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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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It’s taken me a long time to reach this point, and even longer before I was brave enough to say it out loud, but I will not be casting my vote for Hillary Clinton this election, even if she does become the party’s candidate. She is not my candidate. I find her views on war frightening and her allegiance to Israel’s right to bomb indiscriminately nauseating. Her financial plan offers more of the same old same old that got us here in the first place. I find her feminism unconvincing in light of the additional pain and suffering she has caused millions through her misguided support of “welfare reform,” and her willingness to “destroy” (again, her word) the women who called Bill Clinton on his sexual misdeeds. Finally I find her wooing of and pandering to the financial industry while offering full-throated support to regulation cynical and dishonest, to say the least. I find the financial industry’s allegiance to her even more worrying–they don’t support candidates unless they see a clear benefit for themselves in the relationship.

Most of all, I find her willingness to sacrifice ethics, morals, and values to political expediency absolutely terrifying. I’ve seen her run in two presidential elections now. Both times, she used tactics I found beneath contempt. Watching her misrepresent, distort, and lie about her record and Senator Sanders’ record has been a bad trip down memory lane.
It’s also been a timely reminder. I had forgotten much of what troubled me about her previous campaign. I had let the distasteful mess of the Lewinsky years slip from my mind. But she has encouraged us to recall those years, I presume because she thinks they’ll offer her credibility. Well, I have recalled those years now, and that gives me a timeline–I’ve seen her in action now for twenty years. When I look at her record over the long haul I am struck first by how very, very committed she has been to the pursuit of political power. She has been willing to sacrifice things that I think no one should sacrifice in pursuit of maintaining that power. Second I am struck by a pattern I see–she waffles and dodges and then, when an idea’s popularity becomes inevitable, she comes out in full-throated support–and claims she’s been there all along.
I know others see her differently–others are less bothered by what I see as her lapses–possibly legal lapses, although she most typically seems to achieve her ends by creatively stretching the law into shapes it was never intended to take–but even more by her ethical, moral, and judgment lapses. Why make up a story about running under fire when you know the landing was televised? Why take obscenely large payment for speeches to the financial sector when you must know you’re considering a presidential run (does anybody seriously think she wasn’t planning on running for this election from the day she conceded in 2008)? Why vote for a war that you have every reason to know is unjustified (others certainly knew–why did Hillary, that great international expert, not know)? Why create at least the strong appearance of impropriety by rewarding Clinton Foundation donors with State Department support and favors?
Even if we put the best possible construction on each of these issues, we have a choice between a Hillary who is criminally corrupt or a Hillary who is weak, venal, and terribly, terribly short-sighted, and certainly as poorly advised as ever Ethred the Unready was (look him up–it’s a funny story; I promise you).
I have a lot of reasons to not vote for Hillary. But why Bernie? I’m voting for him for three reasons:
1. First, because when I look at his record over the last thirty years, I see something very different from Hillary’s record: I see a principled man who has consistently fought for a set of core issues–the same core issues that have formed the basis of his campaign. Is he perfect? No. I differ with him on gun control, to mention just one thing. But here’s the thing: I know where he stands. He stands precisely where he has always stood–for social and economic justice for those of us who cannot afford to pay $225,000 for a house, let alone a speech. He fought for his ideals when they were unpopular. But now those ideals’ time has come–and Hillary, in true Hillary fashion, has suddenly discovered that she supported them all along. ($15 minimum wage, anyone?)
2. I am voting for Bernie Sanders  I’ve seen the way the two candidates have conducted themselves under the pressure of the campaign–in interviews, on the debate stage, and in rallies. And I find Sanders’ conduct infinitely more palatable.
3. Most important, I am voting for Bernie Sanders because Hillary Clinton’s message throughout the campaign has been,”Dreams are for suckers. Accept the status quo. You’ll never change anything. You might as well not try.”
I don’t accept that. I don’t accept that because for me, it’s just not true. My life has broken more often than anybody’s life should. Each time it broke I faced a decision: I could just try to get back to “normal”–to re-establish the status quo–or I could take a deep breath, look around, and use my broken life as an opportunity to ask myself, “What is it I really want to be? What do I really want to do with my future?” And then, somehow–maybe because things were so broken there really was nowhere to go but up–I took the leap into the unknown. I dreamed big. I took hold of those dreams and let them pull me to a better place.
Was that new place perfect? No. But that new place was built on dreams, not fear. And when the new place breaks–and it does–I know that I can dream big again.
I am not voting for Hillary because her pitch asks me to pipe down, get in line, accept the corruption in our political system, stop trying to be my best self. She’s asking me to kill a little bit of my soul. I am voting for Bernie for the same reason I voted for Barack Obama–because he’s challenging me to grow, to dream, to believe that though we are no great shakes as a nation right now, we can be better, if we work at it. Dreams don’t come easy. We’ve seen that.
Quite likely Bernie Sanders will lose the primary. I could argue about the shenanigans we’ve seen, but others could very rightly say that our politics have always had shenanigans. They would be right. But here’s the thing: Just because something’s always been there doesn’t make it right. And now that I have the opportunity to actually vote for a candidate with integrity, why on earth would I throw that opportunity away on “business as usual?”

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So The Boy comes home from school a couple weeks ago and tells me there are parent-teacher conferences coming up. Because I am a Good and Caring Mom (and because I live in a small town, and the school administration and teaching know where I live and while Hunt Me Down if I don’t show up) I dutifully trot myself down to the school on the night of conferences, The Boy in tow. It’s a beautiful place, our school. I think it was designed by the same guy who designed Central Park in New York (he did a number of schools in our area, apparently while he was out slumming), and the building has been kept up, but not aggressively modernized. Our school has not an auditorium, but a theater, with theater seats, plaster molding and a crest around the proscenium, and a stage. I sit in the dark in that theater and I slip out of time, and sit with all the other parents who have listened to their children play and sing from those seats. It’s a good part of history, and I love history.

I particularly love local history, and so when The Boy’s history teacher tells me that she’s going to have the students read Deep Creek, a novel based on local history, I am intrigued. She explains that the incident on which the novel is based occurred at Deep Creek, on the Oregon side of the Snake River.

So I go home, and download the novel onto my kindle and start to read, and then every afternoon The Boy and I sit in the sun outside our coffee shop and talk about the book we’re both reading. At least we do that for a few days, and then I get far, far ahead of him, so we can’t talk about it anymore lest I spoil the story for him.

I finish the book. It’s a terrible story. Well written, but a terrible story. The facts are these: A group of Chinese miners were camped at Deep Creek on the Snake River while they mined various sites in the area. And then one day a group of seven cattle rustlers swept down upon them, tortured and massacred them. According to some sources it’s the worst such even in Oregon history.

That was bad, but then it got worse. Turns out that the men doing the massacring (and there’s virtually no doubt who they were and what they did) weren’t just cattle rustlers. When they weren’t rustling cows and and massacring Chinese miners these men were good, upstanding, church-going members of the Wallowa community. They were ranchers, farmers, laborers, family men in some cases. In fact, that was their primary defense–that they were “good men” (in one case a “good schoolboy” with a bright future in front of him–the youngest member of the group was in his mid-teens) and so of course wouldn’t have done such a thing, and if they did, well, the Chinese probably deserved it–they weren’t real Americans. They looked different, spoke a different language–there was some question whether they had souls. Certainly they didn’t see America like the good folks in Wallowa saw America…is any of this starting to sound familiar?

In the end, the three men who were caught were acquitted (they blamed the others who had evaded capture–even though all of the men had been there, and from the ammunition recovered it appeared that all but possibly one had participated in the killing). After all, they were Good Men, and the Chinese were, well, Chinese, not good Christians, likely not even fully human. Nobody was even completely sure how many men were there–eventually the best estimate was that around 34 men had died at Deep Creek. There wasn’t even an accurate record of their names. Besides, they were dead, and Deep Creek was so very, very far from anywhere. Even if one of the miners had survived, he quite likely wouldn’t have been allowed to bring legal action, or possibly even testify, since they weren’t citizens. In the end It was easier, and better for Lewiston (the closest town) to simply push the dreadful incident into one of those dark and shadowy corners where we put the shameful things that remind us that all too often we are more than we appear. In this case, the records were literally shoved out of sight–lost or hidden for nearly 100 years in a basement.

Eventually the records were unearthed, and there was a sort of acknowledgement of the Deep Creek Massacre–the cove where the creek enters the Snake River is now called Chinese Massacre Cove. But we still don’t have a firm record of them men’s names who died that day. After all, they were Chinese, not real Americans.

I finished Deep Creek, and found myself wondering about the men who perpetrated this outrage–and about the people who chose to close their eyes to the monsters in their midst, to deny that “good men” had done a horrifying thing–and torturing and killing 34 virtually unarmed men is horrifying, particularly since there seems to have been no real reason for the act apart from race hatred.

What does it mean to us when the “good men” we respect and admire commit evil deeds? What does it mean that we prefer to look the other way, to refuse to call their actions by their true names, and hold them accountable? What does it mean when we refuse to demand an accounting from those who have done evil in our name, when we say we choose to “focus on the future?” How can we have a healthy, happy future when it’s built on such a shoddy foundation?

There has been a lot of talk about returning to the principles that we like to ascribe to our forbears. Nobody likes to mention Deep Creek. Nobody likes to mention the havoc wreaked on the people who were here before us. Nobody likes to mention the deep prejudice that has marred our history.

There are many good and honorable things in our national history, but there are also dark and shameful things, things with which we have yet to really grapple as a nation. Like the men judging the “good men” who went out one weekend and slaughtered 34 other men for no good reason, those who shout the loudest about returning to our forbears’ values don’t like to acknowledge the deep wounds those who went before us caused.

Why does this matter? Because the values that have come down to us have been shaped by those “good men” who loved their children, tended their farms, and in the off season rustled cattle and slaughtered defenseless men. It’s not a spoken thing, but the fear and hatred of the alien, strange, and foreign persist. Listen to the debate about guest workers. Listen to the rabid rhetoric directed at “Islamist Extremists”–and many seem to have forgotten that there are any other kind. Listen to the hate speech about healthcare making us “like Europe.” The attitudes that shaped the tragedy of Deep Creek are very much with us because the values that created those attitudes are still very much with us.

And that is why I get nervous when I hear conservative public speakers and politicians begin to wax eloquent about the virtues of our forbears, and how we should return to their values that “made America great.” Yes, crossing the continent took great courage. Surviving took great ingenuity. Exploiting and enslaving the vulnerable and robbing, imprisoning, and slaughtering those who were here before us because we coveted what they had took a very different set of skills.

All too often these days it seems that conservatism is paired with increasingly open racism, sexism, and exclusionary language and policies. Conservatism in its most virulent form has become little more than an attempt to roll back history on the social contract–and with that rollback we are seeing a new public acceptance of sexism and racism that would have been considered gauche and backward in the last years of the last century.

I don’t believe those restrictive, divisive values made us strong. I think they made us bullies. I don’t believe we should return to those values. I believe we should recognize that those who came before us were human, and sometimes monsters and heroes rode around in one skin, just as they do today.

History is important–we learn from it. But after we learn from it we should grow beyond it. We should recognize that Thomas Jefferson might have written movingly about freedom, but he still kept slaves, just as the men of Wallowa were good family men–and criminals and murderers. Perhaps this is the lesson of our time–understanding ourselves means understanding the darkness and the light that live in each of us.

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In light of the jobs report, let me offer not a solution, but a new way of looking at the problem: The story of Harriet and Betsy. I’ve posted this before, but it’s been a while. Enjoy the story–and consider a trip to the junkyard!

The last few years have been hard on all of us. When things started going south financially I started thinking about this book, and how much it helped me in the times when my life broke down. And so I’m posting it. 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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