It all started when…
…....I imagine the veils around each word, like the gauzy pleated chadris that embrace their bodies when they aren’t inside the schoolyard; or in their own homes doing the “woman’s work” of caring for younger siblings, making the family loaves of bread, tucking and pulling at clothes to mend, embroidering or weaving on some ancient tribal pattern for rug or pillow or bag. The physical veils, unlike those around language, shield them when they go between the approved shelters of school and home, never allowing them to go another way.
As the barefaced, foreign female teacher in the village, I rarely forget my strangeness. The shopkeepers, the old men with their burros and bags of goods, the small boys who weed the mud and sand rutted roads for treasurers left by occasional tourists or wanderers set down briefly in their old bazaar’s midst, accept me on my lone walks between compound and school or bazaar, nod their approval at the scarf I always wear over my head, the discreetly long jackets and pants which make up my teaching outfit. When I am with my husband, Thomas, the greetings ring out even more often as each man stops to ask about the malims. Every errand into the web of food stands that make up the central bazaar becomes a movable reception, a period for easy talk that lapses into tea drinking and storytelling. One old villager and then another will speak warily of the limits of the rain this year, or how a khan, one of the rich men who owns most of the village land, has just announced a new mosque for the neighborhood, or how the funeral of a relative has passed twelve days before. Soon it is late afternoon, the groups unwind like goods in a bundle, and each goes about his separate chores for the night.
My days of going to and from Lycee Mahasty, the village girls’ school, swell around me each hour in the stuffy classroom, like some half-articulated secret I am bound to discover. There is first the series of winding paths slick with ice in the winter, porous as molded cheese during the spring rains that edge along the river beside our house, and lead me like some djinn of misdirection back and forth across the steam. Then, in late autumn, swollen and fast in the spring, the paths carry me gingerly over wobbly wooden bridges that stretch over the water until I come out at the maze of the market. Dodging the goat herders and the tramping camels, weaving in like a long thread through the shuttle of early morning traffic, I pause to let a cart or horseman pass around me, and briefly lean flat against the display of the first booth where a merchant sits cross-legged and watches, then laugh with them as I delicately test the sand or the mud or the dark-stained snow. Clutching my books and an inevitably rolled up chart, I respond to each greeting with a prayer for peace and health to the individual and his family, mindful of the murmur of “the teacher is coming” which breezes along the lanes like a royal chorus.
The bazaar itself then falls behind me, and I move down an almost straight path for several minutes, the dirt hard and packed , shouldered on both sides by the tall mud walls of family compounds, until I reach the small gate in the girl’s school wall and emerge into the courtyard. The string of students who usually follow me, chattering and questioning, then stumble inside in one burst behind me, scattered stubs of blown thistle, and the gate closes.
Tashkurghan, Afghanistan (December 1975)
Children Kept from the Sun: Excerpts ftom a Peace Corps Journal
My Father Visits His Sister in the Sanitarium
I see my father, fedora on knee
hair thick-black clouding around him
glancing up from the morning headlines
to the space of glass of the train window
on the way to see his sister at the State Hospital.
It is 1933 and a war is coming.
When the gate closes and they lock it
the sanitarium grounds shutter around him
red-brick buildings sprawling dustily,
cement walks plowing across weedy green fields.
It is October and next month he will marry.
Up the chipped steps to the long corridor
another key clicks, a hinge clasps
feet padding back and forth hum
before doors ajar into rooms stripped
of everything but metal beds.
He is 32, his father doctors indigents on the prairie.
Attendants order him to sit,
in the common room he clutches his paper,
a basket of fresh cinnamon buns and roses
his wife-to-be sent along with her prayers.
The ward moves around him,
their shuffling dance and blinking opaque eyes
hard nails across a blackboard.
Six thousand miles away Einstein visits
his schizophrenic youngest son
the boy’s mind sloshes darkly in claw-like motions,
precarious; his own projects to stars,
then rests on dove wings.
This is the last time Albert will visit.
My father watches a woman curled tight as a kitten
in a bamboo chair missing its slates;
beside a barred window, another weeps,
rocking from foot-to-foot on thick dirty socks,
chilblain red hands sewing in the air.
This autumn no rain falls and the mineral springs
beside the hospital stink of sulfur.
They bring his sister in, sturdy gown and
face the color of cauliflower,
pianist’s fingers heavy by her side;
she reaches out swaddled wrists, following
a spark in his same blue eyes, the father’s eyes,
remembers the catechism of hugging this youngest brother,
then stops, pats the chair and slips down.
Fresh from two weeks of needle showers and vapor baths,
cold packs and hydro-therapy, the narcosis or sleeping cure,
she starts like a small bird,
then flutters her hands toward him.
Back in a small Texas town
her tiny children eat oatmeal with their grandmother.
“You are kind to come, Alpheus,”
she puts down each word like a full sponge,
“Do you know, they’ll be giving us tea soon?
My time here is quite suspended:
does father have treatment for my melancholy?”
My father’s sister only grew a little older,
father’s first son and daughter toddlers
beside his chair, when her end came.
In later years, he could never visit
his children in such places,
though one by one by one
would mince his journey there.
He shed one small tear,
his second son recalled 60 years later,
before the one small tear across his wrist
that cut his own life,
The Rest is Silence: Poems by Frances Garrett Connell
I always thought I had to write this as a novel, a work of fiction, which would add a drama to the facts, and what had been. Yet I realize now this story needs no such cushioning, but plainly tells itself. Almost 30 years ago, I started the writing, and as I toted the manuscript from continent to continent, brown-boxed for each new shipping, from college steamer trunk to Afghan metal suitcase to a succession of moving boxes through three states, the real story, the people whose lives I had written, kept evolving, their captured images and words ripening in the cardboard homes on lengthy brittle paper typed with smudged ribbons, Xeroxed for hire, and finally laser printed from computer disks.
I changed the least, while each decade I fondled and tried again to enhance the telling. An oldest son is of the age that I was when I started this. He and his two brothers will always be my best words. Eventually I wrote it all again as poems, and left this manuscript in chirping voices and blended screams, to whisper, shout, condemn and bless its own reality.
Preface, Down Rivers of Windfall Night
Exerpt from Chapter 16. Blanche Campbell, May 1925-May 1945, Paris, France
Journal from May 1925
Swirling hues like watercolors blotting on fine silk, blues, purples, greens, and lime, yellow and rose and red, peaking out of window boxes beneath the iron wrought metal gray exteriors and balconies, in mounted boxes along the avenues, among elms and poplars stalwart along the Seine, in pockets or on the svelte figures of women, dancing in slinky short skirts, their newly cropped bowl of hair vibrating like sheets of dark rain, in exhibitions and salon windows along the Grand Boulevards, and in every vendor or street performer-- fire-eaters exploding their torches, twirling the glowing orbs and sword-swallowers darting and whirling their polished golden knives, the bronze-breasted strong men snapping chains and keys as if dandelion stems, clusters of singers, voices delicate as baby nightingales belting out basso contralto lyrics as if stevedores, magicians and conjurers pulling long trails of scarves from pockets or snatching an egg from behind a passersby ear. On every corner are the sandwich sellers, their long batons thrusting up from under an umbrella, the rich cheese and butter wafting clouds of a country kitchen and churn. Every few days, an impromptu band marches by, collects a crowd on a corner or square, a one-man band with his tuba or a drum and clankers and harmonium, he operates with legs folded and hands and mouth in sync; or the tidy, trim official National Band, brass-button, Navy-blue suited, the brass trombones and trumpets flaring, picking up the sun like audio mirrors. Meanwhile the motor cars and Metro trains prowl down streets and link the departments from underground, most built in the last century. But the common people, the majority ride their bikes, and the ubiquitous “swallows,” the hirondelle, the gendarmes, the Paris police in their long capes and white canes pedal along among them in pairs.
I try to walk as much as possible , to weave in and out the apartment buildings with their mother goose squatting extra sensory gifted concierges, sweeping the last of the maple leaves from a pathway watering or clipping the first sprouts of a vegetable garden or an initial red rose, but actually watching the comings and goings and anticipated arrival and departures of every living creature within a few blocks of her charge, her building and its inhabitants. Ah, these pipelettes! But I learn early on one dare never cross one.
Or, I follow the river between Pont Saint Michel and Passerelle de Arts to browse among books, postcards, international newspapers and prints that gather like well-loved treasures in a baron's attic, there, the bouquiniotes along the Left Bank, from which I inevitably find myself climbing up to Montparnasse, the new center of so-called Parisian pleasure and literary politics, where a surfeit of “bar americains” threaten to swallow the traditional places, but where salons and cabarets, exhibits, chansons and jazz queens, exotic dancers and well-placed music halls overflow with expatriates and newly-testing women in sheer stockings and short dresses perch on the arm of lovers, rub shoulders with well-to do matrons eager to support the latest fashion in thick furs and feathers and gowns. The streets vibrate with operettas and musical comedies, the walls advertising the next show of Mistinguett at the Moulin Rouge or Follies-Berger, of Revue Negre with Josephine Baker and her group at a club somewhere on the Champs Elysees, or Maurice Chevalier or some others, loved [Insert October 1942: but never as good as our little sparrow later, Edith Piaf. And in future years, as jazz grows daily, Louis Armstrong and Sydney Bechet shared their genius and seduced the energetic and soulful French and all their guests.]
There is always something surrealistic, small “s” and capital “S” about this city, as those who preserve the old in terms of specific images and objects struggle to immortalize what is already somewhat arcane. I'm thinking of my walks along the ancient covered passages of the Rive Droit, which had hatched a fascinating web of interconnected and dusty alleyways and passageways and arcades and which have claimed their own domain, with extant specialty shops wedged everywhere between the massive giant boulevards set down by Haussman.
I like to set off toward some neighborhood where my diplomatic obligations and the veneer of wealth and haute couture are yet to spread, if they ever will. On any given walk, I may swing through the Tuillieres or Luxembourg gardens, timeless in their venues, the deck chair attendants minding these places to sit as if veins of secret gold, the donkey carts circumabulating the pathways with the happily shrieking children , the spell-bound attention and irreverent joy of the always predictable Gaignol puppet shows, the perfectly-shaped model sail boats racing across the miniature lakes.
Sometimes, often, I find myself swept up in one of the unmitigated frequent marches of uniformed primary kids or high school student, or conscripts petitioning for lost military compensation, or old pensioners who trod along with their canes like scepters, their dog-eared signs aloft, their rain-soaked banners flowing. Or the feast and holidays when special crafts men or laborers strut and congregate and take on with pride the elements of their trades, May 1st when the Forts de Halles , the market workers, don the usual billowing smocks and wide-brimmed hats and come to the President's House bearing huge baskets of the traditional lilies of the valley. And the Boef Gros procession when La Villette's families of butchers parade their fatted ox through the town. Or my favorite, the Feast of St. Catherine, in late November. Then every “maiden” engaged in millinery or dress-making, a large number of Paris' most attractive and industrious women, flood the street wearing elaborately created hats. And then there is Bastille Day's oceanic street fairs and overflowing wine and food and dance, when every quarter takes to the avenues and smallest squares to celebrate the égualité, liberté, fraternité that the French consider their personal creation.
While one sees little physical damage to the city, clearly there is a sadness beneath all the public gaiety and an anger, for a country which has lost 1.5 million people in World War I, more than any country has ever lost in a single conflict in human history. As a people, they also then watched hundreds of thousands more die from Spanish flu, so that not a single family has been spared loss of a father, a brother, a husband, a son, a fiance, a sister, a daughter or someone else. And what does a people do with that much grief? Economically, the war had taken more than a quarter of France's total financial resources and the powers-that-were fought to control the country's destiny, even though they presided over a people devastated and fearful in the wake of a war which had been waged with unprecedented amounts of physical violence and destruction, in a war which saw opposing forces dug in on the Western Front, the stretch of parallel trenches from Switzerland to the North Sea, bombing, shooting, poison gassing each other, but immobile for the most part, neither side yielding, neither side gaining or reclaiming any significant territory. And it had been a war of unprecedented vehemence, of soldiers and citizens motivated and eager to exploit nationalism and racist stereotypes against the so-called enemy.
Journal from May 3, 1935
….And where did that come from, and where did it go, I often find myself wondering?
….There were many days when I craved the platitudes and peace and predictability of my French language and literature classes back at Miss Gibb's Academy in Ft. Worth, the high-necked white blouses, the impeccably pleated long navy skirts, the unbending punctuality and public respect of the captured young women, and-- for our staff--the freedom to carry on a conversation in this rarefied air on any topic, and to know that the process, even more than the content, triggered genuine thought in my students.
I know the school had changed its dress code, along with every other institution in the States by the time I had left for the overseas work with the State Department in 1925, that the politics and policies of the country were again veering to the right and to xenophobia and “anything goes for profit;” and that many of these young ladies donned angular short skirts and bobbed their hair, or tried smoking in public or dating one on one outside the large herds of church or school engagements which had been acceptable before. But a society needs to evolve.
And I didn't mind for the longest that I was treated as little more than a glorified secretary in the male aristocracy and monopoly which constituted members of the U.S. consulate service....
The Only Thing I Was Fit For: A Novel (R)
Lost and Found
We’ve come to the wrong place.
--Becket: Waiting for Godot
We’ve come to the wrong place
to this injured shade’s stunted branches
a crucified pirouette holding
chained blue jays and cardinals.
We've waited years for a tree to come down
to bridge the banks at the foot of our hill
laying its poplar barked longitude
across latitudes of cold creek.
We’ve toe-heeled through mud
to loquacious mutes and blind seers
in rooms where dollars cushioned
the torn cradles of buried children.
We've attended raucous rains,
pelting downpours, owl-hooting,
crow-calling winds, fierce sun shouts,
midnight stark star silence.
We’ve dressed in rough silks
donned stoneware berets
danced in ballet slippers cased in granite
limped through each marathon.
We've bent ourselves hesitant and clean
at dawn birdsong choruses,
traced bones and lips when
timbers’ hairy chests heaved and swayed.
We’ve stippled the green lawn,
galloped over stenciled fences
to sing our own diseased homage,
sip thimbles of fog.
We’ve wakened to discordant lullabies
sensed tangled roots, splay shoots
unearthing from feeble clay ravine.
We’ve come, emptied,
seeking burnt memories:
but the place is wrong
Now, this trunk leans down,
a gentle giant clasping each bank
calling us to cross, one to the other again.
Pilgrim and soldier,
we chew the thick air,
the circle squared.
--Between the Shadow and the Soul; Random Poem
...I don't know, couldn't even speculate on what's the correct way for the world. All my believes on some sense of Reason up there falter and yet I am forced to believe there are powers totally beyond us, beyond all humanity, which will act out their senses of things, the eternal cycles no matter what man-child we come up with to try to alter it. Twain's sense of a game, Dante's sense of scaled hells and heavens, Buddha's sense of no-resistance, of nirvana, all point to the same realization that in the end a kind of enlightened stoicism is the very most we can hope for.
But still, all those wretched lives go on, nothing helps them, nothing alleviates their pain, nothing inspires them in their hopeless quiet dignity and those who could change it are so rotten in the heart with their queer ideas and ready luxuries and comforts, they are the real walking, waking dead.
Greed, greed, greed.
Yet out of this, the words of Tolstoy and others, that possessing and giving love is the most important quality of living.
With One Fool Left in the World, No One is Stranded: Scenes from an Older Afghanistan