With Nana and Papa

With Nana and Papa
Family Times at Flathead Lake

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Voices

There are many topics that I could write about today. Rolling through my head are headlines about the shameful and discriminatory immigration law just adopted in Arizona, the travesty of a US mother sending her adopted son back to Russia (by himself), and the possible relationship between global warming and Iceland’s unpronounceable volcano. I will bypass these and focus somewhat selfishly on a little quandary I have with my writing.

Last week I was rejected from the 2010 Colorado Voices program through the Denver Post. In this program writers from across the state are asked to submit several columns to the paper or its online counterpart throughout the calendar year. The guest commentary is unpaid but offers great opportunity for exposure for a writer and her cause(s), not to mention superior editing by Post staff. Along with the kindly rejection letter I received some helpful tips on how to improve my writing and possibly succeed to be a Voice in future years.

Though I seem to have lost this valuable letter (I just finished a desperate 15-minute search), I can remember the gist of it: be clear, be brief and be yourself. In the introductory letter do not issue a resume, but a quick summary of subjects you might cover. Be timely. Don’t take on too much. See? I learn quickly! Though I have never been accused of brevity or of wit, I can attempt improvement.

I need to improve my writing, because it appears to be an activity that I love. If I could help people by writing their stories, it would combine two of my greatest joys. Don’t think I’m running out to judge myself based on one rejection letter; actually, I felt the sting of my own criticism yesterday when I started a new book. It’s by a mom, one who shares many of my values and opinions. Her writing style reminds me of my own (though she is much better) and strangely, I found myself getting bogged down. I felt “preached to.” I am guessing that anyone who reads my entries could feel much the same.

Hope springs eternal, however, and my hope is bolstered by two things I read recently. One item was in the new book, The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You've Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ Is Wrong by David Shenk. I read a few pages while I browsed in Barnes & Noble last week and discovered this gem by the author, “Intelligence and talent turn out to be about process, not about whether you were born with certain "gifts." It’s not a brand new idea, that persistence and hard work pay off, but to tie the word “genius” to persistence in adulthood (as opposed to operas and mathematical theorems issued by a child prodigy) seems a new and happy twist.

The other motivating factor I discovered in a great book by and about the legendary basketball coach, John Wooden, called (appropriately) Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections on and Off the Court by John Wooden and Steve Jamison. I read this last night as I struggled to keep my eyes open under the weight of the day: “Most of us are impatient. As we get a bit older, we think we know more and things should happen faster. But patience is a virtue in preparing for any task of significance. It takes time to create excellence. If it could be done quickly, more people would do it.” (p 191 – italics mine).

I have about as much patience as I have brevity or wit, but I’ll try to sharpen my voice and get it out there. The world is meant to be a great chorus, after all.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

These People Are Desperate

I sat in the airport ten days ago with my large backpack and sleeping mat rolled up at my feet. Friends on either side disposed of similar camp-style gear as we awaited our flight to Tucson. A middle-aged man near us sat forward in curiosity, elbows on knees and moustache twitching. "What are you all fixing to do out near Tucson?" he asked.

"We're camping!" my friend responded cheerfully. "We're going to check out the border situation and will camp in the desert for a night."

The gentleman was horrified. "You don't want to do that!" he exclaimed. "The people out there are desperate."

"We know," she said. "That's why we want to check out the situation and see if we can help."

"I hate to see this," he said. "You ladies out there unprotected against God knows what. I can take it, because I'm armed, but I don't like to see this." He sat back in disgust.

The interchange stuck in my mind throughout my uneventful (safety-wise) weekend in and around Tucson. We saw hardly anyone at our camp near Arivaca; the only danger we suffered from was frost-bitten toes as we slept on our mats and sleeping bags under the star-filled desert sky. We thought of immigrants who might have been crossing the rocky desert at that time, fighting off cold and darkness as they plunged headlong down rocky paths through washes and canyons that we could barely traverse in broad daylight, with good shoes.

The immigrants I've met in Mexico are desperate, all right; desperate for work, desperate to feed their hungry children, desperate to reunite their families, desperate to fulfill the hopes of family members left behind who sacrificed a year's income to pay for their dangerous passage. I don't mean to glamorize immigration, but you should understand that the majority of folks who come across are hard workers who leave out of necessity. Certainly there are dangerous folks crossing who belong to the narcotraficantes or to the human smuggling operations; strangely, even they have been no threat to humanitarian aid groups which observe common sense like staying off the trails at night and refusing to carry weapons.

"But they're stealing our jobs!" I hear over and over again. Not so. In a Denver Post article this week local farmers describe how difficult it is to obtain local workers to do the work of harvesting fruit, even when they are supposedly desperate for work. For example, "John Harold of Tuxedo Corn in Olathe said he gets few local applicants because word has gotten around that his work days begin at 6am. 'It's amazing how few have applied this year,' he said." Denver Post, 4/19, (http://www.denverpost.com/newsheadlines/ci_14911550) Another farmer, Bruce Talbott, noted that the locals on his fruit operation worked 37 - 55 hours per week while the H-2A workers were in the orchards for about 70 hours over the same time period. Desperate can mean hard-working, willing to do boring work for long hours without stopping or without complaining.

"Well, immigration is flooding our country with poor, unskilled people who drain our resources," I hear. Again, this does not appear to be the case. In an April 16 article, the New York Times reported the following:
"In 14 of the 25 largest metropolitan areas, including Boston, New York and San Francisco, more immigrants are employed in white-collar occupations than in lower-wage work like construction, manufacturing or cleaning.

The data belie a common perception in the nation’s hard-fought debate over immigration — articulated by lawmakers, pundits and advocates on all sides of the issue — that the surge in immigration in the last two decades has overwhelmed the United States with low-wage foreign laborers." (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/16/us/16skilled.html)

I'll tell you my experience of desperate people. Several years ago I met two young men in the desert. They had been walking for five days - in circles, we discovered - and had only made it ten miles. They had had no water for a day or two and no food for three. I took some food packs out of my backpack and gave one to each of the young men. They opened the bags eagerly and prepared to tear in, then stopped. One of them held a granola bar out to me, saying in halting English, "Do you want one?" I assured him that I was exceptionally well fed, and encouraged him to dig in.

Another story is told by John Fife, one of the founders of No More Deaths. He and several volunteers were on patrol in the desert one hot day, yelling out "We have food, water, medicine." If any were desperate enough to need help, they might answer. Suddenly, a group of heads popped up from the mesquite bushes. They said, "we don't have much, but you are welcome to share what food and water we have." A misunderstanding which illustrates the generosity, the compassion, and the heart of desperate people. What does desperate look like to you?


Thursday, April 15, 2010

At the Comedor, Part 2

Imagine this:
You and your husband are at home one evening when three uniformed officials drive up. They handcuff both of you and remove you forcibly from the home, pulling you away from your three young children, aged 9, 7, and 4. The little ones are horrified and frightened to see their parents handled like criminals and taken away without explanation. “Where are you going?” they cry, “come back!” A court official takes your children and places them in another car, drives the other direction. You don’t know if you will ever see them again. You have no control over the situation, no voice in where your children are taken or who will explain where you have gone. You have no rights.

You and your husband are driven four hours south and deposited on the other side of an international border without money, possessions, or access to your children. You are told never to re-enter, that re-entry may incur a felony charge and long jail sentence. Your husband breaks down, a mess. You are also lost, tortured by worry and grief, and yet you must find a way to get the children back.

Sitting in a soup kitchen along with a hundred other people removed from their homes, workplaces and communities you find a volunteer amongst those serving food. You ask her to find your three children and bring them here, to a desperate place where you cannot find work, housing or regular food, but where you can be together. This Samaritan decides to help. She drives four hours north, finds the court official who has temporary charge of your little girls and little boy, and within a week or two, obtains temporary custody of the children from an aunt. Recall that she is a complete stranger to the children, and they have been officially released into her care.

Fortunately, she is an angel, and dresses the children carefully, placing pink bows in the girls’ hair, brushing pig-tails and washing faces. The children have clean, matching clothes and are bubbling over with worry and nervous excitement as they are bundled into the car. Down south, you and your husband are allowed to wait nervously in the safety of the soup kitchen, which is largely empty, between meals. You pace the small distance of the concrete floor and peer routinely through the chain-link fence at the cheerless, dusty street. Strangers come and go, their appearance barely noted as your tension mounts. Where are the children? They are late; are they safe? Was this a good plan?

Mom retreats to a bench and huddles as if in prayer, while father cannot contain his anxiety and walks outside on the hot pavement. At 4:00 in the afternoon three children rush the gate, surprising both parents. “Mama, mama!” they call. Your little boy grabs the door and shakes it eagerly. “Mama, Mama,” he repeats. You issue a cry of joy and leap for the locked door. A volunteer quickly moves to open it and the children melt into your body, which bends, umbrella-like, to shelter all of them in your arms. Tears are flowing, children jumping in small, excited bounces that will not remove them from their mother’s embrace. Their hiccuping sobs reverberate in the small space. Your husband hovers nearby, tears streaming down his dusty face, which crumples with relief and with pain.

That night you may find shelter in a temporary room, or you may sleep in the cemetery. There is no work here, and though your children are allowed to return north, you may not. You may not even consider this possibility for 11 years. The future does not look easy or good but for now, you are all together.

I witnessed the reunion portion of this story last weekend at the Comedor in Nogales, Mexico. Father John Dear describes the Comedor as: “a soup kitchen and refugee center run by the Jesuits and the Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist. They serve two meals a day to the hundreds dumped into Mexico after the U.S. deports them. The work at the soup kitchen goes on non-stop; the deported slump in hunger and exhaustion, but leave grateful for the human exchange.” in National Catholic Reporter April 13, 2010, http://ncronline.org/news/justice/our-matthew-25-duty-us-mexico-border

Our group from the Denver area had just spoken with the Sister in charge of the Comedor, learning she served 300 people the previous day, that people were limited to fifteen days of meals, that the flow of the hungry never slowed. As we rose to leave the young boy came to the gate with his passionate cries of joy for his mama. We stood uncertainly nearby, almost all women, almost all mothers. Tears leaked down our faces as we watched, imagining the terrible grief and anxiety of separation, feeling a shadow of the joy and relief of reunion. Did they see us at all in that moment? Doubtful. If they observed us, did they see our tears, or simply citizens who acquiesce in a policy that wrenched apart their family? Do they see fellow mothers or do they see “others” who cannot, or who will not, stop this unnecessary, fruitless, and painful policy of separating parents from children in the name of security and economy?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Are You Very Special?

“Like all of us, Carter is addicted to the theory that we progress by stressing our virtues rather than by dwelling on failures; this is the major theme of his campaign speeches. There’s undoubtedly some merit to this approach, but it seems to me that it excludes serious learning from past error.” -Robert Scheer on Jimmy Carter as quoted in “Human Failing and Easter Grace” by Cathleen Falsani, Sojourners Magazine, April 2010

Last week my mother attended the children’s music class with me, a double treat as we were able to share their musical progress and bump up our adult:child ratio to a 1:1 dynamic. The children in the class sing an echo song with their teacher; she will sing “Are you very special?” and they (melodically) reply, “Yes, I’m very special.” When my mother heard that she turned to me and pointed emphatically in my direction, “YOU are very special,” she whispered, which quickly reduced me to tears. Granted, exhaustion had some role in generating my emotion but it was also motivated by gratitude for her recognition and support.

I have in common with many close friends the predilection for remembering only my failures, for focusing on my lapses in patience, and lasering in on my detours from the path of ever-loving parent. Over the last few weeks as I battled the children’s illness I also found myself battling frustration and impatience and then feeling disappointment and dejection that I could not handle these hurdles with grace and recognition of my overall good fortune. Though I do believe the children are wonderful (not perfect, of course, but terrific kids) I cannot take credit for their innate goodness, merely for the insecurities, weaknesses and meltdowns that I feel I should be able to control.

My mom was horrified when we discussed this situation last week, and rushed to reassure me about my fitness as a mom, ready to list a hundred good qualities for every negative I mentioned. How valuable that is as a parent – to get support and recognition of the things you do right! Unfortunately, it is also rare. I find that constantly beating myself up and focusing on my negative attributes does not lead to a positive shift in the mood of the house. Though I certainly know what I need to correct, I create an atmosphere of negativity and frustration rather than an atmosphere of relaxation and joy. When I saw the quote above, I took issue with it. I still take issue with it: most women I know do not stress their virtues but instead focus on their failures. Is this a gender difference or a difference between politicians and voters?

Of course, as with anything in life, a balanced approach would be best. We need to be aware of our failures so that we can learn from them and progress toward our better selves. However, we also need to work from our strengths, using our positive energy to generate momentum and atmosphere. In this we need loved ones – friends and family – to remind us that we are ‘very special’ and that our efforts are unique and valuable. By employing our talents (after remembering that we have some!) we can do good things and feel better about ourselves. As many of us know from weight loss and exercise efforts, you can’t do your best when you feel down on yourself – you operate best from a position of strength and self-worth. I’ll be searching for that vantage point today . . .and calling my mom for an occasional reminder!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Belated Spring Wishes

“Spring is Christ, raising martyred plants from their shrouds.”

–Rumi, “Spring is Christ”

A belated happy Easter and happy spring wishes to all, and apologies for being absent for several weeks. In the three weeks since our hyacinths first poked their heads out of the ground we have suffered through a nasty stomach virus that hit everyone in the family and laid waste to my children’s digestive tracts. Though it provided just a glimpse of the fear that some families wrestle with on a daily basis as their children fight illness, it was still traumatic for the children and for us. Despite having endless time on my hands as we rattled around the house, trapped by the requirement of a short radius to the lavatory, I could not write, read anything difficult, or indeed harness two functioning brain cells together for any higher-order task.

Celebrating the Easter holiday yesterday with an outdoor egg hunt felt revolutionary, though allowing the children a smidgen of candy and watching them run around raised faint echoes of hysteria in my psyche. My son has “recovered” and roused his energy levels and his appetite four times during this bug only to succumb to horrible bouts of illness from both ends as his system rebelled. Thankfully, I am writing early in the morning after a rare night of good sleep for all and feel confident that the children will finally make an appearance at school (knock wood).

In the last several weeks as I wrestled with huge loads of laundry and measured countless teaspoons of Pedialyte I have had cause to be grateful for the many conveniences and luxuries that I have. Though fearful at the weight loss I watched in my children I know I have access to grocery stores, medicine, clean water, hospitals if need be, washing machines, good shelter and clean clothes. I cannot imagine battling a gastrointestinal illness in a refugee camp or poor village without any of the above. Watching the destructive path of this illness I could believe that diarrhea kills 1.5 million children in the developing world each year (UN statistic, article http://www.philstar.com/Article.aspx?articleid=514392). I am on the lookout for a good rehydration salts distribution program if anyone can recommend one. We need to provide a donation.

During the lengthy rotation of sick and sleepless nights provided by the illness of three children and a husband I caught a glimpse into the perpetual turmoil and worry that must surround a very ill child, and I send prayers to the families and children journeying on this difficult road. You all deserve medals for your mettle, indeed (www.medals4mettle.org). Tag-teaming with my husband through the night as one parent cleaned and consoled a child while the other raced up and down with armfuls of towels and bedding for the washer, carpet cleaner, rags and clean sheets, we could only imagine what endurance and calm it would take to sustain similar efforts through a marathon rather than a sprint. Routine is a blessing, and mundanity can be profound.

In the midst of turmoil we did have a joyful blessing arrive by way of our new nephew and cousin. The little one was born half a country away but felt so close in our hearts as we celebrated his healthy birth with his wonderful parents, who kept us updated via the modern marvels of Facebook and digital photos. The happy tidings felt like an early Easter blessing – new life and hope arriving at the end of a dark period, promising the end of winter and a new start. We wish them joy and peace - and boundless good health.