Who are you and where did you come from?
Inside a Jar
(for Bill Scheffel)
when is the hall never not vacant?
alone in my cottage
I think of my teacher
gone now two years
listen for the sound of
the inverted bell,
a Tibetan bowl sings,
while I study the interiors
of other human habitations
transmitted over computer cams,
the sangha divided now,
more than ever, I will practice
for as long as I am able
When she was small, I often looked at my daughter, perplexed, and asked: who are you and where did you come from? She’d roll her eyes, her answer always the same: I’m Eva and I came from you.
Easy for her to say. Like Socrates, “I am still unable…to know myself; and it really seems to me ridiculous to look into other things before I have understood that.” Who am I, and where did I come from?
I’m Courtney. I arrived here, in Seattle, Washington 27 years ago, from Torrington, Connecticut, where I lived for the 17 years prior. A year ago, I moved into this specific, gray house with a peaked roof. This gray, peaked-roof house is 116 years old. It was a house, in this exact spot, before this exact spot was Seattle. I am told I am the fourth matriarch to live here. The second matriarch built the second floor, and the peaked roof. The third matriarch built the deck where I am sitting, watching hummingbirds.
Like me, hummingbirds are transplanted in Seattle. We are from here, and not.
My family has a history of mysterious origins, and so do hummingbirds. These days, hummingbirds live exclusively in the Americas, but scientists have not definitively concluded how, why, or when they got here. As far as anyone can tell, the ancestors of all 365 known species of hummingbird came from Eurasia. That’s where my ancestors are from, too. Somehow, the ancestors found their ways here. “It’s really difficult to imagine how it started,” says a scientist, and I understand.
We’re all here now, somehow. Me, and Calypte anna, better known as Anna’s, named for the woman below, wearing pink:
Empress Eugenie Surrounded by Her Ladies in Waiting, by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1855
Anna’s hummingbirds, like me, haven’t been here long. They first settled in Seattle shortly before I was born. Female Anna’s, like me, raise their babies without the assistance of a male. And, like me, most Anna’s do not leave town for the winter. Once here, we stay. You might call us mossbacks. Local historian, Knute Berger, defines a mossback as “someone not born in the Northwest, but someone who comes here and knows that they’re home.”
Since arriving in Seattle I have left infrequently, but I did spend one summer far from home. Ireland smelled like a harmony of Seattle and Torrington: old and new, coniferous and deciduous, deeply familiar. I spent wide swathes of the season weeping at the scent of everything.
Toward the end of my trip, at the National Museum of Ireland, I met Old Croghan Man, whose 2000ish year old body was pulled, well-preserved, from an Irish bog in 2003. I marveled at both a bog’s power to preserve and at Old Croghan Man’s hands.
Old Croghan Man photograph by Jules van den Doel, downloaded from Flickr under a Creative Commons license on 08/20/20.
His hands were remarkably similar to those of the tall Irish man who drove me around all summer, showing me his country. The matching hands—2000ish years old on the one, 30ish years old on the other—seemed evidence that my Irish man, unlike me and Anna’s, was autochthonous. Born there. From there.
Autochthony is a Greek thing. Autos (self) + khthon (earth/soil) = that which springs from the soil. The idea existed, and then the Athenians made it elitist. Athenians believed they were better than others not least because mythology told of their ancestors literally rising from the local earth. Eulogizing dead Athenian soldiers, Socrates praised them as “children of the soil, really dwelling and having their being in their ancestral home, nourished not, as other peoples are, by a stepmother, but by a mother, the land in which they lived.” (Stepmothers: derided by patriarchy since at least 300 A.D.)
I learned about Socrates at college, where I was told, repeatedly, that I didn’t belong.
I was walking in the rain, when the university’s president introduced himself and asked me my major. When I told him, “philosophy,” he said, “but you look like a nontraditional student, and nontraditional students don’t study philosophy. They study accounting.”
This made me laugh, in part because, in the special study room set aside for nontraditional students, I occasionally saw Duff McKagen studying, finishing his accounting degree.
Duff McKagen, formerly of Guns ‘N Roses, plays bass here with Velvet Revolver around the time we were both nontraditional students.
The president of my university apparently found Duff McKagen’s collegial pursuits less surprising than mine.
Not long after my run-in with the president, I was in a dark room, sitting at the end of a long, heavy table, vying for a scholarship, when a Greek scholar made his assessment. “Your grades and resume are good. But you are a nontraditional student, a single mother, and a transfer student. Why are you here? It doesn’t make sense.”
How were we even at the same table?
That morning, I’d gotten an abortion at the clinic kitty-corner from the university, and afterwards had a nap in the nontraditional students’ study room. I woke up, smoothed my hair, and went to the scholarship interview. When the Greek scholar accosted me, I was dumbfounded. In the end, I got the scholarship, though I can’t recall exactly how it happened.
How I got to law school, where I first learned the word autochthony, is clearer. I’d decided to get a PhD in continental philosophy and English from Purdue. My most beloved professor, the woman who introduced me to the subaltern (though perhaps I’d always implicitly known), had also gone to Purdue, so I asked for her help. She told me nontraditional single mothers do not belong in midwestern PhD programs, and she directed me to go to law school.
No one in my family had been to university; hers was the only direction I had. I followed her instructions. I don’t remember why I had to drive out to her mansion to pick up her recommendation letter for law school, but I remember a magnificent white foyer, where she instructed me to wait while she retrieved the paperwork.
In law school, a new beloved professor took me under his wing. Intellectual curiosity brought us together, but our friendship was cemented when I said, I was hungry as a child, and he said, I didn’t know American children went hungry, and I earnestly explained how sometimes there was no food between free lunch at school on Friday and free breakfast at school on Monday, and he laughed at me and explained about having no food at home and then walking miles so he could go to school and continue not eating.
At his instruction, I researched myriad laws and ideas. Here’s the opening of a paper I wrote for him, on the Kenyan Constitution:
“everything changes the old
songs click like light bulbs
going off the faces
of men dying scar the air
the moon becomes the mountain
who would have thought
who would believe
dead things could stumble back
and kill us
In a paper on unicellular microorganisms associated with being indigenous to soil, scientists Bennett Kottler and Martin Alexander found that microorganisms indigenous to soil are more likely to survive than non-indigenous microorganisms when outside stressors are added to their soil. In their studies of these simple living things, Kottler and Alexander found that autochthony (from the Greek autos, meaning self, and kthon, meaning earth or soil) was in fact ultimately required for survival. That is, the quality of being indigenous not only increases the possibility of survival, but ultimately, survival depends on it.
This paper takes Kottler and Martin’s unicellular findings and considers them in the context of Kenyan constitutionalism.”
My paper’s conclusion? It’s complicated.
Kottler and Alexander say: put a simple thing under stress and autochthony is required for survival. Which parts of me (or the Kenyan constitution, or hummingbirds) are simple, and which multicelled?
After finishing my paper, I paged through my favorite lucille clifton book, knowing there was a poem in there that was right to begin things. Socrates—who, among other derisions described poetry as “likely to distort the thought of anyone who hears it,” —would probably say my tendency to look to clifton might explain why I never found paying work in law.
The knowledge I’d acquired was expensive; it seemed a shame not to use it. When I couldn’t find paying work, I volunteered. Representing asylum seekers (even during the Obama administration) is a peculiar hard work. For my own and my clients’ benefits, I went back to school, this time to study psychology.
My closest friend in the psych program was another nontraditional student, a man my age, working on his first degree. He was born in a refugee camp and raised in the Seattle neighborhood where I’d lived for only a few years. We became friends when he told me a story: “One of my buddies from high school sent me a text the other day. ‘Dude. I just saw a white girl running up Rainier and she wasn’t running from anything!’” I nodded, “yeah, that was probably me,” and we both cackled.
Which of us—my friend, myself, the hummingbirds—is from here? This gray house sits on the traditional land of the Duwamish, who have lived in this region between the Large Lake and the Inside for at least 10,000 years. The people who’ve been from here the longest have been harassed, subjugated, and killed by interlopers for at least 250 years. In 1865, Seattle expelled the Duwamish from town. In 2015, the region apologized. In 2020, after fighting for decades for the rights to which they are entitled, the Duwamish are still denied federal recognition.
They’re from here. They have accommodated some of the harshest demands from people who colonized their country. And the law of those colonizers declines to acknowledge their presence. Lack of acknowledgment means the Duwamish have yet to receive, among other things, fair compensation for the land that was taken from them, and the legal rights, health care, and protection for their traditional practices to which they’re entitled.
If we weren’t sheltering in place, I’d like to have a glass with scientists Kottler and Alexander to ask what they think their research tells us about us. People are multicellular, but portions of us are constituted of and colonized by unicellular bacteria, protozoa, and yeasts. How can any of us survive, and under which conditions?
I can’t drink with Kottler or Alexander right now, but I can watch hummingbirds. A friend tells me in Ecuador, there are numerous types of hummingbirds, tiny and giant, vibrantly hued. Conditions allow that, there. Here, as summer ebbs, there are only little Anna’s. Researchers say adaptations—those they made thousands of years ago, and those they’re making today—are part of what’s enabling them to thrive. But they could not make it through the winter without people. We help keep them alive, with our cement streets warming the neighborhoods and our sugar-filled feeders.
On their own, they can only do so much. Maybe my daughter’s been right from the beginning. We come from us. It’s community—autochthonous, transplanted—that gets us through the coldest hours.
 Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff, translators, “Phaedrus.” Complete Works, by Plato and John M. Cooper, Hackett, 1997, at 230a.
 Athenians thought everyone who didn’t speak Greek sounded like they were inanely muttering bar-bar-bar, which is how we got the word barbarian.
 Paul Ryan, translator, “Menexenus.” Complete Works, by Plato and John M. Cooper, Hackett, 1997, at 237b.
For more on the subaltern, start here: https://jan.ucc.nau.edu/~sj6/Spivak%20CanTheSubalternSpeak.pdf
 lucille clifton, “the news”, good woman: poems and a memoir: 1969-1980, BOA Limited Editions, 1987.
 Bennet D. Kottler and Martin Alexander, “Survival as a Criterion for Autochthony,” Journal of Soil Biology and Biochemistry, Vol. 28, Issue 4/5, April/May 1996.
 Oxford English Dictionary, entry for “autochthon.”
 Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff, translators, “Symposium, Book X.” Complete Works, by Plato and John M. Cooper, Hackett, 1997, at 595b.
I’m a woman
with a child
Where am I?
Behind the door?
Inside the closet?
Underneath the bed?
Perhaps I’m curled into Mom’s
You let out a gurgle of laughter
turn swiftly towards me.
Glee in your eyes
triumph spilling from your lips.
Your small arms reach forward
I feign defeat
take the reins.
Where are you? Look around.
Where are you? Look around. Make art and/or writing. Send it to us. We will publish submissions in our first, limited edition, handbound chapbook.
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A walk in the drizzle in Cork City, Ireland, by E.B. O’Keeffe.