Mercy

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACertain words just speak to me. Something about its sound. It makes me pause. And even though I think I know the word’s meaning, I pull out my “Webster’s Universal College Dictionary” and look it up.

Inexorable is one of those words. It’s the second meaning that spoke to me: “not to be persuaded, moved, or affected by prayers or entreaties; merciless.”

As I prepare myself today to again stand vigil for the children abducted from their parents at the border, it’s the word mercy that comes to me. I pause, pull out the dictionary, and look it up: “compassionate or kindly forbearance shown toward an offender, an enemy, or other person in one’s power; compassion, pity, or forbearing.”

I know what my sign will say today: Make America Merciful Again.

MAMA. Mama. The children’s anguished cry.

Last Sunday, I lost it when a woman challenged from her car, “How about reuniting the soldiers with their children?”

“Yes,” I said, “bring them home.”

But she yelled back and so did I and it upset some of those standing next to me and I felt bad and guilty and also just kind of felt fuckitall.

Civility has died. It just has. We are on an inexorable march to gleeful cruelty (thank you Jon Stewart for creating that definition). And it’s hard to know just what to do.

Later I wondered about the woman’s story. Maybe she had lost a son or grandson in Afghanistan or Iraq. Maybe she was still grieving for what was taken from her. Were there time enough, and if I hadn’t been so angry over the previous week’s malfeasance by the man who holds the office of president of the United States, maybe I could have had a conversation with her. Shown her some mercy.

But it was hot, I was angry, and feeling hopeless. So, I forgive myself for what I have started calling my unique form of Tourette Syndrome.

When gleeful cruelty is the norm, how do we make our way back to mercy?

I have been depressed this past week. Depression is my least favorite place to be. It’s sometimes called anger turned inward, but I think for me, it’s a friend’s description that nails it: absence of imagination.

I haven’t been able to imagine any future other than one that is being sold by a very sick man. I won’t say his name, but he is the president and he has possession of powers that destroy life. And the thing that could rein him in, the congress and judicial branch, seem enthralled by his power.  Instead of reining him in, they are hitching their wagons to his.

The president enjoys making people suffer. It makes him feel powerful.

I’m afraid because I am aware of the inevitable vulnerability my aging bestows on me. Those in power seem blind to vulnerability, or more likely, that they can make themselves invulnerable by denying vulnerability as a fact of life. Life is neither merciful nor cruel. It is simply ruthless. We are all vulnerable to its vagaries.

So I think along the road to mercy we also need to embrace a kind of ruthless commitment to restoring the proper order. I had a new appreciation for ruthless after reading an interview with a Vietnam vet who said he learned more about love and pain from the war than he might have had he not had the experience. Then he returned to the land of the “big PX” where men who hadn’t had that experience were climbing over each other, exhibiting what he called false masculinity, showing neither genuine compassion nor genuine ruthlessness.

We need to make America merciful again.

I’m not going to worry about being civil. I think that ship has sailed. It doesn’t mean not having compassion for those who are so damaged that they are beyond showing mercy. But it does mean calling what they are doing what it is:

Gleeful cruelty.

I don’t know how to do this. I have both my inner show-no-mercy Celtic warrior (they dangled the heads of their dead enemies from their horses as they rode into battle), and the goddess of mercy. I think I need to call on both of them.

I don’t plan on, nor am I endorsing, beheading anyone. But I do think that fierceness of intent is called for when confronting this army of damaged people on their inexorable march into the darkest places in the human heart.

Compassion comprises two Latin words: to bear and suffering. It means to bear suffering. To be willing to see it, feel the pain of the other, and let it into our hearts so it can transform us, connect us to the other.

We need to hear the anguished cries of the children: “Mama!”

I don’t yet know how, but I do know we have to make America merciful again.

Grace

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May grace shine its light on us.

I started Writing Shed nearly 10 years ago. I was on a quest to change my story, to live the story that beats with the rhythm of my heart, listens to the sound of blood coursing through my veins, feel the expansion of inspiration and contraction of expiration as I breathe in then let it go.

Pay attention to your breathing that ubiquitous, anonymous “they” say to calm down, establish yourself in the present, be here and now. Be alive. Or maybe, be with life.

I have two friends that died by suicide, Sheila and Sally. They were both determined to die by suicide. They made the decision to not be with life.

Sheila was 36.  She was disappointed that life had not lived up to her expectations, but I don’t know that any of us knew what she expected other than that she couldn’t control its outcome. She wanted to disengage from her husband (who was also my friend), but insisted he remain married to her. She insisted that her friends support her in her view of life, considered it disloyal if they disagreed with her.

I met her and her husband Alan in 1975 in San Francisco when Sheila and I worked at Langley Porter, the psychiatric center of the University of California San Francisco Medical Center. I was a secretary basically. Sheila was a postdoc fellow, studying positive and negative ions. I think the negative ions made things positive. I don’t remember for sure.

Eleven years later, Sheila descended into despair. She moved back to Philadelphia where she and Alan grew up, met, and married. She had worn the long white billowing dress to please her parents, moccasins to please herself.

She blamed California for her despair, claiming that people were shallow and disloyal. But, for whatever reason, she did not find the anchor she had hoped to find in Philadelphia. She found a friend’s gun, but for reasons that aren’t clear, maybe it jammed, she failed to end her life with a gun.

So she got on a red eye to return to San Francisco, spent the flight writing long letters to her estranged husband and a friend, landed, took a cab to deliver the letters, leaving them at their front doors, then had the cab driver deliver her to the Golden Gate Bridge.

The friends called me. For several hours we called and combed the City looking for her. Though she had not said the Bridge was her destination, we called the Bridge to alert them that she might show up.

But, by that time, she had already flown off the Bridge. They let her husband know that someone had seen a woman jump, and that her body had been recovered. I was part of the group that went to the coroner to identify her.

I remember the small article in the paper that said a woman with long dark hair and wearing a brown jacket and jeans had died after jumping off the bridge. How many times I had read such an article. The anonymous nature of a newspaper article about another suicide at the Golden Gate Bridge.

At the impromptu memorial held at my house, my friends despaired over her suicide, wrung their souls wondering what they could have done, the dark cloud of guilt encompassing them.

I comforted them. Then when they left and I was alone, the weight of it all fell on me. I had no guilt to salve my pain. It was clear to me she had made her choice and done it in such a way that no one could stop her. The pain for me was different. She had not found a shadow of or hope for love for herself to make life bearable.  I understood why for her, in that moment, escape from life was her only way out of the pain.

It devastated me, her pain.

Sally’s story was different. She was just a few days shy of 70 when she died by suicide. She had planned it for at least 2 or 3 years. She had told me of her plans over dinner one night, very matter of fact about it. The women in her family declined after 70, she didn’t want to go that way.

She was 68 when she told me that. I decided not to try and talk her out of it, but let her know that if she decided to change her mind, give it more time, that would also be fine with me.

Because I didn’t try and change her mind, just went with it, I had a rich two years of friendship with her. She was an iconoclast. She took her vibrator to Mr. Fixit in Mill Valley. Bi-sexual, she told me that intimacy is what relationships are about and it’s as complicated with a woman as it is with a man. The only difference between living with a man and a woman, she said, was that when you live with a woman you go through more toilet paper.

I drank in my friendship with her. She taught me the courage of iconoclasm. She was the mentor who taught me that it’s not so much that nice girls finish last, as that nice girls don’t even get into the game of life. Nice. Schmice. Be real. Be outraged because there’s a lot to be outraged about. Be outrageous in standing up for your outrage.

My last dinner with her was in late January, 1994. I knew her birthday was coming up the next week. “Is this goodbye?” I asked as we parted ways outside the restaurant.

“You can’t get rid of me that easily,” she said and smiled. And yes, there was a twinkle in her eyes.

A day or two later, it might have even on her birthday, I received the letter. She had sent it to selected friends. She wasn’t in despair she assured us. She had enjoyed her life, but as good gambler knows, there’s a time to fold them.

She wanted us to enjoy her eptitaph: Toujour soixante-neuf.

Sheila’s and Sally’s stories came back to me when I heard the news about Anthony Bourdain. I’m embarrassed to say that I had only thought of him as one of those celebrity chefs until I heard the depth of grief from his colleagues and reaction of my friends who had been smarter than I had been.

I found eight seasons of his shows on Netflix and began my binge watch. I was fortunate. They had been scheduled to be taken down on June 16th, but fans deluged Netflix with pleas to continue it.

I had no idea who he was. I had no idea that he was such a gifted storyteller, and that he looked for and told stories as he searched for and expanded his own life story. His stories were rich in the quest to discover what it means to be human, and how meals connect us as a human community.

Even given my experience with Sally and Sheila, it is unfathomable to me why Anthony Bourdain ended his life. It’s not so much he had so much to live for, as that there was so much more to taste, so many more people and cultures to explore, so many more stories to discover and tell. He held babies in shows with the comfort of a man who loved new lives. He had a daughter who he clearly saw as a future. And he had recently fallen in love.

One of the most moving moments was when he had dinner in Hanoi with Obama. Is it going to be okay, he asked him, knowing they both had daughters they cherished and who had changed their lives. Obama assured him that though it might be rocky, eventually it would be okay.

I am the age now that Sally was when she informed me of her exit plan. It is not a plan that resonates with me. But I am aware that there is less time before me than behind me, and physically the trajectory is towards decline, rather than upward. It is unpredictable and something to reckon with.

What I had not planned on reckoning with was the dark cloud of living death that has descended over us — Donald Trump. He has the destructive jealousy of Iago, but without the passion. He is a man sick with jealousy of anyone who has an experience of life and love. So sick that he is willing to destroy life, and has the tools at hand to do it.

It feels like the country is heading towards death by suicide.

And yet, there are so many meals to enjoy, food to explore, stories to discover and tell.

It occurred to me yesterday that in deciding to change my story, I have actually found it.

My story is that I tell stories. That I have the courage, when necessary, to look into the darkness, see what’s there, write what I see and experience, and have the patience to see it through to the light. To feel love and write the truth that to love is to be alive, even though we have no control over love’s outcome. To live without love is a living death.

I’m not sure how to get through this next chapter in the story of my country. It looks pretty dark. I wonder if that’s why Anthony Bourdain asked Obama if it would be okay.

But, my story is that I tell stories. And there are so many meals to enjoy, cultures to explore, love to feel and stories to tell.

That’s my way through it. Stories.

Perhaps, Anthony Bourdain’s legacy is he graced us with stories that showed us we were connected by a passion for embracing the grace of everyday living.

May grace shine its light on us to show us the path out of the one this jealousy-fueled, passionless Iago is putting us on.

NOTE: I in no way want this post to romanticize suicide. Death by suicide leaves a hole in the hearts of those left behind. You cannot undo it.

If any who reads this feel that despair, I encourage them to reach out: 1-800-273-8255. 

My Mother’s Charm Bracelet

Boarding train

My mother just before boarding the train in Oklahoma City (July, 1955) that took her to New York City where she would start her journey to Saudi Arabia.

I revisited my mother’s charm bracelet recently. I don’t wear gold, so I’ve rarely worn it. It also has an emotional weight to it. It carries with it my mother’s conflict about herself as a woman and how that played itself out in her relationship with me, her only daughter. I have an older and younger brother. She came from a generation where the daughter’s needs get sacrificed to keep the peace in the family.

 

She gave me the bracelet some years before she died. I saw the silent, seething rage rise in my older brother when he asked her for it a few years later and she told him she had given it to me. He had expected he would get it to give to his wife. That led later that afternoon to his punching me. That was twenty years ago.

My mother died twelve years ago. She left all the rest of her jewelry to me. As my younger brother, his wife, and my niece (my older brother’s only daughter) sat around my dining table a day or two after her memorial, I sorted through the jewelry and shared pieces of it with them, saving a valuable ring I would send to my older brother’s wife. My niece let me know in no uncertain terms that she expected me to share the jewelry, that it would not have been fair for me to keep it all. My mother had once sacrificed me to her.

My mother and I were close, as long as my brothers were not close by. That’s when she would get conflicted, worry that our being close somehow took away from them. Or, that’s why I think she worried.

She was not conflicted, however, about leaving me her jewelry. I was her daughter. That’s why she left it to me.

Over the years since her death, I have had to distance myself from my brothers and their families. They have a particular view of who I am, one that fits within the daughters-sacrifice-themselves-for-the-family paradigm. To them, I became a monster when I stepped outside that paradigm. It was painful coming to that decision. It was far more painful to continue a relationship with people I love, but who consider me a monster for wanting to be a fully invested member of the family.

Families are complicated. And so, the bracelet had enormous weight to it.

It lives in a jewelry box in the top drawer of my dresser. I took it out recently as I considered selling it.

There is a charm on her bracelet for every country we visited as we traveled by ship and plane around the world. There are several that represent our time in Saudi Arabia, including one that she had made specially—a solid gold miniature still. It represented the still my father ran to make “hooch” while we lived there. Alcohol was officially forbidden, but during the Fifties, the King turned a blind eye to it so long as we kept it in the American compound—an island surrounded by a sea of Arab culture, its boundaries defined by a chain link fence.

As I held the bracelet, I recognized charms from countries we had visited as a family, others from her travels with my father after they retired, and then the ones she had accumulated when she traveled after my father’s death.

I remembered the day, about a year before she died from end-stage COPD, when she sat at my dining table, drinking the cappuccino I had made her (she loved my cappuccinos), a dark cloud coming over her as she said, “I won’t be able to travel anymore.”

I don’t remember what led her to say that. It wasn’t clear to me that it was true. But it was certainly what she felt. I think it was the first time I ever saw her depressed. “Don’t borrow trouble,” she had said more than once. Depression was not in her emotional tool kit. Yet there it was, though she did not dwell on it for long.

Memories get buried. That moment when she thought she could not travel anymore, and its impact on her, was such a memory. The bracelet unearthed it. As I held it, I understood  that my mother’s charm bracelet is her story.

She was born and raised in Oklahoma City, moved to California sometime during the War, and met my father shortly after it ended. They owned a restaurant called Hoagie’s for a while. But an employee offered to close it one night, took all the money, and left the food out to spoil. It bankrupted them. My father had a hard time finding work (he was an electrician), taking a job picking tomatoes once. He got an aching back, fifty cents, and a box of tomatoes he had helped himself to. “I’m never picking tomatoes again,” he told my mother.

Then he came home one day and said, “What would you think of moving to Saudi Arabia?” Why not, she responded, thus changing her story to the story that was truly hers.

To this day, I wonder how is it that in the Fifties, a woman who had been raised within the confines of Oklahoma, would so quickly and eagerly say, yes—let’s move to Saudi Arabia.

She flourished as an expat, took in the cultures of the countries we visited as we sailed for 75 days on a Dutch freighter, stopping at ports in the Far East as we made our way from Dammam, Saudi Arabia to Long Beach, California.

The “N” word was natural to her as she grew up. But, she told me her views changed when she learned, by living in Saudi Arabia, what it was to be a minority. She never used the word again. And, she embraced a world that was based on diversity, rather than certainty. In fact, she lusted after a world of diversity rather than of certainty.

That’s my mother’s story. Or, to be more accurate, that is Betty Jean Cole Hogan’s story—the story that has nothing to do with her as a mother. She gets to have that story.

She left it to me. Her daughter. The storyteller.

I am not going to sell the bracelet.

 

leaving home

My Aunt Mayme, grandmother, and mother as they left the house to take us to the train station.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amsterdam

We flew from New York to Amsterdam, then to Rome, and finally to Saudi Arabia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

friends

My mother (right) and her  friend Evelyn Ruberto outside our first house in Saudi Arabia.

 

 

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aboard ship

Aboard the Wonosobo, the freighter that tooks us from Saudi Arabia to California.

 

 

after trip

My mother in our second house. They bought rattan furniture while we were in the Philipines, our last stop before we sailed through typhoons to get to Long Beach, California.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

dancing

My parents hosted a hobo party. That’s her dancing with, I think, Jack Cavel.

If the C Word Fits . . .

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Arcady Eugene performing “Reclaiming ‘Cunt'” in 2010

I’m not sure how I even feel about the word “cunt.”

My stepdaughter Lisa Darter performed the Eve Ensler monologue “Reclaiming ‘Cunt’” flawlessly in the 2010 Tri-Valley Haven production of “The Vagina Monologues” in Livermore, California.

She reclaimed it.

When I hear a man call a woman a cunt, I know he doesn’t mean as women have reclaimed it. It’s not just pejorative, it’s aggressive. Much like the aggression tRump displayed in the debates between him and Hillary Clinton. Not to mention his bragging about grabbing women by the pussy. Not to mention . . . well so much to report so little time.

So what about when a woman calls another woman a cunt?

I’m not sure that I ever have, but with all due respect (don’t you love how politely rude that expression is?) to Ivanka, Samantha Bee hit the nail on the head when she called her a feckless cunt. I particularly like that she qualified the word cunt with “feckless.” That shoe definitely fits.

I wrote a post on Facebook that I supported Samantha Bee because many of us women are enraged that women who have power play the mother card while condoning (at least by their inaction) the horror of children being torn from the arms of their mothers and fathers. These are mothers and fathers who are coming here to escape violence.

So forgive me if I don’t feel that calling Ivanka a cunt was vile. I think what is happening is vile and she is vile for doing nothing to stop it. I understand Samantha Bee’s rage:

Ivanka snuggling“You know, Ivanka, that’s a beautiful photo of you and your child, but let me just say, one mother to another: Do something about your dad’s immigration practices, you feckless cunt! He listens to you!

“Put on something tight and low-cut and tell your father to fucking stop it.”

~Samantha Bee

It’s time for women to woman up and apply our “mothering” nature to a world broader than snuggling with one’s own child. We need to take action so that the world cannot act as if one child is worthy, but the other is not.

I said at the beginning I’m not sure how I feel about the word cunt. But, here’s how I feel about Samantha Bee’s calling another woman a cunt: If Bee had simply called her a cunt it wouldn’t have resonated. That she calls her a feckless cunt—well, you know if that Ivanka-line shoe fits, wear it.

We need to stop the march into facism. It’s the facism that’s vile, and anyone who can stop it and doesn’t is vile and feckless.

Fish Out of Water

fish out of waterI thought I would be writing a post on a different subject. I thought I would be writing  “Our War”—about the Vietnam War— as a follow up to my last post, “The Nazi Flag in the Attic.

But then Wednesday, February 14th happened. Fourteen high school students and 3 faculty members didn’t come home from school that day. Seven minutes of carnage changed the lives of every student, faculty member, administrator, custodian, and whoever else was a part of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

And then there are the families of those who were killed. For everyone who died, there are at least two people, and likely many more, whose lives will now be defined by before that day and after that day.

But something else changed as well. It was in the voices of the students from Parkland. Voices that were so clear and strong they drowned out the NRA’s oh-so-familiar “We can’t talk about guns. If we talk about guns, we’re politicizing it.”

As Obama said, “You are who we have been waiting for.”

I wanted to know what was happening with high school kids locally, so I did what I know best how to do: I talked with some of them.

I went to the coffee house where they hang out, and found four young women. They told me there would be a school walkout on March 14th, some of them could participate and others couldn’t. I asked them if they felt safe in school, and they said they realized it would be easy for someone to gain access to their campus.

And then I asked them why they thought it was young men, boys, who were the ones who were consistently behind the carnage. “Because boys get away with things girls don’t,” one of them said.

This led to a discussion about what has and what hasn’t changed vis a vis gender roles since I was their age. Some has changed, but it distressed me to learn that girls still have some mountains to climb.

They also talked about how the Internet has changed things for their generation. The Olympic Peninsula can have an isolating quality to it—can foster an island mentality. But while their parents and grandparents had limited contact with the world outside the Peninsula, the Internet showed them a world that extended beyond theirs.

Smart girls. Long may they wave.

I ended up going to the walkout to support the kids. And thus I stepped into a mess that probably has to do with a cultural gap between me and where I live.

There were several adults (it’s Sequim so most of us were of the white-haired persuasion) who had also come to support the kids. I asked a vice-principal where they wanted us to be. Basically, it was don’t mingle with the kids, stay on the sidelines. But nothing was said about not engaging in conversation with them.

As the students gathered, a handful of students one carrying an American flag and a pro NRA sign, stood in opposition to the larger group, some members carrying signs asking for sane gun laws.

Just before the silence started, I motioned to the students in opposition and stage-whispered that they should go and join their classmates. By which I meant, take your signs and join them to remember those who died.

After the silence ended, I stepped towards the boy who carried the American flag and NRA sign and said, “My only problem is that you are equating the flag with the NRA.”

Isn’t the flag about America he asked. Yes, I said. What’s America about, he asked. Well this, I said and pointed to the students who walked out. Don’t I have a right to protest? he asked.

Before I could answer a school official guided him away. As I was checking out of the main office, he walked by and I said, of course you have the right to protest.

And that was that.

As the two women with whom I attended the walkout and I made our way back to our cars (about 3 blocks from the school), a very large black truck pulled over to the curb, two boys rolled down their windows, their faces disguised, took photos of us, and then spewed black exhaust at us as they peeled out. They came around for a second time. It was threatening behavior, intended to intimidate.

I reported the incident to the police, then later called the high school to let them know what had happened. I had a partial license plate. I told the school that what the 3 of us wanted to happen was to meet and talk with the boys in the truck.

Long story shortened: the school Resource Officer let me know in no uncertain terms that talking to the boys wouldn’t/couldn’t happen because of confidentiality—they were minors. And then he let me know that a woman had been very aggressive at the walkout so that both sides behaved badly. I should let bygones be bygones.

That didn’t sit right with me. So I wrote him a letter, said that while I might have missed the opportunity to not share a great idea (join your classmates) I thought talking, using words, was not equivalent to the boys’ menacing behavior. I hoped the boys would be held accountable for their behavior.

Long story shortened, the police just didn’t want to hear my concern. Or probably more accurately, they just considered the incident to be a closed issue. They wanted me to go away.

So, I, being me, hunkered down into confusion and guilt. What had I done wrong? What taboo had I broken? Would I finally be arrested for tearing the tag off the mattress?

In the meantime, I had attended a meeting of a group who are hell-bent on hardening the schools—the NRA way. The meeting was in a Security firm’s building, where they have that human-outline target with what looked to me like two mock (I assume they were mock because they looked plastic) AR-15-type rifles leaning against it. I assume it’s where they train their security personnel.

Mixed in their multi-layered approach to school safety was their plan to bring in teachers to show them the weapons and then students to show them the various magazines and how many bullets are in each so when they are under siege they can count the number of shots, recognize the magazine is empty, and so know they can make their escape.

Yikes!

I don’t believe they will be successful in their plan. I think our schools are in already in safe hands here.

Back to my confusion and guilt. I asked around enough that I finally put the pieces of my puzzlement together.

To me, talking to the kid with the flag and the NRA sign was a sign of respect—for him. I’m sorry we didn’t get a chance to complete our conversation. Reporting the incident with the boys in the truck was the appropriate thing to do in my mind. In domestic violence terms, their behavior is considered stalking. It should be nipped in the bud—boys using aggressive, intimidating behavior to shut someone up.

But these things collectively might be my cultural gap.

My town is small enough, with enough entangled relationships, that upsetting the apple cart can be more akin to waking the bear—and then poking it.

My actions upset the apple cart.

I’m a bit of a fish out of water here. But, then, I just might be a fish out of water. Period. Full stop. I’m beginning to think that might be who I am.

But, here’s the thing. It’s not just schools that aren’t safe from the young male with an assault rifle. It’s also waffle houses. And churches. And open air concerts. And so on.

We need to have that conversation. The one about guns, why certain young men are turning to them, and why the carnage appeals to them. And, also, why certain young men turn to intimidating behavior, rather than words, to confront someone with whom they disagree.

It’s an uncomfortable conversation. Probably even volatile. But I can’t help but think that if we open up the conversation, eventually we might be able to get past the discomfort and find common ground.

I’m still a bit concerned that my encounter with the boys in the truck is being dismissed as boys will be boys. I suspect my reporting it upset the apple cart, maybe even woke then poked the bear. I suspect that entangled relationships might have something to do with just wanting to put the incident to bed. And, it might just be that not putting it to rest is poking the bear and this might not be the best time or place to poke the bear.

But, I hold out hope that my reporting the incident models something. I hope that the young women I spoke with in the café see it the way I do. Men or boys using aggressive intimidating behavior to shut them up is not acceptable.

The Nazi Flag In the Attic

lincoln2-300x150This is not a story about a white supremacist or neo Nazis.

I found a Nazi flag in my father-in-law’s attic. It was 2001. He had moved to an assisted living facility and I was doing what one does when that happens—clearing out a life’s accumulation of things and memorabilia.

There were 200 pieces of carnival glass. Confederate money. A pre-runner for IBM’s Magnetic Tape “Selectric” Composer. Books and books and books on cars.

And the Nazi flag.

This was an actual Nazi flag—it had clearly been confiscated by American servicemen. In the white circle that encased the swastika, they had signed their names and included their ranks and hometowns, big and small, that ranged from Missouri to Pennsylvania to Alabama to New York to California and so on.

The flag itself was blood-chilling beautiful. I believe it was made from wool, the deep crimson color setting off the white circle that contained the black swastika. One could not dispute the perfection of the design.

Yet, its beauty was its malevolence. And malevolence rose from it like pain from a third-degree burn. The signatures of the American servicemen bore witness to the desecration of the human spirit perpetuated under its spell.

My father-in-law’s name was not on it. He had been in the Navy and the ranks indicated the servicemen had likely been in the Army. It was a mystery why he had it.

We did not know what to do with it. I began searching by towns to see if any residents by that name still lived. This was 2001; many WWII veterans were still alive. I found a few phone numbers, called them, and left messages.

In the meantime, we wrapped up the flag so it would not deteriorate, and returned it to the attic when we moved into Tom’s family home. On occasion, we would tell people about it, bring it down to show them the signatures of the servicemen. Each time we unwrapped it, its malevolent beauty sucked the air out of the room. We’d return it to the attic where it was out of sight, but still, we felt its presence lurking above us.

After about five years, we got a phone call from a man who recognized his father as one who had signed the flag. Because Tom and I do not share the same last name, it took a while before the man realized that he was Tom’s cousin on his mother’s side. It still was not clear when or how the flag had been turned over to my father-in-law. It didn’t really matter. The flag, at last, was going to where it belonged—the son of a man who bore witness to the desecration perpetrated under the Nazi flag.

Current events kindled my memory of this story. I’ve been pondering this post for a week or so, then decided to watch two movies and an episode of Band of Brothers to provide some contextual research: “Conspiracy,” a 2001 HBO film that dramatizes the January 1942 Wannsee Conference in which the final solution for ridding Europe of Jews was devised, and set in motion the laws that enabled it; “Judgment at Nuremberg,” the 1961 film that told the story of the trials of the judges who were instrumental in enforcing those laws, as well as those that preceded them; “Why We Fight,” the episode of Band of Brothers in which they discover a concentration camp.

“Conspiracy” is chilling. The conference, planned by General Reinhard Heydrich (Kenneth Branagh) and Adolf Eichmann (Stanley Tucci), takes place over the course of a few hours. “I want to be done by 2:30,” Heydrich proclaims. “Evacuation” becomes the euphemism for executing Jews. They cite and revel in the statistics that show how efficiently they can exterminate Jews in concentration camps, up to 60,000 a day. All the while they partake from a sumptuous array of food, wine, and cigars. One participant interrupts his praise for the plan to note how tasty the wine is.

They end by 2:30 and go their separate ways and the final solution begins days later.

“Judgment at Nuremberg” pulls you into the horror of what was. Spencer Tracy is perfectly cast as the American jurist who is selected to preside over the tribunal. He is conflicted, reads the writings of Emil Janning, one of the judges on trial, wants to admire him, wonders if they have in common good legal minds. The prosecutor, played by Richard Widmark, had liberated one of the concentration camps. He shows films from the camps—the ovens, the “showers,” the emaciated bodies that for health concerns, were bulldozed by British soldiers into mass graves. I suspect it was the first time the American public had seen the reality of the Holocaust.

Emil Janning (Burt Lancaster) who you almost come to admire, begs of Spencer Tracy to understand that no one thought it would end in the horror that it did. Spencer Tracy replies,  “It started the first time you sentenced a man you knew was innocent to die.”

“Why We Fight” made me think of the servicemen who had signed that Nazi flag I found in my father-in-law’s attic. They are tired of the war. Want to go home. Do not glorify it. And then they discover the concentration camp on the edge of the small town they have occupied.

We Americans, of course, began confronting our own demons after the war. The internment of American citizens. The terror inflicted on Black Americans as they registered to vote and brought to light our own racial atrocities. Our history of slavery not even 100 years gone when we entered WWII. The inklings of recognizing that genocide is at the core of the settlement of White Europeans on this piece of real estate we call the United States of America. The war in Vietnam.

I have always believed that we could look at our flaws, acknowledge our own atrocities, and find a remedy that would find room at the table for everyone. The distribution of power over three branches of government along with an adversarial press would, in the end, turn us to the better angels of our nature.

Then this past year happened. This can happen here. I fear that it is happening here.

What particularly struck me in “Conspiracy,” was that the Nazi and SS officers greeted each other with a salute and a “Heil Hitler.”

They pledged their loyalty to Hitler.

As we pondered what to do with the flag, before we heard from Tom’s cousin, someone told us we could sell it, that it was unique and therefore more valuable because it had not been urinated on.

Those servicemen did not urinate on Hitler’s flag. They bore witness to its depravity and their triumph over it. We need to honor them for bearing witness to how it ended, and remember that how it ended was also how it began.

We Matter: #metoo Part Two

IMG_1238I was thinking it was that I had lacked courage. But, I think it was that the scales hadn’t fallen from my eyes yet.

Writing that last sentence sent me on the Google search to find out if a) that really was the phrase, and b) what is its origin, and c) what does it mean?

I learned, a) that is the phrase, and b) it probably comes from the story of Paul (who once was Saul) in the book of Acts when he stops persecuting “Christians” after being struck blind on the road to Damascus. He regains his sight three days later having embraced a spiritual awakening (the scales fell from his eyes), changes his name from Saul to Paul, and allegedly begins defining “modern” Christianity. Scales might refer to something like glaucoma, so maybe Paul smoked some dope.

(Note: I’m not particularly fond of Paul. He probably was a misogynist, homophobe, anti-semite who thought slavery was just dandy. You know, a Roy Moore who would not be able to immigrate to America today because of his country of origin.)

As for c, this is my favorite definition: “To suddenly be able to see a situation clearly and accurately: ‘the scales had fallen from her eyes and she saw clearly what perhaps she should have been aware of earlier.’”

Nice that the reference uses the pronoun she, because that fits with what has ensued since #metoo went viral. I would change the definition, however to read: she saw clearly what she had been aware of earlier, but had not yet learned to trust her own eyes.

I don’t think it’s just me. I think (hope) we are on a roll with women locking arms and saying loud and clear, “I know chocolate and that’s not chocolate; that’s shit in that sandwich.” 

As the scales fell from my eyes, I also disengaged my cloaking device—that thing I used whenever I smelled that I was perceived as a threat. I often used humor and self-deprecation to deflect the perception, retreating behind the cloak where I huddled in humiliation and seething rage.

The humiliation and rage has disappeared along with the cloak. Amazing how fresh the air feels.

The Dark Side still abides in the form of he-who-I-shall-not-name who has the codes necessary to launch nuclear Armageddon. He, of course, had to respond to Senator Kristen Gillibrand’s call for him to resign for his misogynist ways by calling her a whore who had come begging to him for money. Metaphorically, he launched nuclear warheads to destroy her.

And, just to prove the problem is not just men, but also women who don’t run with the wolves, Sarah Huckabee Sanders attempted to humiliate April Ryan, an African American woman reporter, well-respected for her intelligence and integrity, by telling her to get her mind out of the gutter. “Don’t believe your eyes, girl. Shut up and believe what I tell you to believe.”

The Dark Side does abide. But it doesn’t make me want to engage my cloaking device. The air feels too good without it.

I don’t think it was a lack of courage that kept me from believing what I saw with my own eyes. I think rather that #metoo shone light on my courage. I have been mouthing off since forever, telling my truth pretty much over and over again. What courage has saved me from is the shame and humiliation I felt when my truth was twisted into lies and weaponized against me.

So, now what?

 “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

That’s what.


Note: I do not think Al Franken should have resigned. I think he is a mensch, was smeared, and knew that if doubt was cast on his accusers, it would demean all those women who are speaking out.

Steve Schmidt, John McCain’s campaign manager, said that women will need to be ruthless in their pursuit of power. He said that Kirsten Gillibrand effectively removed Al Franken from her path if she wants to run for president. I have to say I had that same queasy feeling when she led the call for his resignation. I hope that isn’t true. I don’t want us to ascend to power that way.

What do you think?