Category Archives: politrix

word to the mama

We have so many things to tell you,
about how we are literally inhabiting different bodies,
in which entire hormonal plotlines have been cut up
revised
and rewritten

about how our understanding of the Feminine Mystique has evolved
and how quaint we now find the memories of our former selves,
about our newfound empathy for mothers in ratty yoga pants everywhere,
battered by sleeplessness and worry and exquisite joy,
and for people everywhere who are doing all they can

just

to get

by

how brutal, capitalism,
on the caregivers, the aging, the children, the laboring, the exhausted, the sick….
how unromantic, the trips to home depot for paint and nails and replacement toilet parts

how heartbreakingly beautiful small conversations can be,
how vast and bottomless your love

and how nothing we anticipated intellectually could begin to come close
to This

but when someone wakes up from their nap 15 minutes early,
or wants to be picked up
or fed toast
or grapes
or directed to the nearest bulldozer dumptruck airplane
immediately,
or they refuse to wear pants,
or come out from under the train table
or they bust out a pretty loud and articulate argument
for why you need to watch them throw a ball
right now
and then someone spikes a fever out of nowhere,
and the the diapers have to get moved
to the next wash cycle
or you won’t have time to dry them before your shift tonight,
and sorry, i hear silence, something must be wrong
and hold that thought, i hear crying, someone’s hurt
no, that’s a play cry,
continue with what you were saying
oh, i was talking
i can’t remember what about
yeah, sometime we’ll save enough for the new furnace,
in the meantime why don’t you shoo the dog off the couch and
take the seat by the space heater

and we might earnestly try to work out which wave of feminism
This is
for a moment
but someone has to run to pick up the kid from preschool,
and the kettle is boiling
again

when this is your life,
it is hard to form coherent sentences,
let alone finish the thought in your mind
that bore them.

word to the mama.

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Filed under basic goodness, blue collar, Family, feminism, motherhood, politrix, Pregnancy, recession, unrepentantly unedited

good ancestors and revenge fantasies

the baby finally goes down,
tiny bananna-hands curled against sweet yam cheeks
skin glowing with the rare-as-of-late may sunlight spilling in through the orange curtains
i slip out
perc espresso

and sit here at the red table
trying to empty my head
and be still
so I can write with efficacy
about Big Picture Things

a frame fell off the wall in the early hours of the morning
and an old black and white image drifted to the floor
after the crash
now i sit here staring at it
my great-grandmother Minnie, and her parents, Louis and Hannah
my great-great grandfather has his arms crossed
and a quizzical look on his narrow, handsome face
his wife looks gentle, and tired
and his daughter stands behind them both
with a white hat
and dark curls
and a face squared with resolve
over her scalloped lace collar
ankles crossed
in the shadows underneath the gilded bench her parents are sitting on

I think: these are good Ancestors.
Beautiful, Resourceful, Gentle, Resolved
And I’d better get to work before the babe wakes up.

good ancestors. Louis, Minnie, and Hannah

decide to make calzones for dinner before my husband leaves town for a conference
and I reach back through time,
to pull homemade pizza dough and sauce out of the freezer
that I made and placed there earlier in the winter
the freezer crystals sting my fingers
which are covered with cuts, lately.

put my good writing song
on repeat
think about making my sister a mix for her travels in Europe
but the cd drive isn’t working
And I’d better get to work before the nap ends

I scoop small mushy lumps of softly browning banana off the floor
and rub my fingers across the roughness on the table
where his sticky fingers spread fruit and yams an hour ago
and I neglected to wipe the table before it dried
because he was rubbing his eyes
with his food-covered hands
and i was focused on
that

Everyone is celebrating because we’ve been told Osama bin Laden is dead
which apparently entitles us
to feel like Americans in the Right again
…a feeling that went stale years ago
no wonder people are excited.
they think it means justice
or the end of something
but to me
it is just one more
revenge fantasy
my friends retaliate against the frat party
peppering the internet with Martin Luther King
darkness cannot drive out darkness
and even though we’re accused of misquoting
I cling to those words

I try to engage with a dilemma in the manuscript:
writing about “common sense” in a way devoid of academic pretension
ha. ha. ha.
I land here instead

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Filed under 11 September 2001, basic goodness, coexistence, motherhood, Ordinary, poetry, politrix

Last week, I visited the Northwest Detention Center.

On a cold, grey-sky January morning last week, I packed the diaper bag and made myself some tea with lemon and honey, since I was fighting a cold. In our bedroom, I scooped the baby warm and sweat-damp out of sleep and changed his diaper before he’d finished his waking up stretch. By the time I’d dressed him and bundled him into his carseat, his eyes had fallen closed again. I drove south from our neighborhood in south Seattle, past the sprawling concrete runways of Sea-Tac airport, to a trailer court near my husband’s school where many of his students live.

I was looking for the home of a brother and sister, one a current and one a former student of my husband’s. They and their younger brother needed a ride this morning, and I had offered to drive them. I followed a map my husband had drawn on a piece of scratch paper until I found their trailer. Their mother, a small, pretty woman with dark hair, welcomed me inside, exhorting me to come out of the cold, and I sat with the baby in an armchair near the door. Their home was cosy and dark with the heavy curtains drawn over the windows, likely to help keep out the cold. The parents’ wedding picture was framed over the television, which was tuned to a program in Spanish. The mother moved quietly around her house, finding jackets for her daughter and sons, who sat next to me and played with the baby. Their father wasn’t home. Back in early December, he’d been apprehended by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and he’d been detained and awaiting deportation ever since. His wife and children hadn’t seen him in over two months. I had come to drive his children to his deportation hearing.

Their mother couldn’t take them because she’d be asked to show her papers, and she didn’t have the proper ones to show. As I sat in the armchair by the door holding the baby, an older gentleman who was a friend of the family gave the kids a brief set of instructions in English. “When you see your father, don’t talk to him. You can’t smile or wave or stand up. Just sit quietly. If you make the judge angry they could decide against your father. Do you understand?” The kids nodded.

Outside, their mother had her car warming up for me to drive. I pulled the baby’s carseat out of my car, and she installed it in her small four-door sedan with brisk efficiency. She was wearing a fleece jacket and a black skirt, and thick pink socks over her tights. I imagined her getting out of bed early while the house was still cold, dressing in an extra layer and turning on the heat. I wondered if she made herself tea or coffee and sat with her hands wrapped around the mug in the quiet, thinking about her husband, before waking up the kids and making their breakfast. I thought about how once you have children, feeling sorry for yourself is a luxury you don’t really have time for. I thought about her daughter, who’d been one of my husband’s students in his first year of teaching at this school. Exceptionally well-behaved and kind, perfectly bilingual, insightful, thoughtful, and intelligent far beyond her grade level, she’s a critical thinker, acutely aware of the systems that surround her. At the age of nine, she and another student staged a day of silence to protest injustice after learning about Mahatma Gandhi in fourth grade. She made such an impression on me I named the heroine of a children’s story I wrote after her. I wondered how much of her and her brothers’ comportment was the result of having had such a stable home life up to this point.

The kids climbed into the car and buckled their seatbelts, and we got onto the freeway heading south. The oldest, the girl, sat next to me in the front. Her brothers sat quietly in the back, the older one focused on entertaining my son in his carseat. I tried to make conversation, but none of us had much to say. We passed the Federal Way waterslide park in the rain, and I asked them if they’d ever been. The daughter brightened. “No, but a friend of my parents said maybe they’d take us this summer.” We lapsed back into silence. I followed the family friend’s car off the freeway just north of Tacoma, and we made our way through the industrial section of the city to the Northwest Detention Center. It’s what’s known as a “Contract Detention Facility,” which means that a private corporation is getting paid for each person detained here.

(Image by Alex Stonehill, from http://www.prx.org/pieces/52448-expanding-the-northwest-detention-center)

The Northwest Detention Center is a dismal-looking place. Razor wire spirals around the fencetops, and there is no visitor parking. A few spaces are provided for lawyers’ and employees’ cars, but those who are here to visit the incarcerated have to park on the street. There were lots of people there that morning, and I had trouble finding a spot. After I’d carefully tucked the car in a space near some sort of shipping yard and unloaded the kids and the baby, a man in a hard hat came outside to yell that he was going to tow my car. I gave the baby to the eldest girl to hold and moved the car to a spot in a nearby alley.

The family friend led us across the railroad tracks and inside, past the line of waiting families. He had been here before, and knew that we could bypass the line since we were here for a court date. A brusque official signed us in and ordered us to leave our coats and bags and cell phones in a locker. I was informed I could take only “one diaper, one wipe” for the baby. As we stowed our things in the locker and shepherded the kids through the metal detector, I heard this instruction barked at subsequent mothers waiting in line. “One diaper, one wipe!” “One diaper, one wipe!” I crossed my fingers the baby didn’t have anything in the works that couldn’t be handled with these minimal supplies.

We were buzzed from the waiting room into a hallway, where the kids found their dad’s name amidst three or four dozen other names on a court roster, taped to the white cinderblock wall. A security guard told us there would be a long wait. We took our seats. There wasn’t much to look at. Lawyers passed through occasionally, checking in at a glassed in desk. A portrait of Barack Obama in front of the American flag hung on the wall opposite us. The family friend made brief conversation, asking me about the baby, and telling me that his kids were grown, and that he worked the night shift last night and had not yet slept. The kids kicked their feet restlessly. I thought about playing “I spy” with them, but gave up on the idea since there wasn’t much to spy. In the hopes of staving off a courtroom meltdown, I turned toward the wall and breastfed my son under my sweater.

A mother who looked to be about eighteen came in with her baby, another woman, and two children. The baby bumped his head while playing on the floor and began to wail, and the young mother scooped him up and pressed his forehead to her lips, whispering words of comfort to him as she rose to bounce him in her arms. She did so with practiced efficiency, moving around the room until he fell asleep, and I felt a physical kinship to her, having done the same thing many times before.

About thirty minutes later, we were escorted by a guard into another hallway. We sat together on a long wooden bench and waited some more. Dozens of men in blue or orange prison jumpsuits were escorted in and out of the three courtroom doors while we waited. I watched the kids out of the corner of my eye, and wondered what it felt like for them to know they were going to see their father dressed as a prisoner. I wondered if they were reminding themselves of their instructions, not to smile or wave or speak to the father they hadn’t seen in over two months.

After another twenty minutes of waiting, the guard led us into the small courtroom. The detainees sat on the left side of the room, their families on the right. A Spanish-language interpreter sat at a desk before the judge, and a lawyer representing the federal government sat at another desk. In the center of the room, there was a third table with a microphone and a pair of headphones. We stood as the judge entered. She apologized for the delay, then proceeded briskly to the matter at hand. It took her approximately seven minutes to hear each case. Each detainee put on the headphones to hear the judge’s comments translated into Spanish.

Some of the men were in court for bond hearings, while others were being considered for deportation. To each of the potential deportees, the judge put the same set of questions. “Are you aware of your right to be represented by a lawyer?” If they did not have one present, (and only one of twelve did), she asked “Do you waive that right?” Most answered “si.” Through her questions, small details about these men emerged. Most had American-born children. Most were in their mid-twenties, and had been apprehended for traffic violations. Most were from Mexico. Several admitted to being afraid to return to their countries of origin, citing “the violence in Mexico” or “the violence in Guatemala.” Their answers seemed to matter little, and the judge authorized the deportation of nearly every one of the men.

The childrens’ father was the second-to-last to go before the judge. He looked down at the floor when he walked past his kids. My stomach tightened when I realized there was no lawyer present for him. His three children obeyed the instructions they’d been given, and sat still as he walked past them and put on the headphones. As it turned out, he was actually here for a bond hearing, and he did have a lawyer, who the judge called and put on speakerphone. The connection was poor and it was difficult to understand the conversation. It turned out that because their father had already begun the process of appealing his deportation, this particular judge lacked the jurisdictional authority to grant him a bond, and his entire hearing ended up being nothing more than a bureaucratic shuffle. As he walked back to his seat, the guard asked the children, the family friend and I to leave, and the kids’ father flashed them the smallest and briefest of smiles.

We were buzzed through the two secured doors, and passed single file through the metal detector to reclaim our coats and the diaper bag. Outside, we stood beneath razor wire in the rain, and I asked the kids if they understood what had happened. The eldest daughter said yes, and I did my best to explain it to her brothers and the family friend, who confessed he was confused over the outcome. I told him that while nothing had really happened, it seemed that we should feel good, because he wasn’t under immediate threat of deportation, and there would probably be another hearing soon. He said he would be there for it, and I said I would bring the kids back again. “Well, I’ll see you then,” he said, with a small tired smile. “It’s a good thing you’re doing,” he offered as I began to shepherd the kids off the sidewalk. “De nada,” I told him, placing my hand over my heart.

A half an hour later, I pulled up in front of the family’s trailer. The oldest two children asked if they could go back to school for the rest of the school day, and their mother and I raised our eyebrows at each other and smiled. She thanked me, and I told her “de nada” like I’d told the family friend, placing my hands over my heart. I offered to give her son and daughter a ride to school, and they clambered into the car with their backpacks.

When I said “de nada,” I did not mean I thought it was nothing.
I meant its the least I can do.
But mi español es muy malo.

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Filed under Americana, basic goodness, community, culture.society.anthropology., Education, Family, fathoming, History, Homeland, love, migration, motherhood, Ordinary, politrix, stories, violence, winter

Letting in the Light

 

America is a nation prone to forgetting. We’d prefer not to dwell on the difficult and controversial past, when the American Dream dangles glittering on the future horizon. We privilege only particular stories for remembering, and we retell them in ways that leave out many things, in order that the Dream may continue to seem possible. Yet, despite our best efforts to look forward, the things we’ve forgotten persist. Every now and then, someone diligent excavates them from the shadows, and we are given the opportunity to see something difficult and real about America. If we do not look away, we may make real progress toward realizing the things about America we’ve been promised.  We may even have a chance to make art.

In south downtown Seattle, in the shadow of the sports stadiums and skyscraper bank offices, there is an old brick building tucked at the junction of Airport Way and the Interstate 90 on-ramp. Vacant for the past seven years, its rooms have a fine layer of dust, and the hallways are thick with ghosts, some dating back as far as the 1930s.  For nearly eighty years, this building has been known as the United States Department of Justice, Immigration and Naturalization Service.

This past weekend, music and voices echoed through the halls of the building.  Dancers were warming up in old offices, and artists were hanging their work on the walls. Seattle’s old INS building has a new name, and forgotten stories are being invited into the light.  Welcome to INSCAPE: “Seattle’s former INS building redefined by Culture, Arts, Preservation, and Engagement.”  INSCAPE’s mission?  To

[pay] respect to the history of the former INS Building and the people who made that history, the incredible structure and its bipolar spirit, the triumphs of those who became citizens and the tribulations of those who did not, the joys and sorrows that manifested the unique nature of this edifice.  INSCAPE creates a forum for possibilities; a collaboration with artists and artisans, creative individuals and organizations, the neighborhood and the city, to build a mutually supportive alliance that engages the Greater Seattle community in the experience of art and the celebration of culture.  INSCAPE reinvigorates the building and the neighborhood, bringing new life to the district with a renewed spirit created by the investment of the entire community in culture, arts, preservation, and engagement.

INSCAPE will host 125 tenants in nearly eighty-thousand square feet of space, making it “the largest arts and culture enclave in Seattle.”  The name demonstrates the founders’ commitment to remembering what the building was.  It also speaks to their desire to look forward, generating collaboration and community via interdisciplinary artistic expression.  They define INSCAPE in three ways:

noun: the essential, distinctive, and revelatory quality of a person, place, or object; the distinctive, dynamic design that constitutes individual identity, especially as expressed in artistic work.

verb: to bring together the unique, essential qualities of many individuals to form a cohesive, distinct community.

building: a collaboration of creative people and organizations, brought together by a vision of artistic and cultural expression in all disciplines, to form a community that expresses its essential nature through culture, arts, preservation, and engagement.

On October 16 and 17, INSCAPE threw wide the windows and let the fresh air of a sunny October weekend flood in to the old INS building for “Passages,” an open house dedicated to inviting the public to help explore the “past history and future possibility of the building.”

My husband and I visited INSCAPE on Sunday.  As residents of South Seattle, we regularly utilize Airport Way to get into the city, but neither of us could picture the building we’d seen on the INSCAPE website.  As my husband drove, I looked up the address on his phone.  “Its right next to the stadiums,” I told him.  “On Airport Way? Really?” he asked, eyebrows raised.  Once we found it, we were both a little shocked we’d never noticed it before.  Its redbrown roof is visible from the freeway, and up close, the former INS building is no podunk anonymous office building.  Its a formidable four-story structure spanning the better part of a block, replete with dozens of artistic flourishes popular in 1930s American architecture.  We stood on the sidewalk staring up at the neoclassical marble columns and Art Deco sunbursts over the arched windows and wondered how we’d missed it in all our years in the city.  We’ve lived here for over ten years between us, members of our families have called Seattle home for decades, and not one of us had ever walked through the doors of 815 Airport Way.

This is how it goes with government buildings for those of us privileged enough to never have to set foot in them.  They’re just part of the landscape.  Not so for those like artist and filmmaker Ladan Yalzadeh, who emigrated to the United States from Iran with her father as a teenager in 1986.  One of the visionaries behind INSCAPE, Yalzadeh was herself processed in the building in 1995, and she spent the weekend giving guided tours.  She led our group out of the lobby to stand on the sidewalk for the beginning of the tour.  After pointing out some of the architectural elements of the building, she gestured down the sidewalk, and urged us to imagine hundreds of people lined up out front.  “Rain, shine, snow, whatever.  All year round, all hoping to make it inside.  If you were lucky enough to make it to the door, you were greeted by a very unfriendly guard, and things generally went downhill from there.”

We followed her inside, where we were confronted by the dangling black silhouette letters of an installation by artist Katy Krantz, paying homage to the dozens of nationalities that made their way through the INS building’s bureaucratic corridors.

The letters danced and quivered in the draft from the open door, casting flickering shadows on the brick walls.  The installation created a vivid and unsettling presence, a fitting invocation of the thousands of stories that played out here, remembered only by those who lived them.  Sometimes the American Dream turns out great.  Sometimes it gets you deported.  Carrying my infant son through the letters, I felt painfully aware of my privilege.

As we began to walk the halls, we paused at printed squares on the floors, designed by artist Christian French, (also the main curator for the “Passages,”) to resemble spaces in a board game.

Turns out, getting in on the American Dream isn’t quite as simple as showing up and working hard.  In recent years, immigration-reform advocates have been fond of saying they welcome immigrants who are willing to follow the rules and come here legally.  The problem is, we keep changing the rules. We’ve been changing them for over a hundred and thirty years, and pretty much every country of origin has taken its turn on the thumbs down list at one point or another.

If the number of Americans who straightfacedly assert their family tree dates back to the Mayflower is accurate, then that pilgrim vessel had the passenger capacity of a fleet of Boeing Dreamliners. Despite the intensely American desire to have gotten Here First, most of us came much later, and received varying degrees of welcome when we did.  Many of the ethnic groups that seem “uniquely American” today were much less popular in previous generations.  Irish, Jewish, or Italian in your family tree?  In the late 1900s, you wouldn’t have been considered white.  Germans found themselves pretty unpopular roundabout WWI (and WWII didn’t help matters much) and Mexicans have been imported (ever heard of the Bracero program?) and exported by the US government at will depending on our need for cheap labor.  The truth is, America has always been a nation of immigrants, and xenophobic immigration policies have come and gone as regularly as the tides.  Unless your family has access to education, funds, and happens to arrive at the right time (read: your country of origin is in favor at the moment), the American dream of “legal” status is about as elusive as the one where you land in the White House.

Ladan spent her fair share of time waiting in lines, but as she gratefully acknowledged, she came here with the advantages of having already gained legal access.  She showed us Room 121, where she was processed for citizenship back in 1995.  She remembered how unsettling it was, even though she’d done everything by the book.  As part of her naturalization interview, she was asked to declare whether or not she was a Communist, and if she had AIDS.  A Canadian man on our tour added that as part of his green card interview several years ago, he was asked to declare whether or not he was a homosexual.  After demonstrating her English proficiency by writing “I love America” on a scrap of paper, Ladan was approved for U.S. citizenship.

As we made our way through the building, art installations and Ladan’s tour began to  fill the empty hallways and offices with a narrative of history and personal experience.  We were guided through the “Oriental” women’s dormitory and the “Detainee Booking” area, the tiny barber shop and the infirmary and childrens’ dormitories.  An artist had strung muslin sheets from the ceiling to recreate bunkbeds in what was once the “Chinese boy’s Dormitory;” through the windows, sun poured in, and the sports stadiums were visible nearby.  The pile of bars that previously flanked the dormitory windows were visible in the old exercise yard.  While its been almost a century since the wave of Chinese immigration that gave this room its name, young immigrants from other countries were confined here in the last decade.  I wondered if they were cognizant of the fact that American citizens were eating hot dogs at baseball games only a stones throw away.

Artist's recreation of the Chinese boys' dormitory

Grates that previously barred the windows

When we visited the exercise courtyard, we spotted something that may well have inspired Krantz’s installation on the main floor: the names and home countries of dozens of detainees, marked on the walls in black letters.  The ink?  Sun-melted tar, scraped from the corners of the courtyard by detainees on warm days.  Looking at the pile of bars, I couldn’t help but wonder if calling them detainees was just a semantic nicety.  Here, thousands of people who came to America in search of a better life for themselves and their children were held prisoner, until such time as the complex bureaucracy deemed them admissable or shipped them back where they came from.  Granted, some who attempt to come to America have dark pasts, or commit criminal acts while in this country, making their deportation seem legitimate.   Others lived here for years, raised children born as American citizens, paid taxes, went to church and worked two or three jobs at once to make ends meet, trying for years to attain citizenship, only to be deported after decades to a country their children knew only by way of stories.  The vast majority of people who spent time in the old INS building were no different from my great-grandparents, or yours.  They came here—and continue to come here—looking for their shot at the American dream.

The visiting area. Looks an awful lot like a prison.

The final stop on our tour was the basement of the building.  Here, the degree to which we have criminalized immigration was painfully clear.

Ladan Yalzadeh (in blue and white shirt) explains how detainees were told to follow the yellow line, much like in a prison, for processing.

The room behind the door held solitary confinement cells.

Before passing through the door, immigrants were ordered to place their hands on the prints for patdowns. I couldn't help but think of the Emma Lazarus poem engraved on the Statue of Liberty. "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free..."

The interior of a solitary confinement cell.

Our tour ended in the basement.  The group broke up and scattered to wander the art spaces in the rest of the building.  We stared at the dusty cell for a while before we climbed the stairs back into the daylight.  On the first floor, we visited the studios of artist Alica Tormey, whose mixed media paintings glowed in the warm sunlight flooding through the southfacing windows.  Dancers from the Manifold Motion group were giving previews of a performance they’ll be putting on throughout the month of November, dedicated to dance interpretations of moss and dirt and mold.  On the third floor, a wacky game of “apocalyptic miniature golf” was underway.

In inviting us in, the creators of INSCAPE are asking Seattle to see both the art and the walls behind it.  This INS building may have been decommissioned, but there are others like it all over the country, and the stories that take place behind their walls have been in the shadows for too long.   The folks behind INSCAPE aren’t out to change US immigration policy or throw open the borders.  They’re here to promote art, to “bring together the unique, essential qualities of many individuals to form a cohesive, distinct community.”  Sounds like a recipe for America.

* * *

If you’re interested in visiting INSCAPE, getting involved, or leasing a space, contact Sam Farrazaino at 206.257.3022 or www.inscapearts.org.  If you or anyone you know has a story about the old INS building, contact Ladan Yalzadeh.

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Filed under Americana, art, artists, basic goodness, coexistence, community, Family, fathers, gratitude, History, Homeland, memory, migration, Mothers, photographs, politrix, stories, violence

On Helen Thomas

Helen Thomas has had a long and venerable career. For generations, she has spoken her truth to power, and for most of my adult life, she’s been one of the only journalists in the White House Press Room who’s dared to call it like she sees it, irregardless of the political stripes of the current administration.

“When are you going to get out of Afghanistan?” she challenged President Obama two weeks ago. “Why are we continuing to kill and die there? What is the real excuse? And don’t give us this Bushism, ‘If we don’t go there, they’ll all come here.’ ”

(quoted by Dana Milbank, online at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/06/07/AR2010060704184.html?hpid=topnews)

As it happens, I often “see it” the same way Ms. Thomas does. So I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the flap this week that’s resulting in her retirement. She spoke her mind and its gotten her branded an anti-Semite, and after years of sitting in the front row of the White House press room, she’s bowing out. I always thought she’d die before she retired, but apparently in the contemporary media and political climate, one controversial statement is enough to end an honorable and 60 year plus career.

So what did she say?

Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” and “go home.”

Her words have been widely interpreted as an anti-Semitic suggestion that Jews return to the European countries in which their families were slaughtered during the Holocaust.

I am a woman of Jewish descent, and there are numerous branches in my family tree that were violently broken off in the second World War. I’ve read transcriptions of firsthand family Holocaust stories that will make the blood run cold, and there are many more stories we will never hear, stories buried in mass graves in Eastern Europe. One of the women in my family who did escape the Holocaust resettled in Israel, so there is a branch of my family tree growing in that Middle Eastern soil. I wish them peaceful, fulfilling lives, and I do not believe they should (or can) pack up and return to the place their matriarch fled, a village which was largely destroyed, the site of which doesn’t even exist in the same country it did then. As a woman of Jewish descent, I am sensitive to words or actions that defame the memories of my ancestors. As a historian, I believe in truth-telling about history above all else.

As a teenager, I thought the Jewish refugees who sailed to found the state of Israel were heroic. As an adult, I believe that they, like every generation of displaced people who have struggled to create a new, safe home for their children, were heroic. The problem was, the place they chose to claim for themselves was already occupied. The problem is, they never found a way to coexist with the people who were living there. The problem is, over time, the state of Israel made it policy to displace other people, creating new generations of refugees and angry children.  The problem is, the state of Israel proved useful for Western superpowers as a strategic military base, resulting in outside funding of the Israeli military so exorbitant it made that tiny country the fourth most well-armed nation in the world. The problem is, the state of Israel has used that military to brutally occupy and oppress the people of Palestine, creating conditions, crises, and conflicts that resemble precisely the conditions of the ghettos of the Holocaust. Warsaw and Gaza, described without dates or references to ethnicity, sound pretty much identical.

This offends me. This, in my estimation, is a reality that defames the memories of those in my family who suffered and died at the hands of the Nazis. I am as offended by Holocaust deniers as any Jew, or any other moral, intelligent person for that matter, but what of this kind of historical forgetting? What of the Jews who would oppress others using the precise strategies the Nazis used to oppress their ancestors? I am not condemning the people of Israel. There are many Israeli Jews who’ve spoken out and continue to speak out against the policies of their own country. They believe that it is possible to peacefully coexist with their Palestinian neighbors, but they believe the way to do so is through dialogue and respect, not military action and oppression. (Check out http://www.jewishvoiceforpeace.org/) Like them, I care about the sins of the past, but nothing makes my blood boil faster than using those sins to rationalize the sins of the present. I believe the policies and actions of the state of Israel defame the memories of my family.

Helen Thomas is an intelligent woman. She’s also an elder, and understandably tired and frustrated by the years of conflict she’s learned about and reported on. I think she’s earned the right to be cranky, the right to speak her mind and be given the chance to explain herself after.

I suspect she knows full well that once you’ve been displaced by war, poverty, or environmental changes, once you’ve picked up what’s left of your family and moved somewhere for a better life, you can’t really Go Home again, because you can’t be an immigrant forever. You can’t be a displaced person forever. You have to call someplace home. And the difficult fact of human history is, there’s never a blank space for you to claim. There will always be someone who was there first. Immigrants, and the descendants of immigrants, people the entire planet, and the ensuing ethnic conflicts are playing out in every corner of the world. Imagine the debacle of sending everyone back to the place where their ancestors came from! We’d have to move a good portion of the Mexican population into the American Southwest. I’d have to send my torso to eastern Europe, and a few severed limbs to Germany, Holland, and France. Half of my husband would get shipped off to Ireland, and since his mother was adopted, we’d probably have to stick the rest of him in some giant camp for “untraceables.” Where, truth be told, he’d have lots of “American” company.

Speaking of historical forgetting; Helen Thomas may have misspoken about Jews going home, but politicians and members of the American media are committing their own serious misstep. They’re falling all over themselves asserting, as columnist Dana Milbank did, that her statement was an “anti-Semitic suggestion that Jews should… ‘go home’ to Poland and Germany — where they were slaughtered by the millions.” Its true that Jews were slaughtered by the millions in Poland, Germany, and elsewhere. Its true that if the attitudes that led to genocide manage to persist in a community in the generations following that genocide, these communities have a responsibility to address those attitudes, swiftly and with great moral force. But if we continued to mark the sites of genocide as poisoned for all time, we’d find that there was no unbloodied ground for any of us to stand on. Residents of the United States in particular ought to mind their words when throwing around statements about remembering the grounds of genocide. We walk on the ground of genocide every day.

Helen Thomas spoke the words she did because she is tired of learning and reporting about the suffering of the people of Palestine. She doesn’t hate Jews. She doesn’t want the people of Israel to move their children into refugee camps set up on the sites of concentration camps. She wants the conflict in the middle East to end, and like every moral person in the 21st century, she sometimes despairs that there’s a way the end of that conflict can be achieved. So she spoke without thinking, out of passion and frustration, as we have all done many times. She should have known that, as a journalist, someone would probably be listening, or filming. Her statement was a misstep, as she later admitted on her website. “I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians. They do not reflect my heart-felt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance. May that day come soon.”

I think if we gave her a chance to really engage in conversation about the subject, a chance she’s earned after covering every American president since Eisenhower, she might say something worth listening to.  Perhaps we could all discuss why her offhand comment has received roughly triple the press coverage of Israel’s attack on a flotilla of aid workers attempting to bring desperately needed food and medical supplies to the beleagured citizens of Gaza?

What frightens me about this debacle is not anti-Semitism. Its the willingness of so many people to see things in black and white, in the oversimplified terms the media feeds us. It is my prerogative as a woman of Jewish ancestry to speak out against the policies of the state of Israel without being branded an anti-Semite, and just as it should be my prerogative as a historian to write about the treatment of Native Americans without being branded anti-American. It is the prerogative of moral people everywhere to speak out about the injustices we believe are happening in the world, and to engage in thoughtful dialogue with each other about the history and effects and possible remedies to those injustices. Watching politicians, citizens, and those in the American media fall over themselves in their race to condemn Helen Thomas scares me. This sort of oversimplification, this rush to judge, this willingness to believe things are as we’ve been told, will not make the world a better or more tolerant place.

I will continue to honor Helen Thomas as a journalist, and I will continue to welcome thoughtful conversation on this subject.

7 Comments

Filed under Americana, coexistence, History, memory, Peace, politrix

Please Approve Referendum 71.

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Last fall, I was dancing at a friends wedding on Vashon Island. As darkness settled in, a string of paper lanterns was turned on, and I discovered that looking at the soft glow of the lanterns produced an intense pain in my right eye. The light sensitivity was nearly unbearable the following morning, and shooting pains had begun to radiate back into my skull. I tried to grin and bear it for a day or two, assuming I’d rubbed my eye too hard and bruised something.

When the pain continued to intensify, I called Group Health’s consulting nurse. The nurse took down my symptoms, then ordered me to be seen immediately. I got on the bus, and was sitting in an optometrist’s chair within two hours. They diagnosed me with Iritis, an autoimmune disease that results in an inflammation of the iris.

I’d never heard of it before. Turns out, its the 3rd leading cause of preventable blindness in the developed world. Left untreated, the inflamed iris can swell until it permanently fuses with the cornea.

Fun stuff.

They dialated my right eye until it looked like a shark’s eye (not kidding) and kept it that way for over a week.

Shark Eye.

Shark Eye.

Any time with my eyes open made me nauseous. (Contact lens wearers: try spending seven days in a row with only one contact lens in.) I was ordered to put steroid drops in every thirty minutes, then gradually phase off the drops when they deemed safe.

At the end of it all, I’d came out unscathed, with no permanent damage to my eye.

Nine months later, I ended up in the hospital again, with the same symptoms. This time, three different doctors misdiagnosed me, even though I told them my symptoms matched my last bout with iritis. After an emergency room visit on the fourth of July, I was finally referred to a specialist in degenerative eye disorders, who immediately diagnosed me and quadrupled the prescription other eye doctors had given me. I spent the entire month of my honeymoon in India putting in twelve steroid drops a day, and I will continue putting in one a day until November.

Two weeks prior to my first bout with iritis, I lost my health insurance from Basic Health of Washington. I was making too much money waitressing to qualify. Within a few more weeks, the economy would begin to crash into recession, and thousands more people would be dropped from the state healthcare system rolls.

Washington State’s Domestic Partnership law enabled my partner Ryan to add me to his insurance. It wasn’t cheap… over three-hundred dollars a month would be deducted from his teacher’s salary to cover my healthcare. I protested, worried we couldn’t afford it.

He insisted we go ahead, and after he threatened to make me call my parents to tell them I was willingly going without insurance, I acceded.

In all likelihood, that decision—and the domestic partnership law that gave Ryan the right to add me to his healthcare plan—-saved my vision in my right eye.

Ryan and I are just starting out.

at our wedding in June, 2009

Neither of us has much extra money laying around. Certainly not five hundred dollars or so to walk into the Emergency Room—not unless the situation is desperate. Had I been uninsured, I would have waited until I could no longer tolerate the pain in my eye before I sought medical attention. Chances are good I would have been misdiagnosed in the emergency room, or been prescribed the wrong quantity of eyedrops. Unable to afford follow-up care, I would have suffered further damage to my vision.

The domestic partnership law helped save my eyesight, at the age of 28.

Wait, you say, that’s you in your “wedding picture.” You don’t need the domestic partnership law anymore, right? You’re married, so you’re automatically entitled to coverage under your husband’s plan.

Yes, we got married in June, in the eyes of our family and friends, and the holiest people we know. Not, however, in the eyes of the state.

Too many of our friends and thousands of people we haven’t met yet are unable to marry the person they love. They are denied the right, legally, to take care of the person they’ve committed their lives to, by providing them access to health care, or comforting them in intensive care. Other people have deemed it their moral right to dictate who is entitled to love whom, and take care of whom.

We do not accept this reality and we refuse to tolerate it. Which is why we had a really beautiful wedding, committed to each other in the presence of everyone we care about, and never signed a single paper. We call ourselves married. Ryan is my husband, and I am his wife. We wear rings. And we are provided the legal rights of a “traditionally” married couple by the domestic partnership law.

A lot of people think that law threatens “the sanctity of marriage,” or the “integrity of the family.” These people gathered signatures to initiate a challenge to the domestic partnership law. 4000 of the signatures they gathered were judged to be of questionable validity, but the challenge to the domestic partnership law was allowed on the ballot.

Washington State law mandates that when a measure already signed into law is put up for a referendum, voters vote either “approved” to confirm the law or “rejected” to oppose it. Thus, although the petition to put this law to a vote was circulated by its opponents, the ballot wording is such that voters vote in the affirmative to approve the law or in the negative to reject it.

A little confusing, eh? Which is what the opponents of domestic partnership benefits are banking on.

If you vote to approve Referendum 71, you will be voting to PRESERVE domestic parnership rights in Washington state. (The rights that helped save my vision.) IF you vote to reject Referendum 71, you will OVERTURN domestic partnership benefits in Washington state, causing me to loose my health insurance.

Ryan and I are privileged. If that happens, we have the right to go to the courthouse, get legally married and rescue my health care. A lot of people we love and respect are denied access to that privilege.

Please take a moment to shelve your dogmas, your slogans, your culture wars, your ideologies, and your biases (on both sides of the aisle.)

This is the bottom line, as I see it (out of two seeing eyes):

If People Love Each Other, Let Them Take Care of Each Other.

VOTE YES on Referendum 71.

Here’s the dates you need to know:
October 5, 2009 (TOMMORROW): Mail-in and online voter registrations and transfers deadline
Seattlites: go to http://www.kingcounty.gov/elections/elections/200911.aspx

October 14, 2009
Ballots mailed to voters. As soon as you get it, mark it and mail it back.

YOUR BALLOT MUST BE POSTMARKED BY 3 NOVEMBER 2009 OR IT IS INVALID!

4 Comments

Filed under healthcare, marriage, politrix