One Love

Why can’t we all just get along?

I’m tired of hearing about yet another senseless killing of an innocent black man. I’m dumbfounded that, as advanced as Americans are in science and technology, many are still psychologically stunted in the Jim Crow era. 

We know that racism is learned and not innate. There are examples everywhere that show how young children don’t even see the color of ones skin. So I began to wonder, when exactly, does this happen? Of course, if a family is racist, it begins at birth. But what about children born to more progressive parents? Or mixed families? In my case I can tell you exactly when it happened.

My son grew up in a diverse neighborhood. Our neighbors were white, black, Indian, and Asian. He played together with all the children in the tot lot behind our townhouses. Children of all races were welcomed in my home. My black neighbor, Kevin, who lived across the street was a very dear friend of mine and often came over to hang out. He was only known as “Kevin” even though he lived with a white man with the same name. It was very important to me that my son not grow up identifying people by the color of their skin or the shape of their eyes. 

I enrolled him in Montessori school. One day I picked him up from kindergarten and he said, with genuine curiosity, “Mom, did you know Kevin is black?” “Yes,” I said, “I know that. How do you know that?” I tried not to show my fury as he told me, that at 5 years old, he learned it during Black History Month. 

It’s not that I object to learning about the important contributions of blacks in history. In fact, it’s absolutely vital. My objection is that, by segregating it we are perpetuating race divide. Once we start saying ‘African American,’ ‘Asian American,’ etc., we immediately identify them as different from us. Aren’t we all just Americans? With so many mixed race people, I wouldn’t dare make the assumption that someone is African American or any other kind of American. By having a Black History Month we are minimizing the importance of other races as well. The USofA was built on the backs of, and with the blood and sweat from, people from around the world. Why can’t we just teach our children about people along with their photos? Why is there a need to categorize them? It’s their story, the ability to overcome and conquer despite the discrimination they faced and the injustices they endured, that are what’s important. It’s possible to say why they were discriminated against without attributing a color or race to it. Even whites were prejudiced against because they were Irish, or Polish, or whatever. For a long time, Italians weren’t even considered “white.”

I understand the inequity in the representation of important contributions by African Americans. I respect that until there was an uproar demanding inclusion, until 1976, history books in this country were very monochromatic. I get that bias is skewed not only in American history classes but also in current society, although it continues to improve. Black people need role models that look like them, that they can look up to and be inspired by. But, so do girls,  Latinos, Asians, and every other ethnic group. 

To me, what is most important is that the whole history is taught. Roots should be required to watch in middle school. I had black friends my entire life and when I watched it at nine years old, I was mortified that people were so cruel and could do such unspeakable things to one another. And all because of the color of their skin! It made me cry and angry and ask questions. It definitely impacted me. The atrocities that whites inflicted upon others needs to be ingrained and taught as a lesson on how not to behave. Just as with the holocaust.

It’s not healthy to dwell on the past, but it is important that it isn’t forgotten, or skewed, either. It’s equally important to teach about the brave, everyday people that protested the savagery and helped others regardless of their race, religion, or gender. Examples of coexistence and team work should be emphasized. It wasn’t until recent years when I learned that it was the Chinese who built the railroads in much of this country. They lived in atrocious conditions and were treated not much better than slaves. And what about the Jews and Native Americans? Disturbingly, history books are repeatedly being rewritten. Recently, the Native American atrocity, Trail of Tears was rewritten to soften the horrific episode. I don’t even remember learning about Wounded Knee in school. To this day we oppress, kill, and rob the Native Americans for their land–and make no mistake about it, it’s ALL their land. Then there’s Christopher Columbus who is celebrated as a hero when, actually, he was a merciless brute. 

Perhaps, if Americans were taught the whole, raw truth about how this country became so ‘great’ people wouldn’t be so proud to be American. Maybe they’d be more empathetic. Maybe fewer caucasians would identify the country as, ‘white Christian being taken over by foreigners.’ Of course that would be counter-productive to our leaders who use patriotism to send us to fight battles of greed, both at home and abroad, that they wouldn’t let their own children fight. Divide and conquer. John Lennon’s Imagine comes to mind. I’m getting off-topic now. 

How would my son’s and the next generations behave toward one another if schools just taught about important people and not separate them by skin color or gender? Would Ahmaud Arbery, Randy Evans, Stephon Clark, and the countless other innocents still be alive? Why was a bomb dropped on MOVE but not on Waco? I still wonder, if it weren’t for Black History Month, how long would it have been before my son learned that some of his friends were “black” and, therefore, dissimilar from him? It’s an inevitable consequence as it creates an awareness that didn’t exist before. And once you’re aware, you can’t be unaware. I think, “tainting the well” is an apt turn of phrase here. It was something that he hadn’t noticed up to that point in his life and I feel that the education system robbed him of a part of his purity. We can do better than this. We have to because all lives matter. 

A Stitch in Time

This morning, when I finished my shower, the tub was filled with water. It was still draining, but very slowly. I decided to give my dad a project (he loves to have projects to do). As he plunged the drain in the bathtub, the toilet started to gurgle up the funky water from the pipe between it and the tub. So he took the plunger to the toilet. He was nearly working up a sweat as he repeatedly worked to clear the bathroom channels. Suddenly, loud gurgling sounds could be heard from the kitchen sink. 

A little hair had come up from the bathtub drain but not an amount that would cause a blockage like that. As I watched this whole process unfold, I realized that this was a metaphor for  life’s problems. Although the tub was where the matter surfaced, the cause went much deeper. Just as the tub still functioned, but not at full capacity, when something is troubling us, we often find ourselves going through the motions, our verve gone. At first we might think those few surface hairs, or irritants, are the real problem, but, as often is the case, the problem is much bigger and goes deeper than we want to admit. 

The clog started a couple months ago but it was minimal, so I ignored it. After a month it was much worse, and I meant to tell my father about it before I left the country for a month, but I’d been busy and distracted, and never got around to it. When I came back, I found the problem hadn’t gone away even though I had. Just as the junk preventing free flow through the pipes didn’t miraculously disappear because I was busy and went away, our problems don’t go away either, no matter how much we ignore or run away from them. But I was exhausted from travel and didn’t feel like dealing with it. A few days later the clog was so bad I couldn’t ignore it. Finally, I told my dad about it. 

My father, despite an advanced degree, is old school and believes in fixing all things himself. Only when he’s tried everything, and the problem persists, does he admit it’s beyond his abilities and call a professional. So, after working on the clog for twenty minutes without success, he went to the hardware store to buy a small snake. That didn’t work either. So he went back and bought a bigger snake. Still no resolve. He made yet another trip to the store for some chemical product to dissolve the gunk. Fortunately that did work because the next step would have been a call to an expensive plumber (is there any other kind). Had I said something when I first realized there was a problem, he probably would have been able to fix it in ten minutes. Instead, it took two hours, three trips to the hardware store, and XX dollars before this problem was resolved.

Our problems are like that. We ignore them, push them down and pretend they don’t exist until they make their presence known by manifesting in our relationships or our health. They show up as anger and impatience, or in our bodies through things like skin conditions, fatigue, depression, stomach ailments, high blood pressure, and more. Eventually we have to go to therapists or doctors to help us fix ourselves. Or maybe we don’t and our relationships end or our health declines.

Just as strange noises in our cars prompt us to immediately take them to the mechanic to avoid a complete breakdown or more expensive repair, many issues in our life would cease to exist if we addressed them as soon as they come up. Ninety-five percent of the time, “address them” means simply, honest communication. If we did this, advice columnists would be out of business. Because most people don’t knowingly behave in annoying or hurtful ways, many “problems” are often one-sided. For example, say a colleague at work creates, what they think are, cute nicknames for everyone. Some people love theirs, but you hate yours. Is it easier to say to this person at the outset, “Look, I don’t like nicknames. Please call me by my given name,” or ignore it until it catches on and people from outside the office start calling you that? If your partner has an annoying habit that makes you insane, how do you address it after they’ve been doing it the entire three years you’ve been together? Wouldn’t it have been easier to communicate your feelings as soon as you realized you couldn’t stand it? By not doing so, it can grow to seem like a mountainous obstacle and slowly chip away at your relationship.  

Nobody likes confrontation, especially when the other person is really nice. Addressing items early on, from a place of love, prevents situations from escalating into problems. There’s a reason why roommates have house rules, companies develop employee handbooks, and the military enforces codes of conduct. When people know what the boundaries are, they will behave accordingly. If they don’t, they understand there will be consequences. 

One way to help prevent machines from breaking down is to perform regular preventive maintenance. This could be changing air filters, greasing parts, or cleaning motors. People also need preventive maintenance. This can look like vigorous exercise, healthy eating, and daily mediation. If we take care of ourselves, physically and mentally, we’ll be in a better, stronger state to deal with things as soon as they come up.

We all have a toolbox, it’s just a matter of finding the right tools to do the job. If you don’t have the right tools, you can acquire new ones. Book stores, the internet, and confidantes can all provide resources to help you tackle your difficulties. When you can’t find the right tool, or the problem is too big for you to handle, bigger than your toolbox, it’s ok to ask for help from an experienced professional with a bigger box and a larger variety of tools that have been tried and tested. It’s always okay to ask for help. We aren’t born with all the answers.

Unlike in the plumbing example, in life we can’t just pass the torch and expect someone else deal with our problems. We have to take responsibility and deal with them ourselves. And its easier to do that before they become seemingly insurmountable. As the adage goes, a stitch in time saves nine, so nip situations in the bud and enjoy life more.

A Book Review: Strength in What Remains—A journey of remembrance and forgiveness by Tracy Kidder

I picked up this book because I liked the title. I didn’t know anything about it. I was at a difficult time in my life, hoping to find in it a prescription, a telling transfer of wisdom that would enable me to reach that dark place in my psyche and bring it into the light. It was the last, lingering bit of darkness but it seemed to overshadow my life. But how do you forgive someone who isn’t remorseful and doesn’t ask for your forgiveness? What I found with this book was something completely different altogether.

Strength in What Remains is a biography, originally published in 2009 however, I found it incredibly relevant to our current political/humanitarian attitude. Although not a gripping read, it’s well written in a matter-of-fact style with enough history to educate but not so much to bore. On the surface, it is a story about a young man, Deo, with big dreams to become a doctor and build a hospital in his village. But because of the Hutu-Tutsi conflict in Burundi and Rwanda he immigrated from Burundi to the United States in 1994, at the age of 24. The second oldest of eight, son of a farmer and cattle owner, he was raised in a hut on the mountainside without shoes, electricity or running water; a place where people often couldn’t afford to purchase a pinch of salt. His family, one of the wealthier in the village, slept on straw mats on a dirt floor of a wooden hut with a thatched roof. The children that were able to go to school had to walk “three long descents and three steep climbs away.” But he loved learning and did well in school, always making top marks. This enabled him to continue on to middle and high school and eventually post secondary school where he began his studies to become a doctor.

Deo was born in a peaceful time and raised not knowing that people were different. He didn’t understand what Hutus and Tutsis were or how or why they were different. It was a distinction that the Belgians had made significant during their colonial rule, in order to divide and conquer, leaving the country in a mess in their wake. To him, everyone in his village had, more or less, the same living conditions. It wasn’t until his teen years that the brewing tensions began to resurface.

He was an intern in a hospital when Hutus came in shooting and burned the hospital down. In that instant his life changed forever. Over the next several months he witnessed and lived through inconceivable horrors: horrors of hearing the screams and cries of people being murdered and the terrifying silence that followed; of smelling the burning flesh of innocent men, women and children who were trapped in schools, hospitals, and churches as they were set on fire; of seeing stray dogs dragging away human body parts to eat; of slinking along under the cover of a forested river with so many bodies floating in it they caused a dam. He walked hundreds of miles, completely alone, hungry, without clean water to drink, with infected wounds, intestinal worms, and a raging foot fungus, fearful that any human encounter would mean certain death. He walked and walked and only once, when he was ready to give up, did he find kindness in a stranger. It was a woman who was “a mother first” and insisted on helping him get to the safety of a nearby, albeit over crowded and dirty, refugee camp. He would move from one camp to another, fearing to stay put too long. When things quieted for a bit, with the help of friends, he made it to New York, knowing how to speak only Burundi and French.

Just because he was in this country didn’t mean that his life was grand. Deo managed to survive by working a modern day slave labor job, sleeping in Central Park and making every effort to learn English. For years, night terrors kept him from sleeping, or even wanting to sleep. He was mistrustful of people, fearing to talk about what he’d been through. Sadness in the thought that his family had been killed and he’d survived, was often too much to bear. It was only through kindness and compassion of strangers that he managed to thrive in this country. A former nun, and eventually a childless couple whose experience of living in Nairobi had so greatly impacted their views of the world, that they found it in their hearts to take him in. Because these people believed in him, gave him the support and encouragement worthy of every human being, in two years he managed to get into Columbia University and was on the track to become a doctor.

But sometimes our dreams don’t turn out how we want. Red tape prevented Deo from going to med school and instead he got a job at a non-profit organization that built health care systems in some of the worlds poorest and sickest countries. He worked several different positions in the organization, always pushing for a wood hospital to be built in his remote village in Burundi. Although they wouldn’t take it on they encouraged him to do it and gave him whatever support he needed. So he did. With the knowledge he’d gained and the help of the local villagers, overcoming a multitude of obstacles, they eventually built a hospital that consisted of three buildings, had running water, a solar powered 10 KW electrical system, medical equipment, ten beds, thirty-three community healthcare workers, and twenty thousand patients a year. They provided free health care and inexpensive supplies and drugs for the most pressing diseases of the area—AIDS, TB, malaria and intestinal worms, among other things. Sometimes our hopes turn out better than we ever dreamed.

There are so many things to take away from this.

For me, because history in school bored me, I learned the least I had to to pass, so this a was shocking discovery. I’m not referring to the atrocities that occurred, as those I remember well from news articles I read as a young adult, but the level of evil and inhumanity inflicted on millions of unsuspecting, trusting people by modern European governments which I had, for so long, revered. While I want to believe most of them seem to be trying to atone for their past by doing good today, citizens need to keep a sharp eye on their leaders and make sure they don’t backslide. And we, the educated and privileged, have a responsibility to humanity to do what we can to make sure these atrocities don’t continue.

Not all of this is history. Modern day slavery still exists in the US and around the world, it’s just changed its appearance. No longer is it blacks hunkered down in fields with a white straw boss supervising, whip in hand. Now, it’s hundreds of thousands of people in America, (millions world wide) whose passports have been taken away and are forced to work long hours without breaks, benefits, or pay. Slave labor in America today looks like domestic help, farmers, restaurant workers, and nail manicurists. Let us not forget the women and children forced into sex servitude; these are not only immigrants but often abducted children and teens, girls and boys.

What happened in in Burundi and Rwanda is not much different from what is happening with Syria and Venezuela today. People that leave their countries to escape violence and starvation do so as a last resort. Most of them would prefer to stay with their family and friends in the place that they call home, but to do so means death, literally. Flight is one of the human psyches instinctive survival reactions.

In a country where the commander in chief encourages racism, hatred and violence, I think this book is an important reminder of what incredible good people from “shit hole countries” can do when given the opportunity. Most people in this country couldn’t imagine life without every whim of theirs being instantly satisfied. It’s not just the younger generations, either. I can say this with confidence because, back in the early 1990’s I worked in a hotel, and the amount of people that had to be compensated in some form because they were “inconvenienced” made my stomach turn. To this day that word upsets me. That attitude of entitlement shows up as inability to compromise with others, impractical demands, a position of supremacy, and self-pity. This has trickled down to the next generations to a level of unbearable.

All is not lost though. This book also shows how acts of kindness can literally change the world. The generosity and hospitality of a few in New York affected the health of hundreds of thousands in Africa. None of us can make it in this world alone. Everyone who is working or successful is there because someone took a chance on them. Someone believed in them. Never underestimate the value of a kind gesture and never pass up a chance to help another. Remember: Weak people put others down, strong people lift them up.

While I didn’t get the self-help I was seeking, I did get an awakening. It was a reminder of how small my problems are compared to those of others. Things may not always go the way I want but it doesn’t mean I should quit trying. Most importantly, it reiterated how everyone deserves respect. We don’t know the hell others have been through and everyone deserves kindness and compassion. All humans are all capable of good and evil. When we lead with our hearts, perhaps we can encourage more people to build schools and hospitals instead of shooting up schools and sending people to hospitals.

I Was Almost Murdered

If you’ve been following my blog, you know that I fight for the underdog. Apparently I do it even if they’re not around. I guess that’s because I’m all about the principle.

When I’m not traveling I’ve been staying in Florida with my dad. Not the cool, beach-y, touristy Florida that has trendy bars and restaurants on every street, but the middle-of-nowhere, surrounded-by-strip-malls-and-highways, Florida. It’s where Floridians live. I’m not a fan of Florida. It’s too hot, humid, flat, sandy, and buggy. I have no plans to stay here for long so I don’t have any interest in making friends. Besides, most people around here aren’t people I’d be interested in knowing anyhow. I know that sounds harsh but the redneck stereotype is alive and well here. 

There’s a house down the road where the confederate flag hangs in the garage next to where a pickup truck sits. Everytime I see it I want to set it on fire. I won’t, of course, but it’s a fantasy that makes me smile. Knowing these things about me, the following event should come as no surprise. 

I was driving to a BBQ stand one night to buy some smoked salmon for dinner when I saw a massive, black, pickup truck driven by two white boys with baseball caps and a giant confederate flag waving proud on a pole in the back. It was one of those moments when I wished I believed in guns and exactly why I’ll never own one. Instead, I gave them the finger as I drove past. My tinted car windows were rolled up because the AC was on so I didn’t know if they’d even seen me, but apparently they had. Their window was down and they gave it right back as they overtook me. I passed them again, smiled as I held up my middle finger again, and continued to my destination. 

I got out, went to the window and paid for my order. As I turned around to go back to my car, I noticed the racist rednecks had followed me. They sped off as I got into my car, fishtailing on the gravel surface. I was a bit taken aback but pretended that I didn’t even see them. Then I smiled to myself that I’d rattled those bullies so much by that one little gesture that they felt the need to try to intimidate me, had I taken notice of them. 

No, I wasn’t actually almost murdered, but this is the South. It’s loaded with ignorant rednecks that like to drink cheap beer and brandish the confederate flag while driving their pickup trucks with shotguns in the back. So, I could have been almost murdered. 🙂 

I’m not going to apologize to the millions of people that live in Florida. If I offended you it’s probably because the shoe fits. If I didn’t, it’s because you know I’m right. 

The Bahamas Need More Than Prayers

Freeport, Grand Bahama September 3, 2019
AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa

Watching the weather map and how category 5 Hurricane Dorian just hovered over the Bahamas has made my stomach drop. For over 24-hours the Grand Bahama and Abaco Islands were pummeled with 180+ mph winds and feet of torrential rains that flooded homes and streets. When you’re on an island, where are you supposed to go to escape? You just can’t! Best you can hope for is survival. As I write this, Dorian has been downgraded to a category 2 and has finally, albeit very slowly, left the Islands. But the damage is done. 

So what’s next? It won’t be until the waters subside in a week that the full extent of the damage and death toll will be known, but this much is for certain: trees are ripped up, homes, schools are destroyed, and water sources are contaminated. There won’t be electricity or fresh produce for a very long time. It will take years, years, to recover. 

Fortunately(?) tourism industries have a financial interest in the Bahamas and I’m sure they will pour millions into it’s recovery, just as they did with Puerto Rico. Even with that, recovery will be slow. Two years, billions of dollars & hundreds of thousands of volunteer man-hours later and Puerto Rico is still recovering. 

While prayers are nice, they don’t really do much. What these people need are supplies and volunteers. In the coming weeks the government will decide if they want help, and if they do, organizations from around the world will mobilize to bring relief to the local people. Supplies of food, water, toiletries, feminine hygiene products will be in great demand. There will be a need for people with medical expertise, power line skills (to restore power), construction skills, and warm bodies to help distribute items. 

Of course not everyone can take the time to volunteer right now. If you live in Florida, check at the nearest airport. Many small plane pilots are working with organizations to fly supplies to Nassau where they are off-loaded and brought by boat to the affected islands. Besides needing supplies they may also need help sorting them. Or, you can always donate financially. It’s a great way to support those that can give their time. With so many causes vying for your dollars it can be hard to know which ones to donate to. While this isn’t a complete list, some organizations that have already committed to help are:

All Hands and Hearts (you can make a general donation or for a specific project)

Good 360

Agape Flights

Heart to Heart International

Too many choices? Weary about giving money? I completely understand. To help you decide, Charity Watch and Charity Navigator are great websites that rate the financial health and accountability & transparency of hundreds of US based non-profits. (Each of the above gets four stars.) You can even see the salaries of the organizations’ leaders, which may help sway your decision. 

You can either support the organizations directly through their websites or, if you know of someone that is going, consider donating through the fundraising sites that they set up (this should have a direct donation to the non-profit).

Keep in mind that recovery for these people will be going on for a long time. Consider planning your next (family) vacation to the island to help with construction efforts. Whatever you decide, thank you. Thank you for making the world a better place.