“My job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice”- Dionne Brand
When I first began Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, I had noticed how different characters noticed and reacted to their environment out in nature when narrating their portion of the novel. I had mentioned this in one of our Canvas chat discussions and Dr. McCoy had asked, “I wonder what you make of it?”. During that class period, I wasn’t really sure what to make of it, but as I read further and began to think further, I thought about how having access to appropriate resources both material, but also intangible, are vital in how one notices and reacts to their environment that then shapes their experience. People who do not have access to the necessary resources are often expelled from these environments where the resources are needed as a result. This is seen not only in Morrison’s A Mercy, but also in the 2008 housing crisis and the current crisis we are living through now.
As mentioned, I first noticed the varying reactions to the same environment through how different characters view nature or the wilderness, those characters being Jacob Vaark- a free, white man, and Florens- an enslaved, young, black woman. When readers first meet Jacob, they see him traveling through the wilderness to get to his business partner, D’Ortega’s plantation. The narrator describes how he sees the world around him by frequently comparing it to gold. One instance is when the narrator says, “Once beyond the warm gold of the bay, he saw forests untouched since Noah, shorelines beautiful enough to bring tears, wild food for the taking” (Morrison 13). In this instance, we see how the land is being glorified from Jacob’s perspective. Further, when traveling it is described how having a horse made him better able to navigate the wilderness which is expressed with, “The saddle was poorly made but the horse, Regina, was a fine one. Mounted he felt better and rode carefree and a little too fast along beach fronts” (Morrison 11). In addition to having access to a horse, Jacob is also familiar with the land as he had been there years prior when it was under the control of a different European country. When you contrast this with Florens’ perspective on the wilderness, one can see that the two have varying reactions toward their environment. As she is traveling from the Vaark farm to seek out the Blacksmith, Florens describes her struggle with the environment around her by saying, “Can I go more, I wonder. Should I. Two hares freeze before bounding away. I don’t know how to read that” (Morrison 48). Unlike Jacob, she doesn’t have access to a horse as well as not having the knowledge to navigate the wilderness as it is unfamiliar territory to her. She is unable to handle the wilderness on her own as she says, “My plan for this night is not good. I need Lina to say how to shelter in wilderness” (Morrison 49). Florens had always been accompanied by somebody else whether it be her mother, Jacob or Lina so this is a challenge for her. Jacob is able to travel alone and safely reach his destinations in ample time because of his knowledge, having access to a horse and status as a white man. Florens however, is unable to do this and so she is expelled from the wilderness to seek shelter with Widow Ealing and her daughter Jane where she then obtains the knowledge to get to the home of the Blacksmith.
I also noticed how resources shape an experience through how often the narrator notes the different women on the Vaark farm noticing and reacting to the community amongst one another. Rebekka, Lina, Florens and Patrician seem to have formed a bond, however Sorrow is excluded from this. Sorrow never really knew how to act around other women as she had always been around men, so this makes her experience and adjustment more difficult. She had grown up on a ship and the narrator notes that the captain, her father, “reared her not as a daughter but as a sort of crewman-to be” (Morrison 149). When Sorrow gets her first period, she does not know what it is until the housewife who helped rescue her, explains it to her. Later, when she arrives at the Vaark family and becomes pregnant she asks Lina what she should do, but Lina just walks away from her as though she should have known she was going to get pregnant. Lina does not see that Sorrow did not have the same access to information as her growing up which causes this discrepancy between them. Further, in discussing how Lina did not trust the Blacksmith with Florens, the narrator notes that Sorrow didn’t really see anything wrong with him showing that she has more trust in men than in women based on her experiences. This thought becomes further strengthened when the blacksmith helps heal her after she falls and burns herself and when he heals Rebekka of her illness. She has only had what she believes to be positive interactions with men, but none with other women. As a young girl, she was never given the resources to help her survive as a woman among other women and so arriving at her new home, the Vaark farm, was difficult for her to adjust to, especially after Jacob died. As a result of this lack of knowledge based on her past, she was seemingly expelled from the community of women at the place she calls home. Seeing her character blossom after the birth of her daughter was truly my favorite part of A Mercy as it was beautiful to see Sorrow prove to herself that she is worthy of belonging in this environment and that she is a strong, independent woman even if she did not have access to the community of women that the other women seemed to have.
In thinking about the 2008 housing crisis and having access to resources, multiple texts we have read, listened to or watched so far in class have touched on the topic of those who were taken advantage of by investors and given crappy loans on their house as they were seen as easy targets who did not know any better. Those people did not have the same resource of knowledge that the investors who gave them those loans did and as a result of that, they saw their payment costs increase which may have forced them out of their homes as the payments were inaccessible amounts to them. The investors on the other hand were able to walk away with money, in some cases millions of dollars.
As we currently live through the Coronavirus pandemic and the economic crisis that comes with it as a result, I have seen from a distance how having access to resources has helped shape various narratives and has played a role in expulsion in different ways. In several episodes of the L.A. Podcast, the hosts frequently discussed the difficulty that rural areas may face if things begin to escalate in terms of the spread of the virus as they do not have the same amount of resources that hospitals in cities might. If the rural areas cannot handle the capacity, those patients may have to be moved somewhere else to get the appropriate treatment they need. Also in the L.A. Podcast, they frequently discuss how the homeless are being moved from the streets they call home to hotels or other shelters in order to help stop the spread of the virus, but what happens to those people if/when things begin to return back to a sense of normalcy? Do they just go back out onto the streets again and be removed from the access to shelter they were given during this pandemic? Lastly, the hosts have also discussed how evictions might become common in the summer months if/when things begin to return back to normal. Some tenants may not be able to pay their landlords due to the lack of income during this time, but the landlords need a source of income as well which may lead them to evicting those who cannot pay their rent and finding residents who can. This becomes a difficult both/and to navigate.
I prefaced this essay with a course epigraph from another course I took with Dr. McCoy- “My job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice” from Dionne Brand. It has stuck with me ever since and I have tried to apply it to my daily life as best I can. I’ve taken it to mean that we must first recognize our own perspective, but we must also notice that our perspective isn’t universal or definitive. We must be open to understanding different perspectives of where people are coming from- the both/and. As was conveyed during the first few days of class at the beginning of the semester, no two people will experience something in the same way, it is a both/and. After thinking about the importance of noticing the role that having access to certain resources plays throughout life’s experiences, this has been amplified as not everyone has the same access to these resources as one another, whether it be to material resources or intangible resources. In a time such as the crisis we are living through now, it becomes imperative that we notice the crisis and how it will not only affect us as individuals and our experience, but that we also notice the impact it will have on others and their experience. I believe Toni Morrison did a wonderful job in pointing to this both/and in A Mercy by giving us different perspectives and showing readers different ways in which people can experience the same thing such as simply existing in the world around them.