What part of our one body are refugees?

“The way we are, we are members of each other. All of us. Everything. The difference ain’t in who is a member and who is not, but in who knows it and who don’t.” – Burley Coulter in The Wild Birds, by Wendell Berry

Across the globe two waves of people ebb and flow, washing up, then back into each other like waves at the beach, roiling where the water that rushed to the sand loses momentum and falls back toward the ocean, just as the next wave pushes past it. Water lemmings rushing to their own demise. 

These are the human tides rushing to get out of somewhere, and the waves of people rushing to get into somewhere else. 

According to the UN Refugee Agency almost 70 million refugees wander the world, including 41 million displaced in their own countries,  fleeing turmoil, famine, war, drought, disease. The very uncivil war in Syria spiked a large increase since 2011. 

Refugees may live in squalor for years, hoping for a new home that never materializes. (Getty image)

You’ve seen the images of frightened families lugging everything they can carry, dragging their chins and bins down dusty roads in a long stream, desperate to leave behind whatever demon is tearing up their lives. Where are they going? Away. Just, away. 

They’ve cast their lot on their god and on their hopes that the milk of human kindness will somehow give them succor in whatever crowded, dirty, hungry, dangerous camp they land in next week or next month when they “arrive” at this safe haven. 

That human teat is drying up. 

Witness the wave of wanderers who washed up on the beach of the Mexico-American border and are now hunkered down waiting for a chance to present their plea for asylum to a skeleton crew of U.S. judges, operating under a “first, deny” mandate. Or the governments – and citizens – of Greece and Turkey who are saying “no more.” Stemming the easy movement of refugees from any European Union nation to another is a significant – if unspoken – element of the vote for Britain to leave the EU. 

Post-racist societies? I think not.

In October, for the first time in years, an entire month passed with no refugees officially resettled in the United States. None. The U.S. has been generous in the past with refugee resettlement, although not as generous per capita as some other nations. Under the current administration, the cap is 18,000 per year, a historic low at a time when the number of refugees is at a historic high.

This, as thousands wait for their applications to be considered. Many are huddled in squalid camps in the shadow of ports of entry, wondering where their children are, from whom they’ve been separated. Others wait in camps on the other side of the world, victims of conflicts in which we meddle – to keep the oil safe, and our access to it, secure.

Resettlement agencies, funded per capita by the number of refugees they resettle, are laying off workers and some are closing altogether. If/when our country is more open to welcoming “the tired, the poor, the huddled masses” whose industry has helped to make this country strong, resettlement agencies may not be well positioned to gear up smoothly to start again conducting their business. 

Veteran’s Day prompts such thoughts. I’m one of America’s last draftees, destined for the Army in September 1972 when my draft lottery number came up one. First. Uno. Clarity. 

America has been involved in global conflict for my entire life. Every day, if you count the unresolved status of the Koreas. “All we are saying, is give peace a chance,” we sang as students, marching Easter morning while Viet Nam still raged. 

Of the 195 countries in the world, we have troops in 177.  Some would say the presence of American troops IS giving peace a chance. Others would say the presence of our troops in other countries is the seed that grows the tree of resentment, whose fruit is conflict.

Geography is a wicked stepmother.  I’ve stood with my foot on the spot where the states of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah meet. An inch or two either way and I’m in another state. 

A baby born on the south side of the river is Mexican; born on the north side is American. The pregnant wife of a Russian oligarch flies to Miami to have her baby and suddenly an americantsky grows up in Moscow.   

As Wendell Berry’s character Burley Coulter says, “We are members of each other,” whether we know it or not.  

Somehow the attitude that “I’ve got mine, too bad about you,” seeped into the mantra of humanity. Freedom isn’t a pie, where there is less for me if I give you a slice.

When we close our arms, our doors, our hearts the body suffers. How many of the 5,000 children in American custody – separated from their parents in a misguided and cruel effort to discourage people from South America from trying to come to the U.S. – will never be reunited with their families? Some are too young to remember their own names, to say nothing of their parents’ names, or from what town and fear they fled.

            We are members of each other. As the Bible says, we are members of the same body. (Romans 12:4-5) 

            Today, my heart part hurts. 

It makes even a stoic cry

I handle bad news relatively well. My exuberance over good things isn’t excessive – unless of course, you’re talking about the winning shot hit by my child or grandchild. Those who know me might call me stoic.

But, sometimes, I find belly laugh humor in the simplest things like word play and irony. And then, out of the blue, an item will reach out from a page or conversation, or television commercial with such poignancy it strikes every raw nerve in me and makes me blubber like a baby denied its lolly. Such as, a McDonald’s commercial around Olympics time, showing a dad teaching a little girl to swim, then showing that same dad cheering on his grown daughter in the Olympic pool.

The tear trigger probably depends on an aggregation of what I’ve been doing and reading and experiencing and all the right elements coalesce to strike an emotional nerve. It happened today at lunch.

Reading in the September Reader’s Digest about teachers who changed lives, I came upon a story reprinted from 1991 about a sweet natured, but very talkative boy named Mark Eklund and his teacher who was struggling to get across a tough math concept to her junior high class. When students wouldn’t settle down, she had them write on a sheet of paper every class member’s name. Then, they were to write the nicest thing they could think of about that student – for every student – and pass the list back to her.

On Monday, she distributed their classmates’ comments to each student and heard them murmuring as they read what others said about them: “I didn’t know others liked me so much,” or “I never knew that I meant anything to anyone.”

The boy grew up, as boys do, and one day the teacher’s father said, “The Eklunds called last night.” She immediately recalled the talkative bright, polite boy and asked how he is.

“Mark was killed in Vietnam,” the father said. “The funeral is tomorrow and his parents would like it if you could attend.”

At this point, I had to pause reading because all the pain, disgust, frustration and rage I generally keep tamped down relating to America’s gross, blind, selfish, lying, cruel relationship with Vietnam burbled to the top and leaked out my eyes.

Resuming the story, teacher Helen Mrosla stood at the coffin when a pallbearer asked her if she was Mark’s math teacher. When she nodded, he said, “Mark talked about you a lot.”

After the funeral Mark’s mother pulled a piece of paper out of the wallet that was on Mark when he was killed. “I knew without looking that the papers were the ones on which I had listed all the good things each of Mark’s classmates had said about him,” Mrosla wrote.

One by one, each of Mark’s classmates from that year showed their former and favorite teacher the paper she had returned to them, folded and creased from many readings. When she finally sat down and cried, it was both in appreciation for finally knowing what that little gesture had meant to so many so long ago, and in frustration and anguish over Mark’s totally unnecessary death.

And I cried reading it, for the utterly wasted life of Mark Eklund and the other 58,208 American soldiers who died there, and the 2 million others on both sides. Youcan say these “lives”weren’t wastedbecause these men and women accomplished other things with their lives, made babies,influenced siblings and friends, bought carsto keep the wheels of American industry turning. But their lives were wasted because the war was a hopeless exercise in political overreach that never had a chance to achieve its stated purpose.

And what made my tears well up and wash down my faceand my guts clenchwasrememberingthat the politicians who prolonged the war KNEW it. They knew it for years. President Johnson couldn’t withdraw troops or he’d lose the election in 1964; Nixon sabotaged peace talks in 1968 so he could beat Hubert Humphrey.

According to a story by Bob Fitrakis in Common Dreams, Henry Kissinger, then Johnson’s adviser on Vietnam peace talks, secretly alerted Nixon’s staff that a truce was imminent.

Nixon calculated that peace in Vietnam just prior to the election would put Johnson’s VP Humphrey in the White House, instead of him. Revelations from President Nixon’s papers showed that he dispatched Anna Chennault, his liaison to the South Vietnam government, to convince the South Vietnamese to back away from the peace talks, promising a better deal when he was elected president.

Chennault was successful. South Vietnamese’s corrupt leadership backed away from the peace talks and we spent another 20,000-plus American lives and 100,000 wounded in the next five years. And in 1973, Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the same settlement he helped sabotage in 1968.

And I weep.

I weep to think of the promises, shenanigans, falsehoods and power of the military industrial complex that keeps America engaged in conflicts around the world. We are the most war mongering nation on earth. In the 243 years of our history, we’ve only been at peace for 21 years. We’ve been at war for 93 percent of our history.

It’s so common we don’t even think about it, unless you’re a parent, child or spouse of a soldier deployed.

When dealing with other nations who we perceive to be acting in a way contrary to our best interests, we rattle our sabers and say “every option is on the table,” meaning that we’re not above or beyond engaging our belts of military might to spank you into submission.

Depending on which source you quote, the U.S. spends more on its military than the next 7-12 nations combined. Yes, that includes Russia and China.

In the incredibly illuminating HBO special Chernobyl, radiation was so high that no machinery could operate to clear debris.Radiation killed operating systems within moments. So, the Russians used “bio-bots” and shovels. Yes, bio-bots – humans who were not told of the danger into which they were thrusting themselves.

Despite all the pseudo patriotic jibberish slobbering from elected officials, they see our soldiers as bio-bots. Don’t like Saddam Hussein? Make up a justification to send our bio-bots to Iraq and take him out. But don’t touch Saudi Arabia, the hot house from which 9/11 was hatched, because they buy billions of dollars in weapons.

We know that no matter when we leave Afghanistan, things will return to the tribal antagonisms and violence that have been a way of life there for centuries. The “peace” our bio-bots enforce is temporary and fragile and will never be permanent. The administration knows it but hey, there’s always another election around the corner.

We treat the sale of weapons as if they were tractors, or computers or cars. Just another manufacturing product, when in fact, weapons produced in the U.S. supply antagonists in conflicts raging around the world. Our bio-bots are being shot at by guns made in the good old U.S. of A.

“Quite frankly,” says Danny Sjursen, US Army strategist and historian, in a story in The Big Think, “Selling arms is one of the last American industries that’s left. It’s one of the last things the United States does well, that we’re still No. 1 at — No. 1 at dealing arms in the world.”

Military gets big increases in the budget while education and innovation get slashed. The biggest “welfare queens” are corporations that make billions and pay no taxes. We’re lobotomized by daily news’ fascination with sexploits, celebrity and kittens. And somehow a prominent pastor in Dallas says the president would have biblical backing to launch a nuclear war.

Dear God, on what planet am I living? Hand me a handkerchief.

This IS America

If you like to play on the lake you probably keep your gear in a water tight container in case it falls into the drink. We like to protect our stuff.

In the dinosaur days of photography, I developed my own film in a dark room constructed to be light tight. We like to protect our images.

After more than six decades lived absorbing, assimilating, criticizing and ultimately acquiescing to the culture in which I swim, I’ve accumulated plenty of stuff and developed an image of America that is culture tight. We like to protect our own bubble.

Last night my gear fell into the water, my pictures were ruined and my cultural bubble burst and splattered all over me.

By accident of birth I’ve lived in the American experiment all my life. I am happy to live in this country, rather than in many others. If it’s a privilege, I freely admit I did nothing to earn it.

Raised in the north, I’ve lived my adult life in the south and have always felt like the irritating grain of sand in the oyster that eventually suffocates in the secretions emitted to coat the irritation. I’m still not southern and few would call me a pearl.

Regional, cultural differences blossom in this country, but that’s part of what makes it beautiful. It’s what gets us in the car to see things unfamiliar. We can eat ethnic food anywhere, drive through coal country, cattle country, mining country, prairies, mountains or deserts and say, “This is America.”

We can see the world’s largest twine ball, or Mount Rushmore, or Hoover Dam, or China Town or the Bronx and say, “This is America.”

We can rejoice in our differences, our diversity, in our inclusiveness, in our historic open arms, in our different houses of worship, accents, or food choices and say, “This is America.”

But now, after every horrific massacre, school shooting, hate crime, mass murder of gays and Jews, and shootings of unarmed black men, some microphone jockey will urge us to stay calm and not despair because “this isn’t America.”

How many times can you say “this isn’t cancer” before you admit that seeping, bleeding scab on your forehead really is cancer and its ugly and you need to do something about it?

I’ve come to the horrible realization that this IS America.

What was a silent, deadly undertow of distrust, prejudice, economic superiority, income polarization, selfish nationalistic identity and hate of “other” has become the tsunami that is washing our nation into the sea.

I’ve felt it for some time, but I was forced to admit it Monday night (Oct. 29) when I sat among many hundreds of Winston-Salem citizens gathered in vigil at Temple Emanuel in mutual support of our Jewish neighbors following another massacre by a middle aged white man. This one over hatred of Jews.

It’s always hatred of something “other” isn’t it, someone who is not like me, someone who threatens to come and get something I think is rightfully mine, and only mine.

The synagogue last night was filled with “other.” Other faiths, colors, genders, styles, languages. It’s a beautiful thing to participate in an atmosphere like that, bound tangentially to each other by common concern.

Thoughtful, sincere speakers who did not look like me opened my eyes to the level of discrimination prevalent in this country. I thought Jews were being hyper-sensitive to feel anti-Semitism everywhere; that we’d made big progress in black-white relations; that LGBTQ persons were finding it easier to live who they are.

Not.

This was not a political rally but neither speakers nor participants tried to gloss over their conviction that the tiny hand pulling back the curtain on America’s pervasive prejudice belongs to the president. Any reference to his divisive rhetoric that waves the permission stick over our innate hates and prejudices drew loud applause.

We were not alone. Per PRRI’s 2018 American Values Survey, 54 percent of Americans believe the president’s decisions and behavior encourage white supremacist groups.

Although those in the room were nearly universal in their perception, we still wonder, of course, “What can we do?” Resoundingly, we were encouraged to vote!

And be kind. Be wise. Don’t let those win who incite fear to keep us apart, to keep us leery of “the other.”

And don’t despair or this brief era actually will become the new definition of America.

God forbid.

 

 

Foxes lurk outside school hen houses

Each Monday I go to a local elementary school to be a reading buddy for a second grader named Patrick.

Patrick’s school is in the part of town I don’t drive through without locking my doors. It anchors blocks populated with old, wounded cars parked half onto the sidewalks in front of old, weary houses.

Girls who look too young to wear makeup walk around broken pavement with a baby on their hip. There are no shops and no grocery stores on this side of the freeway, which slices the neighborhood off from a prosperous urban center like a cleaver through spareribs.

This morning in the media center I selected four books about farm animals. Most city kids think milk comes from the refrigerated shelf in the grocery store, or that chocolate milk comes from black cows, and that McDonald’s whips up chicken in the back room.

We talked about pigs and cows, chickens and eggs. Roosters and hens. When I couldn’t recall what the thick red hangy-down thing is under a rooster’s neck, I looked it up on my phone. I actually googled “hangy-down thing on a chicken” and it came up “wattle.” Of course. Patrick laughed delightedly and repeated, “wattle.”

Chickens on the farm live in a coop, our little book said. Pictures showed a coop on wheels inside a fence. It said the farmer moved the coop daily to give the birds access to fresh grass and more bugs.

What the book didn’t say was the coop gets moved so that chicken droppings continually fertilize new areas. Hey, I grew up around farming.

The little book introduced hens and roosters and eggs and chicks. And then, it introduced a full page, bright colored rooster, with a bright red wattle, screaming lungs out at a fox, lurking on the edge of the fence.

“Why is the rooster so upset?” I asked Patrick.

“Because the fox eats meat, and chickens are meat.”

And, because we read about dinosaurs last week, he reminded me that people are meat too. Like meals on wheels for dinosaurs.

Then Patrick made a simple observation that caused me to pause and cringe. The rooster screaming “cock a doodle doo” to the others in the coop “was like lockdown at school” he said. Matter of factly. Like saying, “I got a drink from the bubbler.”

His principal was like the rooster, shouting a warning and getting everyone into a safe position. Who knows who the fox represents. Someone hungry for meat. Someone anxious to see chickens flying and flopping around, feathers torn and floating through the air. Someone thrilled by the pierce of screams, who licks his lips on the taste of terror.

It was the simple directness of his statement that struck me. “Like lockdown.”

As the rooster is alert to an encroaching fox, the principal is alert to the possibility of a shooter in her elementary school. Alert to a fox. In the henhouse.

And Patrick, who comes to school with all his friends to learn reading and writing and math so he can grow into an independent, self-sufficient adult, is forced to learn also that foxes lurk outside his coop.

And they are hungry.

 

Learning terror on the highways

Self-driving cars are racing into our future. They supposedly will cut fuel consumption, extend our suburbs yet decrease commute times, cut the number of cars on the road by more than half, ultimately make our roads safer and cure the heartbreak of psoriasis.

Scientists theorize that a car with a dozen or more computerized “eyes” that are constantly alert and instantly responsive will be safer than a car with a human driver with just two eyes whose response times vary because of distractions like sleep deprivation, cell phones, music, mirror checking and messy sandwiches.

In the meantime, we humans are going to have to continue to navigate our crowded, crumbling roads and teach our offspring to drive safely upon them as well. It’s an important, and potentially terrifying lesson.

In fact, I remember just how terrifying it can be.

The 1979 movie “Alien” was the most terrifying cinema I’ve ever watched. I was sure the monster was in the cat and I urged Sigourney Weaver to leave it behind as she abandoned her space ship, but she went back for it!

I didn’t know until the final credits rolled that the movie was over. I relaxed for the first time in two hours and my stomach was sore three days from the tension.

But I didn’t know terror.

I’ve been trapped in a July hailstorm above timberline on Pikes Peak with the trail disappearing beneath ice and darkness approaching. We couldn’t have survived a night on the mountain me and three buddies braved the storm, climbing, exhausted, to the top.

But I didn’t know terror.

When I was sideswiped on a rain slick interstate by an 18-wheeler on a cold dark night, I still didn’t know terror.

I’ve taken the subway from New Jersey into Manhattan at midnight, heeding a native’s warning to sit as far front and as near the conductor as possible. I perched on the scarred plastic bench holding my country mice eyes unseeing, straight ahead. I pled silently for a cloak of invisibility to drape over me and to cover the neon sign I knew flashed above my head saying “Easy Mark.”

But terror remained only a textbook definition, a movie subject, an Edgar Allen Poe concoction. I only thought I knew terror, like a boy thinks he knows love.

Then, I took my 15-year-old daughter driving for the first time. And I discovered terror.

I grew up on a farm, driving tractors and trucks in the field from age 11. I learned the levers and pedals that made things go in slow-moving vehicles, in wide open spaces.

I had no idea until that first driving lesson how narrow are the roads or how close to the roads are mail boxes, or how sharp are the curves and how abruptly the pavement drops at the shoulder, or how wide are oncoming vehicles.

In the very first moments, after Erin adjusted the seat, mirrors, seatbelt, radio, sunglasses and hair, and figured out which pedal was go and which was stop, she almost took out one of those mailboxes. Fortunately, the ditch we rolled into on the other side kept the box safe.

It’s a helpless feeling, to be sitting on the rider’s side, with no brake and no steering wheel when all manner of disaster careens at you. I pushed a size 10 footprint into the floorboard when Erin didn’t seem to turn the wheel enough to accommodate the slow rolling curves. Unlike a 3-D movie simulation, these terrors really can jump off the screen like a Velociraptor to bite off your head.

I told Erin to ignore the cars on her bumper, and not to fear the ones coming toward her seeming to take up the whole road. When they get closer, you’ll see the road really is wide enough for both of us, I assured her. And the bridges only seem too narrow. And 30 miles per hour is fast enough!

You cannot imagine how dizzyingly fast 40 mph seems to a dad when his first time driver is behind the wheel.

To her credit, Erin finished the one-hour session with a new appreciation of how difficult and mind bending it is to drive well – a task that looks so easy when observing an experienced driver. She made a lot of progress and our next session was much easier. (I won’t go into the part about trying to teach her how to drive a stick shift.)

And importantly, I was reminded that the best way to overcome the terrors that lurk “out there” – under the bed, around the corner, in the operating room, on the next calendar page, when the phone rings, when your wife says “we need to talk” – is to face them. Get in the car with them and stare them in the eye while racing down the open highway.

Of course, it’s better to have a brake pedal on your side when you do.