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As I was preparing for the last week of College Writing, I found myself reflecting on what we’ve been exploring this term: How regular writing—even if it’s not long, or even directly related to a single subject—can capture the essence of experience. Joan Didion calls it “keeping in touch with our past selves.” I call it a survival kit. Let me explain.

Almost exactly a month ago I got a “friend” request on my Facebook page. It was from a gray-haire but otherwise beautifully preserved man who called himself “David,” which, in the reality of internet security, I understood to mean that his name might or might not actually BE “David.” I don’t judge; I am known in some internet circles as “Bodie Parkhurst.” I have a friend who goes by “Shamala.” This is common practice. But I digress. 

Unlike many of the men from whom I get “friend” requests, David wasn’t a three-star general, a Nigerian prince, nor even a doctor with Doctors Without Borders. He said he was a marine engineer. Given a steady diet of generals, princes, and philanthropists I was understandably eager to learn more, but David proved surprising coy. “I don’t want to talk about work,” he said. “I talk to you to escape from work.”

I thought about that, and wondered if I wanted to be anybody’s “escape” from life, but I didn’t worry too much about it. After all, I had a good friend in law enforcement who once told me that she told people I was her “Bohemian” friend, because I lived below a tattoo parlor and designed things on the computer rather than going to a regular office job. Maybe being trapped on a ship doing machiny and engineers things got old for David. Who was I to criticize?

In the beginning most of our conversations were of the, “Hi, how are you/Fine, I’m just headed out the door/Okay, have a good day” variety. David was invariably polite and supportive of my busy schedule. He never implored me to switch to What’s App, which seems to be the generals’, princes’, and surgeons’ platform of choice. He never became angry when I couldn’t or didn’t respond immediately. In internet friendships on my page, this counts for quite a bit. But then a few weeks in things started to shift. Maybe David caught me on a good day or maybe the long series of tiny polite exchanges just gradually evolved, but one evening I was somewhat startled to discover myself in a real conversation with David.

We talked about his daughter. We talked about my son. We were suitably guarded and respectful, but it felt real. And then one day David said it: “I’d really like to meet you. I feel like I’m developing feelings for you.”

Well. I am not a person for whom men readily develop feelings, particularly on such a scanty basis. I’m more the “wear them down and then pounce in a weak moment” kind of person. When David said he had feelings for me, it took me by surprise. What surprised me most of all was that I wasn’t terrified. Something in my brain woke up and said, “This is the point where you’re usually scared spitless. Why do you just feel good about this?” A part of me worried that maybe I SHOULD be scared, but the larger part felt a little bit proud. Maybe the thirty years of therapy were finally paying off! Maybe at last I was figuring out how to be comfortable with being courted? Maybe I could learn not to laugh at romantic overtures? Maybe I was finally learning how to be normal?

So I took pride in my lack of fear, and chatted happily back. David talked more and more about his feelings. I took some time to reflect on my own. I didn’t love David, but I thought that maybe, once his current contract ran out, it would be nice to meet and see what, if anything, developed. As I have said, I’m not the sort of person who provokes amorous intent in available men, so I was prepared for David to retreat hastily to friendship upon meeting me in person. Still, though, it was nice to think that someone found me worth pursuing. Someone said I was beautiful. Someone enjoyed my conversation, even if he was strangely leery about offering details about himself.

And so it went. Until David’s birthday came up. “I have a small favor to ask of you,” he wrote. “I need you to buy $500 of Steam cards and send me the numbers. I need them for my phone. I’d like to do a video chat on my birthday.

“I’d like to help,” I chatted back, “but I’m not made of money, and $500 is a lot for me. Also, isn’t Steam just for gaming?”

“I use the software on my phone,” he responded, somewhat ambiguously. Still, though, we had been talking for a month. He had feelings for me. More, he made me feel beautiful. “If the money’s a concern I’ll send you my banking information and you can transfer the money out of my account into yours.”

I breathed a sigh of relief. “Okay,” I said. “Let me get home.”

At home I told my son what was happening. My son is the tech savvy member of our household. Also, my son had not been chatting with David, so he tended to see things a bit differently. “This sounds scammy, Mom,” he said. “Why does he want Steam cards? You can only use them in gaming. They won’t help with his phone.”

“He says he uses them to run the video chat software on his phone.”

“How long is he planning on chatting?” my son asked, and he asked it with a certain tone. At least I thought I heard a tone.

“He’s going to be at sea for another couple months,” I answered.  “And he’s not asking me to front the money; he’s given me access to his account.”

“He gave YOU access to HIS account?” my son asked. 

“Yes, so I can transfer the money.” I clicked into his bank account. Lines wiggled. Bar graphs shot up. It looked far more creative than what I was expecting. Also, the spelling on some of the terms was creative, to put it mildly. Maybe it’s a bank from a non-English-speaking country, I decided. Maybe this is badly translated.

“Call your bank,” my son insisted. “This sounds like a scam. Listen…” and he started reading from some site discussing scams and Steam cards. 

“But David’s not asking me to spend my own money. He wants me to transfer the funds to my account and then buy the cards. How could he be scamming me?” I asked. And I defiantly pushed the button. 

“Call your bank,” my son said again. “Ask what they think. This sounds like a scam to me.”

Every time he said “scam” I found myself getting more and more irritated. Finally I offered a compromise. “I’ll call the bank. Whatever they suggest, I’ll do.” 

This would probably have been easier to say if I hadn’t just spent the last couple weeks congratulating myself on having moved past my fear of intimacy to the point where I could feel good about chatting with David.

You probably know how this story ends. The bank called back. “We’re locking your account, closing it, and opening you up a new one. This is a scam. When you put in the money transfer information they have your banking information. They get you to give the Steam card numbers, then they reverse the transaction. Sometimes they empty  your account.”

I felt heartsick. David had been my friend, or at least I thought he was. Worse, I had had all the old messages from my childhood, that romance wasn’t for me, that people wouldn’t care for me for myself, and that I was only worth duping, reaffirmed. Suddenly I was right back at the “self” I had been in the bad old days. I felt worthless. I felt stupid. I felt embarrassed. I felt ashamed.

How had I, veteran kicker-to-the-curb of three-star generals, Nigerian princes, and philanthropic doctors, been fooled? How had David slipped past my defenses? And then it occurred to me: I could know exactly how it happened. I had our chat. 

And so I went back and started reading, analytically this time. I noticed how often David evaded responding to questions about himself. I noticed how his language challenges—he said he was Norwegian—ebbed and flowed. I noticed how often the details he offered reflected details about myself that I had previously offered. 

And then it hit me: David had provided me a framework—a few chats and a few pictures—and I had constructed a person. And then I had decided that person was my friend. I had participated in my own scamming.

The people who know about this all said I should block David, but there was still a part of me that hoped for some explanation—even as the smarter part of myself recognized that the most overwhelming possibility was exactly what appeared to be the case: David wasn’t David at all. He was probably some kid seeking out vulnerable people online, and then scamming them.

David and I had a final conversation. I told him that what had really tipped the balance for me was the long list of evasions. When the time came that I really, really needed to trust him, there simply was nothing there to trust. He responded sarcastically, telling me he had been “straight” with me, and answered every question.

I sent him a list of all the questions I had asked, questions he had carefully slid around before charging off on another conversational tack. 

“That’s what you’re basing this on?” he asked. “Those are details.”

And then he informed me—in perfect English, yet, that I was the “sketchy” one, and that he would never trust me after the “stunt” I had pulled. 

“I googled your bank,” I said. “I couldn’t find it.”

He shot me back a screen capture. “Here’s the bank you “googled,” he said. “Click the link.”

I read the name of the bank, went into my search engine, and entered the name. “The bank’s name is different,” I told him. And it was. The screen background was the same. The client information box style was the same, but the bank’s name and logo was completely, completely, different.

“There were a lot of misspellings on your account page,” I typed.

“Probably because you were making an unauthorized transfer,” he shot back, conveniently bypassing the fact that he had instigated the whole thing and had, in fact, pressured me to transfer the money.

“People who have seven-figure bank accounts don’t need random people on the internet to buy Steam cards so they can use their phones,” I finally said.

And that was when he told me that I had been a waste of time, and that I had “trust issues.”

I thought about that. “In this case, you’re right,” I finally typed. And then I blocked him.

***

So what is the meaning of this? Why am I writing about this? Because tonight I found myself thinking that the record of our conversations—a kind of journal, certainly a kind of notebook—I had kept had, combined with my son’s sharp eye and persistence, had first, saved me from quite possibly devastating financial loss. More important, though, they showed me what it meant to be me in this last month—and what it meant to be David. In the end, that chat has shown me that I don’t know myself as well as I think I do. When I look at that I see a woman who is not as ready to give up on the idea of love as she has thought. I’ve seen a woman so entranced by the idea of being thought beautiful and valuable that she was willing to risk far too much to perpetuate the illusion. But it also shows me a woman who, once she has a place to start, can analyze, evaluate, and learn from an experience, no matter how embarrassing. Finally, I see a woman who, while she might be embarrassed, refuses to be ashamed. She speaks up. She tells her story—even if she doesn’t look particularly good in it. She owns her truth. 

The truth is that David was a scammer. But I helped. And in looking at HOW I helped, I am learning a lot about who I am, and who I want to be.

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I know, I know, if I want people to buy my books I’m not supposed to post them in their entirety. But I’m doing it with this one. The reason is simple. When I first wrote about Harriet and Betsy I was struggling for survival. I didn’t intend this to be anything deep or profound. But it turned out to be.

I never dreamed that I would be part of a national experience like this–just about every single person in America has become Harriet. We all carpool in Betsy–and the wheels have come off in no uncertain terms.

I’m not a doctor. I’m not a medical person. I’m just someone who has survived more life breakdowns than anybody wants to. I have a certain amount of expertise in rebuilding. So what did I learn? I learned that there are two ways to repair a car. The first is to simply replace broken parts and bring it back to what it was before the wheels fell off.

The second way is to take a step back, look at the car, and remember not what this car was before it broke, but the car you used to dream about. Then do the hard work to not repair the car, but turn this crisis–this opportunity–into some new, something different, something better.

And so, without further ado, may I present Harriet and Betsy. May they be as helpful–and thought-provoking–to you as they have been to me over the years. For those who want a beautiful, designed copy, it’s available for sale on Amazon in both  childrens’ and  adult, annotated versions (that’s what I’m posting here). But I suspect that the people I’m really posting this for are the people who don’t have money to spend on books right now. So this is my gift, to all of us. Enjoy it. Pass it on. If you’d include my name somewhere I’d appreciate it, but I’m not going to send the book cops after you if you don’t. So here’s to our dreams, and to getting our lives hammered into something better soon.

Building Something Better

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Meet Harriet. She’s from a farm in Oregon. Meet Betsy. She’s from a factory in Detroit. The years have been hard on Betsy. When I first met Harriet and Betsy I had a good job with great benefits. My bills were paid. I lived in a pretty apartment. I wore elegant clothes. I dated a man I hoped to marry. And one night every week I drove from Los Angeles to Claremont, sat in an icy cold office, and tried to figure out why I wanted to die. Drawing gave me peace, so in the evenings I sat in my pretty apartment with the cool breeze lifting the curtains and the lamps lit, and I wrote about Harriet, Betsy, Bud, and Rex, the junk yard dog. somethingbetterbodyadults-5

Harriet writes to the factory. I didn’t mean anything by it—I just wanted to be happy for a little while, and drawing Betsy helped. I’m a farm kid and a summa cum laude graduate of the “beat it to fit and paint it to match” school of mechanical design, so I made my story about that. It wasn’t great literature, but it beat the heck out of standing in my pretty peach and green bathroom wondering why my eyes looked so old and tired, and why I lived trapped behind them. I sent Betsy off to a publisher and got back a very nice rejection letter. I stuck Betsy into the closet and forgot about her. Then my life broke, and I learned what every person in the worlds knows: a broken life is a kind of death. In my case, a chance revelation destroyed family relationships I had thought would last forever.

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The factory writes back (sort of). My world changed in an instant. Rather than answer the hard questions my father said I had a “weak grip on reality,” and told his class at  church that “the girls are mad and making outrageous accusations because they think we made them work too hard.” My brother said, “I can’t have a relationship with anyone who believes something like that about my dad.” Never mind that the information had come from Dad himself. A sister said, “She didn’t have it any worse than the rest of us. She’s just trying to get attention.” The first part of that was right—I doubt if I did have it worse than anyone else, but that was no comfort. somethingbetterbodyadults-9

The junk yard has lots of parts. “Yup,” says Bud the junk man. “We can make’er look like new.” Harriet thinks.” I don’t want her to look like new,” she says at last. “I want her to look better.” She chooses some other parts. My parents had taught me that no one outside of the family was to be trusted. And now my family was stripped away. I lived second to second. “Now I’ll open my eyes. Now I’ll roll on my side. Now I’ll swing my feet to the floor. Now I’ll sit up. Now I’ll stand. Now I’ll take a step. Now I’ll take another. Now I’ll take another…” I forgot my grandfather’s face. But somehow, I kept taking those steps, one by one. I survived. I rebuilt, and one day I looked up and realized that the sun shone warm on my hair. It had been a very long time. Betsy and I hit the road again, a little less boldly than before. somethingbetterbodyadults-111

Then she makes them fit. We hit the road, but before long Betsy’s engine developed a new knock. My supervisor at work left and was replaced with a screamer. I discovered that the person I hoped to marry didn’t want to marry me. Then I discovered that I was pregnant. In the end, I found myself alone with a newborn baby. Trying to be a mother, manage a career, and keep up a house on my own was hard, but I worked with the life I had built because I was too tired and too scared to change it—and because it still sort of worked. It was only a matter of time, of course, before Betsy died again, flogged to death on the freeway. I had no car, no job, and enough money in the bank to pay the rent, which was due, or the bills, which were also due, or fix Betsy. I looked at my sleeping child that bleak afternoon and felt shame. He deserved better. He deserved security. He deserved a tranquil mother. He deserved not to be stranded on the damned freeway at rush hour. I finally admitted that Betsy was really, really broken. somethingbetterbodyadults-13

Harriet paints Betsy. I swallowed my pride, picked up the phone, and did the thing I had sworn I would never do. I called my family—my angry, dangerous family—and asked for help. I went to the junk yard for my son. It was full of things discarded because they hurt too much to keep, because they didn’t work anymore, because someone else decided they were worthless, because I just couldn’t get them to fit into the life I built—the one, incidentally, that was lying on the floor in pieces around me at that very moment. I had thrown most of that stuff away for good reason. And now I was back, poking around in the broken things, the outgrown things, the rusty things. Sharp edges, broken glass, blood on seats. I didn’t want to be there, but my old life was gone, and it wasn’t coming back. I needed to build a new one, and all I had to work with were things I had discarded in the junk yard of my past. My junk yard was terrifying. It demanded a strong heart, and stronger stomach. I didn’t see its infinite possibility for a long time. somethingbetterbodyadults-15

Then she cleans up. What I saw was failure. I lay awake at night with my stomach in knots, knowing that if I’d just tried a little harder, been a little smarter, lived a little more frugally, taken better care of myself, been more practical, more—oh all right—been somebody else—I’d have been fine. I wouldn’t have had to ask my family for help. The shame was deep, and corroding. Would you have the nerve to pursue your dreams if it meant losing your house, your job, your pride, your spouse, and your security? No one except William Blake, who opted to Starve for his Art, chooses a broken life. I didn’t. But when my life was spread all over the garage in jagged, greasy rusty pieces it finally occurred to me that I could afford to dream. After all, things couldn’t get much worse. At last I realized that a broken down life is more than a disaster—it is also a priceless opportunity. somethingbetterbodyadults-17

She takes Betsy’s picture and sends it to the factory. I went to the junk yard for my son. The wrecks in my junk yard made my bones hurt just to look at them. Picking through my past wasn’t fun. I acquired new cuts and bruises. I wouldn’t have chosen my junk yard, but it was what I had—and in the end, it was enough. I took my love of drawing (“You’ll never make a living at art”) my love of writing (“What will you do with it?”) and my commitment to raising my son (“You don’t have a choice—you have to put him into day care”) and I  got Betsy rolling again, this time with a baby seat buckled in the back. It wasn’t easy. I scraped. I scrimped. I got  scared in the middle of the night. I was still beating the heck out of some of the pieces. But I was getting closer. somethingbetterbodyadults-16

The factory writes back. I started working on frills—buying a home rather than renting a house, getting health insurance. We started shopping for a puppy, and saving for Disneyland. And then the bottom dropped out of the economy, and several of my long-standing clients went very, very quiet. Several others said they were “scaling back.” That knock is back in Betsy’s engine. Times are hard, and getting harder. The other day I put my head down on my computer keyboard and cried. Betsy is falling apart around me again, just when I thought I had her all put together, painted, and running like a dream. I hate it. But I have been here before. I have the courage to tinker, even tear her down to the tires and head back to the junk yard if I need to, and in the end, she will not be “like new,” but better. somethingbetterbodyadults-21

Harriet reads Betsy the letter. Then she puts on her new hat and some dangly earrings, and takes Betsy out for premium gas and hot dogs. And now, before you close the book on Harriet and Betsy, do me a favor—take a minute and look at the illustrations of Harriet—not Betsy— in order.  See? Harriet fixes Betsy up, true—but in the process she changes herself into somebody brave, somebody clever, somebody creative, somebody handy, somebody better. That’s the gift of a broken life. My life is breaking, but I have been here before. Rebuilding my life in dark, terrible, times changed—and changes—me. Rebuilding your life in dark times will change you. It won’t be easy, but one day you will look around and realize you’re simply not the same person you were. You will be different. You can be better. Don’t leave the discarded bits of your life lying around cluttering up your house and garage—take them to the junk yard. But keep track of them—you may need them later. It’s funny what we know without knowing it—when I first wrote about Betsy and Harriet I intended nothing more  than a children’s story. I didn’t  mean for them to turn into a metaphor, let alone one that held the secret to not only surviving hard times, but embracing them for the opportunities they offer. I didn’t mean for it to happen—but  that   doesn’t make Betsy and Harriet’s truth any less valid. My life broke, over and over. Each time, I thought I would die. And facing that failure has set me free. Each time, I have rebuilt better, stronger, happier. And now my life is breaking again. But I have been here before. This is my opportunity to dream. If you life is breaking, too, remember Harriet. Go see Bud. Be careful around the rusty metal. Pat Rex. Watch out for his teeth. Get out your blowtorch and the paint. And when you’ve got Betsy up and running again—and you will—put on a new hat and maybe some dangly earrings. Then go out for premium gas and hot dogs.

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Buy the book

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patcoopshenickSo, things have gotten a little bit busy at our house. Several months ago a young man (we’ll call him Boy 2) came to stay with us for a bit. It turned out to be a happy arrangement so we formalized things–he has a room. The Boy has something he’s always wanted–a brother. I also have something I’ve always wanted–a second son. The two big boys take care of the house and laundry. We all share the cooking. The boys hang out and play video games when The Boy isn’t frantically studying to finish off his college classes (he’s finishing his AS and will be within two quarters of his BS at the end of this term). All three of us are big chatters, and love to take our journals to the coffee shop, sit, drink coffee-like beverages, and write. It’s very good.

So that’s been several months now. Then in December we grew again. This particular growth spurt was a long time coming. To really understand this we have to go way, way back to when I was in junior high, so a long, long time ago. One of my oldest sisters’ friends had a couple kids–a toddler and a four-month-old. What with one thing and another, the little ones spent a lot of time at our house. We watched them grow up. We did our best, but sometimes we let them down. And then we lost contact. I always felt bad about that.

Fast forward almost forty years, and that four-month-old baby had turned into a man, and that man called me one day. He wanted to introduce his fiance to me. They came up. We had coffee. I had a chance to apologize for my part in the “letting them down” end of things. Brent (we’ll call him that because that’s not his name) brushed my apology off. I still felt bad, but he was so very gracious about it. It was nice. It was healing. It was re-establishing an old, old connection that had meant a lot to me.

Fast forward to about five years ago. I reconnected with a friend of mine. She has a son who, what with one thing and another, didn’t have many friends his own age. The Boy and I decided that we could help with that. My friend’s son started coming over. We made it a point to invite some of The Boy’s friends (who are good, kind, and inclusive people) over. For five years now, our living room has been filling up with boys-now-young-men, playing games, shouting, and laughing. My part is buying pizza or making chili and fresh bread and cinnamon rolls. My friend’s son has friends his own age now.

Fast forward again to last December. I got another call. Brent now had a toddler and a tiny baby of his own, and he and his wife really wanted to go out for New Year’s Eve. And so we came full circle. He and his wife showed up at my door with their two little ones, a couple diaper bags, and a list of instructions. And then they left for the evening, leaving their children with us.

I was awed and terrified that they were entrusting their children to us (after all, we had let Brent down when he was little). Also, I was terrified because, hey, high-energy toddler and newborn baby. Let’s just say that those lovable little guys put us through our paces. The Big Little Boy loved the Big Boys and they loved him. They played video games, and catch, and all sorts of toddler-delighting games. They fed him. They got him ready for bed. Then all three of them slept in the living room (big boys on the couches, big little boy curled up on our enormous plush bean bag chair).

While this wild and rowdy lovefest was going on in the living room, the baby and I were trying to figure things out. It turned out that his mom had been breast-feeding him (Yay, Mom!), something I am no longer equipped for. We struggled with the bottle. I struggled with the finer points of diapering. Eventually we all went to bed, at which time I discovered that that tiny baby had apparently been warehousing pee since birth. That little guy peed through eight blankets that night. And then, in the morning, as I was exhaustedly giving him his breakfast bottle, he suddenly opened his eyes and looked at me. I looked at him. He drank his bottle. And I remembered what it was that I loved about being a mom–it’s that silent, loving, curious, powerful bond.

His parents slept in, picked up the little boys, and drove home. I changed my bed (that little guy could really pee), and then all three of us big people went to bed and slept all afternoon.

A couple weeks ago the little guys came for another visit. If our first visit had a steep learning curve, it all paid off. The Big Little Guy and the Big Boys knew the moves. That little high-energy toddler was a lot more comfortable. More listening happened. The Boy pretty much managed things–he kept the Big Little Guy entertained and fed. By 7:30 the Big Little Boy was asleep.

The baby and I got along great. I remembered how to put a diaper on. The baby had switched from boob to bottle. He’d graduated to sleeping in four-hour shifts, starting at about 6:30pm. He’s a peaceful baby, so when he woke up I could give him a bottle, burp and change him and tuck him back in before he ever really woke up. I had the moves back. The baby appreciated that–he smiled, laughed and kicked when morning came. When Brent and his wife showed up this time they brought a spare bag of diapers. That’s a good sign.

Our little house is full, sometimes bulging. It’s a happy house, a house where people can put their feet up, where we can find room for everybody. When The Boy was little he worried a lot that, since we didn’t have a dad in the house, we weren’t a real family. He doesn’t worry about that anymore. Our family–the family we’ve built, is as real as it gets.

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I first wrote about 9/11 and the lessons we were learning right after the World Trade Center fell. At the time, I found myself worrying that in our fear, our grief, and our rage we Americans would do what no external force could ever have done: we would destroy ourselves from within.

Nearly two decades have passed since that terrible day, and I’ve seen that post proven true over and over again. On a national scale I’ve seen the the divisions in our society grow wider and wider as everyone struggles to get his or her “fair share”–something that always seems to involve seizing the right to physical, moral, or financial superiority over someone else. Conservative fundamentalists assert their religious superiority, while their men assert their right to total control over our reproductive rights as a species.

Light-skinned people assert their rights over darker-skinned people. English-speakers assert their rights over non-English-speakers. The educated assert their rights over the uneducated–and the uneducated assert their moral superiority over the educated. And the list goes on and on. We have become like too many rats in too small a cage, tearing each other apart in what we have come to believe is a fight for survival.

Even at a time when we are assured that the U.S. economy is doing very, very well, millions of us experience daily need, and millions more of us experience daily want. Somewhere, a giant drain has opened in our financial system, siphoning off the prosperity for far too few, at the expense of far too many. We are not a nation of lazy, greedy sluggards–we have been robbed. And we know who has done it–a quick look at income shares since 1980 shows us exactly where all that money has gone. While the percentage of American children living in poverty fell to record lows in the last year of the Obama administration, experts warn that Trump policies threaten to reverse that trend. And this in a time when the U.S. ranked near the top of the list of OECD countries in 2015.

And now we have the racism and xenophobia being publicly enacted against babies, children, and families seeking asylum and jobs in our name. Meanwhile, crops are rotting in the fields, while the people who have harvested them for generations sit in improvised jails.

Yesterday a newsman spoke of the children in the camps creating art, presumably as an example of how the children are being given a creative outlet, and therefore being treated well. I found myself thinking of  the art created by children in Theresienstadt. Just because children are drawing doesn’t mean that they aren’t being treated monstrously.

When I first wrote the post below about 9/11 I wrote and posted it because I was seeing a nation that, in its efforts to restore a fantastical version of America, where everyone was white and Protestant and living in neat little houses with white picket fences, had managed instead to create a monstrous system that was becoming increasingly dangerous not just to itself, but to the world.

That’s us on a national scale. We have become what we have always claimed to abhor.

On a personal level, though, I find reason for hope. As a college instructor I meet a lot of students, many of them from conservative Christian homes. And I find them overwhelmingly thoughtful, considerate, and far less quick to condemn. I live in a small town in a “flyover” part of a largely rural state, and while my fellow townsfolk and I tend to vote very differently, we manage to treat each other reasonably well. Yes, we have divisions among us, and they trouble me, but while we don’t all agree, we to manage to resolve our differences short of bloodletting most of the time.

I have to believe that while we, in our microcosm, contribute to that terrible overall picture of the U.S. as a nation, it has not yet become an accurate picture of many of us as individuals.

So the question is, how can those of us who are increasingly finding what our government is doing in Washington D.C. and often in our State Houses appalling find a lever to move us as a nation? How can we end the increasingly regressive and abusive practices that we, as a collective, are committing?

Opinions on this vary, but here are mine:

  1. Reform our voting system. Ensure that voting places are equally accessible to all, and that all campaigns receive a part of a single fund. Disallow disproportionate donations from individuals, and disallow corporate donations altogether.
  2. Enact stricter banking regulations that protect our national economy and smaller-income entities.
  3. Enact a single-payer healthcare system. Healthcare should not be a profit center; it should be a right.
  4. Prioritize the future. Enact laws that foster child health and early childhood education, college education, move us away from fossil fuels, and restore and preserve the environment.
  5. Reform the tax code and minimum wage scale to ensure that the poorest can be assured of a basic income, and that the richest no longer receive a disproportionate level of the income and tax rewards.
  6. Foster cultural diversity. We learn from each other. The more diverse we are, the more we learn. Rather than enacting “one-language” rules, why not promote multi-lingualism? Back in the day of William the Bastard, England found itself in a similar situation. A new, small, Norman French-speaking ruling minority found itself unable to communicate with the vast majority of the people they ruled: People who they were relying upon for financial support, and who spoke Old English. What happened?The Anglo-Saxon mothers immediately began encouraging their children to learn to speak Norman French. And the noblemen, who in many cases had been married to Anglo-Saxon heiresses as a way of promoting a comparatively peaceful transference of power, first relied on their wives to translate–and then learned Old English. That’s not quite right, because what really happened was that the two populations, who both understood that safety and success lay in understanding each other, ended up creating a new language: Middle English, which became the English we speak today. By the time English again became the lingua franca in England it had added many thousands of Norman French words. Englisn has continued that tradition ever since, and that’s why it is such a rich, complex, amazing language. As we accepted immigrants, we added the pieces of their languages, and in so doing, we added pieces of their culture. We are not a nation with a monolithic history. Instead of declaring that everyone who comes to America must accept all aspects of our culture, including our language, why not continue what has made us so very successful in the past–adopting cultural and linguistic elements that we find useful, while retaining what’s best in us?

We learned lessons from 9/11, but the years are increasingly proving that we learned the wrong lessons, and we have forgotten the single most important lesson history has taught us: Our safety and success lie not in dividing ourselves into ever-increasing splinter groups, but in opening our minds and hearts to each other, and seeing our diversity as an opportunity learn new skills, languages, and customs. It’s time to set those lessons we learned in fear and anger aside, and learn some new ones–or relearn the old ones, the ones that made us great. The world is a dangerous place, but we do not make it less dangerous by locking ourselves away and destroying ourselves from within. Paradoxically, I believe our best chance for a future lies not in closing ourselves off from the world, but in opening our minds and our hearts to each other.

Old post: September 11, 2001

The television footage says it all—and nothing. Over and over, I see the World Trade Center in New York, the top of the foreground tower swathed in pillows of dark gray smoke. And then another jet shoots behind it, and a fireball erupts from the background tower’s heart. The scene switches; soot and ash blanket the street, the blasted cars, the twisted girders, the piles of rubble. That’s all that’s left—rubble—of what used to be one of the tallest buildings in the world.

I am amazed at how bloodless the scene is. There are no bodies. From time to time EMS crews push a gurney to an ambulance. On the gurney are sealed bags. Is this all?  Just bits and pieces?  Perhaps. There are few people even visibly wounded. Perhaps that is most horrifying of all. The mayor of New York, the news commentators, keep talking about the thousands slain, the horrific loss, the body parts in the streets, emergency vehicles driving over bodies because they are buried in the ash and soot.

There is the crash in Pennsylvania—the news crews say that there’s nothing left bigger than a telephone book. When there is a crash, one expects there to be wreckage. And yet, there is nothing to look at, to say, “This is the cost, this is horror, these are the dead.” There is simply nothing.

There are stories of people jumping from the towers, rushing to meet their deaths, rather than waiting to be devoured by flames, or crushed in the collapse of steel, of concrete, of glass. This morning, there is a single shot of a man lying on the wind, his business suit correct, his tie whipping upward. As I watch him fall, he is already dead.

I feel nothing. Where is the pain, the grief, the anger, the anguish? I called my son’s grandmother and aunts in New York. They are working far away in Queens, near the airport, at the other end of Manhattan. A few streets can be a world. They are fine.

I feel nothing, but I am exhausted. I hold my son, and sleep. Then I wake, and try to work. I cannot concentrate. There is a pall over the day, a cloud of soot and ashes. Everything is gray, dim. I call my mother. She believes this is the beginning of Apocalypse, the birth of Armageddon. I hang up, wondering if she’s right.

Voices speak of thousands dead, but there are no visible bodies. They speak of terrorists, but there is no visible enemy. How can I comprehend a disaster so overwhelming that there is simply nothing left?

Normally news helicopters would circle the scenes like vultures, shooting endless vistas of disaster. I could see them, and understand. But the air is off limits. Ground crews shoot footage. It is bleak, gray, dead. This morning, I hear the roar of a jet. It fills the air, rumbling the house. I am across the country, in Oregon, and I know that, apart from our harbor, there is very little reason for terrorists to find us an attractive target—we are small-time, small-town. I have always believed that very smallness protects us.

But when I hear the jet, I realize that there is no safety in anonymity. The thousands of New Yorkers, the plane passengers, the Pentagon workers, were anonymous. They were simply going about their lives. There was nothing dramatic or attack-worthy about them. I begin to shake. I want to run outside, and scan the horizon for a column of black smoke. To the east, far away, near my mother’s house, lies Ordinance, an old army base. My son and I pass it when we go to visit her. Pronghorn antelope range the fields around the bunkers.

I try not to look at those bunkers. I know that they are used to store biological weapons. Today, when the plane roars overhead, part of me wants to look east, toward Ordinance, but I don’t. If Ordinance has been hit, it’s already too late. So I hide, and trust in the failed normalcy of the world, and in the failed smallness of my life. Probably Ordinance is fine. Probably. Later I turn on the television. The news is still all about the devastation in New York, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania. I am safe.

At least for now. I listen to the President’s remarks, and I find myself wondering how one can respond to such an attack without making it worse. To do nothing is to send a clear message to terrorists that there are no consequences for such an act. To respond militarily is to risk the world. How should such an act be answered?  I don’t know.

While no one seems to be sure exactly how this will change the world, everyone agrees that it has. Americans have traditionally been willing to risk their lives for freedom. We have been a nation of risk takers. Perhaps now we are willing to sacrifice freedom to preserve our lives. We are growing older. Perhaps we are going wiser; perhaps not. Perhaps we are only growing tired, cynical, fearful, and lazy.

I watch the news coverage, and I find myself thinking of shear bolts. My parents ran a custom harvesting service. Each summer, we faced shear bolts. Forage choppers work by pulling things into a box and chopping them up. A pair of toothed rollers spin behind a row of knives, pulling the forage into the box as it is mown. In the box is a revolving set of knives. While the system is powerful enough to kill a sheep, a deer, a man, it is also fragile. If the machine picks up a rock, or a sheep, or a person—anything over a certain size—the rollers push apart. They still spin, but if sufficient pressure is placed on them a shear bolt on the end of the roller snaps, and the rollers stop.

Fields being what they are, shear bolts snap often. As the truck driver, it was my job to replace the broken shear bolt each time it snapped. One horrible day it seemed that I was replacing them every five minutes. My head throbbed. My nose ran. My neck ached. The wind blew and it was August, and the chopped forage and dust flew everywhere. I choked, and the dust stuck to my skin, and I itched. And the damned shear bolts kept snapping. By the end of the day I was ready to rip that machine apart with my bare hands, take a hammer to the windows, and a knife to the tires.

That night I asked my father if we couldn’t just weld the parts together or something—anything to keep the chopper running. He said, “No, we can’t. The shear bolts protect the system. They’re designed to be the weak point. By snapping they stop the rollers before something can be pulled into the knives that might break them, or destroy the gears.” It was the first time I had heard of a weakness being engineered into a system for the protection of the whole.

The next morning we stopped at the Hesston dealer and got some new shear bolts—apparently the box we had hadn’t been tempered enough or something. And then we went back to work, and the bolts still snapped, but not quite as often.

We are faced with a monumental broken shear bolt. And we have to fix it. Changes are necessary. The situation must be addressed. But perhaps we should think carefully before we start welding things together. I find myself hoping that in fixing this tragedy, we don’t fix it so well we destroy ourselves completely.

I watch the news. It’s still bewildering. I still don’t understand. We have been struck a terrible blow. But the death blow is in our own hands, to strike, or to avert. We can only be destroyed from within.

I don’t have answers. I don’t even know all the questions. I haven’t even begun to comprehend what is happening. But one thing I know: there is much that is good and precious in my life, and much of that is because of our system, flawed as it is. I don’t have the answers, but I hope that we can keep from picking up hammers and knives—that we can search for the properly tempered solution, and that we can hold onto our patience and courage, and in the end, save ourselves.

Then: September 8, 2010

I wrote those words in the days following September 11, 2001. We don’t often talk politics over here, but I look around at the irrationality that has come to pervade our national discourse. I listen to hate-filled talk go unrebuked–and indeed, being treated as comments worth addressing. I hear about good Christians who publicly plan to burn copies of the Koran.

I watch as my fellow Americans busily undermine what remain of our civil liberties in the wake of the Bush era, and I am afraid, not that we will be destroyed by Muslim Americans wishing to build a youth center in downtown New York or by ravening hordes of Mexicans yearning to pick apricots, or by some evil plot hatched by the President and Democratic leadership, but by the pettiness, prejudice, racism, bigotry, and self-serving small-mindedness that have grown so prevalent our national government is literally choking on them. Our government has become an obscenity.

The thing I feared even more than fiery destruction is coming to pass around me–there are those among us who have taken that dark day as an excuse to give in to their own darkest impulses, to retreat into the simple, false world of “Us” against “Them,” of “Saved” or “Lost,” of “Christian” or Muslim, Democrat or Republican, Conservative or Progressive, Good or Evil.

Rational discourse is dying. If we can’t find a way to talk to each other, work with each other, and respect each other we will, in the words of my long-ago blog post, have “fixed ourselves too well,” and brought about our own destruction.

Our true enemy is not a group radicals half a world away–or even just across our southern border–but our own bigotry, isolationism, and selfishness. We are being manipulated coldly and cynically. Our fear and anger is making us co-conspirators in our own destruction. And it’s all being done with words.

I am just one person. I live in a small town in a Red part of a Blue state. I worry about how I will buy milk a lot more than I worry about the migrant laborers who come to our town to pick the fruit. I don’t have power or influence. I don’t have the money to buy them–hell, I don’t have the money to get a physical right now.

But I have my words. And today I choose to use them not to rail against imagined outrages perpetrated in the name of making things a little better for all of us, but to protest against the criminal abuse of our wonderful, rich, nuanced language. I choose to use my words to ask–no, to demand–that we give our Mother Tongue a little respect. That we not manufacture horrors to scare the populace into a position that will benefit us, and harm them. That we learn to edit our national discourse, to remove the extraneous and distracting so that we can focus on the words that matter. And that we demand of ourselves the same integrity we demand in our national discourse.

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