The Act of Mapping the Soul

by Eliana Carter | Memoir | Spring 2019

Image by Benjamin Stevens

Before I was born, a house fire destroyed most of my dad’s family photos. His life has always been a bit of a mystery to me. Save for a wallet-sized photo of him when he was around seven years old, I have little idea what he even looked like as a kid or young adult. I know my grandparents and their families migrated from rural Louisiana to Oakland, California, before my father was born. They made their new life there, where my dad was raised. Too many relatives to count now call Oakland home.

Though my dad grew up in California, I am East Coast born and raised. Growing up, we’d board a plane every few years to visit his side of the family. Grandma would cook her famous gumbo on the stove, big pot boiling. Dungeness crab pulled from West Coast waters––a delicacy on our East Coast tongues. Each time I’d show up feeling like a new person, like a lifetime had passed. (If you ask them, they’ll tell you I look the same, just taller.) There’s always been this great distance between me and Oakland, both physically and temporally.

As I grew older, and tried to find my place in the world, understanding myself through my family history became more and more important. What were they like? What did they do? What was left behind in pursuit of Oakland? How far back can we trace my family’s history? I sat down with my dad on Christmas to ask him what he knew. I wanted to finally learn about my family’s history. I wanted to know why they moved, what kinds of stories he heard growing up. We sat down at the kitchen table. In a neighboring room my brother played Christmas tunes on the piano, while my mom read a novel on the couch. It was mid-afternoon, and our dinner was cooking in the oven. Soon we would be gathered around the table to eat, but first, I wanted to sit down and talk. Much to my dismay and surprise, he didn’t know much. I didn’t understand. How couldn’t he?

In 1942, my family moved from rural Louisiana to Oakland, where my father was born and raised. I’ve never known much about what prompted this move. There was racism. They lived in fear. But that was all I heard. When I ask my dad about why his parents and siblings uprooted and transported their home some 2,000 miles West, he doesn’t know much either. He is able to re-tell me the story that his uncles had told him. One day, a group of white men come knocking on his grandfather’s door in rural Louisiana.

My dad tells me,

So they came to him and they said, ‘We saw your son,’ which was my father, ‘With a mule down by the water,’ and they said, ‘You know we could have killed him right there but we didn’t. We didn’t do anything to him.’ They went on to tell him about all the other members of the family and how they had observed them and that they were just letting him know that if he didn’t do what they were asking, they would have trouble. That’s the time when they left the farming life and moved into the city.

So they packed up and moved. I can only assume this was merely one of many instances of racialized violence my family was faced with in Louisiana. My great-uncles told my dad this story; his parents wouldn’t. For my grandparents, the terrors of the South were a dark secret to be kept hidden away from the light. The trauma they endured was to be left there: in the past. No wonder my dad didn’t know much. The information I was looking for wasn’t available to him, even when he asked. As much as they tried to leave the South behind, they carried relics of it with them into their life in California: in the way they talked, the food they ate, and the way they saw the world. Under the surface lived this world of Southern influence.

My dad continues,

It was funny, it was a strange thing. But at the same time there was this sympathetic world right under the surface that was all Southern. There was Southern cooking, people would get together and talk about the past… The kinds of things that they knew about this other world that they lived in. So when they would sit around and reminisce, it was all about this other world. Even though they tried to stay away from it, they brought everything with them.

Listening to my dad talk about this, I begin to crave these stories. What is lost from their insistence that the past was in the past? I understand why they wouldn’t want to speak about these things. There’s something very American in that assertion that the past is in the past, unable to reconcile with histories of slavery. Buried in our history books, it is the insistence that we can all move forward in our own right. That our past does not affect the future, that it doesn’t matter after all. We like to bury the terror and trauma that our families lived through. But when we abandon the past for the present, what are we left with?

The history of my mom’s family is well-documented. It can be traced back centuries, well before they immigrated to America from Hungary. I know a great deal about my family’s lineage on my mom’s side. I could tell you where and when they immigrated, where they lived before that, even the names and occupations of the specific family members. But with my dad’s family, not only could I not trace the movement of my family from one state to the next, I couldn’t even locate them before America. Where did they come from before Louisiana? Africa? Our history, and the history of many African Americans in this country has been erased. Because those who were enslaved were considered property, they were not granted marriage certificates, medical records or census records from which a typical genealogy would be constructed. Pre-Civil War family research for African Americans means sifting through auction records, property ledgers, and bills of sale. A lost cause for many.

Image courtesy of the author

It’s no surprise so many African Americans have little connection to their ancestry. During slavery, children were often forcibly removed from their parents, parents were sold to different plantations, and families were forged, not by blood, but through communities. My last name, Carter, was most likely picked up by my ancestors, who were enslaved by a family named Carter. Our name is not our own.

My dad thinks about this differently, seeing ancestry traced in different ways that don’t always rely on an oral or written history.

Like me, he once believed our history was untraceable. Then my mom got him a DNA kit specifically for African Americans to trace their DNA back to before their ancestors were brought to America.

He explains,

Your mother got me this DNA kit. Called African DNA or something like that. I tried it and it’s like, all of a sudden, you know that there are links to these different African groups. It made it really fascinating. All of a sudden, here’s a concrete thing. It’s in your DNA. Generations of slavery didn’t wash this away. It’s still alive. We grew up as African Americans; we had no connection to the past, really. Except for our families, you know. And to look beyond that was kind of hopeless for a lot of people. We didn’t have any idea we could do that. Only some vague idea of Africa. But I remember my father was always talking about, you know, we’re Americans. We’re not from Africa. We don’t know anything about Africa, so people pretending that we do, that’s really silly. You can’t let people take away your being an American away from you.

Africa—not just some vague idea, but actual groups of people can be linked to my family’s history. We came from somewhere. Not just an entire continent, but actual places and of actual people. We have a history that extends beyond Louisiana. Now we have something that can connect us and it’s something concrete. It’s in our blood. But it’s more than just our DNA. My dad claims he can recognize the legacy and influence Africa has had on his family. He notes the similarities in customs, in ways of making community, in ways of seeing the world. It’s all there under the surface. It was futile to try and leave it all behind.

My dad continues,

The civil rights movement started in Louisiana. Not just Plessy [v. Ferguson], we can go back to Plessy. But even before that there were newspapers, there were political parties, there were support groups, there were some of those groups that were involved in Mardi Gras and those kinds of things. Those kinds of independent societies that were established to support one another. They’re not only some of the oldest in the country, they’re very similar to African societies that are developed for the same purposes. When you see people dancing in the Mardi Gras, those are African dances.

In the early 1990s, a surge of Black films began to be created about Black families going south in pursuit of their roots. In one, Down in the Delta, directed by Maya Angelou, a single mother is sent to live with her uncle for the summer to get her life together. She has no job, and is struggling to support her two children, who are cared for in great part by her mother. She is threatened by her family knowledge. If she does not prove to her mother she is willing to care for her family and understand her family’s history by the end of the summer, her mother will sell their only lasting family heirloom from the slavery period: a silver candelabra that was sold in exchange for her great-grandfather. In this film, and in many others of this time period, knowing your roots is power. To know where you come from connects you to a broader sense of identity. It brings you back home, it reminds you who you are, and it propels you into the future.

Being a descendent of enslaved people means reconciling in some way with the past of slavery: how it shaped you and how you see your role in today’s world. You can’t sit back and look at your ancestry as an African American without thinking of struggle and pushing through. There is no other option but to work for a better future.

In the late ’60s, African Americans began to re-connect themselves to Africa. This was around the time my father was born. Scholars and artists began to re-connect themselves with the idea of Africa as a homeland. Nina Simone famously fled to Liberia in 1974. What began as a visit to see South African musical legend Miriam Makeba ended in Simone’s three year stay. In her memoir I Put a Spell on You she writes, “The America I’d dreamed of through the sixties seemed a bad joke now, with Nixon in the White House and the black revolution replaced by disco … Africa, half a world away from New York. Maybe I could find some peace there, or a husband. Maybe it would be like going home.”

People like my grandfather pushed back on the idea of Africa as a lost homeland, a homeland to return to. We’re American, not African, he said. We don’t know anything about Africa.

My dad continues,

There are things that are just there. They’re a part of your life. And this was infused in the world that I grew up in, too. Things that are considered for most Westerners inanimate are not considered inanimate for Africans or people from my community. So, like, a tree, or a stone, or whatever it is, they’re considered to have some sort of spirit, some sort of intentionality in the world. And that’s the way I grew up looking at things. It was almost like people were joking—but they weren’t really joking. It’s like the way that you treat things in the world and the way that you regard them. You regard them as they are other beings in the world.

There’s a spiritual element, too. A cosmological one. No matter how Christian they were, the way my family saw the world was different, and this was informed by African cosmologies. Many African Americans today take from African spiritualism to inform their day-to-day lives. As a way of connecting to Africa, many African Americans follow Yoruba or other religions derived from Yoruba, a religion stemming from southwest Nigeria. Many Yoruba people were spread across the Atlantic slave trade, and around the world people of the African diaspora practice Yoruba beliefs, which include reincarnation and ancestral guidance in the form of energy and spirits.

I realized that there’s a whole other world that’s informing their existence, but they don’t talk about this much. I remember when you were there eating gumbo one day at my mother’s house, and people were like, ‘Oh, look at that child eating that gumbo. Look at her. Oh, she’s an old soul. No one had to teach her. She’s been here before. But they’re really saying, you know, you’ve been here before. You’re not just new to this world. You’ve been around. You’re a spirit that’s been here. That’s the way they talk but they’re really kind of serious about it. They’re looking for these signs of belonging in something like that. The way you eat something. The way you do something. That’s what makes you one of us.

The predetermined cosmological viewpoint, the ancestral guide which leads you toward goodness, which moves in your step… I’m not sure I believe in this type of thing. Reincarnation is a word that sits like a question in my mouth, but I’m drawn to love it if it means belonging.

Back before we came, Grandma cooked gumbo on the stove in Baton Rouge: sassafras, okra, celery stock. She passed away when I was sixteen. At her funeral, I read Psalm 23. It goes like this:

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

It’s a similar sentiment, God as a spiritual guide. Before I started this, I was having trouble placing myself in my family’s history. I was having trouble with the lack of knowledge I had, about who we were, and where we came from. As I continue to learn more about my family’s history, I remember these sentiments: to think of your ancestors as guides, and to walk through life in their memory. This much I can take forward. There is an implicit honor in this—this, to me, is legacy.

Graphic Arts

Issue Artwork, Spring 2019

by Wilder Voice Artists | Graphic Arts | Spring 2019

The following works appear independent of any print piece in the Spring 2019 issue.


Ode to a Texas Toad

by Charlie Rinehart-Jones | Poetry | Fall 2018

Art by Benjamin Stevens

Thirsty Lizards Invent Trains
Geese, select, oblige, hunt
Frogs want elegant celery
Wings ingest open breath
Kids abide worthless hammers and toys
Waves shake, worthless matter

Greet, spoon, spot, argue
Empty parallels, Direct Beams
Buy chair, “sick wrench”
Greasy rain, thank god
Treasure shame, reflect
Collapse, pathetic volleyball

Temporal Reflections

A Good Night’s Sleep

by Kira Findling | Temporal Reflections | Fall 2018

Art by Benjamin Stevens

There’s a disconnect with elder care in the United States. People are living longer, but nursing facilities aren’t catching up with the need for comfortable and engaging long-term care. My grandpa, Martin, moved into a rehab facility last summer following a series of intense surgeries and near-death experiences. Martin, who I call Papa, loves to nap. In my childhood, whenever I visited his house, I’d find him snoring on the couch, my grandma hitting his arm to wake him up. He seemed peaceful, drifting off in the middle of a conversation or television episode. At the rehab center, however, he struggled to sleep through the night, plagued by anxiety and loneliness. Along with the rest of my family, I tried to visit as often as I could, but found myself trapped in limbo, unsure what to do to help him in the face of a system beyond my control. Like Papa, many elderly people spend their days stuck in routines they didn’t choose, waiting for something to change, regardless of the good intentions of their family members. Among those who are receiving care in facilities, almost half struggle with depression, according to a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But some relatives of the elderly believe that nursing home care offers the best option, while others are determined to take care of people in their own homes. Home care typically involves the work of live-in caretakers, who relieve families of nursing duties and allow for a good night’s sleep. Yet while Medicaid can help pay for this service, the application process can be onerous and inaccessible, requiring many documents and extensive financial information. Limited by government policies and financial concerns, people around the country are forced to make decisions about elder care with very little room to consider individuals’ happiness and specific needs.

In the facility, Papa often gave up and retreated into himself. Sometimes we entered his room to find him in another world, eyes unfocused and voice quiet. When my grandma brought him his favorite ice cream, he shrugged. On those days, his passion and excitement seemed to have evaporated. While some of that came from his poor health, I’m sure that much of it was due to his environment. His rehab center was state-of-the-art, with rigorous physical therapy and a rotating entertainment schedule, but the basic setup of nursing home care promoted boredom and isolation. He didn’t talk much to the other residents, instead relying on my family to visit constantly, to the point that my grandma decided to hire a caretaker after many sleepless nights. Time after time, he’d yell, “Get me out of here,” and we’d sit uncomfortably, unable to give him what he wanted. The reason why the current system of elder care isn’t working for my grandpa and many others? It’s premised on routine and repetition.

A doctor from New York wants to change that. Dr. Bill Thomas has spent his life working to tear down the nursing home system as we know it. In the early 1990s, he spent hours observing patients in nursing homes—patients who, like Papa, sat alone and waiting for hours, only to be wheeled somewhere else to do it all over again. Dr. Thomas began to think of nursing homes like spaceships, devoid of any sense of life or nature. Interviewed on the podcast Reply All, he said, “If our lives lack enough spontaneity, it loses its tang. It loses that sweet edge that comes from talking about that thing that happened, that nobody thought was going to happen. And nursing homes, actually the best of them, are extremely good at wiping out spontaneity—crushing it.” Dr. Thomas’s first big idea was the Eden Alternative. He introduced animals to the nursing home: four dogs, eight cats, and four hundred birds. Within minutes, the old folks began to giggle and chatter. One elderly man who had been unable to speak for months verbally requested a bird. He transformed from someone locked inside himself to someone speaking animatedly with a parakeet. The death rate of the nursing home plummeted and its patients were using significantly less medication. The success of the Eden Alternative came down to its chaotic nature. The elders were now living like they did for much of their lives: with little knowledge of what exactly would happen next. But though Dr. Thomas traveled around the country promoting the Eden Alternative, the initiative’s effectiveness waned when animals were introduced in an orderly manner, and nursing homes once again lost any sense of unpredictability.

The Eden Alternative holds incredible possibility for improving the lives of elderly people like my grandpa. It made care facilities into dynamic spaces with surprises and reasons to get up in the morning. Why bother spending energy when you know you’re living in a fixed, unmalleable environment? The Eden Alternative’s conclusion is that people need unexpected things to happen in life, or they will give up and retreat inside themselves. No one wants to stare at the wall all day. People want to connect, to be together, to talk and debate, to laugh. Dr. Thomas believes that elders deserve more autonomy, and that we have the opportunity as a society to build an entirely new system of elder care.

Last summer, I was always only a thought away from crying, wishing I could leave my desk and drive to the rehab facility. Papa was always confused, spinning from recklessly hopeful to dismayed. He asked my grandma why he was eating lunch at midnight, when really it was noon. One day he got so frustrated that he told us that he could imagine why someone would want to commit suicide after being stuck in a bed with no one to talk to. His caretaker was there for hours during the day, but at night Papa was alone. He woke intermittently to watch infomercials on the TV mounted to the wall, the speaker soft next to his ear so it wouldn’t wake his roommate.

Some believe that no one needs to live in nursing homes because they could get that care at home for the same price or cheaper. On Reply All’s episode on elder care, Tammy Marshall, Chief Experience Officer of the New Jewish Home in New York, said, “There isn’t anybody here that needed to be here. I could literally close this. […] All that we’re doing here can be done in your home.” Nursing homes are extremely expensive in comparison to the cost of hiring home care workers, who work long hours for low wages. Yet families often find themselves in a position where nursing homes seem to be the only option due to specific needs and the amount of energy that caretaking requires. In my papa’s case, he had to be in a rehab facility to access physical therapy. But even with “good” care—his daily physical therapy and opportunities for group activities—Papa felt aimless and missed us when we couldn’t be there. My grandma brought him home as soon as possible to end his feeling of isolation and the exhaustion of driving back and forth to the facility. A physical therapist came to the house a few times, but his treatment wasn’t as intense as it had been. The nursing home offered services that the house couldn’t, because of spatial limitations and availability of therapists. The situation left my family in a difficult position, having to choose between my grandpa’s happiness or physical health. Though Marshall is correct in saying that the services offered in a nursing facility can be replicated at home, doing so isn’t easy. It requires resources and emotional energy that many simply don’t have.

Print by Ian Ruppenthal

Caring for an elderly family member is a deeply intimate experience. Relationships change as power dynamics are flipped and decades-old dynamics disappear. Though caretaking can be a burden, it is a burden that many take on without thinking, out of love. My grandma’s life now revolves around taking care of Papa, but she can’t imagine it any other way. Like most people, she views her commitment to my grandpa as a promise to care for him towards the end of his life. She’ll be by his side. But this vow becomes an undue burden when she finds herself with very few options for elder care and when, despite her best efforts, Papa feels lonely and understimulated.

When I think about Papa’s experience in the rehab facility last summer and his continued support from live-in caretakers, I like to imagine a new world. I think of a system where Papa could decide what would make him feel healthy and supported. His dementia would prevent him from dealing with practical concerns, and we’d still have to remind him that he couldn’t drive or go to the bathroom alone, but he could tell us what he wanted and we would do our best to make that happen. So much of elder care is trying to figure out what’s best for your relative. Each day last summer, my grandma tried to make Papa happy while keeping him safe. But sometimes in the chaos of stress and decision-making, his emotional needs got lost. Papa was most at peace when we followed his lead and played along with the world he was living in, when we went along with his confused trains of thought rather than trying to correct them. For a moment, we would be on the same page, together in his world of endless daylight and imaginary orchestras and protein drinks for dinner, and he would smile.

When I imagine a better system of elder care, it’s based around community support and accessibility. Family members have a variety of affordable and supportive options for their relatives who need assistance. No one has to shoulder the responsibility of caretaking alone. I feel hopeful that, to some degree, that better system already exists. Over the summer, my extended family took turns visiting Papa and helping my grandma with logistics. These days, we all do what we can to make sure she is supported. Everyone—especially those who live close by—pitches in with food, advice, time, and words of support. But in my imagined system, it goes further. Caretaking is accessible and possible for all people, and valued as a job in and of itself. No one has to make decisions that leave their family members lonely and scared. There’s an institutional safety net for people who fall through the cracks. In my imagined system, Papa never stops caring. He’s present, with his family, and everyone gets a good night’s sleep.

One afternoon in July, after hours at the rehab facility, my family went back to my grandma’s house to go swimming. The evening flew by—pizza dinner, a call from Papa’s caretaker that she was leaving for the night. As I headed home, I realized that I had left my sunglasses at the facility. At 10:00 PM, I walked into the rehab center, greeted by the familiar sounds of wheelchairs in the halls and nurses’ shoes squeaking on the floors. Before I entered Papa’s room, I saw that he was pushing the call button again and again. The nurse bustled in and asked what he needed. Papa said, “How are you?” She smiled and adjusted his pillows. He had woken up and didn’t want to be alone. Their conversation was short; as they spoke, I snuck into the room, got my sunglasses, and left. I told myself that it would confuse him to see me there only for a moment, but really I wasn’t sure if I could handle the interaction. I knew it would wreck me to see him so helpless and alone at night. But as I left, I ran into a nurse I recognized. She smiled. “Saying goodnight to your grandpa?” When I shook my head, she gave me a long, appraising look. I poked my head into Papa’s room. He said a soft hello, sweet and tired. I told him that it was late—he had no idea what time of day it was—and that I had to go home, but that I’d be back soon. He nodded, and I kissed his forehead. Papa waved me goodbye all the way out the door. I walked out of the facility slowly, smiling at people in the rooms who were still awake. It still makes me cry to think of leaving him in that bed. That’s the reason I care so much about nursing homes and loneliness. I saw him ringing that call button again and again, and all I wanted to do was talk to him until he fell asleep, and sit by his bed until he woke up and we did it all over again.

Graphic Arts

Issue Artwork, Fall 2018

by Wilder Voice Artists | Graphic Arts | Fall 2018

The following works appear independent of any print piece in the Fall 2018 issue.