Absurdity, Allegory and China

The Kingdom from another angle.

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Long Shots (Part I)

October 12th, 2011 · 2 Comments

This post and its second part, which will be uploaded in the next few days, are written in support of the documentary Living with Dead Hearts: The Search for China’s Kidnapped Children, a work in progress by Charles Custer (ChinaGeeks). I strongly encourage you to view the trailer and visit the official site for the film.

The summer I turned ten we moved to a new neighborhood, three miles and a world away from where I’d spent my first decade. In the move we acquired a front porch, a small back yard, social breathing space, and most importantly, at least to my parents, a house not connected in block long rows, though the new house, older by fifty years than the one we had just moved from, was a turn-of-the-century duplex. It was 1960, and the working class were doing their best to move out (and up) from the city, in our case, Philadelphia. Three miles away life was different, though in many ways it was still just life: the neighborhood was less crowded and the interior house spaces were better lit. The porch was a major improvement over the concrete front steps of the former house, and though I was unhappy to leave the familiar city, I did quite like the front porch.

One of the first people I noticed was a small, older man – a quiet, smiling, gentle man – who passed each weekday morning and evening to catch the bus on his way back and forth to work. He was striking in an old world-past age way, as if he’d stepped out of a b&w photo of a mass of men in the crowded stands from the dead-ball era. In memory, perhaps imperfect, he always wore an Irish flat cap. There was also something about his gait that was distinctive, though from a half-century down the pike I can’t recall if he had a limp or if, possibly, he were slightly bow-legged, though if you saw him coming from a distance you knew it was Tim. His name was Tim Callanan, a stained-glass artisan (the Callanans have a long history of stained-glass work in Philadelphia), and he lived a couple of hundred yards east of us on the other side of the street, on the long, uninterrupted south side that bordered the Reading Railroad line, halfway between our house and the sprawling industrial complex of Standard Pressed Steel (SPS).

I got to meet and know more about Tim through his grandson, Joe, who has been a great friend — and a resolute Phillies fan which helps us stay in close contact — since we first met at the new school I was forced to attend. (My pleas to be allowed to go to the library as an alternative to attending school had been summarily denied … again.) How I learned about Tim – never Mr. Callanan, always Tim, even to his grandson – was obviously through Joe, though I can’t remember how it all unfolded. What I learned about this wonderfully gentle man who spoke with an Irish lilt was that he was not born in Ireland but rather in Philadelphia (circa 1893), kidnapped shortly after birth and whisked away to Ireland, doubtlessly in steerage. The details are now mostly lost, though what I do know is that Tim’s parents had emigrated from Ireland to Philadelphia, and his mother had died shortly after he was born, probably of complications from childbirth. Within days/weeks of her death someone from her side of the family kidnapped him and took him to Ireland where he spent his first 16 years in Limerick, which explained his immigrant accent. At sixteen he somehow found his way back to Philadelphia, moved in with his father and stepmother, though things apparently didn’t pan out as he had hoped, and Tim ended up living with an uncle. That’s all I really know about Tim’s history, though Joe, who adored him and named his son after him, recently filled in a curious personal detail when I asked him about his grandfather:

It didn’t take Tim long to acclimate to the culture, particularly baseball. He was forever talking about the Philadelphia Athletics. He could tell you anything you wanted to know about the A’s starting with the 1911 world championship. This is where I learned about Rube Waddell, Lefty Grove, Home Run Baker, Al Simmons, Max Bishop, Jimmy Foxx and so many others.

For me, this story of someone I knew who’d been kidnapped was indelibly needled into my developing understanding of the world: Kidnappings actually happen. It had become part of the visceral knowledge base we build along the way, whether we want to add it or not. There was Tim passing our porch, walking back and forth to work each day, living proof that people vanish, though in his case he returned in some unknown, altered way into the lives of those who distantly remembered him as an infant. Though I would never venture to guess whether his life over his first 16 years would have been better had he stayed with his father in Philadelphia, there was a truth to his life in Ireland, though now forgotten, that cannot be denied. He was an infant when he was snatched, and his memories of any prior life across the sea in America could not have been an issue. Did his father miss him? Did his father know where he was? Did his father have any idea that he was in Limerick, or know any details of that distant life before he returned home at sixteen? Did Tim even know of his birth in America, a father in Philadelphia, or was it something he somehow later learned that may have precipitated his return? These are questions impossible to answer. But anyone familiar with the Ireland of Tim’s youth knows that all those feel-good jigs and soft-shoed reels were survival overlays of an impoverished rural people who lived lives that were, to put it mildly, hardscabble. My maternal grandparents understood that, and each, under their own sails, found their ways to America about the same time Tim returned. And somehow they met each other in some Irish nook of Philadelphia – he a Murphy, a hod carrier and, later, a trolleyman, she a Walsh, a domestic who my mother always said, “worked for Jews, but they were good Jews.” (Neither my grandmother nor my mother had any awareness of Leopold Bloom and the 1904 Dublin of Joyce’s Ulysses.) My grandmother (b. 1889) had lived through a childhood in County Sligo where kidnapping quite possibly would have been a blessing; where she might have ended up could not have been much lower on the social ladder than where and how she spent her childhood. But despite that sort of speculation, there are things we just know, things that are just life, and one of those things is that there is always somewhere lower to fall, even when we believe there is not, and to attempt to justify kidnapping by pulling the social escalation card is a sleight of hand that is best left to the unblinking midway sharks.

The fact is that kidnapping, for whatever reason, has been in the playbook since humans climbed down from trees, perhaps even before. When history began to be written Herodotus pinned the cause of the constant conflicts between Europe and Asia on a series of kidnappings of women: Io, Europa, Medea and the most infamous of all, the much-laid Helen. Back and forth these stealings, precipitating murders and wars and unspeakable human misery. The Greeks filled their cities and their brothels with slaves who were stolen people. But the Greeks were hardly the first to profit from abductions; they were just doing what everyone else did, and to date it hasn’t stopped . The kidnap/slavery industry is as alive today as it has ever been, with more victims than ever before.

At the dark heart of kidnapping is the more basic horror of disappearance (a phenomenon that can happen for any number of reasons), a particular class of death that is worse than death itself. Those who are left to wonder what has happened to a loved one missing are left with a void of terrible unknowing, a hole which nothing short of return can fill, though as time passes the odds are overwhelmingly against a satisfactory resolution. The Greeks knew this, too. One of the earliest surviving stories we have in Western literature, the Homeric epic The Odyssey, is a story based on return, the homecoming. In ancient Greek it’s referred to as nostos. (The word nostalgia is literally built from nostos + algos = pain.) The Odyssey is all about disappearance. Odysseus – pillaging pirate and shameless kidnapper that he was – is the ironic hero of the classic tale of return. (In another ironic twist, The Iliad, the only other surviving Homeric epic we have, is the story of “the rage of Achilles,” which is precipitated by a squabble over kidnapped women. Are we beginning to see a pattern yet?) What at first seems strange is that we don’t see Odysseus until Book Five, though it is not so odd if we understand the wider reverberations of what disappearance actually means. In a display of basic human understanding, Homer gives the first four books to Odysseus’ family, who are essentially imprisoned at home on Ithaka, lost in the confusion and misery of complete uncertainty, wondering not only if “the man” will return, but even if he is, beyond all odds, still alive. To underscore the improbability of a ‘satisfactory resolution,’ the goddess Athena becomes the divine intercessor, shoring up a shaky Telemachus (Odysseus’ son) as he teeters on the threshold of manhood, as he tries to understand how to handle the chaos that has rent their lives because of the disappearance. That we first meet the family, nearly paralyzed in misery, is vital in light of the unlikely conclusion to the tale. The Odyssey, a great adventure, is also a story of inconceivable hope that somehow overcomes the tragedy of losing someone to a world that can and will easily swallow any and all of us up.  But that hope is what makes us human, bearing the crushing tragedies which, more often than not and begrudgingly, define us. In Greek (Western) literary history tragedy follows the epics, though quite often the tragedies drew from the epic tales to make its general agonizing point: Somehow we go on despite the overwhelming odds against us.

But this is hardly a Western uniqueness. Return from disappearance – or rather the hope of return – is something that is basic to humanity. In 1953 in a western Shandong village the wife of a poor farmer named Yang gave birth to her third child – her third daughter – twenty-three years after the birth of her first. Yang’s wife died a couple of days after her daughter was born from complications at childbirth. Yang, a poor widower faced with a daughter to feed [the first was already gone], gave up the infant to a family with more resources. They in turn, a few years later, passed her on to another family, and she slipped into the massive unknown of a very uncertain China. It would take 48 years for her to return. That she did was a long shot that, given the odds, no one in their right mind would have ever put any money on it happening. But this wasn’t about money. It was about much more than that. It was about finding family.

Long Shots (Part 2)

Again, as I mentioned above, I strongly encourage that you view the trailer,  visit the official site for the film and support this worthwhile cause if you can.

Tags: kidnapping

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Tom R. // Oct 16, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    Thanks for this interesting post. I’m looking forward to reading the next installment. And I just donated — thanks for spreading the word.

  • 2 Long Shots (Part 2) // Nov 18, 2011 at 6:26 pm

    […] post is part 2 of 2 (first part is here) and is written in support of the documentary Living with Dead Hearts: The Search for China’s […]

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