“My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three.” —Nabokov

Bread and circus

With tonight, my sons have been to the symphony twice in their lives. This year, it was the symphony playing along with a rock band doing David Bowie’s hits. Last year, the same symphony played the soundtracks of Looney Tunes shown on a giant screen above them.

Each time, I could see the thought bubbles over the string section players’ heads: “I went to conservatory for this?” 

Amid the temples, statuary and other high art of imperial Rome, what was it the people compelled the emperors to give them? Ah, yes. Circus Maximus. Wine. The Colosseum. And the people were right. Tonight was fun.

Boys & toys

‪Interviewed a man tonight who’s played with toys all his life. Now close to retirement, he got his first Napoleonic miniatures when he was a boy. ‬

A perfectly Dismal day

February offered up a distressingly summer-like Sunday, which seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally check out a bug-free Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.

It was both beautiful and forbidding, and part of the beauty was its refusal to yield any comfort to us. We were on its turf and happy to be just visitors with a car waiting nearby. For reasons I don’t bother to think about, I had T.S. Eliot’s famous “Wasteland” in mind, specifically the tarot section:

Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,
The lady of situations.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs. Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days.

Indeed, one must.

Do I remember everything we planted in the garden this year?

Yes, I do: carrots and onions and potatoes underground, three flavors of peppers (bell, Serrano, Caribbean red) and three of tomatoes (regular, Roma, and cherry), basil for pesto and lettuce for salad, both near last year’s spearmint and strawberries returned, cantaloupe and watermelon and cucumbers to spread south toward the sun, four stalks of corn just for fun, and six sunflowers that — should they escape their fate as groundhogs’ snacks — will grow to 12 feet, plus two varieties of zinnias to keep them all company.

Well over 100 plants made it from the greenhouse to the ground. And the lemon tree looks promising again this year, too. That’s what spring is: hope.

Wet, burnt, exhausted, satisfied

I’m really good at ignoring evidence. The expiration date on a block of cheese I plan to slice up. The heat advisory when I want to ride. The unreciprocated gesture. I guess you could say I just can’t take a hint. Will trumps reality; desire outpaces what’s realistic, if only in my mind.

But that’s where I live these days. Take, to come to the case at hand, this statement that came with the model of kayak I chose: “For calm flatwater only.” I read it, committed it to memory and respected it, and, on Sunday, I ignored it.

Families with young children put in at the flatwaters just west of RVA’s Huguenot Bridge. They paddle their canoes and kayaks upstream and have a lovely time as heron and hawks fly overhead and the odd glimpse of a turtle hints at life in the water below. The river is broad and slow, and the rocks are easy to climb on.

I went downstream toward the Pony Pasture rapids. I’d been thinking about kayaking all of the way downtown, 10 miles or so, but to get there I needed to find the portage around the Z Dam. I asked a woman on a SUP about going downstream as far as Reedy Creek, where

I’d heard that at the island you stay left, but when I got to the island, there were two islands, a tiny one in the middle of the river and, to its left, the much larger Williams Island. So I followed Williams around to the left and found myself alone. I paddled ahead as far as the buoys reading “Caution Dam, Stay Away” and turned round to go back upstream. No portage in sight.

The day was a loss. I’d planned to be out two hours and had already been out 90 minutes. As I circled back ’round Williams Island, the sun was now higher and the river, I could see,

[Wordpress tells me I left off writing this 658 days ago. I don’t recall how I intended to finish that sentence.]

Difference makers

In one byline I’m DeWald; in the other, Dewald. But I’m not complaining. The reason U.Va. got two shots at getting my name right is that they were nice enough to publish two profiles I wrote for their magazine’s “Difference Maker” department.

They appeared a year apart, in the 2015 and 2016 spring issues. The women at the heart of each story deserve the magazine department’s title, but their stories came into my hands very differently.

I saw Lauranett Lee speak on a panel, probably in 2013, about her work combing through slaveholders’ records at the Virginia Historical Society to find details about the people they held in human bondage. She was using these details to build a database that people with ancestors held as slaves could search to begin to reconstruct their lost family histories. I’m moved just typing about it now.

What really struck me, though, was the way Lauranett described how difficult the process was, not technically but emotionally. She immersed herself in our nation’s deepest injustice in order to rescue the names of heretofore unknown victims. Living in those records day in and day out took a harsh toll on her as she turned over the names of men, women and children, and the dollar valuations next to them.

I got in touch with her for an interview and wrote a 1,200-word piece with no idea where it might ever appear, if anywhere. I just wanted to know more, and writing was my way in. At a friend’s suggestion, I pitched her alma mater. The new piece that resulted was very different than the one I pitched, but I was happy with both. Most of all, I really admired Lauranett’s work and perseverence and wanted to get her story out there, even if only a little.

The story prompted two letters (maybe more?) that the editors published in the following issue. A man in Ohio wrote this: “One of life’s pleasures, and a rationale for hoarding printed material, is to reread or peruse a magazine or brochure and discover something you may have skipped or skimmed earlier. So it was for me, after thumbing through and reading much of the spring issue, that the story about Lauranett Lee’s research caught my eye. What a wonderful story! And what an important project, despite its obvious heartache. I salute her and writer Matthew DeWald [sic, argh] for this report.”

A woman in New York, the parent of a 2010 graduate, wrote this: “We still visit UVA once or twice a year, and as we meander along the pathways of the Academical Village we cannot help but wonder and imagine about the many slaves who built this gem of a university. Who were they and what were their stories? Thank you, Lauranett Lee! I look forward to receiving updates on this extremely valuable project.”

In a comment on the online version a story, a man asked about meeting with Lauranett to uncover his own family’s history. It was a gift to me to write about her work.

Months later U.Va. came back pitching me a story. Its alum Nicole Hurd has built a Peace Corps-like program called College Advising Corps that sends recent college graduates into under-resourced high schools across the country to help minority, first-generation college, and students from other groups under-represented in higher ed get to college. Far too many fall through what we politely call the cracks but are more like gaping holes. Something like a fourth of low-income students who score in the top quartile on standardized tests never go to college. I was one of those kids, but I made it to a regional public school thanks to a scholarship.

In Hurd’s story, my familiarity with things Catholic came in very handy; her dissertation research into a Catholic nun turned education advocate a century ago sparked Hurd’s own interest in this work.

The opportunity to write her story was another gift, and I hope it prompts people to reach out to her and the students she serves.