The religious education wing of the Unitarian congregation’s building is a spare thing, a square room with creamy partitioned walls that can be moved to accommodate the varying class sizes of the children. On the walls, large rectangles of paper list the birthdays of the children by months, for what is a community without celebration? Children’s art fills the other walls, which watch over a carpet ringed by black bed rest pillows, where the children sit in communion with one another every Sunday.
We joined the congregation when Baba was 10 months old and she is nearly 4 now, so this room is a familiar haven. She runs to it every week, jumping down the hallway in uncoordinated hops and skips that makes the aging congregation smile as they dodge out of the way of her slippery energy.
It is October and this is a Unitarian sanctuary, which means that Halloween is in full swing, with a costume parade and a party planned with food masquerading as various creepy and crawly things. And in my delight, I asked one of the teachers there, “Don’t you just love Halloween?”
And she said, “No…no, I actually hate this time of year.”
And then she explained to me how she, as the child of Holocaust survivors, was never allowed out on Halloween, because if you were Jewish and in Eastern Europe, this was one of the most dangerous times of the year for pogroms. And I thought to myself, for I have grown to really admire and love this woman, who has created such a sanctuary for a generation of children, that that was such a sad thing that she has missed out on a tradition that I love so much. Understandable, of course, that her parents would not have been able to let her go out to celebrate like so many American children do, but a sad thing. After all, this is America. We don’t have the same history of anti-Semitic riots that they do in Europe. Surely, surely, she would have been safe here.
We have done a lot of terrible things here, but at least we have not done that. Have we? (It turns out, yes, yes we have. In 1991. In a neighborhood that I travel through five days a week.)
I thanked her for explaining to me why so many people in New York ask you if you’re celebrating Halloween before they talk about it with your children, because I had not known.
And then, a few days later, a gunman walked into a synagogue and murdered 11 people, five days before Halloween. And I shivered, thinking about what she had told me, knowing that her parents were right. They were right to hide their children away from their neighbors, in the same way that I always kept my black cat indoors this entire week. Some risks are simply not worth taking.
On Sunday, I went to sanctuary, where many of the congregants are Jewish, in heritage, if not in practiced religion. And I looked at their faces and I thought about all the worries that I do not have, about how once again, evil is here, but, as it always does in this country, my appearance gives me a choice whether or not to care.
Unitarian services have a moment where you can speak the names of people that you wish to “lift up,” which is as close as Unitarians come to public prayer. Most weeks, the sanctuary is filled with the names of individuals, names spoken aloud, colliding and enmeshing with each other as multiple people speak the names of those they love at once. This week, the prayers were for groups; transgender people, Jewish people, the migrant caravan so desperate for safety that they are walking hundreds of miles towards a border where our government is right now placing armed troops to stop them.
Who are we, as a country? Are we truly this lost?
There are days where I look around and I barely recognize the country that I was raised in. And then there are the days where I wonder if I ever really knew it at all.
Lately, my Beloved and I have been binge watching Call the Midwife, which he is enjoying because of a personal connection to his family history and culture. I’m enjoying it because I love stories about women interacting with women. The midwives live in a convent, along with a small order of nuns, who organize the medical practice, and create a loving family of women. I desperately want to join the sisterhood. But it is the compassion of the nurses, who are young women that get involved in the lives of their patients, that carry the show along.
And it’s amazing how a story set so far away can resonate with us so closely. One night, the episode was about an elderly woman who had been separated from her five children when she entered a workhouse after she was widowed. She was never given the fate of her children, who all died of illnesses in the unsanitary conditions of the workhouse. She is tormented by this all of her life, until the midwife nurse charged with her care follows the parish records and finds the burial place of her youngest child.
In the final scene, the woman bends down and plants her body over the resting place of her child, at peace at last.
My Beloved turned to me to talk to me about the work houses, public houses that were established for the destitute of the parish to have a place to go. Families were separated from each other upon entry, kept in separate wings of the work houses with no contact. Conditions were poor and disease was rampant because of the crowding, although the workers were given a safe place to sleep at night.
And then we were silent, because the similarity to the news was obvious and painful. Here we are, nearly a century after the work houses were shut down in the U.K. for their inhumane conditions, living in a country that is currently taking children from their parents in order to disincentivize refugees from central and southern America.
One father, not understanding what had happened, killed himself. Other children have been lost, separated from their families and moved into an overwhelmed bureaucracy that is losing records and losing people. Guards have raped the children, who have been housed in chain cages, on floors without blankets.
Here, in America, in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Here, we take refugee children and do the same thing that the Victorians did for their poor. Like in the workhouses, the children are not receiving an education. They have little in the way of legal representation. Their environment has been designed to demoralize them.
They have been taken from their families.
They have been taken from their families, to punish their parents for seeking our help.
The episode was a haunting episode, that has lingered with me since we watched it. And all I can think, as the midterms approach and I feel so helpless to create actual change, is that voting is harm reduction.
Voting is harm reduction.
Voting is harm reduction.
Voting is harm reduction.
This administration has actively sought — and continues to seek — to do harm, to the environment, to people fleeing violence and wars that we have instigated, to LGBTQ civil rights, to healthcare, to the rights of women. And all we seem to be able to do is to try to reduce the onslaught, to speak up and say, no, this is so very wrong. I have to place my desperate hope on the thought that there are enough people out there that we can make enough of a difference to slow down the harm.
I have been wrong too many times before. I envy the faith of the sisters in Call theMidwife, who reach for the humanity in every soul of the parish that they tend.
This is not a great time to be a sensitive person walking the world.
I’ve read a number of lovely blog posts that are clinging to hope, despite the dark and interesting times that our new administration seems to have put us in. I’ve read poems and shared in the general outcry of the many, many people that are horrified at the recent actions of our country to tear apart Muslim families. As the wife of a former green card holder, it’s been difficult not to walk around in panic, because our story can’t be told without also being an immigrant story that is very much like the people that I am reading about now — people who are being detained not 10 miles from my house.
My heart is not light, so I’m finding it hard to write light-hearted. I have half a dozen blog posts that are queued up in draft, because I can’t quite seem to get to the right frame of mind to put something silly and frivolous into the world.
There is much that I could tell you about, much that I should have told you about by now. We moved into a new house at Hallowe’en and settled into it. There were new couches and holidays and visitors and movies and books. I’ve been deep in research for a big writing project that’s now transitioning into plotting and draft writing. I even went to a really big feminist party the day after the inauguration and cried at the sight of the hundreds of thousands of people with me that were standing up to say that they were watching the new administration.
I even got a new hat.
But it all feels very trivial, when turning to news or Facebook is such an onslaught of terrible things. I found myself crying at work as I came across an article of a breastfeeding 11-month-old that was separated from her mother for a full day because of Trump’s Muslim travel ban. Each story of adult children just trying to get their elderly parents back home or spouses trying to reunite or refugees that nearly made it onto what were once safe shores has hit me so hard. My Irish in-laws keep asking me what is going on in my country and I am terrified by all the answers that keep coming out of my mouth.
It is very tempting to go hide in fiction for the next four years. That is, actually, part of what I’ve been doing to restore myself. Each night, after we talk at dinner of all the terrible things that have happened each day, I hide on the couch and cover myself in blankets and let myself luxuriate in story telling. If I close my eyes, will it just go away?
Unfortunately not, not if I want the world to be a place for Baba, with her double passports and international family. Not if I want to lift my head and look back at these days and respect myself for not standing by the side and letting others speak out against deep injustice.
And so. There is work to do, even if it feels like my efforts accomplish very little. I saw a tweet recently quoted somewhere that said that if you always wondered how you would have behaved as you read about history, then you’re getting a good chance to know, because whatever it is that you’re doing now is what you would have done then.
That’s stuck with me – as both a calling and a command.
I mean that literally and figuratively; the winter solstice is, after all, upon us. I am headed towards Manhattan in a grey and bleak morning that has barely lifted into day. It’s raining, just enough to make me seem strange without an umbrella, but not enough to inspire me to take it out. I am alone in this, one bare head in an army of black umbrellas.
Like most of the world, I’ve also been reeling from the U.S. Presidential election for the last month. I’m sure it’s not hard for regular readers to guess which way I voted, so I’ll spare everyone all of that. Watching the post-mortem has been painful, as the pundits looking for ratings try to blame someone or explain away a result that very few people predicted. I, for one, am tired of trying to dissect American psychology, like we are all one big mass. I’m even tired of reading explanations about the white working class or white middle-aged women or Latinos for Trump!, because it all simplifies the picture and does not lead to much listening. It doesn’t even ring true. I have a white working class husband who would never vote for the anti-union candidate. I am a white woman who has been walking through the world with a new level of fear and anxiety. For the first week, my stomach literally ached. As the high level administration appointments have been coming in, starting with a literal neo-Nazi, I’ve had a hard time thinking about much else. This is not who we are, except that it is apparently exactly who we are. It is not who I want us to be. Maybe I am just naive, but I’d thought we could all at least agree on the Nazis.
This anxiety is not sustainable.
I want to reach across the aisle and listen – and to reach across the aisle and be heard – but how do you do that with so many people shouting? How do you do that when our elected officials are looking at the Japanese internment camps of World War II as a legal precedent? How do you shut your eyes and ears when a man who ran a “news” site that runs articles like “How to Make Women Happy: Uninvent the Washing Machine and the Pill” is now one of the chief advisors of one of the most influential and powerful people in the world? Just yesterday I read an article about a man with a gun showing up on a street that I know well because he chose to believe the vilest of Internet rumors. A childhood friend’s family church was vandalized with white supremacist graffiti within days of the election. Another friend’s cousin, living on the other side of the country, had a swastika painted on her garage. Closer to home, the NYPD is dealing with such a large spike in hate crimes that they are creating a special division just to deal with them.
I am afraid to shut my eyes. I’m afraid that if I don’t shut my eyes, I will never live a normal life again. How do you strike the balance?
I haven’t a clue. I put big pink safety pins on all my jackets and purses. In those first few days after the election, I was terrified to wear them, but I swallowed the fear and thought about how much braver it is to wear a hijab right now. It is a little enough thing to put a pin on my clothes – a pin that can easily be removed to let me blend into the crowd where my pale skin and blue eyes will protect me. The KKK has been dropping flyers on my train. Yesterday, another woman on the subway was attacked for wearing a hijab. When I tell myself that adding a safety pin to my clothing is the least that I can do, it really is the absolute least that I can do. I have decided to be accountable to my pin, that I will not blend into the background when I see that someone is afraid, but I also despair that I won’t live up to it.
So here we are in the literal darkest days of the year, trying to find a way to creep back towards the light of summer. On Sunday, we put up a Christmas tree in our new home, right in the giant bay window that I have fallen in love with. When I turn the corner at night, I see it shining its manufactured light out into a world of darkness. In a normal year, it would give me hope. This year, I am trying hard to open myself up to be able to see its light.
There’s a new coffee shop by the train station that opened over the summer. In a world of Starbucks and Walmarts, it is a welcome relief to the monotony of grande cups and jazzy backgrounds. It is in a tiny space, which previously belonged to a failed news stand and, before that, a coffee stand that only served cold bagels.
Sometimes I think that I have been in this town too long, now that I can remember the history of spaces.
But I like this shop. It’s taken the craft approach, offering everything that you’d find at Starbucks at higher quality. The pumpkin latte leaves a smudge of actual squash in the bottom of your cup. The baked goods are kosher yogurt muffins where you can sink your teeth into the actual fruit. I’ve been determined to help it thrive, which is helped by the fact that I’ve been horrible at getting out of bed lately, and often arrive at the train station needing breakfast.
The baristas take their jobs as coffee artists so seriously that I imagine that they’re all part owners. It might be so. Every morning that I forget my breakfast, I go and choose between the big muffin and the small muffin, and I make such a stink out of it that the big blonde fellow grins every time I go for the big one.
One morning, a new customer came in behind me. Most of America would know the type. He was dressed for work, in an outfit that tells you that this is a man who worked with his hands. Perhaps a mechanic, perhaps in the trades. His jacket was the tough rough leather of a welder’s jacket and he wore jeans made for work. When he ordered, he asked for a small coffee with sugar and a corn muffin. He pointed at the glass display.
“I’m sorry, sir, but that’s a lime coconut yogurt muffin,” my favorite Viking told him.
“What?” He looked closer at the muffins, where a sign declared the new world order in a bubbly script. “Don’t you have corn muffins?”
“No, sir. Just what’s there, sir.”
The man looked over the selection, then shook his head. “Forget it. Just the coffee.”
When he left, he was shaking his head. And, because I am in Trump country, I thought, Is he a Trump voter? Is this the demographic? The man just wanted a corn muffin and a coffee, like he’s probably been ordering at his favorite deli for 30 years, but now he can’t have it. He could have lime coconut or apple yogurt or pumpkin spice loaf, but the classics have disappeared from our offerings.
I watched him walk away without his breakfast, embarrassed for the coffee shop, although it is just a symbol of its time. Why should they carry a product that isn’t exciting and new? They have to compete with the green mermaid machine, like everyone else.
Before Hurricane Sandy, there was a real New York deli right there that would have blown this coffee shop out of business in a matter of weeks. But their store was destroyed by the storm, so they packed up and found a new location two towns away, much too far for the commuters at my station. We have had to shift without our classic bagels and eggs and plain coffees with milk and sugar. And the world that rebuilt never filled those needs again. My new little coffee shop is the closest, but it doesn’t suit everyone.
And watching this man, I understood a little better about all the people who have been left behind by our shifting economics.
The man just wanted a corn muffin. What’s so bad about that?
Living through this Presidential election season has been hard for me. I have been joking-not-joking that 2016 is the year that White America discovered that racism is still a thing, as Trump’s candidacy grew ever more blunt about its willingness to incite anti-immigrant fervor. As the wife of an immigrant and the mother of a child with dual citizenship, this has been terrifying. Even though I know that no one is thinking of the big Irish guy when they’re spouting off about “the Mexicans” or “the terrorists,” it’s hard to watch the violence and the ugliness of the rhetoric. And it has been surprising to me, even though I live in a neighborhood that is deeply religious, to find out how many people have been willing to give a pass to the nastier things that he’s been saying because of how much they hate Hilary Clinton.
As the election progressed, Trump signs sprouted like daffodils on the lawns of my neighbors. Every time I passed one, it felt like a slap in the face, as people that I’d liked shouted their support. And I am trying to be better than this, but it’s difficult for me to look past a willingness to ignore such dangerous rhetoric.
Except there is a part of me that must be honest enough to myself to admit that there have been times where I have reacted to the injustices suffered by Black Americans with gratitude that that sort of thing was not my problem. Until not so long ago, it happened every time an unarmed Black man was shot by the police under suspicious circumstances. It happened when Rodney King was beaten in the early 90s. I would shake my head and be enraged by the injustice of it, by how unstoppable the system seemed. And then I would think, “Thank God that won’t happen to me,” and go on with my day.
I don’t feel that way any more.
Thanks to Trump, I have discovered just how many of the people in my life are okay with the way things are. That is white privilege in a nutshell. The Trump supporters that I know are not evil people. But they are people who have made peace with a man who says vile things, who are content to let the problems of other people be their problems. And they have made me feel afraid, in a way that has opened my eyes to the feelings of many dark skinned Americans.
And that was before his tape with Billy Bush leaked.
It is good that we are having big national conversations about sexual assault. One of the best parts of the way that our culture is changing is that we’re starting to talk about rape culture, which was a phrase I’d never even heard until I was in my 20s. I remember the epiphany, as a young woman, that we should be asking men to talk to men about rape, rather than spending our lives trying to protect ourselves from it. It was a radical notion, this thought that men could be responsible for fixing this problem that predominantly affects women.
Sometimes it is easy to forget how far we have come, in a relatively short period of time. It was only a hundred years ago that we even gained the vote, much less the right to sue for sexual harassment or spousal rape.
Since the tape leaked, I have been thinking of the times when a man has forced a kiss on me, in the way that Trump described. I spent about a week vividely reliving those moments — the fear and the anger that came with it. When a coworker made a joke about locker room talk, I know I was supposed to laugh, but I could only shudder. I’ve been fortunate in my life and have only suffered the garden variety level of sexual harassment. I don’t consider myself traumatized in any way by these experiences, though I am nervous when I encounter strange men. The events that I’ve been thinking about were both strangers, who pushed themselves onto me in public places. In the first, I was a sixteen year old girl sitting at a bus stop. The man had been bothering me for several days, so I asked him to just leave me alone and to go away. There were others there, and I remember their faces distinctly because after he kissed me, I jumped up and screamed at him while they stared at me like I was the problem.
And not one of them got up to help me, because it was not their problem. It was not happening to them.
The second incident happened one night on the subway here in New York. It was about ten o’clock at night on a week night and I was coming home from a dinner out with friends. Sitting in a nearly empty train car, I was studying for work. The man approached me and asked for money, over and over again. He wouldn’t go away, so I finally gave him some change to make him leave me alone. When I did, he decided to kiss me. Years later, I can still feel the wet imprint of his lips on my forearm, which I threw up above my head to deflect him and defend myself. I remember the faces of the two women who got on the train at the next stop, who I asked to switch cars for their own safety.
Garden variety harassment, as I mentioned. I do not know a single woman who has not had multiple experiences like these.
No real harm done, except…except that I have a certain distrust of men that I do not know, because of all the times that men have behaved this way around me. When I first heard “The Story,” a song by The Great Ani, I thought, “Oh. Oh yes, this. This is exactly it.” The lyrics are a bit of poetry:
I would have returned your greeting if it weren’t for the way you were looking at me this street is not a market and I am not a commodity don’t you find it sad that we can’t even say hello ’cause you’re a man and I’m a woman and the sun is getting low there are some places that I can’t go as a woman I can’t go there and as a person I don’t care I don’t go for the hey baby what’s your name and I’d alone thank you just the same
Since the tape leaked, the Trump signs in my neighborhood have come down. I am filled with gratitude for that, as it lets me stop thinking of the men that have objectified and attacked me and all the people that look like me.
Maybe that is a start. Maybe it’s a move towards the empathy that we need to create a kinder world where your problems are my problems. I can only hope that at the end of all this ugliness, we’ll all have learned something about ourselves and the country and culture we want to create.
As the Great Ani sings:
we’re all citizens of the womb before we subdivide into sexes and shades this side that side and I don’t need to tell you what this is about
Undressing for the fan Like it was a man Wondering about all the things That I’ll never understand there are some things that you can’t know unless you’ve been there but oh how far we could go if we started to share I don’t need to tell you what it is about you just start on the inside you just start on the inside and work your way out
I keep trying to write to you. I do. I’ve started and discarded no fewer than four posts, on various topics that are filling my mind these days. But now it is spring — and allergy season — and Facebook has just reminded me that I haven’t posted anything in twenty days. Twenty days!
That is a lifetime in the Internet world, is it not?
We are so busy here at the moment. We are very close to putting our house on the market, so every spare second over the last few weeks has been spent in a wild effort to paint all of the things and finish all of the projects. Last week, I came home every night to work on our entry way, which is now much prettier than it ever was. We hired cleaners to come in and give the house a scrubbing of its lifetime. My Beloved installed new stone steps and finished a million other little projects around the house. Our back yard has become a summer oasis, blooming with begonias and fresh paint and tidy trimmings. Everything is now so spot on that the thought of selling the house and starting it all over somewhere else rather makes me want to cry.
I have problems with change. It’s true. I am trying to see past it, although the thought of moving has opened up all kinds of possibilities that have made me feel rather lost. When I moved here, my only thought was having a back yard near the beach with a mortgage that I could afford. Having a child has complicated things. Now I worry about things like local schools, population diversity, the political environment. I grew up outside of Washington D.C., in one of the two most diverse counties in America. I had friends from all over the world. Through friendships and school projects, I visited the homes of Muslims, Protestants, Catholics and Buddhists as a matter of course. I knew that when you went to Korean or Russian homes, you had to take off your shoes at the door. I learned soccer basics from a woman who had played on the national team in Honduras. I recently found a mix tape that friend made me in middle school, with tracks on it that her Vietnamese parents grew up on. I learned to jump double dutch and braid hair from all the Black children at the summer day camps I went to while my mom was at work. When I think about the kind of education that I want Baba to have, growing up in a culturally diverse school district is a big part of it.
Here in Long Island, things are more segregated. I imagine it is much that way across most of the country, but it seems an odd way to grow up. The town that we live in is particularly severe this way — the local elementary school is 95% White, even though the surrounding neighborhoods are more integrated. That concerns me, even more so because of the racist sentiments I see openly expressed on the town’s Facebook parenting group, which I like to tell myself are only possible because these people choose to be socially isolated. How can you believe in stereotypes once you’ve made friends with people from that group? And yet, while I try not to condemn them, the thought of Baba going into their homes, as she makes friends with other children, gives me the willies. These are not the adults that I want in her community. I certainly don’t want her to grow up seeing children of other ethnicities as foreign or different or wrong.
I’ve found myself researching nearby neighborhoods strictly on their demographics and trying to find an acceptable intersection of diversity, similar incomes and safety. Long Island, like much of the country, is seeing a huge surge in the heroin trade. As the dealers have moved in, they’ve brought their guns and their gangs. Our new District Attorney is doing a great job of cracking down on them and so we see arrests in the local papers of all of the towns around us…but never in our town. In our town, the biggest crimes being reported are all the forty-something women stealing from Kohl’s.
This makes the decision of whether to stay or whether to go so much harder. I grew up in a poor section of town, in clustered apartment complexes where the kids were often unsupervised while their parents worked multiple jobs. There were pot dealers in my middle school and more than one student was expelled for bringing in a gun. I learned, by the age of twelve or so, that walking down the street without a male friend would inevitably mean harassment from men much older than myself. By the time I was fourteen, I carried mace, just in case the creep that hung outside of the high school where I was taking a summer class decided to try anything worse than just following me and talking to me.
To this day, I am still wary of men, though I have long passed the age where I draw the kind of attention that I did as a teenager. That’s precisely the kind of world that I want to protect Baba from. I know well how blessed we are, because we’re in a position to be able to do so. And yet, I feel guilty at the thought. To be able to buy safety for her with such relative ease, to get her into a well-reputed school district with ample financial resources, feels like such a betrayal of where I come from. And selfishly, I worry that I will have a hard time making friends with people who look on childhoods like mine with pity. When I walk among such people, as I did in high school when my high level of academics put me among the privileged, I feel like an imposter.
I have had to face the fact that we are in a position to give my daughter a whole lot more, in a material sense, than I grew up with. Money absolutely buys access to a better education and a safer neighborhood. I hear my own privilege in this post. I do. It bothers me deeply. Americans aren’t supposed to be class or race conscious, but of course we all are. I remind myself that this is the world that I want for everyone — a world of prosperity and safety, where we can have authentic and honest relationships with people very different from ourselves. I remember well how old I was when my school divided into cliques that were formed on the lines of skin color. In the 90s, we all became color aware when we were twelve. I remember it as a time of deep hurt for me, when many of my friends drifted away to new friendships, formed with people that looked more like they did. Could it be different for my daughter’s generation? Every time someone takes my pale skin as an invitation to air their prejudices, I have to wonder.
The political primaries this year have made it very apparent that these race and class issues are boiling across my country. Today, Donald Trump — an actual contender for the Presidency! — denounced the decision to put Harriet Tubman on the twenty dollar bill. Who could argue with Harriet Tubman? Every time I pass a Trump banner in someone’s yard, I want to run as far from here as we can, even as I know that there are plenty more people that think like we do. I hope.
In any case, we’ve pinpointed a few areas that I hope can give Baba the sort of childhood that I want her to have. I have no doubt that our research will keep on for the next few months, as neither of us know the area well. This will be our forever home, as hard as it is for me to admit to committing to New York, and we want to do a good job of picking it. We will land somewhere or other, at the end of this temporary and uncomfortable time of uncertainty.
Baba and I have the next week off, as her day care is closed for the week of Passover, and the weather is finally shifting into a gentle and warm spring. The house is finished and photographed for sale, so — at last — all we need to do is entertain ourselves and relax, as best we can.
It is a dark and rainy night here in the Big Apple. No different from many fall evenings, except that videos have surfaced of terrorists threatening Times Square, only a few days after the slaughter in Paris. The city is on high alert, with the much criticized NYPD doing extra patrols and sweeps to try to stop murder before it happens. Tonight, I was followed onto my train by a counter terrorism cop, who visually swept the car before nodding that the train could go on.
I usually resent the police presence in the subway. They stand
with assault weapons across their chest, the business end pointed down. How easy, I think, for them to accidentally shoot so many, if something goes wrong. They are often young and I wonder how many years they’ve been out of the police academy. They stand for hours, usually vigilant, usually watching. Watching us. Nodding one or two out of a hundred over to their tables, they swipe our bags with little cloths, analyzing the molecules that they pick up for evidence of planned destruction. When it is not my turn for inspection, I slide by them with a resentful glance at the fire power that has become normal to me, because I live in a world of increasing militarization.
This man, who was clad head to toe in thick padding underneath his dark blue uniform, carried only a pistol in his belt. And tonight, he reminded me that the city was under threat, which I had forgotten after my busy day in the office. And yet, I was glad to see him. What a brave man, I thought, to do this day after day. That’s admirable. I took a
long look at his dark brown eyes and curly hair. I took in the intense,
trained gaze, the dark embroidery of his name and unit on his pocket.
I should really work on my will, I thought. Just in case. You never know.
Today, too, my government began the legislation to deny refuge to 10,000 Syrians. It is couched and marketed with words that make it sound like something different. They called it screening, as though the multi-year screening process that we already had in place wasn’t sufficient. What it is, in reality, is a requirement that a single person sign off on every Syrian that we allow to come here. A single busy person. In reality, it means that we will deny even the paltry 10,000 that we’ve already promised to help. We will be as bad as Hungary. We will close our doors to the victims of our enemies.
Two hundred and eighty nine people got together in a room today and cast their vote that we should do this, even though every American school child is taught about how the U.S. made their immigration policies stricter for the German Jews during World War II. Even after we knew about genocide, we closed our doors. We are taught about how shameful that was, about how afraid Americans were. And yet, here we are, with an opportunity to redeem our country’s actions in those dark days….and two hundred and eighty nine of our elected officials thought we should repeat history instead.
The worst part, of course, is that this is in response to an attack by French and Belgian murderers. And yet, the call to keep French and Belgian visitors and immigrants out of our country has not come. It is the Syrian refugees who are being given the blame, as my country seeks to punish the victims of ISIS for something a bunch of Europeans did.
A few months after Baba was born, I joined the local parenting group on Facebook. The main topic of the last few weeks has been how the local shopping mall has replaced Santa’s giant Christmas tree with a
glacier display. The presumption was that the Christmas tree was somehow offensive and that the PC police were at it again. Surely, this was a sign of American values under fire, as those other people had to be accommodated. Christianity, itself, is under fire by the loss of the tree.
I admit to some confusion as to how a Christmas tree, but not Santa, would be insulting. In any case, the outrage was so ferocious that a small tree was added to the display. The parenting group was horrified; how could the mall insult them by putting such a small tree in place?
In the middle of this discussion, one hundred and twenty nine lives were taken in Paris. And then the bigots came straight out. It’s the immigrants. We need to stop the immigrants, they said.
My husband is an immigrant, I said. He’s worked here and paid taxes for over twenty years. What is your problem with immigrants?
Well, fine, they said. It’s the immigrants who are terrorists. Like the
ones who blew up our neighbors in 9/11.
None of those attackers were immigrants, I reminded them. I know that many people here lost people that they knew, that they loved. But immigrants didn’t do it. Immigrants want what you do — a better life for their children. A safer world. A place where there is plenty to eat.
Next you’re going to tell me what a great president Obama is, they said. Thank God these governors have the sense to not let Syrians come to their states. You won’t agree, but you must agree that it’s understandable.
But the attackers in France weren’t Syrians! I said. And that’s not even something a governor can do! Does anyone here think at all?
I am, as you might imagine, very popular in this group. The whole discussion disturbed me so much that I have been really considering if this is a place where I want to raise Baba, knowing that she will come into contact with people who speak so hatefully about people just like her father. We have been talking about selling our house and buying another in the same neighborhood, but now I am not so sure.
It was inevitable that I would find a news article that showed pictures of the French victims. My mouse hovered over the first picture, but then I had to look away. It is too much for me now. I see Baba in all of them. I think of the mothers that have been gutted by the loss of their children. I feel it too deeply. It is just another story of families torn apart by mass violence, just like the attacks in Lebanon the day before or the shooting in Kenya or the buses and markets that are attacked so regularly that we lose count of the dead. I have victim fatigue. I can no longer look at the victims of Virginia Tech or Oregon State or Sandy Hook. I can’t even watch the videos that the UNHCR publishes. I can’t read the stories.
Anger comes easier. Anger is so easy when I see the hate continue. I can only ask why we have a world in which young men become radicalized, in which they are taught to hate so much that they don’t even see their victims as other people. I want to know, to understand, why the world has become a place in which they can see no future for themselves. And then I want us to put systems in place to Make. It. Stop.
It seems so hopeless when all I can hear are my neighbors screaming for blood — the wrong blood. Can’t we please move past the fear and reach out to each other? Can we please just Make. It. Stop?
Yesterday I was at a burger joint down by Wall Street. Being a vegetarian, it’s not a place that I go into often, but I was with a bunch of coworkers.
We got to the board with the specials and they had a Presidential Burger.
“Oh boy,” thinks I. Then I started reading the ingredients. The Presidential Burger (and I wish I had a picture of this) is a Barack Burger…because it has “a smattering of cocoa” on it.
As a woman in tech, I’m familiar with this phenomenon – I can do the most amazing things, come up with the smartest solutions (or not) – but what I will always be remembered for is being a woman. You know, the one thing that has everything to do with my birth and nothing to do with my accomplishments. There was an Oprah burger, which was a cajun style burger (presumably for her work/home in New Orleans). If you could go that far, couldn’t you make your Barack burger Chicago style or something?
An excerpt: A few minutes later, I was in a taxi and heading uptown with my Northern Irish husband and our half-Indian, half-English friend, but that initial hesitation was ominous; the first step on a typical British journey. A hesitation in the face of difference, which leads to caution before difference and ends in fear of it. Before long, the only voice you recognize, the only life you can empathize with, is your own.
Zadie Smith is the author of the truly excellent White Teeth, which I recommend reading. Much like Shakespeare, you can never tell exactly whose side Smith is on, which makes her a fascinating novelist. I think, perhaps, she is on everybody’s.
A very sad thing happened on Saturday. Tai Lam, a 14 year old boy and a student of the school for the gifted in math and sciences Montgomery Blair, was shot down by a gunman who appears to have just been looking for a fight.
This story affected me pretty profoundly – I actually burst into tears when I read it. I didn’t know Tai Lam, but he lived and died right around the corner from where I grew up. The neighborhood I grew up in was a rough one. It was mainly populated by Central and South American immigrants and African-Americans. Being one of the few white-skinned kids wasn’t always easy. But the thing that united us all was our poverty and the problems it caused. And one of the first things that happens in the face of systemic poverty is violence. We had gangs. We had drugs. We had parents that were never home because they had to work long hours (mine included).
I was lucky because I was white-skinned. I didn’t fit in anywhere, except in the world outside of our neighborhood. I remember the year when my friends became color conscious (it happens around ages 11 or 12). Skin color was the defining factor, the definition of my neighborhood. You could only live on one side of the street if you were African-American. If you were Latino, you could only live on the other. Violence was frequent because posturing was everything. When you have nothing, all that’s left is your honor and reputation.
I had hoped that it had changed. It obviously has not. I think that’s why I found myself crying for Tai Lam and his family tonight.
Dear Tai Lam, I am so so sorry that you didn’t get a chance to escape the cycle. You were a Blair student – you probably would have had a bright future in front of you. It is the saddest of worlds in which poverty is created and allowed to oppress people in this way. You will undoubtedly be in my thoughts for a long time to come.
Edited To Add: Reading the comments on this post about Tai Lam also make me sad, since half of them are blaming “the Mexicans”, while complaining that “Mexicans” think that all Asians are the same. This is the damage of bigotry, folks. When does the cycle end?