From New York, toward a Samoan Heart
by Jacklyn Lacey on
Somewhere between LA and Honolulu
Originally written November 5, 2013
As I write this, the sun has just finished its magnificent descent into the Pacific Ocean—bright tangerines slipping into dusky mauves and now, finally, an inky blue, with the last spot of the bright blue of day quickly tumbling into the ocean below. I’m on an evening flight from Los Angeles to Honolulu, making my way to Apia, Samoa, for our workshop, Hurricane and Homes—the companion and counterpoint to the first workshop we held in New York last month which Jenny wrote about in her last blog post. The trip is a long one, with over twenty hours of flying time spread across a couple of days, but you’ll never hear me complain about a long haul flight.
Even before this project, with its focus on how our senses of home—and their accompanying and sometimes contradictory notions of safety and vulnerability—are potent inscriptions of personal and collective identity—the act of travel always stirs up strong ruminations about family and home. For me, travel constitutes a constant engagement in the memory and awareness of where I’ve come from—and of course, where I am going. This project—this trip, however, is inviting me into a particular contemplation of some of my own identities and history that I’m hoping might connect with some of the concepts those of us participating in Rethinking Home: Climate Change in New York and Samoa are working with and through.
In the first workshop in New York last month, we went around the room—filled with the brilliant minds and unique voices I have been constantly humbled to have participate in our project—and each of us shared photos of what home is— means to us. I shared my favorite photo—it is of my grandmother, Mary, and her three sisters, Angie, Lucy, and Jennie, Christmas 1978—a few years, I must confess, before I was born. But this photo says everything to me about what home means to me—from the warm colors of light I associate with my grandmother’s yellow house in the suburbs of eastern Massachusetts, to the exceptionally—ah, shall we call it vibrant—personalities that jump out of the photo from each of them. In that photo, I see the humor and the ability to connect that each of these women has carried with her over a long life.
Even though I am on a plane pointed so far away from that yellow house right now, it is these women who have carried me to where I am today, and who I feel around me on nights like this, when I am headed to a new place, unsure of what tomorrow will bring. Tonight I am thinking most especially of my great aunt, Angie, who passed away in 2008. She was the toughest, strongest woman I have ever known, working physically demanding jobs her entire life. She was always tough on me, making sure I was pushing myself as far as I could in my studies, making sure I was strong, like her. When I was the first person in my family to go to college, she was there for me, and she gave me the money to buy my first laptop computer—“I don’t know what those are, but I know you need one in school these days, so go get one, And work hard!” Those words imprinted on me--years later, I still feel every day that in my work, she is the person I most desire to make proud of me. I can feel her with me tonight, giving me the courage—delivered in her brash, no-nonsense style—to go on this incredible journey.
You might be asking yourself, “What about going to the Samoa requires your courage?” And indeed, I feel very, very lucky to have made wonderful friends and partners in Lumepa and Mata’afa in Samoa in October, and feel, in a strange way, that I have embarked on a homecoming of sorts, albeit to a place that I have never been. This is a project that requires each of us to offer up a lot of ourselves, however—and I don’t even mean in terms of the hours of work—this project asks us to dig into the place where we are most ourselves—our homes, and to talk about or fears and joys, pains and triumphs. There is no way that this project moves forward without each of us offering honest observations into our interior lives and families. And that, I think requires courage—courage that was so tremendously put into action by everyone our workshop in New York.
Many of us there has some linkages in experience, specifically, in terms of having been in New York during Hurricane Sandy, or more broadly, in terms of living apart from our communities of greatest significance. For me, is a relatively small matter—I am a four hour drive away from my grandmother’s house and I was living in Harlem, which was fortunately not very harshly impacted by the storm last year. In a group where many people are members of the Pacific Diaspora community, or who have lost homes or loved ones to the impacts of severe weather, I find myself aware of my good fortunes, while still feeling fully welcomed to the table in terms of offering my own perspectives and insights.
I wonder what this will look like and feel like in Samoa—I find myself wondering what is impossible to predict and foolhardy to project—how will we make a community again and where will I find myself with it? Another quote I have been thinking about on this flight comes from another tremendously strong woman I know—Lumepa Apelu, the lead coordinator of this project from the Museum of Samoa. She said to me before she left New York that I would do well in Samoa because I have a Samoan heart. I remember feeling very warmed by this observation, but wondered, “How could she possibly know? How could this be?” Especially in New York, I have sometimes wondered if my heart has hardened—if I smile less on the subway, or if I seem like I am in the rush of my own little world when I am bustling down the street. I think I share this worry with many of my fellow New Yorkers—does being surrounded by this many people somehow lessen our capacity or ability to connect with one another? A Samoan heart.
If there is anything that I have already learned from this project, it is that the Samoan hearts (and I apply this more broadly to a particular Pacific sensibility that I have encountered constantly in my work with the Pacific section at the museum) it is that a Samoan heart is capable of extending the warmth of family to even the newest of friends, constantly ready for a good laugh, and filled with concern with the wellbeing of those around them. If there is anything in me that can call forward in someone a reminder of a Samoan heart, I count this among one of the highest compliments one could ever be paid.
I think of the Samoan fale, so much a focal point of this project—when we first began this project, I remember thinking of the fale as a symbol of identity, of a traditional form of communal living that is highly emblematic of the Samoan fa’a—the Samoan way of life. I have come to think of this as a bit too clinically anthropological of an approach, however. The big yellow house in Massachusetts—and the warmth that extends out of it, into both my memory and of my anticipation of a homecoming on Thanksgiving—that is a type of fale as well. When I left that house at 4 o’clock this morning, my uncle was sleeping in the living room so that he would be able to make an early morning meeting. My cousin and her husband—and their seven dogs and a cat—were sleeping upstairs. My grandmother was brewing coffee for everyone while I was making sure I hadn’t forgotten to pack anything.
Even in its quietest hours, that yellow house vibrates with energy, with our history, with a snapshot of who we are as a family. It was a house my grandparents bought in the late 1950s, and then added onto themselves, bit by bit, as the family grew. My father loves to tell the story of coming over one Thanksgiving in the seventies when my grandfather had him help put up a wall “real quick” right before dinner. And it is a house that somehow always stretches to accommodate whoever comes home. Last night, that was me, rushing in to the house after dark and out to catch a plane before the sun rises. But my grandmother understands and always finds a way to understand and support me. It is only fitting, in a project that finds so much of its soul in the waters and islands of the Pacific, that I take this moment to remember, acknowledge, and honor my ancestors, the strong women who raised me up.
If there is anything in me that is big enough and brave enough to hold a Samoan heart, then surely I have inherited it from my grandmother and her sisters. It is part of the remarkable power of the Museum Connect program that we are afforded the tremendous opportunity to learn about ourselves and our partners and their homelands simultaneously. For surely, if we looked inside of ourselves and found our Samoan hearts and Italian grandmothers—this world would perhaps operate both more gently and more bravely.
You can contact the me at firstname.lastname@example.org! In fact, I would be thrilled if you did!
"Rethinking Home: Climate Change in New York and Samoa" is a Museum Connect Project sponsored by The U.S Department of State and The American Alliance of Museums.