The Treat

Twas’ deep within the very depths of searing August heat,
A little one, with little coin, in search of sweet relief.

Accompanied by sisters three the youngest pressed onward,
Seeking some familiarity ‘twixt walls of stone and wood.

They wandered grand halls, smoked and dark, searching for a sign.
Baskins, was what they had sought. Friendly’s, they did find.

They had arrived.

Brown eyes big and open wide, she stared upon the counter’s shine.
“So what will our young poppet try?” asked Sam, his smile benign

With voice devoid of warmth or cheer the counterman orated
“Honey, Almond, Strawberry, Peanut Butter?” He waited.

She shook her head.

“Maple Mint, or Blueberry? Marshmallow? Pistachio?
An old standard perhaps is best: Chocolate, No?”

The little one’s head nodded, a’ quivering in fright.
Too many choices bothered her, her face was chilled and white.

Lo, Sam’s transact was not complete, he had uncertainties:
on sugar cone or merely plain; and lastly add jimmies?

Then, they were Done.

The little girl, soundlessly, traded coin for treat.
The little girl, boundlessly, found an open seat.

The little girl, wordlessly, lifted cone to teeth.
The little girl, carelessly, licked the underneath.

Baby Sister, helplessly, saw her treat hit floor.
Eldest Sister, thoughtlessly, laughed and laughed some more.

The Little Death

“Society is held together by our need; we bind it together with legend, myth, coercion, fearing that without it we will be hurled into that void, within which, like the earth before the Word was spoken, the foundations of society are hidden.” ~ James Arthur Baldwin

People enjoy a well-told story. The better the narrative, the more likely the tale will be believed. Like Tinkerbell and the clapping of little hands, repetition can revive a narrative, regardless of all evidence to the contrary, thus granting it new life. In this unprecedented age of mass media indoctrination, coupled with near-instantaneous communication across the globe, a small nugget of truth grows into a full-sized mountain, and slides down upon us. Perhaps the most important story of recent American politics is the existence of an “imminent threat” posed by countries far from our borders, on the other side of the world.

“One cannot let dangers grow to the point of imminent threat to the United States without taking action. And if other measures fail, obviously we retain to right to use force.” ~ Stephen Hadley

While much of the rest of the planet has suffered from the repeated destruction of persons and property on a large scale, on our “island” we enjoyed a sense of security. No missiles could reach our heartland. No bombers could drop their payload of death without appearing on constantly-monitored screens. Our international network of intelligence gatherers were in place to insure our security. We trusted our government. It took care of us.

On 9/11, as the American public has had pounded into their collective heads, “the world changed.”

“On September 11 2001, America felt its vulnerability even to threats that gather on the other side of the Earth. We resolved then, and we are resolved today, to confront every threat from any source that could bring sudden terror and suffering to America.” ~ George W. Bush

Fear is an amazing motivator. If you keep a population fearful and uncertain, you have control of them. Simply offer reassurances and protection from that which goes bump in the night. Thousands of people lost their lives in a coordinated attack on American soil. A great deal of effort has gone into using those deaths, promoting the fear that it could happen again.

“An element of exaggeration clings to the popular judgment: great vices are made greater, great virtues greater also; interesting incidents are made more interesting, softer legends more soft.” ~ Walter Bagehot

The administration of 2001, Democrats and Republicans, went into Afghanistan to remove public enemy number one: Osama Bin Ladin. He remains at large, a continuing threat. Our soldiers still to hunt for him, while the warlords grow their poppies and the women hide their faces. Armed with the sure knowledge possible existence of weapons of mass destruction, the United States collected allies and then invaded Iraq. The goal was to take out public enemy number two: Saddam Hussein.

Part of the “Axis of Evil,” Iraq has had its infrastructure destroyed (we can rebuild it) and its citizens killed (caught in the crossfire). Iran and North Korea are also on the big bad list. Each has the potential, we have been told, to create what other nations already have (and nearly all have given up): nuclear weapons.

“America must not ignore the threat gathering against us. Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof, the smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.” ~ George W. Bush

Our soldiers are amazing men and women who have volunteered to fight for our country. We count on our National Guard in times of disaster. They are dying, in ones and twos and threes in Iraq and Afghanistan, though this is rarely news lately. The military has been stretched thin, our Guard is not here. The drums of war continue to pound.

“No one is talking about invading Iran or taking military action against Iran.” ~ Jack Straw

“We’ve been very clear, the president, the secretary of state and others have made it very clear that the United States has no plans to invade or attack North Korea.” ~ Sean McCormack

Of course the administration claims no plans to take on another country. Between the lack of support internationally and the thinness of our current forces, we could not sustain a third front. More importantly, there is no imminent threat. In fact, there is a great deal of evidence against active nuclear weapon development in the countries we have been told to fear. The American public is still nervous, but we are not stupid. We realize now that the troops in Iraq should come home, that there is little to fear from Iran, North Korea, or any of the other countries who might “hate our freedom.”

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” ~ Franklin D. Roosevelt

It is a myth that we must constantly live in a terror-level orange society. We have given up lives, liberties, and even the pursuits of happiness because the-powers-that-be have decreed we must be fearful of an attack from the shadows.

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear… And when it is gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear is gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” ~ Frank Herbert

The Invisible People

I walked home last evening, flushed with the pleasure that comes from a great new hair cut and a beauty makeover. I had my Macy’s bag full of new Clinique skin care products, swinging back and forth in time with my steps. I felt on top of the world.

The man struggled with his cart. He had the entirety of his belongings with him: a moving dolly loaded with old blankets, flattened cardboard boxes, a milk crate stuffed with clothing, and plastic bags of every sort dangling precariously from the stretch-cords he used to hold everything in place. The man was trying to cross from one side of the street to the other, but as the signal light changed, he was still in the traffic lane. A group of women, waiting to cross with the other light, completely blocked his path.

The well-dressed women, designer hand bags adorning their shoulders and wool coats protecting them from the increasingly chilly wind, stepped off the curb. The man pushed, but he had lost his momentum. He stepped backwards, further into the oncoming traffic. Grunting, he shoved hard, but his cart stubbornly refused to go over a raised spot on the sidewalk. People walked around him, completely unaware of his distress.

I reached down to help him. He smiled, a nearly toothless smile, and waved me on. I realized he was not an old man, as I originally believed, but a hard life was written on his young face. After making sure he was finally out of harm’s way, I continued towards home.

My husband Matt has a corporate law job which pays, in his words, “an obscene amount of money.” We have a fantastic apartment, right in downtown DC. If I stand in the right spot, I can see the top of the capital dome. Hard work, and a bit of luck, has brought me to this place where I can indulge in the best restaurants occasionally, spoil myself with Starbucks daily, and worry rarely about our financial status.

I have one of those invisible disabilities, one which could just have easily landed me on the street, homeless. Early in my relationship with Matt, we were less than a paycheck away from being out on the street many times, but we always managed to find a way to work things out. Not everyone is as lucky as we were.

The young woman stood on the corner across from Union Station, a small child beside her. The people coming and going from the busy train station flowed around her, parting like ocean waves around an outcropping of sand. She asked, again and again, for a small bit of change, a cigarette, something, anything… but there was no acknowledgment that she had even spoken. I caught her eye and smiled. Her lips tried to match mine, but sadness and desperation filled her eyes. I handed her a couple of singles from my pocket, and told her I wished I had something more.

Washington, DC, our nation’s capital, is filled with invisible people. The homeless live in the shadows of churches. They sleep near subway grates where warm air rushes out with the passing of trains below. They build homes of cardboard back under the brush of abandoned lots, and they look forward to the van that circles the city each night, handing out hot meals.

My secret shopping assignment was to visit a Popeye’s Restaurant. I had a specific list of food items to buy, and a lengthy form to complete for my experience with the staff. As I made my way home, carrying the bag of food, I passed a grizzled old man, dressed in layers of torn T-shirts, pushing a Safeway shopping cart. There were no groceries in the cart, only empty plastic bottles, rags, newspapers and and worn plastic bags of every sort. I asked him if he would be interested in some fresh chicken and potatoes, still warm. His face lit up. “I haven’t had Popeye’s in months, Ma’am,” he replied, eying my bag. “Bless you. Yes, please!” I handed him the bag, and as I walked away, I could heard him make “mmmmm” sounds as he began to eat.

During the holiday season, news stories encourage (or more often, applaud) actions to help feed those who do not have enough to eat and help provide clothes, blankets, life essentials. When the weather grows colder, there may be an article about overflowing shelters. Missing from the mainstream media outlets are stories of police harassment, fences installed to wall off sanctuaries, deliberate beatings, rampant theft of what little property remains, and so on.

The vignettes above are of my own experiences. The homeless and needy of DC do have a small voice, a newspaper called Street Sense. It provides a chance to earn a small bit of money. It is an opportunity for self-expression through writing: news articles, personal statements, and even poetry. I highly recommend it.

Poverty and homelessness are not only current “holiday” events, they are constant and ongoing events. Those affected are so invisible that what passes for local news ignore them; just like the stream of consumers, executives, and tourists that parts around them on the street. This lack of notice borders on inhumane treatment of fellow humans. The government spends billions a day on an increasingly unpopular war, promises aid to foreign countries, and yet cuts the budget again and again for social services here at home.

So, the next time a homeless person approaches for a handout, take a moment to count life’s blessings. They may be invisible to most, but they are still people. Respect their experience, their situations; do not jump to conclusions. Let them know, in some small way, that they can be seen, they can be heard.

There but for the Grace of G*d, go [I]. ~ John Bradford

A Search For Meaning

During my childhood years, my Roman Catholic mother would insist that everyone, including my Protestant, divorced-and-remarried father, dress appropriately for Mass. To me, “appropriately” meant something other than blue jeans and bare feet. She insisted that I at least wear a skirt. I knew the promise of a treat afterward was a bribe, but I did not mind. I almost always had a paperback book with me anyway. We usually went to hear Mass on Saturday night, at Saint John’s Church, more than forty-five minutes away. Several people I knew from school were usually there. Talking was forbidden until the service was over and the congregation had filed down the stairs to the cement-floored hall in the basement. There, we kids would drink punch and eat cookies while the adults discussed whatever it was boring adults talked about.

We always said grace before a meal; even the punch and cookies counted.

Bless us, O Lord, and these your gifts, which we are about to receive from your bounty.
Through Christ our Lord.

Amen.

I was a bit rebellious at times, especially where religion was concerned. I did not like the idea that I should not talk to G*d myself; that I had to have a priest, a middleman do it for me. While many of the stories were entertaining, the whole resurrection thing did not make sense. The more questions I asked, the more I got into trouble. I learned to keep my doubts to myself.

Belief in truth begins with doubting all that has hitherto been believed to be true.
~ Friedrich Nietzsche

To please my mother, I went through all the ceremonies, sacraments, and rites of passage that a young, baptised, Catholic girl would do: First Communion, First Confession, and Confirmation. My Confirmation ceremony was the last time I attended that church regularly. I remember asking my mother if she was happy. She had tears in her eyes; she was so proud. In my white dress and white strappy sandles that were just a little too tight, I asked her if this really made me an adult. When she agreed, I said, “That means I can choose to not ever come back, if I want to. Right?”

I went outside and waited by the family station wagon until she was ready to leave.

Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.
~ Dr. Seuss

I spent the next ten years searching for spirituality, trying on religions like clothing, checking for a good fit. Were the sleeves of ritual too restrictive? Did the foundation feel solid? Each ceremony I attended, every learned person I met with, they all encouraged me not to question. I should accept on faith that G*d was out there, watching over me, judging and grading me. This did not compute in my analytical brain.

Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.
~ Albert Einstein

Eventually, I had the great fortune to meet a Rabbi, who asked me to call him Billy. In his congregation, questioning was encouraged. I attended services nearly every Friday night. Billy would tell stories to illustrate that particular evening’s message, but there was no fire-and-brimstone. I learned through conversations with him, and with others, that the point is not to worry about the afterlife, but to focus on this life. When I questioned my existence, the answer was simple: Tikkun Olam. I was here to make the world a better place. When the congregation met after services, it wasn’t for milk and cookies. We shared a meal together, and it was as though we were all family.

Barukh atah Adonai Elohaynu melekh ha-olam
ha-motzi lechem min ha-aretz.
(Amen)

I converted to Reform Judaism and married my husband under the chuppa that we put together ourselves. That was many years ago. I have moved several times, and while I am not affiliated with any synagogue now, I am Jewish. I pray each year to be inscribed into the Book of Life. I occasionally whisper ha-mozti, the blessing over bread. I light my menorah. I remember when the rabbi came to Purim dressed as Garth, and I smile.

Though I am still searching, still questioning, I know that I am in the right place for now.

When you rise in the morning, give thanks for the light, for your life, for your strength.
Give thanks for your food and for the joy of living.
If you see no reason to give thanks, the fault lies in yourself.
~ Tecumseh

Refuge of a Child

I remember the scent of the fresh-water marshes. Decomposing vegetation, wild roses, pine trees, and salt-laden breezes drifting back from the ocean filled my nose. It was not unpleasant; it was quite the contrary. Even today the scent transports me back to one of my safest refuges: the willow tree. My father, in an attempt to help bring my mother out of her most recent depression, purchased a large farmhouse when I was barely six years old. Our old home had been a tiny thing. Three little girls shared a largish attic bedroom, while the newest sister slept in my parents bedroom. The new house seemed like a mansion to us, with a separate bedroom for each girl, a kitchen that seemed larger than the entire first floor of our old house, a formal living room and an informal one too.

Life at this time was not good for us. My mother was in the hospital for a long time, and my father brought in friends to help care for his four daughters, a mere six years between the eldest and the youngest. The farmhouse, with its great barn, needed a lot of work. Our heat that first year was almost exclusively a wood stove in the kitchen. There were many mornings, in the coldest parts of winter, when I awoke to find ice in the drink I had left out the night before.

We girls did not know it, but we were very poor; living on soy burgers before they were popular and drinking powdered milk for our bulk, generic cereal. What we did have, though, was land: four acres to farm and explore. Our property line was a stream that ran through the marsh, wrapping around the back, and finally intersecting the road used to access a commercial chicken coop. On a small outcrop of land, overhanging the marsh grasses and cat tails, was an enormous willow tree.

My neighbor next door told me once that the tree had been planted there when the house was built, more than 200 years before. While the house had been through not one, but two fires, the tree had thrived. It had a central trunk that took three of the sisters, holding hands, to encircle. There was a fork about five feet from the ground, and two great branches grew out from either side. I fell off the larger of the two branches when I was thirteen and broke a rib, but that is a story for another time.

The great willow had eventually budded a child, a smaller tree a mere fifteen feet from the enormous base. This younger tree was still old enough to have a trunk that my six-year-old-arms could not wrap around. It was my friend, my companion, during the more difficult days of my childhood. I could not climb the mama, the mammoth tree, when I first met her. I could, however escape up into the branches of the smaller one, hidden from the house, hidden from the painful things that awaited me there.

One part of my tree had been damaged in a long-past storm. The nook that resulted held my most prized possessions: a metal lunch box containing a my latest reading book, a small pad of paper for sketching, an assortment of pencils, and my imagination. I would climb into the tree and watch the marsh. I taught myself to recognize the calls of the various birds that hunted there, and I would try to mimic them. I read my book. I drew what I could see. Sometimes, I just sat silent, listening to the world around me. I drank deeply of the scents of water and mud and ocean air, and I was safe.

The last time I visited my parents, for they still live in this house thirty-five years later, the old mama tree had been wounded during the most recent tropical storm. One of the major branches had come down, and she looked ill. Her child, though, had grown even bigger and stronger, though the waters of the marsh washed over the roots when it rained. I can finally climb the giant willow, but it will always be her child that I love best.