Friday, January 8, 2016

sensitive to movement, sound, and light...ellis island


For awhile now, gradually, my old camera, which really does get quite a workout without a lot of care in between, has been becoming more and more sensitive to movement and changes in light.  There is a certain time of day here in the yard after which I know not to bother taking pictures anymore.  Which really makes the picture-worthy day quite short during these brief and dark days of winter.  And I also know that even the slightest bit of movement can make the picture go completely fuzzy.  And yelling freeze at a bee, or a chicken, or a child, gets poor results.

Over the holiday break but before gift giving, when a newer version of my old camera (it was apparently less expensive to replace than repair the one I had) was gifted, my old camera and I, and our family, took a trip to New York City, and to Ellis Island.  Two of our children, and one who will very soon, have studied Ellis Island and immigration to the United States in school.  During their 4th and 5th grades, they studied westward expansion one year and immigration the other.  This pairing of immigration to our country and westward expansion across our country, coupled with our family's road trip out west this past summer, has me thinking a good deal about the assumptions and motivations and injustices and hopes that motivated and guided how we have moved about, taken possession of, and lived upon our world. About how we got here.  And what we can and should do for this land we now inhabit.

With family who live in and near NewYork City, we had plans to someday get ourselves to the real Ellis Island, since our kids have each loved the culmination of their immigration studies, an Ellis Island immigration simulation day at school.  It also seemed a more realistic goal than getting the five of us to their school's global study locations, such as New Zealand, or Peru, or Cambodia.

It was, still, a rather large adventure.  One that started with a train ride to Grand Central.

Julia's picture

Our children have never been to such a large commutation-oriented place.  We stood to the side of its vastness and took pictures of the ceiling like the tourists we were.  And we then hopped on the subway, something I am determined to have our children do frequently enough, even though they are from subway-free Maine, that they will be able to navigate for themselves and through urban areas, with more confidence, ease, and a general sense of direction than I can.  I pretend for them, but I am really lost most of the time, and sort of following along (while asking millions of quiet questions, hoping to learn these skills myself) behind my New York born and raised husband.

We stood on the subway for the trip south to Battery Park, learning to bend our knees with the bumps and to sway with the turns, and to avert our eyes on and carefully study the advertisements on the train walls no matter how interesting that person was across from us. We emerged from the station into the grey foggy daylight, to the calls and shouts of ferry employees telling us where we needed to go.  In true Maine form, I went the other way in Battery Park, eyeing the open space, the lack of crowds in the opposite direction from where we were told to go, knowing that we had a good long time until our scheduled ferry left.  


We walked about and looked at how the clouds were sitting on the buildings. 



And how the old is tucked in amongst the new in such a place.


Elliott and I were completely entranced by the SeaGlass Carousel.  We stood there for a quite awhile, watching the light and reflection and movement and fog interact.





We both wanted to ride it.  But I think we both felt we might be a bit too old.  Though looking back now, it would have made an even better story to be able to say we had also traveled by fish.  But it was time to walk toward our ferry.

Despite visiting so many Federal sites this summer, our children had their first experience navigating an intense security check, nothing like the bag checks we have done as we enter museums and sporting events.  This was both unsettling to them and fascinating, and they stood watching the whole remove everything, enter metal detector, and get wand searched process, and I made a note to myself to discuss -- with at least the youngest of our family, but perhaps maybe even the older two -- just why such a thing was happening.  And I realized how little they know and have experienced truly big cities, and therefore how good trips like these can be for a family that lives in such a different urban setting.


I have to admit.  I was overwhelmed by the crowds.  And both Nicholas and I quickly became motion sick on the boat.  


And I took pictures away from all the people and took none when I felt pressed in the crowds.



We stepped off the boat on Liberty Island, had lunch, which helped my stomach, and took a walk to take a closer look at the Statue of Liberty.  Nicholas and Julia amused themselves by trying to remember all the lines of The New Colossus, which they both memorized a few years back for their Ellis Island simulation day.  And the kids told us about the chains on her foot which we then tried to spy on the pedestal.  




From there, it was back aboard the ferry and we rode over to Ellis Island, where again, I was so overwhelmed by the pressing crowd that I took no pictures of the ferry ride or of the entrance and lobby of the impressive National Park Visitor Center there.  


We gave the headphone tour a try, and wandered for a bit through the exhibits. 






We soon made our way into the auditorium to watch this film.  I must admit, I do love National Park Service visitor center movies.  I really do.  I make these films a priority in every park we visit. The kids roll their eyes, complain, and make fun of me for my obsession.  But without fail, we learn oodles from them and some of them are very very good, and give us context and voices and stories to help us make meaning of the things we see during the rest of our visit.  And we get to sit.  Which is huge when it is either very cold or very hot outside.  And when short legs are exhausted.  Not to mention, it brings me in close range of another current obsession:  National Park Service Rangers.  I love them, too. Not in a creepy way.  Just in an I admire your work...and your hat... kind of way.

And then, fresh from our sitting, we decided to branch out and visit this remarkable place at our pace, in our own style, a style we have developed as a family with children of three different ages and interests.  A family whose enjoyment of, mood during, and engagement with adventures can be so very tricky, fickle, and uncertain. Yet, when allowed to explore and engage in whatever way grabs their interests, our experience can be so very rich, if perhaps a somewhat different kind of enjoyment of and focus upon a place than other visitors might expect.

We spent most of our time in and around the Great Hall, where the millions of immigrants were processed once they were ferried to the island.  This space is the room that our children's school recreates at the Ellis Island simulation with the help of parent volunteers. Students assume roles as immigrants, come in costume and character, and move through the registration process.  I have given cognitive and literacy assessments to the children in my role as a Public Health Service officer, while my friends pretend to check for lice and sickness, and monitor whether the children follow made up and impossible to follow rules that can land them in detention and slow their progression through the process.  It is all done with a bit of good natured humor at school, but even so, I am struck by how many of the students can become nervous as they try to solve my puzzles.  But in the Great Hall, the sense of fear and anxiety that would have accompanied this process is much stronger, almost palpable a century later, particularly as you look at the enormous photographs of immigrant children and their families, learn about the purposes and methods of testing, the hospital and psychiatric wards, the difficult places these families were fleeing from, and the challenges they were headed toward.





The windows on Ellis Island, and the light that comes through them even on an overcast day.  Goodness, they are gorgeous. And the views out them.  Even the complex mechanical opening apparatus.


I think we spent a good deal of time here partly because it felt open and less crowded, and well lit. By those windows, oh my.  And because this is the real place that had only been imagined before.  Now there, it was so easy to feel the presence of the crowds that had moved through this place before us, and to put ourselves in their shoes.



We headed upstairs to the balcony and looked down.  





Julia, apparently, took charge of the helm. And thrust us into warp speed.





And we had one of those unique family moments, one you aren't going to read about on the information panels and though the rangers probably know about it, they aren't likely to share it with you on a tour.  We discovered that if you are standing in just the right place, the huge vaulted ceiling and the acoustics that it creates make your voice vibrate and echo and resonate.  We played with just where that place was, some needing to be lifted to have their heads be high enough for their voices to carry.


And then, quite by accident, I wandered through a door up there and ended up in my favorite area of the day, the Silent Voices exhibit.  There was a hush in there.  And the light was...difficult.  And spectacular.








And again, it was all about the windows.  And the light.  And the interplay between them.


Our children, our lives, move so fast, change so fast.  I am glad that there are these places, preserved and saved, for us to see and explore.  And even while there, cognitive leaps and mental realizations occur, and these steps and leaps are hard to capture, internal, fleeting.  And sometimes one needs to turn away from all there is to see, feel, and take in there and gaze out windows, play with echoes, and search for a place to squish our NPS penny.  Even those moments, though seeming a distraction from all that is offered to be seen and learned, are moments that are uniquely us, ones we take away with us, carry with us, and add to the depth of our experience there.

This visit, captured by an unpredictable camera, a camera that seems to have actually gotten the images just right.  To have blurred the edges between what we were seeing, remembering, learning, and understanding.  Demonstrating how it all is changing and how time, and all the happenings between then and now, can sit like dust on piano keys.  And old and new can coexist.



And then it was time to begin our trek back. Across the water, to the subway, to the train.








With the ferry far less crowded now, I could snap a few more pictures.  And we all watched how the fog sat on the city.




In some ways I wish we could go back.  With a better camera, a camera a bit less finicky.  In better weather.  In better light.  To frame these pictures a little bit differently.  But the reality is that this is how we were that day.  This was my last trip with that camera, and the pictures are told in its voice.  As we superimposed ourselves over this place and time in history.  There in the real place after years of learning about it.  These windows into then and now, which now is actually a then as well.  As it all keeps moving into befores and thens so very quickly in these years of our children's childhood.


When Elliott studies Ellis Island next year, I will have a different experience of it than I have thus far.  I will think more about how he and his friends, these growing, self conscious children, dressed as immigrants with their suitcases, are experiencing and understanding.  I will think more about what their minds can and can't wrap around of what happened here, the family separations, the fear, the hope.  It will be different.  It will be imperfect.  And it will make an impression.  Blurry and unclear perhaps.  But strong.

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