Particle Glossary for Words About Writing About Life

bio = life

con = with

dia = (Latin) day

diary = Anglicized pl. of diarium (Latin): “what is afforded this day.”

fess = speak (profess —> speak out; confess —> speak to/with; circumfess —> speak around; abfess —> speak oneself at a distance from)

graph = picture

jour = (French) day

journal = from diurnus (Latin via Old French “jurnal”): “of the day.”

log = a medium of record

memoire = a distillation of memory, an account of experience. Connotes personal perspective, but can also be used in dissertations and theses as accounts of a personal remembrance of learning.

meta = beyond; of itself rather than unto its imagined domain; recursive or compounded, as from a domain of things and ideas in the world, to a domain of domains in the idea of the thing.

“-y” attached as suffix to a word describing a product or phenomenon, conveys the process or discipline related to its production (measurement of spectra —> spectrometry; drawing-out of codes —> cryptography; naming of astroids and such things —> astronomy; think also of usury, larceny, and penury…)


An open experiment in processual disorder

I’m fascinated by identity, and how it works, how it affects power in the world…so, this isn’t really a biography…it’s more just a casual first-person account, of lives, past, and present, existing in and around mine, as they have been told to me. Identity is probably not a collection of facts, but a force or process (see Stuart Hall “Ethnicity, Identity, and Difference.” In Radical America. Somerville [Massachusetts]: Alternative Education Project, 1991:  28-36). The facts on these pages edit themselves; I have tried to disorganize them, but something is always restored. Or maybe I have not really tried.

I suppose my reason for writing here is modestly empirical. A “process” of identity unfolds from speech, and from elsewhere. I am not holding the clarity or completeness of life facts to be any kind of priority.

As much as I can, I want to examine how the facts take hold of one another when continuity is channeled and challenged. (By way of this study, I also wouldn’t mind learning a thing or two about why I read so slowly.)


Ruth Shelby and her Daughters

My great-grandmother Ruth Shelby, whom I remember with blurry fondness, was an ambulance driver in World War I. She was married several times, and got angry when her grandsons (my father and his brothers) were too protective of her health and safety.  I know her younger daughter—my paternal grandmother Libby Brown—much better…she taught me to paint in the public-television style, and she tells stories that imply a life of beauty and privilege. Her sense of place in the world is often consumed with the memory of her brother Everett, a fighter pilot who “fell to the ocean fighting the Germans.” She speaks of other problems: the weather, and what should be on the dinner table…though it should be said that, true to her fathers’ will, she almost never had to cook or clean. I remember thinking that Libby, at the age of 60, was already a 70 year-old woman. But now she’s in her 80s, and just as strong as the grandmother that I’ve always known.

When Ruth was in her late 30s, Benny Goodman was buying Fletcher Henderson arrangements for his band, and negotiating for a chance to play on a nationally syndicated radio show, among the first of its kind. Her older daughter Essie would have been in her late teens, and there would have been articles in the paper about the affects of swing music on the morals of our youth. Essie climbed into some sporty convertibles in her day, if I understand correctly, and didn’t shy away the unfamiliar experiences. Though older than my grandmother, not as thin, and a chain-smoker, she’s the one who can still hold her own in the world, walk a few miles in the morning. Essie has a left-of-center talk radio show in New Hampshire.


Johanna Noonan and Her Great Granddaughter

Johanna Noonan escaped Ireland in the 1860s, lying about her age (34) to meet the criteria of a personal ad. “Teen brides wanted for the Leahy Brothers in Oregon. Reply with tin-type; will send tickets for ship passage via Tierra Del Fuego.”

The Leahy family is large enough to have T-shirts and other merchandise mass-produced for its reunions. Grandma Evelyn Leahy is an army mom, proud that all of her ten children are good Christians, and two-to-six children were born to each of them in turn. She’s written an unpublished novel about that, as well as a screenplay about pirates and indians. When I moved to California, she sent me an envelope with both of these enclosed, hoping I’d pass them along to my higher-up friends in Hollywood. Grandma also writes letters to Steven Speilberg, Queen Elizabeth, and the Pope. (Only the Pope replies, sending her a bounty of embossed bookmarks, publicity photographs, letters of general gratitude for her faith, and copies of the well-known feast-day prayers.)


Libby Brown and her daughter-in-law

Mom eloped, I’m told, because her older sisters, according to custom, should have married before her. But Evelyn helped her pack the suitcases. (Evelyn had warned my mother that in arguments pertaining to science and nature, she should let my father win, if she wanted to keep the marriage strong.)

Escaping a job at a fish cannery, for adventure with a geology professor, was a story without down-sides. Bob Carson: the future…respected social norms: the past. There were no wedding pictures, and no cake, but everyone celebrated.

Libby loved my mother but worried publicly about her son, a confirmed Episcopalean, marrying a Catholic girl. Those worries were soon upstaged by my father’s interest in Judaism. “I wanted to be a Jew, because I’m passionate about doing good, and I believe in God. The Ten Commandments make sense. But when we get to the New Testament, I have a hard time. I’m not so sure about Jesus.”

“Funny, I’m the opposite,” my mother replied. “I see no reason to doubt Jesus living and dying as a subject of the Roman Empire, talking about other-worldly things and doing magic tricks. That sort of thing happens all the time. What I have trouble with is the God part.”

Nevertheless, in the early 1990s, my mother turned away from her faith in God’s non-existence. It happened like this: although our family was avowedly agnostic, we all went to Catholic schools to please Christian grandparents. When the church got into legal troubles about some land disputes, she took it upon herself to volunteer in defense of the school’s coffers, which she saw as being connected to the quality of her sons’ educations. Her status as an atheist, though, limited her sense of community with the school board and her other collaborators. At around the same time she was reading new commentary on ritual and myth and the collective unconscious, and decided Catholicism was so close to the core of her life and selfhood that it was impossible to abandon it on purely rational grounds. Once she returned to the church and started attending mass regularly, her life was enriched by a new community and a new sense of purpose.


Deborah Leeds and Her Thirteenth Son

In 1699 the English teenager Deborah Smith was disowned by a family of puritans. Her mother, fearing for the family’s reputation, needed as much as possible to distance herself from what appeared to be satanic objects found in her room. Deboarah’s life was saved by Aunt Brigid, an old midwife, who stole her away and put her on a boat for New Jersey.

In the United States, women accused of witchcraft had been redeemed by an elderly judge named Increase Mather. At one point, the story goes, Mather had been ruthless to women who left their hair uncovered, who made up rhymes and fairy tales for children, or who had experimented with herbal teas from South America. Mather served a confused public, whose faith had been shaken by harsh winters, dry summers, and horrible losses in wars against the Indian nations. When women were disobedient, or failed to discipline children consistently, or were thought to be a bad influence on their sisters and nieces, accusations brought against them could go one of two ways. They could either be vaguely and ineffectively grounded in Christian doctrine and law, or, grounded in superstition about witches, and fears that the devil walked among us, they could release a firestorm of unbiblical religious sentiment, in a surge of clarity across the community.

Increase neared retirement as the Salem witch trials began, and his son Cotton Mather, a graduate of Harvard, carried the tradition of puritanism to even greater extremes. The young Cotton wrote his first book, the Wonders of the Invisible World (1693) describing Massachusetts, the American frontier, and the people who inhabited it, white, black, and red, as the unwitting servants of Beelzebub, who could only be saved from their pasts by the intervention of Christ. He also discussed, in its pages, the importance of combating witchcraft, and the likelihood that the Devil could show himself in human form, sometimes appearing to do good works. He defended the use of “spectral evidence” in the discovery of those who might be, or might soon become, a satanic influence on the families of New England. He required vigilance of his readers, and whipped them into a fervor to defend the sanctity of their ancient holy church of God.

Witch trials had meant the death of girls and women across the colonies, and a shaken society questioned itself. Recognizing the extremes of the tragedy, even Cotton Mather distanced himself from the trials, wrote about the history of the colonies in a way that sought to explain the Salem witch trials as an unfortunate outcome of colonial insecurity. But his book had been circulated widely, and religious fervor dominated the legal culture of the colonies until now. Upon reading the book, Increase Mather had a change of heart, and went out publically to defame his son, even going as far as to burn the book in Harvard yard. Dozens of judges and senior members of the commonwealth joined Increase in the act, and soon spectral evidence was widely dismissed in New England courts.


Deborah would still not have been free to brew her teas and medicines, or recite her incantations to the good woodland spirits, or cast traditional celtic spells, had she not married a New Jersey Quaker named Leeds. Quakers were scientists, and accepted confusion in their lives without trying to divide it between good and evil.

Although Deborah was uneducated, set up practice immediately as a traditional doctor. By middle age she was a teacher of midwifery, known as Mother Leeds.

Mother Leeds’ twelve known children include Japhet, my great great great great great grandfather on Libby Brown’s side. (Libby Brown is also descended from Increase and Cotton Mather.) Conservative Christians in New Jersey will tell you that her thirteenth child—my great uncle, technically—was the Devil. He’s known as “the Jersey Devil” — a creature that, minutes after the umbillical cord was cut, sprouted wings and a tail, took to the air, circled the bedroom six times, and escaped up the chimney to terrorize colonial America. 



Japhet and his grandson

Japhet’s great grandson Albert Ripley Leeds was a well-known professor of chemistry, and friend of a younger Increase Mather, descendant of Cotton.

Increase became president of Harvard, and his son married Albert’s daughter. (Libby’s grandmother.) Albert wrote to Increase about Mother Leeds, but apparently did not try to convince him, or anyone else, to speak to the historical society, or the athletic clubs of New Jersey, about exonerating the Leeds name from the tarnish of devil worship.