Monthly Archives: September 2009

the agony of disconnection

This draft has been sitting in my box for so long, wordpress thought it was written in 1999. It wasn’t, but it was written well before President Obama was elected. I shudder to think of the examples of how people thrive on demonization now, but think most of what’s here is still the core of the problem we’re facing as people.

This is in memory of all we lost that day, including the opportunity to be better connected as a people. Rest in peace, Fred.

A while back, I wrote about the exceptionally personal experience I had 8 years ago, as someone one degree of separation from the tragedy of September 11. But rather than go on a rant – I do enough of that, and others have already expressed sentiments in ways more articulate and moving than I could – I’m reflecting on a result I would call the agony of separation.

Some thoughtful writers have already talked about the distance they felt from the day’s events, and from the aftermath. After all, there were no calls to reduce consumption of any sort, only to trust that people in the government would act in our best interests, as long as we trusted them. The contrary, that any question or exploration of their actions would be the equivalent of treason, kept many people quiet. Too many people.

From the start, then, we take the tragic events, the loss of lives, and decide that grieving is too much, unless met with unreflective aggression, not just in retaliatory action, but also in words, in thoughts, and what we allow people to talk about publicly. This is more then than the loss one never stops grieving. We move from the commons into a bunker.

But it’s more than applying bunker mentality to communication. It’s also who’s doing the fighting. Economic factors (extra income, the only possible path to college) have put our most vulnerable people into military service. When they return, they’re both damaged and denied the resources they need to recover – not unlike the denial of resources and information they faced on the ground, in harm’s way.

In this bunker culture, there isn’t a lot of encouragement to substantively connect – yellow ribbon magnets repel question authority bumperstickers, and vice versa. I see one of those magnets in the parking lot of my child’s daycare center, and wonder how I would talk to the mom who drives the car. We would talk about our children, I suppose, and I would ask when her family member is coming home, and wish a safe and healthy return. Anymore than that, and there is a serious potential for bunker communications, shutting down, dropping connections. Or would we not even talk at all, as the wrinkled John Kerry sticker (not exactly question authority, but close enough in our media and politically illiterate culture) would serve as an effective deterrent to even the most surface greetings.

Broadband bunker communciations fully support the agony of separation. Information sources that sides rely upon are often suspect, and the louder suspect sources tend to come from one side. You know how it goes; “You’re with us, or you’re with the terrorists.” Who is this “us,” anyway? It is not the citizenry. How do you listen to someone who parrots Fox entertainers? Who has the interest, never mind the time, to read comparatively? Who would raise their hand and claim to be a media illiterate?

At the same time how does that person listen to me about the state of our nation in real time across the table, words at a breathtaking clip, all citations, disdain and by most standards, obscene privilege? How does that person communicate the realities they face

Where do we find the encouragement to stop, listen, connect? Is it even possible? Blogs certainly foster communities of interest, but my limited experience shows the only tangible evidence of crosspollination being the troll. I admit it, I don’t need to read another Clinton-bashing site as long as I live. Not because I think he was perfect – far from it – but because what they say is born of hatred of him, and while the hatred is real, the accusations range from overdone to truly bizarre.

And it is that unwillingness to ask and listen that stops connections from happening, that makes for gaps, for misinformed assumptions, for danger, for a strange sort of agony – one of a nation, unable to look at itself in the altogether.

Unlike the majority of my fellow Americans, I flew within two weeks, across country. And again the following week. And then in a ping-pong trip across central and western Europe. I can’t tell you what a mess I found – a tangled mess of ideas presented to me at every turn by colleagues from all parts of the globe. It wasn’t a bad mess, though many of the ideas were unpleasant, theories from the thoughtful to just shy of deranged, and a lot of anti-American sentiments. But the best part of that tangle was the chance to acknowledge it, and to listen. Not to agree, but to listen. To connect.

Whether it was at home or overseas (I lost count of the number of times I flew to Europe in the last 4 months of 2001), it became even more important to connect. To listen. To not dismiss. To understand, if only a little, and to consider and act on solutions. To untangle misunderstandings, while seeing some snarls were beyond my abilities to know at the time.

In my own way, because of my work and its very nature (I was a Communications Director of an international technical organization at the time), I was serving as an ambassador through listening, responding, asking.

I have to say, I wasn’t afraid of ideas, of people presenting them. I was glad to have the chance to hear it directly. To give a response if I had one, to simply say “I don’t know about that” if I didn’t, and to offer my own views if it seemed as though there was any interest.

Watching some television yesterday, I noticed how tender the wounds still are for people not separated from the events of the day. Whether it was by location, or personal loss, or identification.

Back to that tragic week in 2001 – I was loading the trunk of my rental car in Downtown Boston on the way to my own bridal shower, when my friend handed me a copy of Time she had saved for me. I remember seeing for the first time photos of people jumping from buildings – the scenes broadcast in every other country around the world.  I literally screamed, dropping the magazine into the trunk, and extending my arms, my hands palms up. What I wouldn’t have given to be able to catch even one person – an irrational, impractical, emotional, visceral, true response. It wouldn’t have mattered what they believed, who they voted for, what they watched. When faced directly with the loss of a human being, with suffering, only connect.

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Filed under Complexity, exploitation, france, Grieving, loss, Opportunism, Politics, September 11th, Wars

when the real enemy is colored green and gold

I had a conversation with an uncle last week about politics. We rarely see eye to eye on issues, and he has had to apologize in the past for racist remarks he made in the presence of my friends, when I made it clear it was unacceptable. The remarkable part of the conversation, though, was getting a glimpse at how he arrived at his worldview.

My mother had told me he had it rough as a kid, but I didn’t know how rough. It was after WWII, and his family was immigrant German. He lost his father young, and had to work every day to support his family. At age 11, his paper route helped fed the family. He was the punching bag of the class, mostly friendless, until the day he fought back from a punch in the face.

This man now walks around the town as if he owns it – not in the way of a braggart, but with a quiet confidence. His story of alienation was an absolute shock – a sort of punch in the face in itself. But the lesson he learned from his childhood was anything but compassion. As we argued back and forth on the points of what the responsibilities of a government should be, what is a right and what is a privilege, I kept coming back to the same question: “Would you really want to penalize a child? What lush life do you think someone has in the projects? On food stamps? Why would you want a child to go through what you did?”

He never had an answer for me. I know he loves kids – a big part of his life’s work was in caring for them – and that he understands the anguish a parent feels when a child goes astray or worse. Still, I couldn’t understand why it didn’t transform him in a different way.

Another person who endlessly posts feeds from Newt Gingrich and the gop’s Website lost her father to cancer in a European country which waited too long to treat him. When I responded both with sympathy for her father’s loss but also with facts as to how the public health system performs in Denmark (according to my brother-in-law who is a physician there), she only answered, “It runs better in richer countries.” Then she continues to post and comment on the evils she has yet to understand – she only parrots what she is told.

Another conversation was with a conservative who had the benefit of private education, one she earned. And her comment wrt rights v. privileges was “paddle your own canoe”. I know she never lacked for material things, and her prep school pedigree made it easier to transition to private higher education, no doubt underwritten by the burden of loans. At least she has made some effort to read and comment without heat and with some intelligence, but even there, all roads lead to tort reform, socialism, and something my uncle comes closest to saying out loud.

Many of these people are afraid. Afraid that someone they may have discriminated against in the past has re-emerged in the form of a president. And the same disrespect, fear, prejudice, becomes the lens to best observe him and his actions. The most fearful are those who never attained President or Mrs. Obama’s level of success, and refuse to acknowledge that they achieved those goals because of their abilities, because of their willingness to work harder in the face of others’ discrimination. They blame the folks they think got a pass – almost all browner and poorer than them – instead of people who are the same color but are unwilling to share what they have.

I see this in my privileged neighborhood, and wonder what it will take to help the fearful people see the truth – their worst enemy is the one they think they will be, since they look the same.

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Filed under communication, compassion, racism, relationships, republicans

soft armor

Walking into the reunion room

I’m startled by the low light, the drafts, and the stale air.

I’m not 38 anymore, picking at imaginary lint balls on my sweater

But 17, anxious, anticipating something hard and hostile crackling behind me.

The bar charges more money for pre-packaged dark beer than for urine from the tap.

I stick with water in unopened bottles, and wait.

Wait for a kind, vaguely familiar face. There’s one, then two.

Some are more familiar than others, some more kind.

And then the phone at the bar rings – my child has exceeded my mother’s capacity to comfort him.

I drive to retrieve him, then bring him back to the banquet hall.

He is soft armor, but his five months of life cover me completely.

Impenetrable.

But beyond the protection he lends me, he has a strange effect on  others.

No one can be hostile to a baby; no one with a baby will be hostile to a simple greeting.

Men remark on the pawprints on the feet of his sleeper – pawprints made by their sons.

Women coo and gently touch his round soft creamy cheeks, asking softly for a smile.

And others as anxious as I am see a chance to sit down with someone who won’t threaten them, who will help them feel less lonely in the drafty ballroom.

My baby doesn’t make all the cliquery disappear, and cokelines still get consumed in the ladies room along with misdemeanor memories.

There are still drunken stumbling people, and others who get angry at the thought of someone wanting to know more, learn more, be more than what they were.

But the baby and I can walk out of the hall, facing forward, into the chill of late November, safely. He is in my arms, but tonight he is carrying me.

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Filed under Motherhood, mothering, mothers, mothers and sons

mini-me, mini-my, oh no.

From the moment he let us know he wanted out, the race went on to see Mom or Dad in the little one. I saw my father-in-law, no fat, a touch of ET, gingery fringe in a male-pattern baldness arrayment, slate blue eyes.

Later, I saw him, and me. Something in his eyes, his smile, his colic. The wisps of hair that took two years to grow, his love of dancing and singing, and those eyes – now hazel, but with long black lashes and a twinkle. How he cracks himself up, and laughs at everyone else’s jokes. How honest he is with his feelings. How he would walk away from things that were hard for him to do – thank goodness we knew about “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” And his inability to successfully fend off teasing.

He talks about school, and how sad he feels not to have friends. It catches me off-guard. Yes, it’s true that this is the time when children are more likely to switch schools, and since he is staying an additional year in pre-K, his friends are leaving. But the sadness in his voice was painfully familiar: “I’d just like them to say, ‘I’m happy to see you, let’s play together all day!'”

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Filed under childhood, childhood stories, Motherhood, mothering, mothers and sons

september

Months of fragments, of the failure of one pill and non-failure of another, of the more frequent surprise of a full night’s sleep, all crawling towards 1 september and the beginning of my favorite time of year.

September, when scorching heat is still possible, but more as finale than act 2 of summer, where the firm and luscious pleasures of Italian prune plums and concord grapes make for an entirely welcome transition to the sweater drawer, and there is no end to the fragrant harvest. Well, at least not until mid October.

Maybe the years of school and later, the years of working for a University or in a college town have conditioned me to see September, not January, as the fresh start of the year. January feels like less than half-done – but September’s promise of what can be learned, tasted, and even what new love might be discovered makes me feel hopeful, and almost young again.

Nora’s morning naps mean abdominal exercises, shower, laundry, and writing to you. Sorry I’ve been gone so long.

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