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“I told the students [….] that places were more reliable than human beings, and often much longer-lasting, and I asked them where they felt at home.”
― Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby
The flat open valley floor meets the mountains on the horizon both west and east and greets me with waving grasses, shows me rock formations that call out for climbing and standing on the look-out. The valley hides wet indentations where horses, grazing cattle, rabbits and deer quench their thirst. Light streaking from either side colors the grass, green in spring, yellow in summer and brown with snow tufts in winter. This place screams openness, emptiness, possibility. I love this place. Towering over this valley to the South sits Mt Shasta.
This summer I walked 14 days on the Pacific Crest Trail in a wide arc around this mountain, the tallest one (14,610 ft) of the Cascade range in Northern California, 50 miles south of the Oregon border. I walked with the spirit of the mountain as you might say, as she - I think of her as feminine, maybe because she is so accessible in a landscape of tree-covered ridges and grassy valleys - showed her white self on every ridge I climbed, and through openings in the woods where I hiked. The local Karuk Indians call Mt Shasta, Úytaahkoo, which translates to “White Mountain”.
On my two-week hike I encountered steep snowfields. Shasta mountain gave me back memories of climbing her steep sides and I remembered the techniques I needed to traverse what was in front of me. When the trail became confusing, the mountain helped me orient myself. When the sun was blazing on the ridge, Shasta looked at me from beyond the ridge with a cool white eye, reminding me that “this too will pass”. When I dunked my sweaty body in the glacier-melt McCloud river, I thanked the mountain’s year round snow cap, providing coolness. Mt Shasta is the epicenter, the umbilical cord of what I call “my place”. A place I chose after wandering around the planet for the first trimester of my life. A place where I raised a family. A place where I found community.
Why this place? Does the mountain have “a spirit” as the Karuk say? Does she call the ones to get to know her spirit? When it was time to choose a place for my family, I chose this place with a statistical approach, listing and rating the things I thought we wanted and needed. I thought myself smart and conscious in doing so. I didn’t know whatever place you choose doesn’t become “your” place until you spend time, shed sweat and tears, accept its good and bad, and slowly form a relationship that enters your bones. It took time to discover that Mt Shasta is the epicenter of the place I call home. I have walked this place when I felt overwhelmed, when I was distraught; I have walked when I was curious, in love, happy and hopeless.
I have walked and by walking I always find myself again, find the heart of what moves me forward in life. As I walk, breathe and carry, my life is reduced to the basics of living at two miles an hour at the base of a mountain that has spewed out the terrain I walk on. A mountain that supports plant and animal life with rivers that flow from her snowy peaks, a mountain that calls the rain and snow to her. I meet Mt. Shasta when I move about this place. I’m a visually oriented person; the mountains, vistas and light of this place bind me. Walking brings me to myself and walking around this mountain gives me a sense of place, my place.
For you, it maybe different. You may find your place because of the sounds, the smells, the food, or its people. Walk and meet the spirit of the place you can call yours!
My legs felt rubbery, and they were harder to lift over the rocks and unevenness of the trail. I missed the swinging rhythm of early morning hiking that always accompanies the coolness of the air, the soft yellow sunlight as it peers through the trees, and dances on the shrubs along the trail. It had been over twelve hours since I last had quenched my thirst to satisfaction. Last night when we found that the indicated water source on our GPS at mile 1519 of the PCT before our evening camp was inaccessible due to a steep snow bank, we had one liter of water between the two of us, given to us by a generous hiker going in the opposite direction. One liter to cook dinner with, re-hydrate through the night and walk the 5 miles to the next water source the next morning. Too tired to hike any further from a long day climbing uphill we made camp and used water sparingly to prepare our food. It was unusually warm that night as we camped on the ridge with sweeping views of Mt Scott to the North-East, the Trinities to the South and a glimpse of Castle Crags to the East. I slept fitfully, waking up sweaty multiple times. Take only a small sip at a time, I told myself, you need to save the water for walking.
Morning came early, we skipped our usual cup of tea and started out at 6:20 AM, one cup of water sloshing in a too big water bottle. What is it like to be thirsty, and walk while carrying a backpack? The interesting thing was that I could forget hunger while I hiked; in fact hiking reduces my hunger until I stop and rest. Being active didn’t make me forget that I was thirsty; expansive views didn’t take my mind of the tangy dry sensation in my mouth; focusing on placing my feet didn’t take away the rubbery, weak feeling in my legs. Should I take a sip now, or wait another half mile? Could I trick my body in thinking a little water will go a long way? I took another sip, it didn’t change the dryness in my mouth, it didn’t expand my breath into that feeling of “enough-ness” I get when I drink a pint at the end of day near a water source. A cup of water is not enough for 5 miles of hiking.
I hiked on slower, thinking of water rations, how I drink a liter for every 4 miles I hike, thinking about people walking in the desert to find water, the quiet slow submission of the body to heat and exhaustion. We stopped and checked our mileage, 3 miles down, 2 more to go. I saw rocks on the trail, bushes that hamper my progress, I felt the weight of the pack as a slow-down. I saw them as things that keep me from getting to water. I walked, my mind gyrating negatively. Half a cup of water will do that to you.
Distances change when your perception changes. You will become delirious when you’re deprived of water for too long. My perception was still in the normal range, I was aware of what I was thinking, I was letting myself have an experience, an experience of thirst. At mile 1514 a bubbling spring cascading down the rocks in a moist glen was the end of my experiment, which was only a beginning into the realms of thirst. One cup of water in twelve hours will go a long way.
Long distance backpacking isn’t about accomplishing miles for me, it’s about encountering the edges of my comfort zone. It’s about learning what and who I am at the edge. I am a person thirsty for experience, experiences of life that connect me with others and the world. This one cup of water got me a little closer to humans pictured in the requests for donations for hungry desert dwellers in the Sudan. Once cup of water put me on my edge.
Multiple terrorist attacks on innocent people in the last few weeks have shaken the world. In the wry and funny play, Mojada or Medea in Los Angeles, written by resident playwright Luis Alfaro for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a re-write of Euripides tragedy, Medea shakes up the audience. This is theater in its truest sense. The play is set in current time, in LA, among Mexican immigrants with an administration that scorns illegal immigrants. A timely piece you might say. The eery quality is that the story of Jason and Medea produced as a tragedy in 431 BC is relevant in our time. In the original play Jason in search of power, wealth and security for his offspring, forsakes the values of love and loyalty. In a male dominated society the woman treated as a slave or possession has no power but her love, her cunning and her revenge. Each of the main characters in the play ends up being pushed with their back against the wall because of cultural traditions and the Darwinian push for survival of the fittest. Nobody wins.
When I hear working class Trump supporters say on NPR that the Democratic party didn’t listen to them, didn’t help them with their situation and that they support a man who speaks their language, who says he will change things for them for the better, i.e. give them jobs, let them earn money again, I hear Jason in the play (Lakin Valdez) explain to Medea (Sabina Zuniga Varela) that he has to say yes to everything his (female!) boss asks of him if he wants to secure a future for his family. Trump supporters, including members of Congress, give up their values and say yes to the orange boss to secure a future for themselves. Saying yes to the boss, is how it’s done in America, both the boss and Jason state in the play.
Do we give up on human values for the sake of progress in America? Many people do and I don’t think this happens only in America, it’s a societal problem Euripides pointed out in 431 BC. This is how it’s done in America, Europe, in Afghanistan, in Syria, in Yemen, in Sudan to name a few societies. Enough abuse of power in any of those places will lead to rage and in current time to terrorism.
For Medea, love had been her ticket out of servitude in her ancestral land Mexico. When her beloved sells his love for her, for advancement in society and a future for his son, all Medea has left is cunning and revenge. She uses it to take everyone down with her. She has nothing to lose and becomes a raging maniac. She kills the female boss and her son taking away everything Jason was betting his future on. When the boss, powerful only because she adhered to ruthless business practices, tries to make Medea go away, she comes up against the rage of what she thought was a subservient woman; she meets the Warrior. Sound familiar?
One terrorist attack after another is the echo of power hunger, of self advancement at the cost of others. The boss who sold out her ancestral values a long time ago, i.e. the corporation, is no longer human in her dealings; Jason in his desire for advancement becomes a tool in the hands of the boss, a corruptible politician, a possession like Medea was in the hands of ancestral culture. As a result Medea, at the end of the power chain, becomes the terrorist who takes down the innocent. Medea’s blood curdling scream at the end of the play is a volcano erupting after the pressure becomes untenable.
There is no simple solution for the dog-eat-dog world. I scorn when I hear Teresa May and Trump both in their offices of power, say regarding the terrorist attacks, “this is unacceptable”. They both need to go back to the farm so to speak and live the ordinary life, like the country’s rulers used to do in the beginning of the American Republic. Our government officials don’t go home enough. The current Washington power heads are removed from everyday living, out of touch.
We have a long road ahead to release the pressure on all the situations where power is abused in our world. Though many of us are working hard to create a compassionate world for all, we will hear many more blood curdling screams on the way.
If you’re tired of resisting and are losing hope for our democracy let me share with you from my travels.
I visited an American cemetery in the south of Holland near the former German and Belgian borders. This piece of history of the allied invasion into German-occupied territory in 1944 preceded me. My existence as I know it now, full of freedom and choice, depended on what happened here. People banned together to fight atrocities, people gave their lives to fight an unacceptable morality of xenophobia and white supremacy. I stand bridging two countries, two continents in shared beliefs and values. The value of all-lives-matter, the value of equality among races, the value of caring for one another, the value of freedom of speech and religion. Without this piece of history, refugees, victims of oppressed regimes, victims of religious fervor, victims of corruption and economic inequality wouldn’t be flocking to this part of the world. A part of the world that has had open arms for the oppressed and persecuted for a half century since WWII. A part of the world that has experienced peace and economic progress through holding high its values of freedom, equality and caring for one another.
The American news of xenophobia, cronyism, corruption, attempts to oppress women’s rights, to restrict voting rights for the underprivileged followed me as I traveled here. A place once freed of these oppressions by the same American people. Or maybe not the same people? Have we changed so much in the last 60 years that we can’t remember? What has changed that a nation of freedom lovers, of generous sharing people have a xenophobic, crony favoring, greedy, oppressor of women’s rights and liberties in charge?
I walked the green isles between white grave markers of different religions. Young men with different beliefs fought next to each other to give freedom and protection to the oppressed. They shared values and are lying next to each other in this cemetery. White clouds, racing overhead, forming and re-forming, told me how fleeting existence is. A large tree, pruned in winter of its new growth stood raising its knotted hands to the sky, waiting for new life to sprout, again and again.
Opposites of belief exist. The last 60 years in this part of the world have shown these opposites can live together and provide safety and peace for society. Will the force of democracy prevail in the tumult over questionable relations with Russia? Despite similar differences of views in Holland and France it seems to be so. Dutch opposing political parties are struggling to form coalitions to govern in parliament and are asking each other, “Can you put your beliefs aside to form governmental strategies and legislation? Can you govern with common humanitarian values in mind?"
We must hang on to democratic principles if we don’t want our world to tumble into the abyss of totalitarianism. We must remember what such regimes have done and why these men laying here in Margaten cemetery, have lost their lives. We must open our eyes to what happens to good people who live in countries under totalitarian rules, people who beg us for protection. As an immigrant to the USA I am keenly aware of the choices given to me and the choice I have made bridging two countries. My travels bring renewed awareness of what can happen if we don’t fight for the values of equality, free speech and religion. If we don’t care for each other. Lets remember and fight the fight for humanitarian values.
Now that Trump has completed his first 100 days in office, I’d love to take him on a hike on the Pacific Crest Trail and show him the Cascade-Siskyou National Monument in Southern Oregon in its spring glory. I want to show him the diversity of trees and flowers (I counted 50 flowering species on a June day!), the ancient geology of a piece of earth that has not been subjected to glacial movements. I want to point to the far vistas of the Cascades to the North, Mt Shasta to the South-east and Mt Ashland to the West. Once Mr Trump experiences the comforting trump-a-thump of his heart, and the relaxed tiredness that sets in after miles of muscle movement, when he inhales the refreshing air, I may yet be able to change his mind on his “review” of the usefulness of our National Monuments.
Of course this isn’t going to happen, you say, he’s too busy playing golf and making “deals”. Well do I have a deal for him! How about an American infrastructure upgrade: building trails! This project will provide plenty of environmentally friendly jobs, it will reduce health costs by improving the workers’ health, diminish the great divide between the left and the right by working in teams. We can have prisoner teams, drug rehab teams, illegal immigrant teams, Wall Street hob-nob lobby teams, Silicon Valley teams, DeVos charter school teams to name a few. In exchange for a week of trail building the prisoners get “good-time” on their sentence, the jobless drug rehab people get to pay the benefits forward and take others on the trail, the illegals get points toward legal status, the Wall street guys get a tax break, Silicon Valley techies get to choose between a tax break and counting the hours as creative time working off-site, the charter school teams will do the math for DeVos on free outdoor education versus voucher paid religious education. We can connect trail heads with public transportation, build more wheel chair accessible trails with money saved on lowered cost of housing prisoners, on fewer drug rehab programs, ICE salaries, lowered expenses in lobbying favors, lowered scientific and tech development costs since studying nature is free on the trail. Americans will walk more, enjoy their country more, and become grateful for the beauty the president makes available to everyone. America will FEEL great again!
But seriously, at this 100 day mark of the president in office, I want to remember all the hikers who have completed their first 100 miles of the PCT. All you walkers and hikers and trail angels are a force that make America Greater all the time. You are an inspiration to the depressed and the stressed, you embrace the veterans, the mentally unstable, the rich and the poor in sharing the trail and supporting all who walk the trail. You teach the children, our future, that there is more to life than collecting stuff. Every step you take on the trail is a step toward a better America, another cheer for our National Monuments. You are the ones who rouse support and build more trails. Walk on!
“But do not ask me where I am going,
As I travel in this limitless world,
Where every step I take is my home.”
As translated in The Zen Poetry of Dōgen : Verses from the Mountain of Eternal Peace (1997) by Steven Heine, p. 61
I touched the wall!
Before walking North from the Mexican border on the Pacific Crest Trail I wanted to touch the much debated WALL. The corrugated metal pieces rattle in the breeze, the brown and dirty yellow paint match the surroundings of desert sand and rock. Peek holes let me see the other side, more sand, rock and chaparral. It’s an ugly wall, the number three —— a gang sign I recognize from my years of working in juvenile corrections —— hovers above my pack. Who are we to draw this wall in the sand? Who am I, white Northern-European woman, to be living on the freedom side of this wall? A side of the wall where I can walk without fear of being picked up, of being deported? In Tijuana I can even cross this line to the other side, get my teeth fixed at low cost, taking advantage of the lower standard of living on the other side. I have it all, freedom, health, money, a prospering family. I’m here at this border to walk a section of the trail that leads North to the Canadian border, 2650 miles away. I want to meet myself in the desert, the dry, rock strewn chaparral, with displays of naked bushes burned in wild fire, where occasional trees hide in narrow canyons along a flowing creek, or hug a cold ridge at higher elevation, waiting to sprout their leaves. It is spring, a long wet winter has soaked the ground and a great shout of wild flower color and perfume has burst out of the dry, sandy soil, moving North with me. At two miles an hour each day brings a new landscape, different blooms, far vistas of what is to come. Like an illegal crossing the border, I have my one set of clothes. My spare belongings comprise a shelter for the night, a warm sleeping bag, a pad, a small cookstove, water bottles and a filtration system, a warm jacket. I have food for a few days. My basic needs are met. I am the lucky one walking North.
After eight days I arrive at a resource center for travelers, where I can pitch my tent, take a bucket bath with warm water, wash my dusty, dirty clothes, connect with the virtual world via a free WiFi connection. The Resource Center in Warner Springs is a refuge for hikers. Hikers are the refugees of a fast moving, stress full world. For some the stress maybe the dangerous risks and abuse of a career, for others the stress maybe modern living that robs them of the connection with nature and natural rhythms. At the resource center volunteers offer free fruit, a hamburger. It is Sunday and many hikers are camped out, waiting for Monday when the post office will open and give them access to a re-supply package. The camp looks like a refugee camp, a temporary haven on a long journey toward personal freedom. People share experiences, talk about how far they are going, the blisters, knee and back pain, the loneliness they feel. They relish the moment of being clean, the ease of sitting in a soft chair for a few hours, the company of fellow hikers for the evening.
Hikers hike their own hike, walking to their own moment of freedom, be it in accomplishing the length of the trail, or in learning to live moment to moment, mile to mile, in sun and wind, cold and heat, at the mercy of the natural forces all around, lifted up by the exposure to the natural beauty, supported by breath and movement and dreamless sleep at the end of each day of physical exertion.
I walk and carry my little load. Dogen Zenji talks about the practice of “home leaving”. I hike my yearly hike and do my practice of home leaving, trying to grasp the 63 possibilities of becoming “awake” in each minute, every 70 steps I take.
This is as close as I’ll ever come to understanding the plight of an illegal immigrant leaving home and walking to a better life, a refugee leaving family and country and walking to freedom and safety. When miles no longer matter, when I recognize that my legs are stronger than my mind on a long uphill, when I know my vulnerability alone in my little tent at night far away from any human contact, I surrender, I come home to the place. I let go of the need to be anywhere else and find my freedom.
Transformation Travel, a Broader Look 2
The book A tale of Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki starts with, “A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.”
I went for a walk today carrying my 25 lb. back pack. The first trees in spring bloom reminded me of my grandmother. She was born on March 21st and died on that same first day of spring. The day before she died, she cleaned her house readying it for her birthday party, went to bed satisfied and happy, and had a heart attack in the night. Could I ever exit so neatly? I walked to the next town and back along the greenway, the river flowing fast after days of rain. I carried all the necessities for living on the trail. When I crossed the bridge where the main road runs toward the freeway, two homeless travelers greeted me from their perch, the bridge railing, where they held a sign asking people in passing cars for a “doobie”. Did I read that right, “a doo-bie?” Have I stepped back in time, I asked myself, am I back in the 70ties? One traveler asked me if I was just coming into town and I realized he took me for one of them with my backpack. I explained what I was doing as I’m getting ready to hike the PCT in SO CAL. He compared his pack with mine, stating that his is so much bigger but that he needed to carry food for his two dogs. I asked if he was living under the bridge, where I had just seen a camping set up complete with kitchen, bedding and a chair. “No, I’m staying by the railroad tracks”, he said. He tried on the idea of throwing some freeze dried food in his pack and hitting the trail in Southern California. Are you hitch-hiking? he asked. Feeling almost guilty for my lifestyle I told him I had a car to get there. It didn’t seem to phase him, he remained friendly and wished me good travels. I walked on reminiscing about being profiled based on my appearance. Remembering the news story of the retired police chief, an American, who was detained in JFK upon his return to the States because of his Arabic name, I wondered if I would be profiled when I will re-enter the US after my trip to Europe in May. Who am I and who do I appear to be to others? In the early 70ties I lived on the road, I smoked doo-bies, I hitch-hiked to foreign places, just like the guys on the bridge. I had a choice, I had money and didn’t need to sleep along railroad tracks if I didn’t want to. Now at age 70 I still have the choice to live along the trail, to let go of the comforts of home. Am I the same person? Has time eluded me?
I walked to the next town wondering how my body would hold up under the weight. I turned around at the six mile mark. As I walked back counting miles and time, I suddenly felt as if I was pulling myself back by an invisible cord attached to my point of departure 3 hours ago, my home. Was I walking back in time? It felt like it. Or was I walking into the future? I took this walk to experience what I expect I will experience two weeks from now when I walk on the PCT. I wanted to know in my body what that would feel like. By walking the distance and carrying the pack I approximated my future experience. Could I “pre”-live the future? Was the person returning from the farthest point of my walk the same person as the one who just walked in the other direction? What was the product of 4 hours of walking? Loss of time? A changed body chemistry? An expanded awareness?
I passed the bridge, the travelers were gone. Did they exist, or had I made them up? At the end of the greenway I passed a house under construction. The builder was sitting on the half finished back porch smoking a cigarette (or maybe a doo-bie? It’s legal now). The product of his last 4 hours was a hung door that could swing open and close, a door that would allow people to enter and exit for many years to come. The builder had concrete evidence of what he did with his time. My grandmother exited time after cleaning house. Did I gain or lose in the last 4 hours?
Dogen Zenji said:
“That you carry yourself forward and experience the myriad things is delusion. That the myriad things come forward and experience themselves is awakening.”
If you’re reading this, you are one of the myriad beings who’ve come forward and experience themselves. That is awakening.
Transformation Travel, A Broader Look - 1
You can’t always be traveling to experience transformation. Sometimes your travel happens in your chair at home, in a book you’re reading, a show you’re watching, a relationship, an illness. Sometimes politics transform your life.
I recently read an interview with Bill Gates and Warren Buffet after Bill Gates sent his yearly letter on the state of the Bill Gates Foundation to Warren. Warren who has contributed 30 billion to the Foundation, likes to know how the money is working for change.
https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2017/02/buffett-gates/517833/ Current politics came up in the conversation and the interviewer asked Bill and Warren if they were worried about what would happen with the nation and the world under the current administration. Both responded that they always worried about the world, but they were also optimistic and stated that Trump’s administration is one wave in a big ocean. Buffet said, “America is already great, and I predict a comeback for the truth, Democracy is self correcting”. Both men took the long view and listed the progress made since they started the Foundation. Progress that has reduced poverty worldwide, that has increased immunization (580 million children since 2000) across the world, eradicated diseases, increased GDP 6 to 1 in Buffet’s lifetime. Warren said, “I live in a neighborhood where everyone is living better, because of medicine, entertainment etc. than John D Rockefeller did”. With access to facts and falsehoods via phones, people are more aware of disparity and become dissatisfied. Bill added, everyone can read the Gates letter instead and find out about the good things that are happening.
This interview teaches that a long view is helpful when things don’t look so good in your life. It also tells me that even if personal transformation is at a slow pace I can contribute to transformation for others. This month I’m raising money for the Care Foundation, backed by the Gates Foundation. The money will transform the life of women and girls in impoverished countries: they may get a water spigot near their home, they may get shoes and a uniform so they can attend school. Daily for a week I’ll be walking with friends the distance these women and girls now have to walk to access water, to get their education, to get to work. The disparity between our world and that of women in Africa will come home to us and do its work of transformation for us.
What is transforming your life right now?
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I don’t know how you feel when you look at Trump’s face, but I can’t stand the Janus face I see. When I read the poem Reflection by Smith-Soto, the line “I see what I won’t want to forget when I trace their features on my changing face. They are where I come from, and age brings me home to them,” I took a new look and wondered about the transformation that takes place on a face, both mine and Trump’s.
On the days after I get my hair cut short, I see my father’s elongated Nordic face with its low hanging, determined jaw. When the hairdresser fluffs my hair — not my favorite style, but I have stopped resisting being made to look “good” in the feminine stylish-sort-of-way — I see my mother, the roundness of her cheeks, the soft mouth, the tiredness around the eyes I now carry. She had a reason to be tired, she worked hard at raising six children, the last one born late in her life. I have no reason to have tired eyes, I only raised three. If you work hard your whole life, do you still want anything when the work is over? Do you forget what it feels like to want, and you can only think about ease and rest? Or, if you never have the chance to indulge your wants will you never lose the wanting? My father never lost the wanting, not even in his dying hours.
For years I have seen my one heavy eyelid, an eyelid that looks like it has doubled. “It’s called an Egyptian eyelid”, my grandmother used to say, pointing at her right eye — I never asked what the Egyptian characteristic was. Her eye wasn’t slanted or marked with black carbon as I had seen in depictions of hieroglyphs, heavy-lidded maybe. Google won’t give me answer on the Egyptian eyelid. I have to live with my interpretation. Is my grandmother revisiting me now? I want to think so when I look at my face in the mirror.
And then I see the shadow of my grandfather in the sparkle, the grin when I laugh. He was a man of humor, gave the need for lightness to his daughter, my mother. She lost that lightheartedness under the weight of the daily family grind. But I saw it when she visited with her sisters, a glass of sherry in hand, cheeks red, reaching back together to the times of youth and freedom. They came into adulthood in wartime when the rules of what could and couldn’t happen changed. With laughter they shared memories of what they had lost.
Memories, lost moments that crease the skin, wrinkle around the eyes, open the mouth to spell out the images living in the synapses of the brain. Images of selfish being, images of intimacy, images of suffering, images of dancing through life. These memories are alive in my face in the shadows of the ones gone before me.
I look at Donald Trump’s face, his son’s face, his daughter’s and I wonder who is speaking through him when he has his twitter tantrum, who accompanies him when Ivanka stands next to him. He carries the people of his past in his expressions. The older he gets the stronger his father’s voice drives him on to WIN, WIN, while his mother seeks the glamour Donald craves. Maybe we don’t have DT as our current president but his German grandfather Fred, Friedrich, and his Scottish mother Mary-Ann. Who is the immigrant?
Poet Smith-Soto said, that as we get older, we meet the people who went before us, the ones we lost. We meet the ones who speak through the lines in our faces, the warmth or coolness of our eyes. W’ve had to make our own way, individuate from our ancestors to make our mark in life. As we come to the end of our cycle, the lines that embrace our face are the ancestors forming a bridge to the pending loss of self. There is no “alternative fact” for Trump’s age. He appears to have trouble walking the bridge to the loss of self and is taking many down with him in his denial.
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I was born in a country ravaged by World War II. My first and only warm dress at the time was knitted from wool my father brought back from a trip to England. The land was saline after the dykes had been broken to drive out the enemy. Food was scarce. “Broodje tevree”—satisfied sandwich—was the term used for not getting any topping on a slice of bread.
I don’t remember the hardships of the early years. My belly must have been full enough, my toes warm under the covers in the cold of winter. I only heard the stories about frozen pipes, about water for tea chopped out from under the ice in a kitchen tub, my mother pregnant with me, my father away in the army. I do remember complaining that all we had was strawberries grown on the land behind our house to go with the bread on the table.
Times got better in post-war Europe and my parents took advantage of opportunities, a better job, education for the children. My parents still saved the waxed paper bags the butcher packed the lunch meat in and recycled them for the sandwiches we took to school daily. My mother sewed our clothes and taught us to sew; she taught us to knit sweaters, socks and scarfs. You never know when you may need the skills she would say.
My world kept expanding. At age 19, I boarded my first airplane to America for a two-month stay in New England as an au pair, a live-in nanny, earning my keep while learning about the New World. It was a BIG world; everything was big, expansive, from shampoo bottles to freeways and forests. I fell in love with nature; I hated the bigoted way some people my age made fun of my accent, my misunderstandings. I was in awe of the largesse of buildings, New York, the diversity of people, black, brown, white, yellow, red; the diversity in clothing, in accents, in spirituality. I was afraid of the narrow two party system, too narrow for all the different political views, I thought. And yet there was one common language everyone understood, one common law everyone adhered to, one government everyone was subject to. No need for passports to travel a distance, no need to exchange currency when crossing a state line. It was a world where one-ness prevailed.
After two months I returned to a continent full of nations with borders, with different languages, different currencies, multi-partied parliamentary systems. I felt the restriction of the borders, the whiteness of my people, the limits of my religious upbringing. After university I travelled to escape, to learn, to embrace that bigger world. One world, we’re all people, why not? I found oneness in an ashram in the Himalayas. I found oneness with students in a coffee shop in Teheran. I found oneness at the top of Kala Patar watching the avalanches come down from Everest. I found oneness among Tibetan refugees as they shared barley tea.
I married an American and set out for a life in a nation that knew oneness. I lived in a commune; I learned about New Age thinking. I learned what American humor, American song, American literature, and American history was. I gained another degree in an American University.
I learned that the oneness wasn’t as one as they said it was.
It took a long time for me to become an American, to raise my hand and say I would renounce my citizenship of birth. I couldn’t let go of the skills, the views, the mindset of curiosity and dialogue my parents had raised me with. I hung on to my native nationality like it was a first love. The time came when I knew I had to let go, when this vast country was more mine than the land where I had taken my first steps. After 35 years of being a legal resident, I became an American citizen in the land of the free where every religion is welcome, where tolerance is the aspired common currency. That day I raised my hand with citizens from Asia, Russia, the Philippines, France, and Turkey. Together we repeated the oath of allegiance. Together we stood for the principles of a free country.
I can’t believe we now have a president who denies people access from other parts of the world. People who have gone through the vetting process, people who have skills and a worldview that will enhance the American culture of diversity, of acceptance. America was the shining example in this vast world for tolerance, for blending, for innovation. America the great experiment of what is possible among humans is turning in on itself. My view of humanity, my hope for humankind depends on the success of the American experiment. I’m an immigrant, don’t let me down.
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