"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

New Beginnings


In the weeks before my trip to New York, when I knew I'd get to see the Statue of Liberty, I found myself thinking often about the millions of immigrants whose first sight of her marked the end of their voyages and the beginning of new lives. I tried to imagine what it must have been like for people who left everything familiar behind, who traveled for weeks in conditions few of us today would be willing to endure, and who arrived with little but what they could carry and as much hope as hearts can hold.

Did their first sight of Liberty bring tears of joy?

When the ferry dropped us off at Ellis Island (as it would have all those steerage and third class passengers remaining after the richer folk were allowed simply to disembark onto U.S. soil),  I could feel the ghosts of anticipation and fear swirling around. A beautiful place, both the building and the site, this was where vulnerable humanity met implacable bureaucracy. In the huge registration room on the second floor, the course of people's lives was set.



What must it have been like to be in a place where you most likely didn't speak the language - tired, dirty and disoriented?

Some were sent back because they were deemed insane or chronically ill or not able enough to contribute to the country they sought to make their home. Some were separated from family while paperwork problems were worked out. Some were hospitalized so they couldn't infect the mainland with whatever illness they brought from across the sea, and died on the island.

Most made it through, however, all but about 2%. Given entry to a country where they believed life would be better than whatever they'd left behind. One journey ended with another scrolling out before them waiting for the ink of life experiences to write a new story.

And isn't that the way for us as humans? We're called to something new: escape from what has become intolerable into a fresh start. We're willing to suffer great discomfort in our quest for the new life, even to the point of facing a greater fear than we thought we could endure. We reach a point where the pain is great enough we leave everything behind that isn't absolutely essential to our being. Sometimes the cost of the new journey is paid in prized possessions or the comfort of status. Hard to part with, but not so hard as to be willing to sacrifice freedom for them.

Each new immigrant who entered this land of hope and opportunity must have believed their possibilities were endless. Some found their way to riches and fulfillment while others died in sweatshops well before their time. I imagine, however, that each of them carried in their hearts forever the first sight of Lady Liberty and her promise of freedom to choose; that no matter where life took them from that point forward they had a moment when they knew without doubt they were as free as it's possible for a human to be.

28 comments:

deborahjbarker said...

What beautiful photographs as always Deb. I read 'Small Island' some time ago and your story brought it all back to me. I hope to go to New York in the near future - something we often talk about but have yet to do.Watch this space!

B. WHITTINGTON said...

This brought tears to my eyes as I could see the immigrants in their various conditions trying to make their way to the head of the line to be registed to enter our country.
Someday I want to trace some of my ancestors and see where it is I came from. I have some idea starting with my great grandfather but nothing about my great grandmother.
Thanks for sharing this beautiful story with us.
It makes me feel blessed to be where I am today. I know some suffering was endured along the way by my ancestors.
Blessings, Barb

Barb said...

I like that first photo a lot, Deb. I sometimes wonder if just the gift of possibility makes all the difference in our Lives.

yaya said...

My Grandmother's story of Ellis Island is quite the journey...I'm so glad you were able to visit and I hope you went out to the wall where all the names are engraved. I had both my Mom's parent's names put there and she was very touched to be able to go and see their names, touch the stone and look out and see NY city, just as her parents did. I don't know if I could survive as well as all the immigrants that came, not speaking English, and make a living and raise families. Great post! Thanks for sharing!

Carol............. said...

Beautifully written, as all your writing is.

These immigrants had what it takes....courage, goals, and self discipline.

Tabitha Bird said...

Beautiful post.

As one who has moved to other countries to live (the US included) I know there is an element of fear that goes with any freedom. Sometimes the price of being free means you are alone, lonely, scared, disorientated and so much more. Ironically I thought my move to the US would be the easiest because at least this time I spoke the language, but alas I did not speak the culture. I was just as lost as I had been in HK.

We did however love our time in the US. Just took some getting used to. I suspect that those who came to your country years ago and those who still come experience similar fears as the price of their freedom. A fresh start always has a price tag :)

Love this post.

Retired English Teacher said...

As always, you wrote a beautiful post. I appreciate the empathetic tone you brought to this piece.

I work with the children of immigrants, some with legal documents, and some without legal documents. It is an honor to work with these families, but it is also heartbreaking when you see the prejudice so many of them encounter in this country.

Your visit to Ellis Island and your writing about it came at the same time that we were working on an activity about both Ellis Island and the immigrant experience with our international students. As part of the activity, which we did on St. Patrick's Day,we used the song Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears. If you've not heard the song, I think you will really like it. I am putting a link here:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MPtsgupa-z4

Wanda said...

So much we take for granted. So grateful that this is my home and I was born here in freedom.

Wsprsweetly Of Cottages said...

She stands for Freedom for all, equality for all. It is where my Irish relative landed...and some had their hearts broken and their spirits broken...but me and mine are proof that we lived...and prospered...
My sons have gone back to Ireland..for a visit...but Americans we are proud to be. I am so glad our family came and stayed.
Beautiful, beautiful photo's!

DJan said...

So many people I know came through Ellis Island, and so many of their ancestors, too. I hardly know when my own people came to this country from Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. Lovely and beautiful post, Deb. Thanks for writing it and taking me along...

#1Nana said...

Great post and photos. Several years ago I got to visit Ellis Island and I was also very impressed with the site. It's wonderful that they were able to preserve the site to tell the immigrant story. I immigrated to the US the year after Ellis Island was closed, so we didn't pass through the island.

She Writes said...

I hope you are right. So many broken dreams have crashed on our shores.

Desiree said...

This is a tremendously powerful post, Deb! The amount of feeling that you pack into your words is astounding! I can now understand why Americans are so incredibly patriotic and proud! Marvellous writing, as always Deb.

kario said...

Lovely. Isn't it wonderful that no matter where we are in our lives, there always exists some place that is better? Even if it isn't a physical location, there is always somewhere to strive for that will help us more fully express who we truly are.

Love.

LauraX said...

So beautiful Deb...life seems to be a continual process of dying and rebirthing...shedding our old skin, our old country, our old way of being and growing into the moment at hand...before we must die and birth ourselves once again.

Kathryn Grace said...

As I read the last lines of your entry, "They were as free as it's possible for a human to be," I'm struck by the sensation of bars on the floor in the photograph. How Ellis Island became a prison to some, how many of those released became the near slave-labor that continued to raise this country after the Emancipation. How those sweatshops you mention, to which so many men, women and children became indentured, and as you pointed out in which many died, became prisons. How some of those strong enough to free themselves from the sweatshops spent the rest of their lives demanding that America become the land of freedom it had promised. Worked to organize the workers and use their collective bargaining power to build modest, but more comfortable lives for themselves.

That's the part of the story I love so much: How it is possible, in times of bitterness and greed that knows no bounds, to unite and demand, collectively, that America live up to its ideals.

Amber said...

Wow, Deb. This is touching... This place is one place I would also like to see.

My great grandmother Sarah came through there from Scotland when she was 18. On a ship called the California, in 1915. I am so curious about her, and your words here--
" We reach a point where the pain is great enough we leave everything behind that isn't absolutely essential to our being. "
-- make me wonder even more about her story. So young, and all alone.

:)

Stacy Crawford said...

This is a dream spot vacation for me. I often wonder if I would have been able to do that. Leave the country I knew and move somewhere else? I'm so glad you got to see this magnificent place.

Charlene: the Polarblogger said...

Beautiful reflections on the significance of the Statue of Liberty.
When I was young, I used to be fascinated by the statue and dreamed of seeing it someday. The inscription on the tablet from Emma Lazarus' poem The New Colossus had touched my heart, especially the lines,
"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

cj Schlottman said...

This is a beautiful and timely reminder to me of how blessed I am to have been born in this country. I remember when my husband and I went to see Lady Liberty, an image that is burned on my brain.

Your photos add great weight to this well written and touching post. Thanks.

Namaste..........cj

Guyana-Gyal said...

Sometimes, I wonder what my ancestors must've thought, felt, when they came from India and landed in this far-away place in South America.

And we're still travelling on, look how many have left here to seek better lives in England, Canada, America and goodness knows where else.

Makes me sad, they've all left here, but I know and understand why.

Terri Tiffany said...

I love your pictures. I love how you look at events in your life and I wish while I lived up that way that I had gone over there. I would have enjoyed it so much!

Donna said...

I read a book by Howard Fast about Ellis Island and it was truly brought to life for me. I'm sure this New York trip was much like that...you have time to be in awe of Lady Liberty, the founding of our country and the freedoms we sometimes take for granted. Wonderful post!!

Grumpy Old Ken said...

Nice post. You might like my last two posts concerning neighbours.

Kathryn Magendie said...

Lovely - and the photos are beautiful - I love photos taken from a different perspective ...

*smiling at you Deb*

JenniferL said...

Thank you

Out of My Mind said...

"...this was where vulnerable humanity met implacable bureaucracy." Wow! what a terrific phrase!

You DO have a way with words.

I enjoyed reading this and found myself deep in thought about what THEY must have been experiencing. kt

Midlife Jobhunter said...

"We're willing to suffer great discomfort in our quest for the new life, even to the point of facing a greater fear than we thought we could endure."

Kind of amazing how resilient we are. I think that we often forget that, when sunk in our depths of despair. We will go on and find out what is next.