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).

 

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.

Ain’t That a Kick in the Head?

The last photo I took before I whacked my head on the ice
The last photo I took before I whacked my head on the ice

Four years ago today I went out to play with the kids and take photos in the snow. Two minutes into it I slipped on smooth ice under the snow and landed on my head and watched the Presidential Inauguration through the fog of a mild concussion (Hillary Clinton, I feel your pain). Sometimes it still hurts on that spot at the back of my head, and it hurts, too, to know that not everything has gone as well as we had hoped over the last four years. We feel more divided and less safe and we are still at war, but we seem to be making progress in a lot of important areas even as we fall behind in others.

It's not as easy to believe as it once was, but I still do
It’s not as easy to believe as it once was, but I still do

In 2009, we were elated at the historical significance of Barack Obama’s election and also in survival mode from the Great Recession. Then, we were looking at some huge milestones for our kids and wondering how we would survive those. Now, we are satisfied from having accomplished so much, proud of our children, but weary and a little worried about the world we are handing to them. It is a new kind of uncertainty, informed by the realization that talking about peace and compromise are so much easier than accomplishing them – and we really thought we knew that. Sometimes it’s like the 1970s all over again, just with better clothes and more cynicism (which I didn’t think was possible).

I still have high hopes for our President, still feel the same thrill at seeing the monuments and marble corridors in Washington that we have visited a few times in recent years, still look ahead optimistically to the next milestones for our family. And I still walk very gingerly in the snow.

Mr. President, on the inside, looking out
Mr. President, on the inside, looking out – God Speed, sir

Photo Essay: Election 2012

Obama Campaign Office, Main Street, Nashua, NH.

The New Hampshire Obama campaign staff hand-cut letters out of foam core that spelled out “NH 4 OBAMA” and convinced people to hold them up throughout the rally. It’s not as easy as it looks.

The President gave a rousing version of his stump speech on a spectacular October afternoon. He was probably saving his new material for the Al Smith Dinner in New York that night and his appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

We all want a moment that we think belongs just to us. My friend and I were the only spectators on this stretch of street as the motorcade passed. We like to think that he saw us.

Hurricane Sandy was comparatively kind to New England but no discussion of Election 2012 is complete without her.

Sunrise, Tuesday, November 6, 2012.

On the way to the polls, a juxtaposition of the 20th and 21st century economies.

These signs were everywhere; we had an 85% turnout.

There were numerous Brown signs posted in town, many of them ten times this size. See also: previous post.

Even though Brown won the local vote, Elizabeth Warren ran away with the election for Senate.

And amidst the election hoopla, signs of thing to come. Turkeys party and then get raffled off.

Civic pride on both sides of the street.


Remnants of a successful Halloween remain.

An unattended sign at a polling place caused a little controversy, but not enough for it to come down.

Although it was cold, it was sunny, making it easier to get out the vote.

As the sun went down, the sign holders were steadfast in the cold.

True believer.

Darkness settled over the Groton School, with football practice under the lights in the distance. It seemed fitting to end the day in this place where Presidents and statesmen first made their marks.

We rushed to buy the morning papers with the results, not realizing that they went to press before 11pm.

2012 was indeed the social media election – this was the only copy of this edition available.

The election produced another winner: Nate Silver, who had the numbers right all along. Goodbye, Gallup.

But old habits die hard, and it was good to sit down on the first snowy day of the season and read the news the old fashioned way, with soup and coffee.

Another Glimmer of the Gilded Age, and then some

The Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park, New York, is a rare find, a time capsule preserved and put on display for we, the generations that followed. What’s more, it is just down the road from Springwood, the Roosevelt home that is birthplace and burial site of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt himself was instrumental in keeping both homes intact and open to the public, donating his own home to the National Park Service upon his death and persuading the Vanderbilt heirs to do the same when it was clear that no one would buy the estate and its Italian Gardens even at a tiny fraction of its value. It was the foreclosed McMansion of its day, even though it was by far the smallest of the Gilded Age mansions built by the many grandchildren of shipping and railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, it didn’t even last through its own generation before it became impractical to live in or care for in the economic devastation of the Great Depression.

Two seasons of the above and below stairs drama of Downton Abbey (and a knowledgeable young guide) helped to bring this gently faded and stuffy house to life for us as we walked through. The windows are closed and shaded to preserve the furnishings and keep it cool, but he reminded us that the home was intended as a summer cottage and in its day the windows would have been thrown open to the sumer breeze off the river and every room filled with flowers from the row of greenhouses just across the lawn.

And while its contents are largely intact, the gardens are only now being revived. Having only come recently to gardening I understand now that it is always the garden that is the first to go when a property loses a caring, resident owner. Architecture may take time to show wear, but it only takes a single season to destroy a garden – and in a year like 2012, punctuated by drought and torrential rain, even tended gardens can be decimated. The Park Service had an interest in preserving Sara Delano’s rose garden – FDR’s and Eleanor’s burial sites are situated next to it – but the Vanderbilt’s more elaborate tiered Italian garden with it vast greenhouses did not merit thefunds for preesrvation – the current restoration is funded by private donations, and the volunteers were hard at work when we visited. I didn’t expect it to be so romantic, with heart-shaped beds of pink petunias and so many of the trees flowers I recognize from my own garden, but then I remembered that even then they had to cultivate plants that could survive in New York rather than the warmer climes of southern Italy.

I don’t know if it is a sign of the times or my own skewed sense of history that fuels my current fascination with the early Twentieth Century. Sometimes there are too many parallels, sometimes too few. From my admittedly untrained perspective, Hyde Park reflects the convergence of the styles that dominated the previous and coming centuries. The old money, sober Dutch influenced but early American style of the Roosevelts at Springwood (their walls adorned with family portraits painted by Gilbert Stuart) looked down its nose at the Gilded Age, with the decadent, new-money European obsessed opulence of the Vanderbilts (their walls covered with tapestries of the Medici family crest) and finally followed by the more eclectic, earthy arts and crafts style adopted by Eleanor Roosevelt at Val-Kill (very little fine art on the walls, decorated almost exclusively with photographs of people and events of their own time).

 

The house at Val-Kill itself is a harbinger of trends to come, a factory building converted into a home, and it’s dropped ceilings, galley kitchen and folding chairs are testament to the fact that not all progress is forward. Part of all of these styles endure, their longevity or re-emergence dictated by the changes in the American way of life. Just like the start of the last century, war and excess are steering us back to the small-is-beautiful after many years of bigger-is-better. Contraction and preservation in the face of uncertainty is not such a bad thing, if such appreciation brings wisdom and, with it, hope.

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