.  The Vanguard booked the brightest lights of bebop, launching the career of Thelonius Monk, among others.  It was a center of the Beat/bebop artistic communities from the late 1950s through the 1960s.  By the time I made it to NYC, the Vanguard had gotten expensive; I whiled away my time at Smalls around the corner instead, listening to bebop and pouring lemonade.

Greenwich Village has been historically known as an artists' haven and bohemian enclave.  Beginning in the late 19th century, the neighborhood has always attracted artists of all stripes, and it has been a center for many artistic and cultural movements.  I spent much of the summer of 1995, when I was 17, wandering the crooked streets of the Village late at night, sitting on stoops with my girlfriends, smoking surreptitious cigarettes, and waiting for the jazz boys to be done with their gigs...

Ben Bass opened the Strand Bookstore in 1927, and moved it to its current location on Broadway at 12th St in 1957.  My father worked there in the 1960s when Ben was still the boss, and I worked there in the summer of 1995, under Ben's son Bill.

The first labor march in NYC happened in Washington Square Park in 1834, and it hasn't been quiet since.  It was a gathering place for bohemians and folk musicians in the 1950s and 1960s.  Diane DiPrima (and many others) used to sleep there.  The famous 1961 headline "3000 BEATNIKS RIOT IN VILLAGE" referred to a scuffle that broke out between folk musicians and police there.  Dave Von Ronk writes: "That Washington Square Sunday afternoon scene was a catalyst for my whole generation."

The Cafe Reggio has been at 119 MacDougal St since 1927.  (The menu says that it is the first cafe in the country to serve cappuccino.)  It is one of the last standing of the old Village cafes, and has seen more than its share of history.  You should go some time.  Have a Viennese coffee and a pastry.  Enjoy being where you are.

I am wearing the Sakura Bloom Simple Silk Sling in Midnight.  Click here for information on the clothing and styling in these photographs.

Sling Diary: Inspiration, Part I, the words

Note: If you are not sure what a "Sling Diary" is, please go here first.

Hettie Jones was the first mother who inspired me.  I read her memoir, How I Became Hettie Jones, when I was a senior in high school.  I read it, then re-read it once immediately, and then maybe a few times more that year, and then at least once or twice every year since, for the past seventeen years.

Hettie Jones is a writer (obviously) and the ex-wife of the poet LeRoi Jones, now known as Amiri Baraka.  They were married in 1958, had two children in the early 60s, and then divorced in 1965.  How I Became Hettie Jones tells the story of their marriage, which was, of course, truly remarkable for the time, occurring a decade before anti-miscegenation laws were deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.  The book also describes artistic Greenwich Village of the 1950s and 1960s: the lives and work of Hettie and LeRoi, as well as of the writers, painters, and musicians surrounding them, including some of the most famous names of the Beat Generation.

As a teenage girl living in the suburbs and craving sophistication, the subject matter of the book interested me greatly.  I was of course a fan of the Beat writers, and I loved New York City in general and the Village in particular.  Once I started reading, though, I found myself most captivated by the explicit femininity of the material.  This was the first time that I had read a serious female writer who was interested in taking her femaleness seriously. Up to that point, I had not considered wifehood or motherhood or the female experience in general to be matters of serious interest to serious people.  I'm not sure if this is because of old-school feminist attitudes that I had absorbed from my mother and the other Baby Boomer women who were the mothers and teachers of my childhood, or because of outright sexism built into my somewhat conventional education.  Whatever the case may be, I had a firmly-held but largely subconscious belief that women were most interesting and valuable and smart when they were, in essence, "acting like men" - working, earning, achieving, etc.

Hettie Jones, back then
LeRoi Jones, back then

Hettie Jones, in her one slim volume, entirely upended that belief for me.  All honesty and no rancor, she exposes the attitudes, held in even the most "revolutionary" and "avant-garde" circles, that discounted the work, thoughts, feelings, and rights of women who dared to become girlfriends, wives, or mothers.  And despite the brutal pervasiveness of these attitudes, she holds fast to her own  understanding that womanhood as it is -  rather than womanhood wrapped in a cloak of masculinity - can be a matter of interest, a subject of art.  She shows, in short, that womanhood, the explicitly female experience, is worthy of attention.  It matters.

As important as the ideas - integral to them, really - is the voice in which they are expressed.  It is a voice the likes of which 17-year-old me had never encountered before, an unmistakably female voice, a voice that does not imitate or even really respond to any settled, male-dominated traditions.  The voice is confident and clear, pliant and exploratory, loving and joyful.  After many, many, many readings, the rhythms of Hettie Jones's voice have worked their way into mine: I am not sure if I can write a sentence, or even think a thought, that is uninfluenced by her.  Hettie Jones was the first mother who inspired me, and she inspires me still.

For this month's Sling Diaries photos, on the theme of Inspiration, I could think of no better place to turn than Hettie Jones.  My kids and I, together with photographer and Metro Minis founder Bianca Fehn, hit the streets of Greenwich Village, where most of How I Became Hettie Jones takes place.

There is, incidentally, another way in which the streets of Greenwich Village represent inspiration for me.  My father, Ralph Lee Smith, lived in the Village throughout the 1960s, playing folk music and writing.  Here's some incriminating evidence:

That's my dad on the right.
That's him on the right again.  If you find this record, buy it.

On our visits to New York when I was a child and then a teenager, my father would take me through the streets of the Village and tell me stories of the life he used to live there.  He is the first artist I ever knew, and the first New Yorker.  He's also the one who gave me How I Became Hettie Jones.

Accordingly, this Sling Diary is dedicated to my father, Ralph Lee Smith, and to Hettie Jones, two people who have inspired me as woman, mother, writer, artist, and New Yorker.

This is the first of two postings on the Sling Diaries theme of inspiration.  Click here for the second posting, which immediately follows this one.