Thanksgiving 2017

I’m thankful that today I can write a sappy post with no apology. I’m thankful that last year at this time, I got to see how the Native American community hates this day, and how going forward, I will try to leaven my gratitude with its other side—which is humility. I’m thankful that the threats to our country have shown me how many of us regular folks will step up to save our country; and that the truth is finally coming out about so many people’s criminal behavior. I’m thankful that I’m true friends with my family; that I have so much family that I can’t see them all on a single day; and that if I want, I get to talk with both them and far-flung friends all the time. I’m thankful that despite a summer of self-doubt, I feel I have a right to keep doing what I love, and that my husband gives me space to go live alone in the woods with it. I’m thankful that right now, I can sit on a porch that overlooks the Pacific, while I drink my coffee and write about what I love; and that somebody in a Jeep is playing Hendrix’s “Castles Made of Sand”–which really is sort of a Thanksgiving song. And finally I’m thankful that Whitman taught us how gratitude can become a type of poetry that borders on mysticism; and that each of us can feel the largeness of the good, simply by listing the places we find it.

(Originally posted November 23, 2017)

Puerto Rico

When I was twelve, I went on a medical mission to Puerto Rico. I remember the crowds in San Juan—the people leaning against the airport windows. I remember the mishmash of traffic, of how because there was no regulation on what horns you could use, regular drivers blared police sirens. Outside the city, there was the jungled roll of the mountains. There was the sudden delight of a Baskin Robins. And there was the little restaurant in the middle of nowhere that we walked to when our bus broke down—a place that served the best chicken I had ever tasted (because, I later deduced, it had just been killed). 

Our clinic was in the mountains. But we stayed in a cinderblock bunkhouse that was on the beach. It was low. It had dorm rooms and a community shower. It had no outer doors. At night, when I stumbled across the hall to the bathroom, a crab skittered in the corridor. What I realize now that this structure was built to survive hurricanes. The wind would blow, the tides would rise, the building would flood, and then dry out. I imagine that in the mid century, folks had built bunkers like this throughout the island. You and I have lived in a hurricane lull since the 1960s. But those old islanders had grown up with the reality that when the storms came, you couldn’t ever keep them out.

In the mountains, we worked in a building that sat on stilts on account of the mudslides. I was the pharmacist’s assistant. My job was to sit by the stairs that led from the dentists (who made camp under the house) to the medical doctors (who had their exam rooms up top). At twelve, I couldn’t really handle medicine, so I gave packets of Tylenol and Fibertrim to people who didn’t need anything else. I made friends with a stray dog. I watched the fog in the valley. I listened to the cries of the dentist patients who endured tooth extractions with nothing more than novocain. I ate beans and rice in my medical scrubs. When I got home, my mother hugged me and treated me for lice. Then we missionaries had a potluck for our families, where we showed our commemorative slides.

The thrust of this trip waited to reveal itself to me until some point when I was in high school. During some dream, or day dream, or moment during a French test, I made the realization that among all the people who stood in line for my Fibertrim—among all the elderly, and the new mothers, and the soft-spoken men—some of them were, in fact, very sick. Despite what the pharmacist told me, I wasn’t giving all of our patients party favors. I was giving some of them consolation. I was giving Tylenol to people who had diabetes, and cancer, and heart disease—to people our penicillin and novocain could never help. And while I didn’t know that then, I’m sure that they did.

The truth of our helplessness in Puerto Rico came upon me late, like the spread of a burn. But like a burn, it has marked me. And I feel it all over again when I see how, in the wake of Maria, we continue to neglect that island. It enrages me that just this weekend Trump tweeted 17 times about the NFL, and not once about Maria. It enrages me that in front of the Spanish Prime Minister, Trump gave his administration’s storm response “tremendous reviews,” as he called it, while in the same week, he blamed Puerto Rico’s “massive debt” and “broken infrastructure” for the reason that Maria would put that island in “deep trouble.” It enrages me that a dozen years after Katrina, 3.5 million Americans wait in Puerto Rico, while the nursing homes have non-functioning elevators, and the stores have lines for blocks, and nearly half the populace still waits for clean water. It enrages me that our so-called president says that the reason it’s taking so long for us to help our brethren is because “you can’t just drive to Puerto Rico.” It has been a week since Maria hit—and may I remind you that being a hurricane, we knew for days ahead of time, where Maria would generally fall. It has been a week, and the mayor of San Juan has sent us what she calls an SOS. And it wasn’t until yesterday that we deployed our largest hospital ship from Norfolk to Puerto Rico. It will leave port in the next three days. It will reach Puerto Rico another five days after that. In the meantime, according to the mayor, medics have been on the island for two days, and still don’t know where they’re supposed to go. 

It enrages me that we Americans couldn’t do more to help one of our territories when I was twelve, and that we simply will not do more to help them now–and that both of those instances probably stem from the same colonialist reason. Trump says he’ll arrive in Puerto Rico on Tuesday, which is around the same day that the hospital ship will depart. I hope the Puerto Ricans don’t cheer him. I hope we don’t cheer when he comes home. With his malice, negligence and incompetence, he has already found a variety of ways to put blood on his hands. But over the next few days, he could could add the death of thousands.

(Originally posted September 27, 2017)

Black Lives Matter

A shameful number of white people do not like it when you wear a shirt that says Black Lives Matter. Today, in Iowa City, a lady scowled at me when I sat near her table. Then she went on with her day, where she described to a friend how heartbreaking it was to euthanize her beloved dog. Finally, when she got up, she leveled the most scalding look in my direction, as if I wore something that said, uh, “BBQ the Babies” or some such. It all reminded me of Nazi Germany, where they had some of the strictest laws against animal cruelty, all while they were gassing millions of people.

(Originally posted July 8, 2017)

Shirt Tales

I didn’t buy my political t-shirts to start confrontations, necessarily, but I confess I’ve been using them to conduct a sort of informal study. I wear the following: Love is Love; Black Lives Matter; Not My President; I Stand with Standing Rock; and a shirt with large, Arabic letters that say, “Be welcome and at ease, beloved friend.” (And yes, I did check to make sure that this what the letters actually say.)

I live in Iowa City, Iowa, which is a splendidly-liberal university town. If you go outside city limits, however, you quickly enter the land of Senators Ernst and Grassley. This isn’t is a bad as living in the northwest of Iowa, where the populace persists in electing Rep. King, but both senators are Trump supporters of an unwavering stripe. In my shirts, I have wandered the general public around Iowa City, and I’ve ranked message reactions accordingly:

“Not My President.” Every noticeable response has been positive. The Target check-out lady even said she liked it. 

“Love is Love.” Few people bat an eye here. Popular television and Pride parades might have done some good work. The only time I felt uncomfortable wearing this shirt was in a South-Dakota diner, where the stares were enough that I had James hold my hand. That said, the reactions might have been worse if I’d been wearing some of the other shirts.

“I Stand with Standing Rock.” Some stares here, and some cheers. The Native cashier at Panera was moved. The man who shared my elevator in a South Dakota hotel scowled at me for about three floors. 

“Black Lives Matter.” Considerable disapproval, at least at the Coral Ridge Mall, where middle-aged, white men scowled from across the corridor. Young people respond better to this shirt, but nobody has told me they like it.

The Arabic welcome shirt. Stares. One smile. Some people might be trying to decipher what the words say. But some of the other looks are long and dark, and not so much disapproving as borderline hostile. One waitress was outright surly while I wore the shirt—although it’s hard to tell precisely why. I’ve come to gather that people, in general, do not like Arabic lettering. I suspect they especially don’t like it if they can’t immediately tell what it says. And because I am somewhat mulish, this means I’ve worn this shirt until it’s begun to stink.

Do I suffer confirmation bias with some of these observations? Probably. And yet I do use James to check me. Also, I must admit some surprises. I would think “Not My President” would find more disapproval. And I’d imagine “Black Lives Matter” would encounter less. The outright disquiet with the Arabic shirt is discouraging, as this seems to be more aggressive than garden-variety disagreement. I hope to God that Muslim people don’t receive this reaction consistently when, say, they wear a head scarf.

Is there a pattern to the shirt responses? I’m no social scientist, but it does seem that the worst feedback occurs with shirts that support the non-whites whom we’ve unfairly decided are violent. People might like that I reject Trump, but they don’t like that I’m signaling to Arabs.

(Originally posted March 20, 2017)


Respite in the Desert.jpg

Last week we spent five days in California–near the water for a while and then in the desert. I feel younger for it. We were with family, which made everything better outright. But what we also did was walk away from the news. This wasn’t some kind of proactive decision; we weren’t wise enough to go dark. Rather the travel, and the lower availability of wifi, and the increase in activity just kept us from clutching at the headlines. And I have to tell you: as a Trump junkie (of the most disapproving sort), the man is best left ignored. Not all the time, obviously. But he is a toxin. And while we work as fast as we can to contain him, it’s good to watch the hummingbird in the bougainvillea, say, or to smile at the old, gay lovers on the pier, or to partake of the plentitude of desert cantinas where the waiter smirks at the gringo who really wants to try the hot sauce authentico. In other words, we have to enjoy what we’re fighting for. God knows I’m not spouting any deep insight here; we’ve all heard it before. Nonetheless, I needed the reminder. Not everyone has to man the watchtower at once. Go get some food with your loved ones. Enjoy the clean air. And abide awhile with the spring that, despite all, has still come.

(Originally posted March 15, 2017)