I recently joined a zero waste community on Facebook, in a panic over the news that my neighborhood will likely be under water in another thirty years. It has definitely been an interesting experience — anthropological in part, but also educational. But, ignoring the anxiety of joining any public group with zillions of people who cannot be polite online, there was something bugging me about it all.
Well, two things.
The first was that in order to become more zero waste, I had to do a lot of purchasing, which naturally produces waste. Of course, if you don’t have reusable bags, you’re going to have to buy some. If you’re using Ziplocks, then you need to purchase the silicone replacements. And shampoo. Good luck finding zero waste shampoo unless you happen to have a Lush near you, where you can buy $12 shampoo bars in person and put them in your reusable bag. You’ll be wanting a $30 safety shave razor too, which will save you money in the long run. And don’t you have a compost set up in your yard, which naturally you own and control?
And voila, there it was. The guilt of every piece of plastic that I used was beginning to eat me up in the same way that I used to feel guilty for eating food at the height of the years when I constantly starved myself. My guilt over the waste my family produces has been eating me up for ages, but now I’d found a community of people that were feeding into my need to have some control — at any cost — over it. It was consuming me, making me feel like a bad person for needing to ever buy things for my family.
Try to explain to a 3 year old that you don’t need to buy her pants in her size because it’s going to create a box and a plastic bag. And the alternative is to zoom around to all the used goods places you can to find used clothes instead, which takes a huge amount of time. As a working parent, the very idea of having that much time seems so laughable and that’s if you ignore, for a moment, that thrift stores were set up to help people who cannot afford new clothes, so now you have well off people creating a competition for goods with people who don’t have the same choices.
I think about that because I was one of those kids growing up. Thrifting, as a middle-class activity, has always sat uncomfortably with me, because I remember well going to the Goodwill every Saturday to see what treasures might have turned up that we could actually afford.
Which is not to say that you shouldn’t refuse, reduce, reuse and recycle as much as you can. It’s just that it’s a more complicated problem than an individual can solve. But the zero waste movement sells this idea that you’re the problem, not the overarching systems put in place by our economic system and government policies. We should, absolutely, try to consume less and demand better choices. But driving yourself mad because it’s impossible to buy meat for your family without styrofoam and plastic isn’t helping. Do you use cereal and don’t have a bulk foods store nearby? Then it’ll be cardboard and plastic. Are you planning on ordering anything online ever again? Then it’s cardboard and plastic. And just forget eating in a restaurant ever again. Think! Think of all the boxes that their food came in!
The system is bad. I want to have hope that there’s change coming, but it’s hard to see from where I’m sitting. Here in Long Island, a single stream recycling company has recently announced they’re going out of business because what China is willing to pay is not enough to keep the plant open. The towns that rely on it are now scrambling to find a replacement, but it’s an industry problem. How many years did we think we could casually throw things in the recycling bin guilt-free before there was a reckoning?
In the meantime, there are folks in the zero waste community cutting down on showers and toilet paper in their need to waste less. And that’s an interesting choice, because all of those reusables require so much more washing than anything disposable, so if soap and water are a problem…
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.
My daughter crinkles paper, blows on the tree to make it live, festoons herself with silver. So far she has no use for gifts.
What can I give her, what armor, invincible sword or magic trick, when that year comes?
How can I teach her some way of being human that won’t destroy her?
I would like to tell her, Love is enough. I would like to say, Find shelter in another skin.
I would like to say, Dance and be happy. Instead I will say in my crone’s voice, Be ruthless when you have to, tell the truth when you can, when you can see it. Iron talismans, and ugly, but more loyal than mirrors.
from “Solstice Poem”, Margaret Atwood
On the radio this morning, the hushed voices of NPR reporters break the news that the largest mass shooting the country has ever seen happened overnight. The details are still sparse, but I wait for the body count. In the back seat, Baba babbles about the birds she heard singing, while I wonder what new words she’ll pick up from the radio this time.
After the barest details turn into empty radio filler, I turn down the volume. There is time later to obsess about the increasingly competitive rampages of men with guns who want to die over and over again on the front page of every newspaper. And we fall into the trap, as we must, feting the murders on every radio station and in every newspaper in terse and gently probing tones. The President issues a speech that manages not to insult anyone. On social media, the cringey and meaningless posts about thoughts and prayers are echoed over and over.
We are helpless. We are hopeless. But yet, we want to be seen having compassion for people we would not know walking down the street, because the situation is so terrible that we must be observed to publicly mourn to protect our decency. And so we perform our grief, but it feels false. How can you have grief left to give to strangers, when we’ve done this show so many times?
This season, it doesn’t even have an intermission. Hurricane, hurricane, horror, hurricane, slow response, mass shooting, horror.
Later in the day, Tom Petty dies, because how could such a well-loved American artist live out this terrible day? Although we know by now that it is simply not safe to go to work or ride a train or dance in a night club, music had been safe. If you weren’t French. Now, thanks to yet another white man with far more guns than anyone should ever own, that too has been defiled. Even Tom Petty’s death is ruined, because our thoughts and prayers are already taken.
Tomorrow, his record sales are sure to spike, because that is what happens every time. And we will do nothing else. Nothing and nothing and nothing.
About a month ago, I told Baba that it was time to leave to go to school.
She says, “No, Mama. I no go school. I have to murder my tiger.”
“You have to what?” I ask, as I walk into the living room, where I find her holding a long piece of plastic across the throat of a stuffed Disney-shaped lion that we have yet to identify.
“Ehm,” I say.
“Ehm,” I say a little louder.
Baba interrupts her sawing and looks up with curiosity on her sweet and feral face.
“You seem to be murdering,” I say, in what must the epitome of good parenting.
“Yes, Mama,” she says happily. “See, I murder my tiger! Like this! You want murder my tiger too?”
“No, baby. Murder is not nice.”
“Murder is not nic-CEEEEEE?” she asks, cocking her head with an overdone smile that usually makes me laugh.
“No love, murder is not nice. Tell your tiger that you’re sorry, honey. Then we need to go.”
We have a madness that we cannot seem to shake off. Already the old conversation about gun control has started. I think more about personal risk. I don’t worry for myself, because I have walked through high-risk halls on my way to work so many years that I long ago accepted the chance that some violent man will take my life. After all, I ride trains. And, in 2017, we all know that bombs and trains go along very well.
Hopefully not my one, but you never know.
But no parent considers sending their child to school without also imagining the day when that decision became deadly. Because you never know.
And this is the world that I must explain to Baba. Now she is so young that her innocence about the world constantly surprises me.
One day she took down our Bernie Sanders card from the bathroom mirror and said, “Who dat?”
“That’s Bernie Sanders, love. He reminds us to look out for one another.”
“Who Ernie Sandbars?”
I thought a while about how to explain it. “He’s a man who wants to make sure that everyone can go to the doctor if they get sick,” I said.
“Why you no can go doctor?” she asked.
“Well…” I said, at a loss for words.
What a world I have to give you, my Baba, my innocent and feral child. And that is my deepest grief. All I can arm you with are the words and poems of the fighters and the heroes and hope that you stay as courageous
as you were born.
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
It is Monday morning, on the sort of fall morning where rain comes by in unsuspecting gusts, drenching any commuter that was brave enough to put their umbrella away during the brief periods of dryness. On the train, freed from the drama of the rain, we are hurtling towards Penn Station, racing past the sleepy yellow houses of Queens that quietly witness the thousands of people that travel past them each day.
Then the phones begin to buzz, first a single alert, then an unignorable clatter of sounds, as Verizon and AT&T and TMobile send out a law enforcement alert. Without glancing at my phone, I know that they must have found the person behind the bombings of the last 24 hours, the set of trash can and pressure cooker bombs in Manhattan and northern New Jersey that have scathed passer-bys, but not yet killed anyone. They’ve gone off in empty neighborhoods, late at night and early in the morning, just a reminder of how vulnerable we are and how dangerous it is to dare to be in a crowd.
How much worse they could have been.
My kid brother came over last night for dinner, as is his habit on Sunday nights. “Did you hear about the bombings?” he asked, worried that people are once again attacking our city. He is young – 21 – the same age that I was on September 11th, 2001. He was six at the time and living in England, so I know that the stories about it sound like people landing on the moon or the assassination of JFK did to me.
“It’s scary,” he says.
“Yes, but,” I say, “if you lived in Baghdad, this would be something that happened every week.”
“That’s true,” he says.
“It is scary,” I add, belatedly. “And New York will always be a target. That’s just something you have to deal with, living here. And oh God, tomorrow’s commute. It’s going to be awful.”
“Ugh,” he says, sympathetically. I know that he is glad that he works nearby.
I am not, you may note, the most reassuring person in a crisis.
And so here we are again, with another frightening drama unfolding on streets so familiar that they feel like home. The mayor and the media were quick to respond, to reassure us that the first two bombs were “intentional but not terrorism.” I laugh a bit at the language, because the way the media restructures words. Of course it is terrorism. Anyone planting bombs in public spaces is trying to terrorize the public at large. And, hardy as we are by now, it’s working. The kids are scared.
And so I wonder about this name that has just shown up on all of our phones, as we go about our lives and continue on to offices with bosses that would not understand if we “let the terrorists win” (whatever that means) by staying home. We’ve seen this play out before, in Boston, and we know that he will be found. There is not a scenario where you draw this kind of police attention and walk away free. And, is that the point? Is this kid — only a handful of years older than my brother — testing himself? Is this a question of wits, inspired by a thousand and one blockbuster action films? And is he alone? Will we be safe, as he runs for his freedom?
In the seats in front of me, a woman wearing far too much perfume is peacefully playing Candy Crush Saga, whiling away her commute as though today were just an ordinary day. At the other end of my subway ride, I will come out of the World Trade Center subway stop, thinking as I queue up for the exit of how vulnerable we are, standing trapped underneath such a world-famous target. I feel the echoes of the dead around me, as I emerge into the sunlight and pass St. Paul’s, the three and a half century old church across from Ground Zero, where some of the first European inhabitants of Manhattan are buried. The grass grows long and wild at the edge of the graveyard, where it curves down to the meet the street. I wonder about the groundsmen whose job it must be to worry about this small detail.
In 1992, my mother really liked Denzel Washington.
Like, really really liked him. She liked him enough that when a movie studio was recruiting for extras for a scene in The Pelican Brief, she signed herself right up. To our great amusement, she was assigned to be in a crowd protesting gun control.
I can’t quite tell, but I’m pretty sure that the lady in the lower right corner with the blue and yellow shirt is my Mom. Denzel Washington ran through this crowd. My Mom was only a few feet away, which absolutely made her month.
The scene was funny, of course, because my Mom was absolutely for gun control, long before it was an acceptable thing to say out loud. She was an Army veteran, raised in a county so rural that one of her chores was riding her bike to the farm next door to pick up milk bottles for her family. She knew a little bit about guns and counted the time she had to throw a grenade in basic training as the absolutely most frightening moment of her life. She certainly didn’t see a reason why just anyone should have access to weapons.
No doubt, her experiences as a special education teacher in inner city D.C. contributed to her feelings. She specialized in teaching emotionally disturbed children. These are the kids who had been kicked out of all of the other schools, but still needed an education. Given their behavior problems, it likely won’t surprise you to hear that their home lives were not the greatest. Many of the children had been abused. All of them had parents trapped in poverty and plenty of her students had parents in jail. Some of her students, by the age of twelve, thought of jail as a place where you could go to get three solid meals a day. I can’t remember exactly how many funerals for her students that she went to during her years in the city, but it was far, far too many. Guns were a big part of all of that.
It was also the nineties, when D.C. was commonly referred to as the murder capitol. I remember joking about that with my friends, as though we were somehow tougher because we were living in such a dangerous environment. The summer of 1994 really sticks out in my memory, because it began with a Romeo-and-Juliet style suicide between two twelve-year-olds that were forbidden to see each other. After that, it seemed as though there was a drive-by shooting at least once a week. It was the first time we’d heard the phrase road rage, where people were so angry at being cut off in traffic that they were pulling out their guns and shooting people. To this day, I still cringe whenever my Beloved loses his temper and shouts out the window at other drivers, because I presume that they will have a gun. It was that frightening to live through.
Right before I left D.C. for New York, the tri-state area was brought to its knees by a 17 year old with a rifle. Just reading through the Wikipedia article now, fourteen years later, leaves my heart pounding in my chest. The list of shootings read like a geography of my childhood. The first shot, through the window of a Michael’s store, is the store I used to walk to as a kid. I spent hours there, looking at all the craft items that I wanted to try but could not afford. Two of the victims were murdered on the streets where I grew up. Another was shot only a block and a half from where I was attending college at the time in Virginia. The management of the apartment complex that I lived in sent out a memo to the residents, urging extreme caution as we went about the neighborhood and recommending limiting our time outdoors. I remember people volunteering to pump gas wearing bulletproof vests, because folks were that scared. One morning I was over two hours late for work, because the police had stopped the eight-lane Beltway and were investigating every single car in their desperation to find the killer. When we learned that it was a teenager pulling the trigger, it was simply impossible to process. That is how a single gun ended sixteen lives and brought an entire city to its knees.
When another murderer walked into Pulse in Orlando last week, I was on a plane home from Ireland, where I’d just spent a week trying to answer the question of why Americans are so in love with their guns, because Irish people simply don’t understand it. Irish law is very restrictive with guns, while still allowing some shotguns for hunting. Most knives will get you in trouble, if you don’t have a really good explanation for having it, so the idea that we can walk in to a store and buy a gun that’s advertised to be able to shoot 13 bullets a second is simply incomprehensible to them. (I have since learned that pragmatically your finger really couldn’t fire 13 times a second, so the real rate would be more like 3 bullets a second. I remain in awe that this is what we’re talking about.)
I have watched the public mourning of the Pulse attack with no small amount of sadness, but mostly I have watched it with a deep and intense anger. Is it any surprise that we’ve had another shooting on this scale? Is it any surprise that eventually it would target LGBT folks, given a political climate where anti-trans bathroom bills are not only voted on, but actually passed? The mourning is proper. It is good. This is a national tragedy. It should be mourned loudly and publicly. But what bothers me most is that in the last 72 hours, as I write this, 56 people have been killed by guns, per the Gun Violence Archive, which syndicates and counts reported incidents of gun violence in the media. Over 6,000 people have died so far this year. 1,200 teenagers have been injured or killed, as have 262 children under the age of 11. 148 police officers have also lost their lives.
And it’s only June.
Where is the outrage? Where is the mourning?
We are in the middle of a rise in gun violence across this country. According to a recent DOJ study, homicide rates have jumped 17% in the nation’s 56 biggest cities. In my home town, after a decade of falling crime rates that almost created a sense of normalcy, violent crime has increased every year since 2011. That’s the just the crime rate. It doesn’t count suicides or accidents. Reported accidents accounted for nearly 2,000 incidents nationally last year. In April, one of those accidents injured two people right on the same floor of the same building as the pediatric office where I take Baba. Because, apparently, responsible gun ownership means bringing your gun into the same building as a pediatrician’s office. In talking to gun owners, I’ve heard a lot more stories about accidental discharges that weren’t reported. Accidental, that is, if you get over the intentionality of having a gun in your hands in the first place.
Forgive me if that sounds bitter. I am bitter. I am bitter because I’ve been watching people shrug their shoulders at gun violence for my entire life, as if it is some kind of natural force that we can do nothing about. It is not a hurricane or cancer, which, as it happens, are problems that we spend millions of dollars each year to address. It is a problem entirely of our own making.
And the worst part, of course, is that our Congress has enacted legislation to prohibit gun violence from even being studied. I laugh when I hear people talk about Hilary Clinton’s terrible complicity and corruption in giving speeches to Goldman Sachs, because that seems so trivial compared to such an outrageous law. Why aren’t we marching in the street and screaming about the incredible pull the NRA has on our politicians? It is literally killing our kids.
I am not a gun owner, nor will I ever allow guns to come into my home. You can undoubtedly tell me a million ways in which my understanding about guns is wrong. I know this, because I’ve been talking to gun owners endlessly to try to come up with some sort of meaningful change that would actually work. But without the ability to even study the problem, we are all making wild guesses at to what would actually help. Ban assault rifles? Sure. It seems like a reasonable step. Limit the number of bullets you can put in it at a time to ten? Sure. That would give the victims of mass shootings a greater opportunity to overpower their attacker. It just doesn’t address the bigger problem, where over 31,000 Americans are shot in an average year. A national database for background checks would have saved the eight lives in Charleston. National gun laws, rather than the regional hodge-podge that makes the stricter laws completely useless would also be a great step. D.C. has a handgun ban, after all, which means nothing when you can drive 10 miles in any direction and legally purchase one, then drive it right back over the border and into your home.
Even just instituting licensing and training, like we do with driving, would be a huge step in the right direction. And that’s something that most of the gun owners that I’ve spoken to can get completely behind. I know that I live in a democracy, and that compromise is the name of the game. That has to come from both sides. We seem to be stuck on the first step, which as any addict could tell you is recognizing that we even have a problem. When you start looking at how we compare to other countries, I don’t see how you can possibly deny it.
And maybe, when we’ve actually managed to get fewer guns on our streets, NYPD recruitment posters won’t have to look like this one any more:
There’s just got to be a better way than this. Doesn’t there?
I was thrown into a whirlwind of self-doubt last week, after seeing a single photograph. If you’ve paid attention to the news at all, you already know the one — a drowned toddler, clothed in vibrant primary colors, washed up on a beach. You probably know the story, too; another migrant family, desperate to escape the civil war in Syria, put their trust (and their savings) in the wrong boat captain. Half the family drowned and, because of the death of a child, the world is suddenly paying attention. This is the power of photography – to capture human suffering with a strength that makes people pause their lives and actually do something.
Suddenly, the world has been afire with criticism for the European reactions to the millions of Syrian refugees. Perhaps it is because I am now a mother, but that image has haunted me in a way that I can’t remember another photograph doing. Every child, no matter their nationality or language or ethnicity, has become mine. It is only chance that my Baba is safe in her crib, while so many Syrian children are still in danger. To be a parent is to be so aware of how vulnerable you are to great loss, at any time. It is to know that your heart walks around outside your body — and to fear what will happen to you if you live long enough to see tragedy strike. This child, Alan Kurdi, was born during the civil war that has torn Syria apart. He never experienced the safety that I have been able to give to Baba, simply because she was born here and not there.
It is an awful thought. My heart breaks for his family — for all of the families that have had to make such desperate choices.
One of the members in an online mothering group that I belong to posted about having a feeling of gratitude that Alan Kurdi’s mother also drowned. At least she was spared the pain of living, after the drowning of her sons. It’s an awful sentiment, a terrible thing to say out loud, but also a feeling that I fully understood. If I were unable to keep Baba safe, but I survived….living would be the harder course, by far.
When he was interviewed by the press, the words of Alan Kurdi’s father really struck me. My wife, he said, my wife was everything to me. How do I go on? How does he, after the death of his life partner and two of his children?
How do you go on in the face of such loss? Your children, your wife, your community, your home. What do you do when your entire world has become a place of danger, a place of loss?
It puts the trivialities of my daily trials into a certain perspective.
What can I do from here? I can donate money. That’s easily done. But what can I do? Do my daily efforts contribute to making the world a safer place, a place where “the refugee problem” is solved not by finding refugees new homes in new countries, but creating a place where we don’t make refugees in the first place? In my job, I build a communications network, but that seems feeble. My writing…well, I have had an artistic crisis, as every trivial scene I’ve ever written feels empty and hollow. I haven’t written a word all week, because what could possibly be the point of it all?
I’ve read that there are more people on the move in Europe since the end of World War II. Armies of people are sitting in camps and at checkpoints on national borders. Vivid photographs of their marches through fields and along highways have made it across the world. It’s touching — and frightening — to see just how many people have had to give up their lives. My heart goes out to them. It makes everything I do to get through the day seem meaningless. What does a clever story matter, when there are people who have lost so much, suffered so much, through no fault of their own?
What am I doing with my life that really means something, when there are such problems in the world? It’s a question that has lingered with me, ever since I saw a single photograph.