Feeling Thoughtful


We live in difficult times. We live in sorrowful times.

We live in times that make it hard for us to keep our humanity close at hand. Times when we need to remind ourselves that those “others” are really “us”.

So I’m thinking. I’m not talented enough to come up with the powerful words that these times require. Luckily, a lot of very talented people have already covered this ground.

“What hurts the victim most is not the cruelty of the oppressor, but the silence of the observer.” by Elie Wiesel

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

– Abraham Lincoln

A Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets, and in which strife and civil war are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness, has no charm for me.”

– Robert E. Lee

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

-Emma Lazarus, poem on the Statue of Liberty

“If ever a time should come, when vain and aspiring men shall possess the highest seats in Government, our country will stand in need of its experienced patriots to prevent its ruin.”

Founding Father Samuel Adams

“Loyalty to country ALWAYS. Loyalty to government, when it deserves it.”

Author Mark Twain


Those Marching Migrants


MEXICO-HONDURAS-US-MIGRATION

I’ve been thinking a lot about the people who are walking from Central America to the US-Mexico border.

I’m really fascinated by the way they are being described. I know that words have power. Words shape our beliefs and our opinions.

Words can be weapons, and words can speak truth.

Are the people walking across Mexico a caravan intent upon invading our country? Or are they desperately poor families making a nearly hopeless attempt to save their children from violence and starvation?

Are they criminals with evil intentions, some of whom have arrived inexplicably in Honduras from the Middle East? Or are they completely innocent, loving, kind families with beautiful babies who need us?

Let’s see if we can find some actual facts to help us figure out what is actually taking place to our South.

According to the Heritage Foundation, Honduras is the second poorest country in Central America, and has one of the world’s highest homicide rates. The government is unstable and corrupt, and often works in tandem with drug dealers and gangs.

The same foundation reports that Guatemala is in equally poor shape economically and politically. It, too, suffers from an unstable government, poor infrastructure and low quality education and health care. Drug trafficking is rampant there, as it is in Honduras.

So it is a fact that many families in these two countries are living in poverty, with little hope of improvement. There are few educational opportunities and therefore little hope of improved economic conditions. Got it.

Are some of them criminals? This one is a little tricky to fact check. I can find lots of information on news sites that have their own political agenda. Fox News assures us that there are loads of gang members and criminals in there. They say that this information comes from our own Department of Homeland Security, although there are no real specifics in the DOH report.

Other sites focus on individuals within the migrant group, exposing their stories of suffering and fear. One Nicaraguan family was highlighted by US News & World Report. The story is powerful, gripping and incredibly sad.

There are hundreds of photos of children from the migrant group. Those photos will break your heart, no matter who you are. Little babies crying from hunger, toddlers crossing flooded rivers in the arms of their parents. We know that there are in fact truly desperate people in the migrant group.

So.

Where does this leave us?

We know that there is a group of human beings of various ages walking all the way from the southernmost border of Mexico to it’s northern border with the United States. We know for sure that some of them are true refugees who want to seek asylum. We know that some are kids. We know that a lot of them just want jobs, any jobs, here in the land of relative safety and decent education.

We are told that some are criminals. I haven’t seen any actual factual information on this, like a story that gives locations, ages, names, histories. But you know what?

I’m willing to admit that it is very likely that SOME of the migrants coming our way have criminal histories. It seems to make sense to me, that if you have a large group of adult humans in one place, some of them will have criminal tendencies.

But does that mean that ALL of them should be stopped, kicked out, lumped together as a group of bad guys because of the company they keep? Some people (like Sen. Chuck Grassley) seem to think so.

I’m not so sure.

I mean, yeesh. If every group of people in our country had to be held to the lowest standard, what would happen? If every teacher was judged by the few who dressed up as a wall for Halloween? If every doctor was judged by the few who steal drugs? Where would we be if every religious leader was judged by the actions of Catholic Priests?

Yikes.

And….well….what would happen if every member of Congress was thrown out because some of them have been convicted of crimes???

Welp.

We’d pretty much be ruling ourselves, wouldn’t we?

#AnthonyWeiner #TomDelay #JohnEdwards #MikeCrapo #JesseJacksonJr #TreyRadel

 

 

Shalom


Peace.

Peace be upon you and upon all you love.

Salaam.

Peace.

I don’t know what to write today, so I’m going to simply wish you peace. Soft words, soft landings, safe spaces.

Peace in your hearts. Peace in your angry, saddened souls.

Peace to all of us who mourn for more lost lives, more unspeakable gun violence.  Peace to all who fear for the future of our country.

Wishing peace and calm to all who ask themselves “How could we have come to this place? How could we be letting these things happen?” Peace to all of us who have begun to fear each other. And peace to those who are feared.

Shalom to all who have already been through this kind of awful, ugly, ignorant, hateful terror and lived to tell us your stories. Salaam to those who have already gotten away from this kind of hatred and violence and have come to us as a safe haven.

Peace.

Peace.

Peace.

Tomorrow, smile at someone who wears different clothing than you do. Say hello to someone who has skin of a different tone than yours. Give a helping hand to someone who is speaking a language you can’t understand.

Peace.

Shalom.

Salaam.

We need it so much right now.

peace-1325161_640

Immigration…and Emigration


For my entire life, I have thought about the idea of immigration. I was raised on the stories told by my grandparents and great aunts and uncles. Stories about coming to America. Coming to the land of education, opportunity, promise.

I have always, for all of my 62 years, viewed my heritage through the lens of immigration to the United States. Growing up in a middle class suburb of Boston, I was aware that my grandparents had raised my parents in far grittier, far poorer, far more crowded areas of my home state.

I knew that my grandparents had left Italy in the earliest years of the twentieth century. I knew that they came here because they wanted to find work. They wanted a steady income. I knew that they came because they wanted their children, my parents, to have an education and a chance to escape the endless pressure of poverty that had marked their own lives.

As a child who came of age in the 1960’s, I was raised on the idea of the American “melting pot.” I grew up with the image of Lady Liberty holding her torch aloft. I imagined my grateful grandparents arriving in this country.

I never thought about those same grandparents leaving everything they had ever known and loved.

It wasn’t until my just finished trip to Italy that I stopped to think about the leaving part of immigration.

Last week I traveled with my husband, our two sons and their future wives to the small village where my paternal grandparents were born. I had always heard about the little town in the “hills above Naples.” I had always heard about the difficult agrarian life, about the lack of opportunity.

I wanted to see that little village because it was the place of my roots. I wanted to see it because my father always talked about it, and because I have missed my Dad every single day for the past ten years.  I had a romantic image of what it would be like to walk on the streets where my ancestors had walked.

But when I got to the little town, winding up its narrow streets, my husband and I were with our sons and the women they plan to marry. I didn’t expect the rush of emotion that struck me when I came into the tiny town center. Getting out of the car in the blistering heat of Italy in July, I felt as if I was carrying the weight of my father and his parents on my aching back. I walked to the small stone monument dedicated to those who had died in the World Wars, and there I read the names of ancestors I would never know.

I was sobbing when the church bells rang at noon, holding onto my youngest child, but thinking of the thread that tied him to my great grandparents. Did my grandmother and father hear those same bells every day? Was this the church where they were brought to be Christened as babies?

The day went on, filled with more blessings than I can name. I met loving, gracious, kind relatives that I had never know before.  I stood on the terrace outside of the little local church, with the most gorgeous valley spread out below us. I heard my sons and their loves talking about marriage. I hugged my husband of 40 years, knowing that he understood how precious this moment was for me. After all this time, to be standing in this place…..

“It’s so beautiful,” I kept saying to myself with real surprise. “It’s so peaceful and so rugged and so beautiful.”

Later in our trip, Paul and I went to Sicily. The kids had gone home, but we had more time and we wanted to see the home place of my maternal grandparents. These were the grandparents I knew best, and I felt my Grampa with me every step of that trip. We got to Augusta, where my Grampa had grown up and where my Nana’s parents had lived.

I smelled the sea and the orange blossoms and the dry wind, and I was struck right in the heart with how beautiful it all was. While I was in Sicily, I ate seafood, I swam in the Mediterranean, tasted the wine, saw the olive trees.

And one thought kept going through my mind, “How did they ever leave this place?”

We had hugged our kids goodbye as they headed back to Massachusetts, to jobs and friends and lives. I was truly sad to see them go, and there were a couple of tears when they left.

But now that I had begun to think of immigration as “emigration”, all I could think about was the leaving that my family was brave enough to endure.

How did they do it? What desperation, what fear, what sorrow could have pushed my young grandparents to leave behind their language, their food, their music, their parents, in search of something better?

What desperation, what depth of love, what deeply held hope could have given my great grandparents the courage to hug their children goodbye as they boarded the ships that would take them across the world forever?

I thought about the beauty of the sunsets in Sicily. I thought about the light on the mountains of Avellino. I thought about how hard it was for me to give up the sound of English for three short weeks.

And I thought about kissing my children goodbye, knowing that I might never see them again.

I’ll never think about immigration in the same way again. Those who leave behind all that is known and secure must be powered by a hope that I can only imagine.

 

Remembering “My” Kids


I went into my daughter’s classroom for a visit last week. She teaches a loop, so she has her students for two years. Now it’s June of her second year with these lovely sixth graders, and everyone is tired, emotional, and ready to move on. I brought Kate’s kids in to the classroom to say goodbye.

Naturally, just stepping into the school building where I taught for more than two decades had me nostalgic.

All the way home that afternoon, I thought about “my” kids from over the years. Here are a few of the stories that have been on my mind.

The Bombs Below

One year I had a boy in my class who had spent about half of his ten years of life in his native Pakistan. His family had moved back and forth from the U.S. to Pakistan a couple of times, and were intending to return again. My student went through the year with one foot here and one over there.

In the early fall of that fifth grade year, we all went on a three day trip to the mountains. The trip included environmental studies and team building. It was hard work for this old teacher, but it was fun! One of the best parts was a hike up to a small mountain peak near the camp. We would all scramble through the woods for an hour or so until we came out to the summit, where the students would gather and gaze down at the camp, far below. Part of our tradition was to call out a greeting from the summit to the camp below. The kids below would hear us and call back.

That particular year, there was some construction going on at the camp. From the summit, we could hear distant hammers and faint booms as piles of wood were unloaded from trucks.

I stood with my Pakistani student, asking him if he could hear the kids calling up from below. He frowned behind his large glasses, squinting at the lake in the distance. “Listen carefully,” I told him. “We’ll yell and the kids on the athletic field will yell back.”

The kids gathered around me, giggling and clearing their throats.  “How, How!” we yelled. We waited, and then it came, “How, How!” from below. I turned to my student with a smile. “Did you hear it?”

He shook his head.

“All I can hear is those bombs down there.”

That’s what it’s like to leave a war zone. This poor kid heard distant hammering and simply assumed that bombs were going off.

He didn’t even react.

What grade am I in?

Many years ago, before I became a classroom teacher, I was the speech/language specialist in our school. I worked with kids who had communication disorders due to learning disabilities, hearing impairment, intellectual impairments and other challenges.

One year I was asked to evaluate a student who had recently immigrated to the U.S. from Brazil. The boy was tall, gangly armed in the way of pre-adolescent boys. He had a huge grin and sparkling brown eyes. Everything made him laugh.

His English was poor, but growing rapidly. He had a quick wit and warm charm that made him instantly popular with his classmates and teachers. He had very few academic skills, which was why I was doing my assessment. We weren’t sure if this young man had an underlying learning disorder that had held back his ability to read in his native Portuguese. We needed to find the best way to help catch up.

Although this student was old enough to be enrolled in our fifth grade, he had been placed in the fourth grade to give him time to catch up.

When I began my language assessment with a casual conversation, I learned why he was struggling so much.

“What grade were you in when you were in Brazil?”

“What grade? I don’t know. How do I know what grade I am in?”

“Honey, how many years of school did you do?”

“Oh. I don’t know.” I remember that he shrugged and grinned, looking up from beneath the brim of his cap. “I would go when there was a teacher. Sometimes I would go but there would be no teacher, so we just played or went home.”

I found out later, through an interpreter at a meeting with his Mom, that this boy had never completed a single year of school. There was no set curriculum, no continuity of lessons from year to year. Most troubling of all, teachers would come and go all year, often missing weeks of teaching time without replacements.

“This is why we left our country,” the Mom explained. “We wanted him to go to school.”

That handsome, charismatic, bright little guy was at our school for only a year. After that, we lost track of him as his family struggled to find a place to settle safely.

I think about him often.

book-112117_640

In honor of every single child who needs safety, education, and love.

Oh, Thank Goodness We’re Protected!


Gosh, I feel so much safer now that we have a Commander In Chief who is determined to protect us from this scary, scary world.

I mean, sure, we still have to face the dangers brought about by escalating climate change. Floods, super storms, droughts….all of those threats are still out there. In spades.

And, yeah, I know that North Korea is promising to nuke us all into the stone age. I realize that the current administration hasn’t managed to ease or mitigate that particular threat in any way, shape or form. I know.

And I’m aware that Iran is heating up, Afghanistan is still a disaster and Syria is on the brink of total annihilation.

Of course, we also face constant cyber threats from inside and outside of the U.S. and the entire grid could go down at any minute.

But, still! We have a President who has promised to keep us safe from all those dangerous drug dealing rapists streaming over the border from Mexico. And golly, gee, he means what he says!

When I read about the recent detention of 10 year old Rosa Maria in Corpus Christi, all I could think was, “Wow! Now my family can rest easy!”

Our tax dollars are surely being put to good use when we are protected from the terrible risk posed by little girls with cerebral palsy. Little girls like Rosa Maria Hernandez whose parents deliberately broke American law when they brought her to the United States at the age of three months so she could get decent medical care for her disability.

It just makes me so proud, as an American citizen, to know that my government is willing to send armed, uniformed officers to make sure that a disabled little girl won’t do any terrorism while she’s recovering from major surgery.

I just feel so…..safe!

Oh, sure, I know that my chances of being murdered by a pissed off neighbor with a concealed weapon are about 10 million times greater than my odds of being hurt by Rosa Maria. But, gosh, America, don’t we have some standards to live by?

If every devoted, impoverished Mexican family tries to move across the border to keep their babies alive, doesn’t that mean that the very foundation of our democracy is at risk?

RosaMaria, I hope you understand the kind of existential threat you pose to the most powerful nation on earth with your disrespect for authority.

I know that I will sleep better tonight knowing that one more scared, hurting, lonely, confused child is safely in detention.

Don’t you all feel so much safer?

rosa-maria-hernandez-e1509050129658

 

 

 

A History Lesson


lustgarten_photo

Many years ago, when I was a young High School student, I learned about the terrible events in Nazi Germany.  I remember reading about the creation of the Jewish ghettos, and I remember reading about the way that the Jews were singled out and made to feel separate and inferior in Germany in the early 1930’s.

I read about Adolf Hitler, and his rise to power.

I was about 15 or 16 years old.  I learned that the average German didn’t seem to push back as Hitler rose to power.

I couldn’t understand it.  I thought to myself, “If I had been living in Germany in those days, I would have stood up for the Jews.”

When I got older, I read more about the events of WWII.  I read “The Diary of Anna Frank”.  I read the memoirs of Elie Wiezel.  I saw photos from Auschwitz and Dachau and Bergen-Belsen.

I was sure that if I had lived in those horrific times, I would have spoken out loudly and clearly against the actions of my government. I would have denounced Hitler with all my might, I told myself.

And still more years went by.  I went to college and majored in Russian language and Political Science.  I got a job as an interpreter for Jewish Family Services, where I helped to resettle Soviet Jews in the Boston area. I mostly worked as a medical interpreter, taking elderly Russian Jews to doctors’ visits at Beth Israel Hospital.

There I heard first hand accounts of life in the camps.  I saw the numbers tattooed on those old arms.  I listened in breathless horror as one woman told me her story of running through the forest, pregnant and carrying a toddler on her hip.  She was shot in the face, but the bullet did not kill her. She kept running, dragging her sobbing little son through the woods until they both collapsed.  She pointed to the ragged scar on her face.  She introduced me to her now adult son.

“If I had been there,” I told myself, “I would have fought against those damned Nazi’s with every ounce of my strength.”

I remember asking one Russian Jewess about those terrible times. “But how did the Nazi’s get so much power?”, I asked her. “How did they rise without anyone opposing them?”

She smiled, and nodded her head.  I can still see her solemn smile.  “Медленно”, she told me in Russian. “Slowly. Little by little.”   I didn’t understand.

I assumed that I would have known how to fight back against my leaders at a time of extreme xenophobia.  I thought, for some reason, that I would have been able to articulate a reasonable response to government officials who tried to rally the country against a helpless minority.

I was so sure, so very sure, that I would have stood up against the Nazi’s if I had lived in German at the time of their rise to power.

And now here I am, living in the age of anti-Muslim fervor.  On a day when my own Governor wants to stop Muslim refugees from finding safety in my state.

Here I am, living in a time when those who seek the highest office in our country use the same kind of anti-minority, xenophobic, “us vs them” rhetoric that once shaped events in Germany.  When one of the leading candidates for President makes up lies about Arabs and Muslims, blaming an entire community for the fear that so many Americans feel every day.

And I find that I am nearly powerless to speak out.

What can I do?

I have written to my Governor, to my local paper, to the White House.  I post my opinions on Facebook.

I write here, in this tiny, inconsequential blog, in a desperate attempt to make my voice heard.

I abhor the fear mongering that is part of this Presidential Campaign. I hate the lies that are being told by the likes of Donald Trump and Ben Carson.  I am afraid of the direction that my country is taking as we face the unrest and violence that is coming from the Middle East.

I want to believe that I can stand up against this horrific racist rhetoric.

But what can I do?

I am screaming, but I don’t think that anyone care hear me.

Feeling Way Too Judgy


cartoon-judge-009

You know, I really do love Facebook.  Getting back in touch with old friends from decades past, chatting with people across the globe, sharing jokes, seeing what everyone had for dinner.

It’s all good, right?

The only problem is, now that I have Facebook, I am finding myself even more judgy than I used to be.

I mean, I’ve always been opinionated. I’ve always had strong ideas.  But I used to be able to at least listen to other people’s opinions! I used to be able to think about other points of view.

Back in the old days, I had to actually have a conversation with someone before deciding that I was morally superior to them.

Now? I can pass judgement on family and friends in five seconds, just by looking at the most recent memes.  A red paper cup?  Let me at ’em! MY view of the red paper cup is the superior view!!!!

Syrian refugees?  I just have to scan someone’s quickly written status and I am ready to label them as cold hearted, unloving, mean spirited poopie heads.   I am so morally and ethically superior, because I have a different reaction to the immigrant crisis!

Never mind the fact that I know full well that some of the people with whom I disagree are kind, generous, thoughtful and giving.  Never mind the fact that I completely understand that each of our individual reactions to events in the world are colored and shaped by our personal experiences.

And never mind the fact that I have never had an actual refugee family knocking on my door and asking for safety.

Facebook lets me instantaneously judge.

Maybe some of the power of this new social media is that it allows us to feel so good about ourselves as we look with scorn at others in our newsfeed.

Who knows?

All I know is that I am not a prophet, or a seer, or a saint.  I am not better than the people who come to different conclusions than mine.

And maybe, just maybe, if other people out there can take off those silly black robes and really listen, we’ll all be a little bit safer.

I Think I Found America


SONY DSC

I was walking today.  It was a beautiful New England Fall day.  It was just the kind of day that makes us all think of those hardy Pilgrims, and their brave adventure to this new world.

I am  fifth grade teacher.  My students learn all about life in  Colonial America.  I teach them that a group of intrepid adventurers dared to travel across the known world to start a new life here in North America.  They learn the basics of economic theory, too, because this is the basis of the entire settlement of the New World. I teach them about wanting to make a profit. Wanting to find a life that is better for their children.  I tell them that mothers and fathers, way back in 1615, decided that it was time to leave the country of their origin behind.  I ask them to imagine what it must have been like to pack up their favorite books and most treasured mementos.  I ask them to put themselves in the place of those seventeenth century families, trying so hard to create a better life in a place that was completely foreign to them.

Today I was walking.

I was strolling along the back roads of my small, rural New England town.  I was looking up at the golden maple leaves above my head, and swishing my feet through the russet oak leaves that lay on the rutted dirt road under my feet.

I was happy.  The sun was out, after ten straight days of driving rain.  Birds were singing and darting back and forth in the treetops. I could hear squirrels and chipmunks rushing about under the cover of those crisp leaves.  I drew in a deep, cool breath.

The road turned left under my feet.  I was walking along what used to be our town’s main farm road.  The remnants of old apple trees spread out on the hillside to my right.  An empty field, now covered by purple asters, spread beneath the old orchard.

On my left were new houses. Houses that have been built in the past ten years along this beautiful, winding rural road. I passed one home that proudly displayed a row of jack-o-lanterns on its front steps. The drifting yellow leaves that fell gently from the trees around the yard confirmed my impression of the quintessential New England homestead.

And then I walked on. The gray stone wall on my left wandered along the road, looking as if it could have been there for two hundred years.  I came upon a big yellow house on the left side of the winding road.  Its front yard swept forward in a beautiful arc, curving along with the road.  Three bright golden maples stood along the road, just behind the old stone wall.  The yard was separated from its neighbor by yet another graying stone wall, and there were two strong oaks standing just inside.

On the lawn in front of the typically New England Colonial house I saw a young man and his wife, raking diligently as a million other New Englanders have done before them. A tiny boy was jumping into the pile of leaves, shrieking in delight. His much more mature older sister, perhaps 8 years old herself, was torn between watching him frolic and helping her parents to rake up the piles. A typical New England fall image.

I stopped on the street, smiling at the scene.

The father was wearing a baseball cap and a black sweatshirt. His graying hair was tightly curled and cut short. His wife wore a beautifully colored yellow and fuschia skirt, draping to her feet.  Her black hair was wrapped in a rose colored kerchief.  Her face was serious, the glistening dark brown of her skin interrupted by the bright white of her smile. Her little boy’s face, a beautiful mahogany brown, was lifted to the golden morning light. Her slim, strong daughter wore her coffee colored skin so proudly.

I stood still for a moment, watching this happy, beautiful family enjoying the morning light.  And I heard the father call to his son, in a lilting Caribbean French.   I stood there, unseen.  And I thought about what I teach my students every year. I thought about what I know of the forced slavery that happened in the Caribbean.  I thought about what I know of those who showed such courage to bring their families so far across the ocean to start a newer, better life.

I thought about the news stories that I read every day now. I thought about our fear of strangers.  I thought about our panic in the face of legal and illegal immigrants.

I stood still, the old stones from a New England farm of long ago stretching out in front of me. I watched the beautiful young mother as she raked up the oak leaves and let her happy little boy jump into them.  I stood quietly, shaded by one of those golden maples, watching as a loving father scooped his serious little girl into his arms, and dropped her into the pile of crisp leaves on his lawn.

I drew in a breath. I brushed a few tears from my cheeks.

I think I found America today.

And I think that, at last, I feel a sense of hope for my country and for its future.