Very Important People

It’s impossible to spend a week in Washington D.C. without thinking about important people.

In so many of the famous (and beautiful) buildings, there are statues and paintings that pay homage to the historical figures that formed this country. There are monuments to some of the best ones.

As I toured the capitol building and paused outside the White House, there was a sense of gravity knowing that the people inside those places were taking actions that could affect the way all of us live. As I walked the streets, I saw motorcades, police escorts, and secret service agents.

But my week was spent with some people that were important in unexpected ways, too.

I spent time with a friend who for a short time many years ago became part of our family while she was in law school. Now she lives and works in D.C. As a young woman she was tragically widowed, yet she is generous, kind, hardworking, and caring. She has a wonderful laugh that I heard often in our time together as we talked far into the nights. I admire her resiliency, her refusal to be bitter. Living life forward instead of looking backward? That’s important.

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I traveled with friends, fellow volunteers who are dreaming of expanding our little writing center here in Door County. So we left our regular commitments, paid our own way to attend seminars to learn from others, and took turns manning a booth.screen-shot-2017-02-18-at-9-57-25-am   We spread out during the day, talked over dinner at night. These are people who want to make our corner of the world better. We want to help kids and adults tell their stories because we know the stories of ordinary people are not ordinary; each is valuable, important.

I spent four days attending an AWP conference where 12,000 writers, publishers, and teachers gathered to discuss and learn, speak and listen. As you might imagine, these artsy, academic types were worried about our new administration. But with articulate and beautiful words, the message of those days was that truth is what this nation needs.   Words and art and beauty can save us and heal us; reading and writing and thinking are the tools to build back up what hatred and fear and anger tear down. Literature shows us ourselves and teaches us empathy for those who are different. So those 12,000 people who go back to their classrooms to talk about literature or back to their manuscripts to write with beauty and truth? They seemed pretty important.

On the way to the city, I sat next to a congressman on the plane. He needed to buckle his seat belt just like I did; he did not seem extraordinary. I appreciate his willingness to talk policy with me, and sadly, he gave me pat and practiced answers and seemed stuck in his party’s line. So I didn’t change his mind on any issue upon which we disagreed (which was just about every issue we discussed.)  His “important” position did not dazzle me.

Instead, the people that impressed me were the ordinary people who have decided to raise their voices, to do good with their “little” lives.  One of the week’s highlights was listening to a speech by Azar Nafisi. An “ordinary” professor in Iran several years ago when tyranny came to power, she disobeyed their decrees. When her gov’t banned education for women; she taught anyway, at great risk to her life. In her key note speech, she inspired us to do what is right when the world around us does wrong. See a clip of an interview with her at AWP here.

Yes, the people in Washington D.C. have power, but so do we.   The people who give their time and their money to volunteer, the people who rise up from tragedy and refuse to be bitter, the dads and moms that teach their kids to be kind, the churches that welcome in strangers, the teachers that make sure our kids are reading, the artists that build our culture by giving us beauty: these people are also important.  

We cannot think that our voices and actions are insignificant.  Complacency and silence will ruin us. Our lives, too, are important. Every bit as important as the ones in Washington, D.C.

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Read.

I’ve been trying to keep my blog posts a-political. This might explain why I haven’t been posting much recently. ( You know the old adage? If you can’t say anything nice, say nothing at all.)

But I will say that I’m heartbroken by the direction our new administration is taking on human rights, on health care, on immigration, on the environment, on education, on the arts, on free speech.   If you are like me and you don’t like these new policies, please speak up. Call your elected officials. Give money to organizations that will work against the damages of these new policies. March. Protest. Pray. And read a book or two.

Yes, read.

Solace has come for me recently in the rich discussions that have centered around books. For the past four weeks, I’ve taken a class at The Clearing

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with 25 bright, intelligent, interesting women to dissect and discuss four books written by African American women. ( Dessa Rose, Brown Girl, Brownstones, The Bluest Eye, The Women of Brewster Place.)

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Each book took us into the lives of characters weighed down by racism, poverty, and oppression. The circumstances are grim; some characters survive and some do not. We feel heartbreak at their suffering, and the irony of this is not lost on any of us: there are no African Americans sitting among us. Door County is a place of mostly white skin where many of us can go days without seeing a person of color. Yet, every person in this class wanted to understand, wanted to learn, wanted to know how to address the needs of those in our country who have been hurt  because they are black.

We came to know the characters of these books.  We could see how we are different, and more importantly, how we are the same. We examined the issues of race, of white privilege, and we learned about the mistakes we ourselves have made. We listened to those among us who have taken action: one woman was a social worker in urban housing projects, another a principal in urban schools. On a neighborhood housing board, one woman forced banks to abandon their practices of redlining. Another adopted black sons.

So although we were heartbroken each week with the stories we read, we were also heart-healed by the knowledge that there are ways to bring about change. This all happened because we discussed books.

Better yet, just a few evenings ago, I was invited to a “book exchange.” We were encouraged to bring up to five books to exchange for that same number to take home. We drank a few glasses of wine, ate some good food, and then were asked (one-by-one around a circle) to share a title of a book that had affected us in our lives and a book that we have read recently that we liked.  (The hostess has subsequently compiled the list  WHICH I AM NOW Attaching 2017-book-swap-1 and emailed this list of everyone.  What a gift, right?)

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And in that room of readers, a picture slowly emerged of thoughtful women who want a world that is a good and kind place for their children. Thinking is important to them. Love is important to them. Treating others with respect is important. The beauty of words and the beauty of places and the beauty of people are valuable and worth fighting for.

I was reminded once again what research has told us for years: people who read are more empathetic than those who do not. All the qualities that it takes to be our best selves? We can learn these things when we read: bravery, long-suffering, friendship, courage, sacrifice, perseverance, love.*

In a country that with each passing day seems less kind, the time that I have spent with readers this week has given me hope.

Reading will not save us.

But it can help.

 

 

 

 

 

 

*And on the flip side,  a society that does not read degenerates into people that are not good and not kind; they choose ease,  mindless entertainment,  and selfish pleasure over thought. They are  easily manipulated and swayed.   ( Think Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, 1984.)

 

So COLD

It hurts to go outside these past few days. The temperature is below zero, and the windchills  are in the -15 to -25 range. We linger long over our coffee in the morning, not eager to leave our warm spots. We open the door and beg our dog to go outside and “do his business” without the usual escort he seems to prefer. We think about canceling anything that requires us to go outside: our walks or errands or appointments. We have plenty to do inside, so at the very least, we’ve been combining errands into as few trips outside as possible.

But when we have left the house, we’ve seen some pretty beautiful sights. I’ve been a bit lax about taking pictures, but here are a few of my favorites from the winter so far.

This was a sunrise at the beach a few weeks ago, before the ice had come in.

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But now,  with the extreme cold of the past week, the bays and harbors are closing in. Ice is gathering: in clumps, in chunks, in rows and crystals along the shores.

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This was yesterday’s scene in the harbor.

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And here’s today’s sunset, just a few hours ago.  The sun is actually setting AFTER 4:00, and not BEFORE it.

We are heading towards lighter, less-dark days…

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Sick and poor, healthy and rich

This is a post about contrasts.

I’ve been sitting in the rooms of and roaming the halls of a very nice hospital this weekend while my husband recovers from surgery. This place is new, luxurious, and even palatial. For example, light streams into the elegant three-story atrium where a grand piano plays Christmas carols in a room of oak paneling and chandeliers. Every patient room is ultra- equipped to handle literally hundreds of medical contingencies; machines and monitors and tubes are ubiquitous. At night, I go upstairs to a lovely family hotel room provided for people like me who need to stay over instead of driving the long trek home (over an hour away for us.)

And though I am incredibly grateful for this excellent care and comfort, my thoughts have also turned this week to the medical conditions I witnessed in Uganda several years ago. Beyond that, I think, too of the news reports we have seen coming out of Aleppo where the last hospitals have been bombed and utterly destroyed. Today as I sit here in lavish conditions, I am aware that in places far away, there are people who have next to nothing.

Years ago on one summer afternoon in Uganda, I was on a leisurely errand for our school that took me out of my normal path. I never minded exploring the town of Gulu; I usually felt very safe walking by myself. I was one of very few white people in that city; I realized later that people noticed us, watched us in an almost protective way. Despite the abject poverty all around us, people did not mug strangers or rob Americans.

But I did NOT feel particularly safe at the moment when a tall, youngish man approached me a bit aggressively and asked for money. This had happened occasionally, and we had been coached to always refuse. But this man was particularly insistent. “Please, Ms, my father is sick. He is in hospital and he is hungry. I need money to buy him his food. I need money to buy him his medicine. “

He was believable. He was desperate. He was assertive. I felt conflicted, knowing that I am gullible and easily conned. (Was he really telling the truth?) So rather than give him money right there, I walked with him toward the hospital. I did not go in, (something I regret now,) but I saw enough to learn that hospitals here and hospitals there are nothing alike. And it was true: there would be no food or medicine or clean sheets for a patient unless the family provided it.

I am glad to have traveled to far away places in my life, and I would travel more often if I could. But what I have seen prompts an essential question that has nagged at me most of my life: Why do I have privilege when so many do not? And what do I do with this privilege?

There is, I think, a start of an answer for me in Christmas. The message of advent is that the King who had everything came to us who had nothing. The one with “privilege” came to experience life as a “have-not.” He, with His power and immortality, with His health and perfection came to this place to be poor and oppressed, to be mortal and sick. And His coming made us better.

I’m not asking us to feel guilty about our wealth this Christmas season. ( Believe me, guilt is not productive, and I certainly don’t want to be in a Ugandan hospital right now while my husband heals.) But perhaps this Christmas we could all use a reminder of our privilege. We could ask ourselves if there’s a way to help someone with less privilege. I’m relatively certain that those of us who are reading this post are more comfortable, more well fed, more healthy, warm, and wealthy than my friends in Uganda or those whose homes and hospitals are rubble on the streets of Allepo today.

I still don’t know WHY some people have so much and some people have so little.   But two things I do know: On a day like today inside this nice hospital, the realization of how much I have makes me grateful.

And secondly, especially during this Christmas season, it is right to imitate Christ. There are contrasts in this world, but love can help bridge the gaps.  Beyond giving gifts to your family and friends, consider giving to organizations that address the plight of desperate people who are suffering because of  poverty, sickness, and oppression. In your place of abundance, remember those who do not have what you have. The king of all showed us what to do with the contrasts He encountered. At Christmas especially, be kind, sacrificial, and generous.

 

 

The Grace of Snow

We’ve had a long spell of overcast sky and grey.  The days are short, and the night comes on so fast. (Sunset today is at 4:06; tomorrow’s sunrise isn’t until after 7.) On top of that, we’ve had recent health problems that have consumed our thinking.   (I’ve come to believe that one of the worst aspects of health problems is the necessity to become self-focused. In those times when we most need people, sadly, pain makes us turn inward, withdraw.)

So all in all, we’ve felt a bit gloomy these past few weeks. But last night we had the first snowfall, and we sat in wonder, watching those heavy flakes descend.  And today we woke up to a sunrise of glory clouds against a bright blue sky. Our dog delighted in the snow, chasing our snowballs, making us laugh.

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I am thankful for grace that breaks through our gloom.

I have often thought that beauty  is God’s solace to us in pain and in our oh-so-human-brokenness.  This solace is, among other things, white snow falling softly and sticking on trees. Or the red of  berries,  bright against the drab. Blue waves in a harbor. Or a silver lake with ice crystals starting to form.

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I’ll take this first snowfall as grace.

Meals, Thanksgiving and Refugees

For much of the year, we’ve seen heart-wrenching pictures of migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea. Desperate, they sold whatever they could, left the people they loved, and climbed onto a boat with the barest of possessions. Many people have died in the process. Who among us can forget the image of that little child washed up, dead, on a beach?

I am struck today, by the parallels to our country’s Thanksgiving story. The people we hail as forefathers were also immigrants who climbed into boats to escape the horrors that they faced in their homes. The Pilgrims started in two boats and had to turn back because one boat was too leaky. They crowded together in the Mayflower, which took longer than anyone expected to arrive. There were storms in their crossing, too. Conditions were bleak.

Then, with fortitude and determination they planted themselves in this new land so they could worship the way they wanted, so they could build a new life.

A third of those new arrivals died that first winter. (Read here for my thoughts on that.) There is no dispute that without the help of the Native Americans who were already here, none of them would have survived. We celebrate Thanksgiving as a feast to celebrate that collaboration of Indian and Pilgrim, or put another way, that generous help by Americans to newly arrived refugees.

You can probably guess where this biased writing is going next. I have known modern day refugees and immigrants. To a one, they are not people of whom we need to be afraid. They have told me their stories of fathers taken in the night, of friends murdered in the streets, of fear to sleep at night because of nighttime raids. They enter this country (after a lengthy screening process) because they cannot go home. They are desperate, needy but brave. I am saddened by those among us who are closing their hearts to these needs, by our country’s growing animosity to immigrants.

My daughter-in-law teaches at a charter school for refugees and immigrants. As you might imagine, the result of last week’s election was disturbing and terrifying for her students (and thus for her as well.) Will they send me away, Ms?

Sadly, her kids and their families have come from places where selfish and egotistical and intolerant leaders reigned. Having already witnessed torture and maiming and killing by those in authority in their homelands, they are of course disturbed (as I am) by the trends here toward intolerance and xenophobia.

One of Amelie’s students was forced, with his siblings, to stand against a wall in the Congo and watch his parents be killed. Now he lives here with relatives, has learned English and will graduate next year. P___ said this last week: “Miss, I want to invite Donald Trump to my house for dinner. I want him to sit down at our table and eat our food and see that we are good people. Then he would change his mind, Miss. I know he would.”

 Well, I am skeptical that P’s request is realistic. But I do believe that hearing stories around a table and eating together is powerful. It is the story of our first Thanksgiving- sharing a meal with people different than ourselves, the native-born sharing what they had with the newcomer.

I am guilty of hypocrisy as I write this-  I’m having dinner today with people just like myself. But how beautiful, and how first-thanksgiving-like, if all over our country today, Americans  were sitting down together with those who are newly arrived.    We could listen to each other, laugh.  We could celebrate together, different but the same.

 

 

Poem for The Day After

I am stunned, sad, disappointed, and fearful of our future.  But if ever there was a time for good people to be good, for kind people to be kind, it is now. Here’s my offering for today.

The Day After (Election Day)

There was so much noise in the cataclysm
when the waters of anger flowed, rose
rushed in to ruin, divide.

We ran to our separate banks
watched the river
flood.

We were afraid we would drown
in those mucky waters

but instead
we survived.

Oh, but here is mud and sludge.

With sunwarmth beating
in drywinds breezing
we pick through what to save.

Our neighbors arrive.
A child will find her missing toy
a boy, his truck.
The drenched recliner will mildew, cannot be spared, must go.
We save our photographs of the past
smile, remember.

We hug our children, say
Look, we’re alive. We have each other. That is all that matters.

We take shovels.
We take buckets of clean water. Soap.

We must hum, have songs on our lips
Our children are watching to see if we believe what we say.

~ Ann Heyse

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