Josna Rege

18. Songlines

In Stories on June 17, 2020 at 6:29 pm

Philip Donnelly and John Prine (from Tipperary Live)

After lunch this afternoon I was telling Andrew about my friend Margaret who is moving back to Amherst from Muncie, Indiana, how I got to know her, who I got to know through her, and people and experiences we have in common. Andrew was marveling at all the ways in which she and I are connected even though we haven’t kept in close touch over the years and I haven’t even got to know her very well (yet). Immediately after this conversation I happened upon a video by John Prine recorded in December 2019, in which he pays heartfelt tribute to Philip Donnelly, a musician friend of his whom I’d never heard of. Of course I looked up Philip Donnelly on the internet, and found that he was Irish, had introduced John Prine to Ireland (and therefore, at least indirectly, to his wife Fiona), and returned from the United States to Ireland back in the late 1980s to look after his mother, who lived in Clonmel, County Tipperary.

That got me thinking some more, because my dear Uncle Ted’s second wife Mary was from Clonmel, and a few months after Nikhil was born my parents took a trip to Ireland with Ted and Mary, visited her family and stayed in Clonmel. It was a wonderful trip for both my parents, a golden time for all four of them. Uncle Ted visited Clonmel several times over the years; he loved Mary’s large family and her sister’s little ones and the strong sense of community there that he had not felt since his own childhood. My own biggest connection to Clonmel, although I’ve never been there in person, is through a song. I told that story ten years ago in “Songlines”, re-posted below.

Mary is long gone now, along with most of her family, and so is Uncle Ted, who passed away more than two years ago, his dear sister, my mother, following less than five months after. John Prine too is gone, following less than five months after his friend Phil. But songs live on, traveling around the world freely, careless of all boundaries. Through them we are all interconnected, regardless of the distances between us.

Tell Me Another

I have learned many of my favorite songs elsewhere—somewhere other than their place of origin. Songlines—an evocative concept from the indigenous people of Australia that came to me via Bruce Chatwin’s book of the same name (thank you, Stephen Clingman)—map not only local spaces, but criss-cross the planet, remapping it as they go. When I was a wakeful infant, my father would walk up and down with me, singing, Poppa Piccolino, an American version of an Italian pop song that was a hit in England at the time, and that he in turn adapted into a lullaby specially for me. (All over India they love our little Jojo, Papa Piccolino, naughty little Jojo…). In doing so,  he sang me not only to sleep but also, almost literally, into existence. As my mother sang Loch Lomond in Kharagpur while doing the housework, her love and longing for…

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479. Of Accessibility

In Aging, Family, Nature, Stories on May 28, 2020 at 10:44 pm

Last summer,  setting up our first-ever bird feeder, we made sure to get one that was guaranteed squirrel-proof. My parents had had a terrible time of it for years; trying to keep squirrels off the bird feeder was almost as hard as trying to keep monkeys off the mango trees. Finally they found a design that worked well, and Dad rigged up an inverted cone on the pole that held it up to make the feeder inaccessible from below as well as from above. So when we went hunting for our own we wanted to make sure that the feeder would be accessible only to birds—and small birds at that, so that big bullies wouldn’t rule the roost.

On expert advice we strung a wire between two trees and hung the feeder on the wire, so that the most intrepid squirrels wouldn’t be able to tightrope-walk along it and then shimmy down to the feeder. To our delight it worked; and the squirrels haven’t lost out altogether, because they are able to eat the seed that falls onto the flat rock below. So everyone is happy.

Of course, the squirrels never stop trying to get at the feeder. They clamber up the laurel bush growing at the base of the rock, but its top branches can’t bear their weight and they are toppled to the ground every time. Ever hopeful, they try shinning up the trunk of first one tree, then the other, but to no avail. Once, during the winter, when we had some felled logs in a pile by the rock, one managed to leap off the top log onto the bottom of the feeder, but when it got there all it could do was hang on for dear life. It couldn’t find a footing on the little perch that the birds used.

We went a step further and put out the bird bath that my parents had had at their house. Now the worry was not the squirrels but the large hunting tomcat that prowls our neighborhood. Right in front of our eyes it has killed and carried off a squirrel as well as a bird, and we didn’t want to lure birds to the bath only to make them targets for the cat.

Andrew had some heavy ceramic drainpipe pieces over at our old house, and I brought one over and set the bird bath atop it. Perfect: it was now high enough to prevent the birds from becoming sitting ducks. Squirrels could and did spring up onto the bird bath as well, and we didn’t mind that—after all, they needed a drink too. But now the bath was inaccessible to another small creature—the resident chipmunk who lived under the big stone doorstep to the courtyard. We watched it try and fail to make the leap up to the bath, but it was about five times its height; impossible.

So Andrew had the idea of standing a log next to the bird bath so that the chipmunk could use it as a stepping stone. We found one just the right size, put it in place and waited. The first customer, we were disappointed to see, was a squirrel. But before we could get indignant, we realized that it was a very young and tentative squirrel who needed the log almost as much as the chipmunk did. Finally our wait was rewarded. The little chipmunk clearly decided that it needed a running jump, so it started racing along the parapet of the courtyard wall at an amazing clip, leaped up to the log, and then, with barely a pause, onto the edge of the bird bath and that cool, fresh water.

Accessible to birds and inaccessible to squirrels.
Accessible to birds and squirrels, but also to cats.
Inaccessible to cats but also to chipmunks.
Accessible to chipmunks and youthful squirrels.

Accessible too, to dive-bombing blue-jays, who love to show off and are a bit too big for the songbird feeder. When we first set up the bird bath I came upon three of them sitting with the water up to their chests like three men in a tub. Spotting me they started and flailed their wings and splashed madly before taking off with maximum drama. What a sight!

It’s a delight to sit in the dining room and watch this endlessly unfolding scene. Sheltering at home with the birds and small beasts, one hardly misses human company.

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478. Sheer Cruelty

In Family, health, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, Stories, United States, Work on May 14, 2020 at 2:48 pm


In 2018, 18.3 million people lived in mixed-status families in the United States. A mixed-status family has at least one member who is an undocumented immigrant. Hundreds of thousands of young DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients live in these mixed-status households with one or both parents undocumented as well as younger siblings who are citizens. Everyone in these households is subject to tremendous stress at the best of times, living in poverty, having to keep their precarious status a secret, and living with the knowledge that one of their loved ones could be deported at any time. Even when the citizen children are old enough to sponsor family members there are roadblocks put in their way; and family members who are citizens are frequently denied benefits for which they are eligible.

Soon after Donald Trump took office as President he announced his intention to do away with the DACA program, established by President Obama in 2012 as a stopgap since Congress had been unable to pass the DREAM Act, which would have offered a path to citizenship to millions of hard-working, tax-paying, law-abiding undocumented Americans. At one point he floated a deal to DACA recipients that he would offer them a path to citizenship in exchange for getting the funding he wanted to build the massive border wall between the U.S. and Mexico . To their credit, DACA recipients refused to throw their even more vulnerable fellow-immigrants under the bus in return for their own security. Now DACA is before the U.S. Supreme Court and hundreds of thousands of young people are waiting anxiously for the decision that is due any day now.

Now add the COVID-19 pandemic into this nightmarish situation. Here are two diabolical moves that the administration has made:

First: According to the Migration Policy Institute, there are 15.4  million people in mixed-status families who have been denied their federal stimulus checks. Joint filers cannot receive a stimulus check under the CARES Act if one spouse does not have a Social Security Number (SSN). Stimulus checks are even being denied to immigrants who have Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITINs) instead of SSNs. According to the Center for Migration Studies, “ITIN filers pay over $9 billion in withheld payroll taxes annually.” Several lawsuits have been filed challenging this CATCH-22, on the grounds that it is unconstitutional for the federal government to exclude someone from financial assistance because of who they married. Meanwhile millions of hardworking people are being denied emergency help.

Lorena Espinoza de Piña, ready for work as a registered nurse

Second: US Foreign-Born Workers by Status and State, and the Global Pandemic, a May, 2020 report from the Center for Migration Studies, shows how many immigrants are putting their lives on the line as essential workers at this time. The report shows that there is a larger percentage of immigrants than US-born Americans working in essential jobs. It lists by state and occupation the numbers of immigrants doing essential work, and breaks it down by immigration status. You can see for yourself how many undocumented Americans are risking their lives taking care of our elderly and sick, cleaning our buildings, and growing and processing our food, among many other essential occupations.

President Trump and his senior adviser Stephen Miller are itching to crack down even further on immigration, taking advantage of COVID-19 fears to make sweeping changes to the U.S. immigration system. In this climate, will the U.S. Supreme Court vote to strike down DACA? According to the Center for American Progress, more than 200,000 DACA recipients alone are working on the front lines of the coronavirus response. Public health experts have made the case to the Court that their deportation would be catastrophic for the nation at this time, vital as they are to the fight against the coronavirus. Of course, it would be catastrophic for them as well and for their families: sheer cruelty.

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