Homeland Insecurity: Seeking Refuge from Ourselves

As a kid in the 1970s, I was shaped by current events like everyone else. A news junkie even then, I was glued to the TV:  Walter Cronkite, political conventions, Watergate trials, absorbed the details of the Viet Nam war, the Soviet menace, the Cultural Revolution, and the decline of America’s cities. Even though so much in the news was discouraging I was optimistic. I still was fascinated by government, I still wanted to travel the world (Nixon went to China – yes!), and I still wanted to live in New York City, bankrupt or not.

The only fear that took root in my heart was sown by Charles Manson and a murder case in which a local family was murdered in their beds on Halloween night. Random, hate-filled crime kept me up at night, paralyzed with fear. In an Iowa town where doors were always unlocked and keys left in the car, I drove my family crazy by locking all of the doors before I went to bed at night (as the youngest it can be assumed I regularly locked out most of my many siblings). I slept fully dressed sometimes, down to my sneakers.

My Mom hated herself for leaving the copy of Helter Skelter out on the coffee table that, with its graphic crime-scene photos in the center, triggered my not-so-latent anxiety disorder. She did everything she could to help me gain perspective, and, over time, the words of the Memorare  and Franklin Roosevelt’s  “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” lodged themselves permanently in my psyche. I recite them both regularly even now. Especially now.

DSC01780 - Version 2If the internet had existed then my head very well may have exploded.

And so what are we to do today, when the worst of humanity is on display 24/7? Plenty of people are writing about that. Understanding that electronic media is here to stay, I’ve tried to engage my kids about all that is happening so I can get a read on how they are managing the flow of information. It’s all a work in progress – I claim neither victory or defeat in the parenting wars. My kids seem to have a grip on what makes the current situation scary, but they are as confused as I am by how people who should know better are talking about it.

As an eleven-year-old it was understandable that, at one point, I feared the entire state of California because Manson was there. But my wise mother insisted on taking me there, plying me with Agatha Christie books for the plane ride so that I could see that most crimes were not random and that the perpetrators were caught and brought to justice – just as Manson and the local murderer were. It took a couple of years, but by age 14 I came to understand that I could safely exist in the world and that living with uncertainty was fine as long as it did not rule me. I grew up to attend a big city high school, leave home for college, live on my own and hold a job that required I answer security calls in the middle of the night in downtown Boston.

Why is it then, that my 14-year-old self seems so much more rational than so many people in positions of authority today? I came to understand that Manson’s insanity was not a reflection on the people of California, that most murderers have a coherent motive for their crimes, and that the political world is a complicated place in which what you hear on the news is, at best, only partially true. I even learned that people who run for President pretend to know things they don’t, and that being President bears little resemblance to running for President.

We have all watched events overtake every President when he entered office and seen them fundamentally change him – events that could not  have been predicted on the campaign trail. Nixon? Watergate. Ford? Being President and having to pardon his predecessor. Carter? Iranian hostage crisis. Reagan? Assassination attempt. Bush? Saddam Hussein. Clinton? Newt Gingrich and hubris (well, everyone should have predicted that). Bush? 9/11. Obama? Financial crisis and, well, this. Every modern President has had to face unrest in the Middle East, but none of them could accurately predict how they would handle it until they were sworn in.

Most Americans don’t have to dig too far back into their family history to find someone running from something. Religious persecution, potato famine, Nazis, war, poverty. People came here for freedom and shelter, and I don’t think all of them turned out to be model citizens; for every Dzhokhar Tsarnaev you can find a Sacco and Vanzetti. Every family tree has a bad apple if you look back a generation or two.

So why do we think that barring refugees from Syria – the few we have agreed to accept – is either justifiable or practical?  Plenty of Americans commit acts of terrorism against each other; how might we reduce the odds of that happening? Let’s see. Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina all have has a murder rates more than double the one here – can we stop the clearly untrustworthy southerners at the border of of my northern state? How is that less ridiculous than maligning an entire country or religion? What is the difference between opening fire on a theater in Paris and opening fire on a movie theater in Colorado? Mister Trump, we are our own Trojan Horse.

Hate has no home state – or country.

It’s not like the current refugee programs aren’t vetting the refugees from war torn countries who currently enter the US. The idea that up until now refugees from middle eastern nations have been flowing over the borders unfettered is preposterous. Even the translators who aid and protect US soldiers and journalists have a tough time getting the asylum they were promised. The current vetting process is long and security checks are required; it can take as long as two years (and once Congress is finished, will likely take longer). As reported today, of the 1800 Syrians who have been granted refugee status in the last two years, half of them are children and one quarter of them are elderly; only 2% are single men.

The governors and congresspeople say they want to stop the already glacial flow of refugees so they can look to see if our laws and procedures are sufficient to protect Americans to threats from abroad. But most of them are not the least bit interested in protecting us from the threats from our fellow countrymen. Regardless of heritage (or religion), there are more American citizens murdering other Americans now in the space of a year than terrorists have, ever. We all know there are few barriers to anyone who wants to procure an assault weapon in the US. I’m all for a review of the laws and procedures that affect our national interests and personal safety –  as long as gun safety is on the agenda.

I hope we can learn from history and look at the facts about what and whom we really have to worry about. Meanwhile, I’m saying a  prayer for the world.

Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary,
that never was it known that anyone who fled to your protection,
implored your help or sought your intercession,
was left unaided.

Inspired with this confidence,
I fly to you, O Virgin of virgins, my Mother;
to you do I come, before you I stand, sinful and sorrowful.

O Mother of the Word Incarnate,
despise not my petitions,
but in your mercy hear and answer me.

Amen.

Not Crazy About Halloween But I Am Mad for Cemeteries

IMG_0051Halloween does not thrill me beyond a smiling Jack-O-Lantern and a Butterfinger. The Shining still gives me nightmares after 30 years and my heart aches with empathy at the sound of Charlie Brown saying “I got a rock.” If I never see or hear of another zombie or vampire again it will be just fine with me. But I love cemeteries and I visit them all the time.

Growing up, we used to go to the  cemetery with our Dad to visit the family plot. A beautiful spot overlooking the Cedar River, Greenwood Cemetery in Cedar Falls, Iowa, hasn’t even a whiff of Halloween spookiness to it, at least not for me. It is twentieth century tidy: groomed, pretty linear with elegant but largely unremarkable gravestones, and those fabulous old growth trees that are probably the real reason I love all cemeteries so much. The trees stand like guardian angels. Under their branches is a sanctuary for the living among the dead.

So today is Halloween and earlier this week a blanket of fog curled around our old New England cemetery and this one is made to order for All Hallows Eve. Thus, I am compelled to chronicle my early morning walk among the long departed.

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The morning sun, masquerading as a rising moon, kisses the tops of an 18th century family plot. When I see stones like this so identical and lines up so perfectly I always wonder who designed it and whether they ordered them made all at once. My great grandfather was an undertaker back in Newton, Iowa, but I am woefully uneducated about cemetery protocol. I see research in my future.

IMG_0100This family’s plot didn’t account for nearby trees upsetting their row of markers – not only are they out of line, one grave has only the base left. And this causes me to think that, in the digital age, for some people it’s entirely possible that markers such as these might be the only tangible thing we leave behind.

IMG_0072And then I look up and see that this baby, gone for over 100 years now, is no known to me because I walked by on this day. I am always touched by the nameless children who are so lovingly remembered by their families. Some people – okay, a lot of people – think it’s morbid to visit and speculate in this way but I am intrigued comforted by the directness with which previous generations faced and commemorated death. These days it seems like people will do anything to avoid acknowledging the inevitable. I am grateful for the people in my life – yes, Irish – who are unflinching and (sometimes) celebratory in facing death. I don’t always share the revelry but I deeply appreciate the sentiment and faith that unpin it.

IMG_0118Above, conjoined on the left if you can see it, is something you don’t encounter as often in more modern cemeteries: the roles take precedence over the names. We know that mother and father rest here, but their given names are long obscured by time and weather. It’s also often true that the flags of soldiers are affixed to the telltale star-shaped holders but the names are no longer legible: all we know is that they served.

IMG_0109And then there are the various lines of demarcation between family plots. Chains certainly send an interesting message from the hereafter; there will be no fraternizing with others ghosts for these folks. I would love to eavesdrop on the conversations and circumstances that led to the placement of these chains. There’s a story here for sure.

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I always mean to look up the science behind the stone itself – why is it that Martha Pierce’s 1848 stone is so legible while others that are centuries newer have been wiped clean by the elements? I love everything about this – the color, the use of type, the spacing, even the weathering, it’s all perfect.

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Space is at a premium in the oldest cemeteries (though this town has one that is even older than this, aptly named The Old Burying Ground), and some folks bought space near the storage house. It all adds to the charm, and probably the politics, too.

IMG_0080Finally, there are the colors – the leaves and mosses and vines – and how they complement and define the incredible shapes that show the styles and workmanship of centuries. Modern public spaces value uniformity but history is random and people are finicky even in death (or maybe especially in death). They had one more chance to make their mark, and most of them made it count.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur parents are buried in a National Cemetery in the Midwest and when I visit, the rows of white stones take my breath away with their undulating precision. But then, for a moment, I’m not sure I’m even in the right section and we are lost to each other until I can make their names out and know that I am in the right place after all. There is comfort in knowing their engravings won’t be wiped away and that the whole area will be well-tended, but it makes me all the more determined to remember them in other ways. I am reminded as I look through the photographs that “mother” and “grandmother” are engraved under Mom’s name – I had forgotten that.

I am too far away to make the weekly pilgrimages my father made to his family and I wish now I knew what he was thinking on those days when we looked down at the river, but I know that even though I am walking among strangers, they are both with me (and laughing).

 

The Man in the Blue Oxford Shirt

CMV with Annie 1993 2

A Remembrance of Charles M. Vest,  former President of MIT

When I think of his memorial service at MIT planned for later this week, it is hard not to envision Chuck Vest himself coming up to he podium, looking around at what is sure to be an impressive gathering, and saying, “Well, hello there!” Legions of others will have better stories of the man in the ubiquitous blue oxford shirt, and I look forward to hearing all of them. All I can say is that these moments are uniquely mine, and they’re dear to me because of both who he was and the singular place he occupies in my life.

I was fortunate to be designated as Chuck’s transition assistant in 1990 and there were moments when we shared a kind of bewildered joy to be there, tucked away in Building 14, with a meeting schedule that could have passed for a list of the greatest minds of the 20th century. I don’t think he ever stopped being tickled to find himself among people he admired. Chuck and I developed a kind of rapport that summer; he would call me Radar for my ability to anticipate what he needed (and my propensity to blurt out an unsolicited opinion at the exact wrong time). But when he announced that everyone needed an e-mail username and address (it was that long ago) and I chose a contraction of my name – Scamp – that was the nickname that stuck over the years.

We have ways of creating stand-ins among the living for those who are with us only in spirit. There comes a point, inevitably, when our parents die and we find ourselves feeling a specific kind of aloneness. When my mother was dying, she had all kinds of crazy wisdom for me, and my favorite was, “You’re turning 40, and we’ll be gone. I never really felt grown up until both of my parents were dead. Your life is your own now; you won’t have me looking over your shoulder. It will be liberating.” I get what she was saying, and, liberated or not, she left me reams of advice that sit in a binder on my shelf.

But with my Dad it was trickier. His illness was shorter than Mom’s, and he was much more reticent to create any sense of closure. On matters of the heart, Mom did all the talking. Dad and I had said goodbye without my realizing it was the last one; I am certain he knew. Several weeks earlier he’d phoned me at MIT – the first and only time Dad called me at work. I happened to be in Chuck’s office that day – I was filling in for Laura for a few weeks while she was away. The call had followed me down the corridor from ASPG.  I rushed to the outer office, my face flushed with embarrassment and concern, and took the call in which my father informed me that he was sending me plane ticket so I could go home for a birthday party he was planning for my mother (another first and only). I had told him before that I was too busy to come; it was a crazy summer. But I was summoned and I went.

At first glance my father and Chuck could not have appeared more different, but they shared some characteristics: a firm handshake, a low voice that was seldom raised, a quiet devotion to family and faith, a way of chuckling through a funny story, a gallows sense of humor and a fondness for mixed nuts. They each had a kind of heartland sensibility that is largely undemonstrative; the hint of a smile or a furrowed brow spoke volumes.

So I flew out to Missouri for the party and had a wonderful time. Dad spent an afternoon at the head of the table, regaling the family with stories we had heard a million times before. When it came time for Dad to drive me to the airport, as he did every time I visited home, he told me that my brother-in-law would drive me instead. I should have known then. But instead I wrote it off to the fact that there were so many people visiting that weekend, Dad could not make all of those trips himself, and I blithely kissed and hugged him goodbye. Two weeks later I was flying back for the funeral. When Mom called to tell me he was ill, I asked if I should come home and she said “No, don’t come. It’s fine, you’ve had your turn.” And it was tough to take, but I guessed she was right.

TQM with CMV July 1992When I returned to Cambridge after the funeral it was the first day of a Total Quality Management Workshop for Constantine’s VP Staff Group. Shioji Shiba, the TQM guru, was there and it was a big deal. I was exhausted and as I stood in a daze during the pre-conference coffee, Chuck approached me, and wordlessly hugged me and kissed my forehead. And that was it. In one moment I got the goodbye I had missed from Dad and the hello that I needed to move forward. I went to the rest room and wept. Then I joined the group and promptly nodded off while Professor Shiba was talking (Yo-One!) and even though everyone around the table could see me, they let me snooze. We gathered for one of those team building group photos, and somebody directed me to a chair and I sat down. I was startled and delighted to find myself seated with Chuck, CBS and Professor Shiba; I’m not quite sure how that happened. We all look so happy, and in that moment, despite my loss, I truly was happy.

I understand much more clearly now the value of the sense of belonging I enjoyed at that time in my life. I look back and wince at my many rookie mistakes – CBS would refer it to it as “letting my slip show” – but I also miss the unbridled enthusiasm I had for nearly everything. I knew from the moment  I arrived in ASPG that that I was part of something extraordinary, but I didn’t grasp then how rare it is to work for and with people who share a common vision and have respect and admiration for each other, even under difficult circumstances. I worked hard and I was rewarded, which is such a simple concept but in these times it seems like something of a miracle.

Twenty-one years have passed. I left my job to stay home with my children, engaged in a new and challenging set of tasks but still working behind the scenes with and for people to whom I am devoted. The affirmations of parenting are both clearer and murkier – a child’s love is magic but you’re never really sure if you did a good job. No calls at the end of the day from CBS on the cell phone patting me on the back while he sped down the Mass Pike in his Volvo, no nod of bemused appreciation from Chuck at my fabulous color coding of the Faculty Meeting agenda. In my case the job has been more hands-on for a longer time; having a child with a disability presents a slew of joys and challenges, and there are no performance evaluations or raises – just a constantly changing job description (there are plenty of meetings, though, and lots of notes to take).

I look back on those days when I was out there in the working world, in that very brief moment where I was not so defined as a daughter or a mother, and feeling that I was in the right place at the right time with the right people. Those moments of synchrony (thank you, MLAM, for giving me that word) are as important to me as falling in love with husband and children. I feel a little nostalgic but mostly I feel incredibly, tremendously lucky.

A few years back, in the process of advocating for my child I got some press and sometime later I heard from Chuck. Over the years we kept tabs on each other, sending photos and occasional pithy e-mails (thanks to Laura, ever the catalyst). In one of those e-mail exchanges about family updates came a small moment – he told me he’d seen the piece in the Globe and that was proud of me. And because it was Chuck, whom I don’t think ever said anything he didn’t mean, it was the kind of validation I thought I had learned to live without.

I have a thin file folder that contains a few handwritten notes and short e-mails from Chuck that mean as much to me as anything I own, and I am grateful for the presence in my life that they represent. I am proud to be among the many people who enjoy the indelible imprint of Chuck Vest on our lives. I’m pretty sure I’m the only Scamp, though.

The Humbling Power of Tornadoes

Tornadoes – and hiding from them – were a pivotal part of my childhood. It doesn’t really make any sense that once I saw one I was less afraid of them, but it’s true. And the green sky is real – you never forget seeing that.

Tumblehome Talks

Guest post by Michael Erb, author of Kelvin McCloud and the Seaside Storm, and Tumblehome Learning’s resident weather expert.

Last week, a tornado struck the town of Moore, Oklahoma, killing 24 people and destroying hundreds of homes. This is not the first time that Moore has been hit by a tornado, as the town was also struck in 1999 and in other years.  The loss of life in these events are tragedies, but events like this can also cause us to reflect on our relationship with the weather. People around the world depend on the weather for water, warmth, agriculture, and, in the case of solar and wind farms, even electricity, as well as much else. As for severe weather like tornadoes, we should be wary of the dangers they present, but also knowledgeable about how they work.

images-3Tornadoes are challenging to study, due both to their relative unpredictability…

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Hoping that the Present Generation of Veterans Gets the Same Kind of Respect We Give the Greatest Generation

Dad in WW2

Right now that hope is a little dim, given that the wars we have now are coming to a close (if we can call it that) with more of a whimper than a VE Day/VJ Day bang.

NPR ran a touching story on Honor Flight New England, an organization that offers free trips to DC for WW II vets so they can visit the monuments to their service. One surviving vet said, though long-held tears, that in all the years since he came home he thought of his service as a waste – he buried those memories and never spoke about it. On this trip, however, he said he finally understood that his service meant something and, knowing how grateful people are for his service,  he would do it again ten times over. A number of people said that the veterans in their family never spoke of the war or showed any interest in war movies or documentaries. That came as somewhat of a relief to me because my father only spoke of his service in the Pacific the war in small details, although he watched every episode of The World at War and read every book it though the years. He was so pleased when his war buddy came to town – a towering man named Jim who, in uniform as I recall, would delight us with his strength by tearing a phone book in half.

Dad would pull out the atlas and show me the places with exotic names in the Philipines where he was a harbor pilot. I was very young when we did this together – we made a game out of my mispronunciation of Catbalogan – and it seemed to me then that he felt kind of lucky to be an Iowa boy navigating the ocean on big ships. I once asked him why he didn’t drink coffee and he said “I had a lifetime’s worth of coffee in the war.” That’s as much as I ever recall hearing about life on a Navy ship. After he died in 1992, I read his letters home to his mother and they seemed to chronicle the times in ways that were unremarkable. In the few photos I have of him, he is smiling. Some people interpret this as him blocking out the mean experiences of war – that there were stories too terrible to be told. I really don’t know.

What strikes me now is that in the age of instant global communication, we are not under any illusion about what our soldiers are facing overseas. They do not have the luxury, if you can a call it that, of burying the atrocities of war when they come home. It’s on TV, the internet and at the movies. The Greatest Generation had On the Town, South Pacific and From Here to Eternity – our guys have PlatoonThe Hurt Locker, and Jarhead. I suspect there won’t be a musical about Afghanistan any time soon.

We are losing more soldiers to suicide at home than we are  on deployment. It’s hard to know what to do to help, although we should make sure vets get the mental health services they need and their benefits on time, neither of which is happening now. In the meantime, I hope that, unlike some of the men in the NPR story, today’s servicemen and women don’t have to wait 60 years to hear their fellow citizens say “thank you.”

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Thank you.

Quite Possibly My Favorite New Yorker Cover Ever

May 6 2013 New Yorker Cover JPEG

I save every paper cover and recycle the rest. That is the deal I struck a few years ago when my beloved carted boxes of full issues down from attic and informed me that there is something called the internet now and people don’t save New Yorkers and National Geographics like they used to. I’m still happy I get the paper version and I’m even happier that people actually fight over it when it comes in the mail.

Putting Autism in its Place

There's more than one way to get lit
There’s more than one way to get lit

Autism Acceptance Month includes Light it Up Blue day, and people find themselves reminded, pummeled and delighted by blue lights everywhere. It’s hard to know how to feel about the hoopla when we try so hard not to let autism dominate our lives. That’s why I moved my autism posts to their own blog. To be honest, though, those were the posts that got the most hits when I began writing Lettershead back in 2009. Much as it would lovely to be vastly popular and widely read, Lettershead is about trying to keep some perspective and focus on ideas that are not directly informed by autism.

Autism casts a long, blue shadow, however. Sometimes it feels like I spent my early years escaping the shadow of alcoholism only to turn and face autism. It was good preparation, as it turns out. An anxious person by nature, living with an alcoholic taught me to be flexible and to live with a specific kind of uncertainty about what each day would bring. In recent years I discovered that if I replace the word “alcoholic” with “autistic” in the Al-Anon daily meditation book, it works beautifully, if not in exactly the same way.

The most dangerous thing I allow myself to do is look back and see the years in my between alcoholism and autism and idealize them. I think everyone indulges in this during a standard-issue mid-life re-evaluation. We see high school, college, single life, some point in our youth as something that slipped away accidentally rather than as part of a progression to a fuller life. George Bernard Shaw had it right: youth is wasted on the young. What I’ve come to appreciate by looking back is the value of the cumulativeness of my experiences. For all the randomness of my choices, they all seem to have prepared me for the life I have now, unexpected and unpredictable as it is.

Laurie Anderson said in a great interview with the New York Times that she has “zero time for nostalgia,” and that is a phrase I keep in my head because the world is changing so rapidly that I want our kids to know what the world used to be like without getting myself stuck there. In the process of talking about the past it also occurs to me that for all the good experiences we try to create for other people, we have no control over how they see or will remember it. I have no idea what my parents were thinking half of the time they were raising us, but it’s clear to me now that regardless of their intended blueprint, my own memories were built by me and there isn’t a lot they can do about it now. The reality of a large family is that there are as many versions of the truth as there are people. Our children haven’t even left home yet and they are already constructing versions of their childhood that bear little resemblance to the one I thought we gave them.

And autism? It is a changeable, petulant child all on its own. The disorder I learned about in 1998 is unrecognizable to me. I was not a refrigerator mother, my child’s brain is not empty, limited eye contact does not mean a lack of engagement, and we enjoy a level of love and empathy we were told was impossible. It morphs and changes along with the boy, advancing and receding on a schedule known to no one. It’s a cat, a bowl of Jell-O, a dish of mercury, a block of granite. I will follow it, chill it, contain it, haul it around, chip away at it – whatever it takes to deny it center stage. That’s the job, that’s my job, and every day it will change and still be the same. It’s not something I planned for, but I know it’s what I was meant to do.

Francis I: Can a Simple Name Simply Change the World?

Mom and me at the Sistine Chapel, 1972
Fashionistas: Mom and me at the Sistine Chapel, 1972

It already has. Merely hearing it in Saint Peter’s Square brought a collective sign of relief and delight the world over. Compassion is officially back in style.

Last night the second most powerful man on Earth, the newly anointed Pope Francis I, slipped onto the bus to go to dinner with his brother Cardinals; this morning he slipped through a side door of a church to pray. For as long as it is possible, it seems, he will not be chauffered and feted. He will engage and move among his people, a Holy Father in the best way. With each act of humility, I hear spiritual and literal moneychanger’s tables being overturned. It is not as though the trappings of the Church are not beautiful, but they have come to be seen as just that: traps that ensnare the innocent and that shield men from blame and accountability in the things that matter most – the care of the flock. In recent years, the Vatican and its treasures have come to be seen as glorifying a hierarchy out of touch with its people, too hobbled by its own traditions to spread a gospel of compassion. Maybe now we can look at at the art, architecture and rituals again as a gift of holy culture that embraced (and funded) talent and artisanship instead of the folly of men.

Our local pastor is our own Francis – a beacon of wisdom and kindness who reminds us how Christ’s lessons can inform our everyday lives. It has been difficult for my children to reconcile what they see and hear at Mass and what they see in the press, and I haven’t been very good at that myself. In this Lenten season, I welcome – and take to heart – the promise of the Resurrection that Easter brings with fervor I thought long gone. Maybe now I will have more help building athe Catholic spiritual legacy that has for so long seemed elusive.

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