unwanted attention

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I don’t go places alone at night. I haven’t for a few decades. I live in a quiet, safe neighborhood where women sometimes walk their dogs or go running alone at night. Even here it’s hard for me to understand how they don’t feel fear… aloneat night. The only time I feel safe and at ease out in the world at night is when I’m with my husband. Because I know he could – and would – beat the shit out of anyone who might try to hurt us, to hurt me. Because he is fearless in a way I could never be. I’d love to live in a world where women feel safe, but that isn’t the world I live in.

In my early twenties I was more fearless. Or maybe just more stupid. During a college semester in Paris, I rode the subway alone at night and then walked home the few blocks from my stop, through my quiet neighborhood, to my apartment. Once I made the mistake of barely smiling politely at the middle aged man in a business suit who opened the door for me that led out of my stop to the street. The middle aged man who… What? Misread my signals? The middle aged man who started following me home, a short distance behind me, and who didn’t stop following me until I spun around suddenly, looked him in the eye and yelled, “Go fuck yourself, asshole!” I yelled in French, unaware until that moment that I knew how to swear with such vulgarity in another language.

Unwanted attention.

That same semester, a decade before cell phones and internet, I would walk the block from my apartment to make a calling card call to the U.S. on a pay phone in a phone booth that was missing its door. I called at night, Paris time, when I knew I would reach my best friend between her classes in California. One night as I was telling her a story, I saw a man walking toward me. He stopped two feet away from the open booth where I stood and just stared at me – a quizzical look on his face – for what felt like an eternity. I told my friend that I might have to drop the phone and make a run for it, trying to summon up my courage while paralyzed with fear. The worst possible scenario, my greatest fear, flashing through my mind. I could almost swallow my racing heart in my throat. Then he turned around and walked away, and I ran home still trembling, imagining how things could have gone, how trapped and helpless I would have been. I comforted myself – barely – thinking that he must have not been 100% well in the head; as if a mentally fragile man could be any less terrifying than one with a plan to actually pursue me.

Unwanted attention.

When I was in first grade I was terrified of the moment each morning and afternoon when recess would end and we would have to line up to go back into class. That was when two little boys would rush me, one on either side, and kiss me on each cheek before running away laughing to the end of the line. Twice a day they would make me cry. I don’t remember how or when it stopped, or if my teacher took it seriously. I think my parents did.

Unwanted attention.

In my early thirties I spent a night comforting a friend as she took the morning after pill. She had been raped by a man she knew while another man laughed and helped to hold her down. I held her hand as her uterus contracted and she relived the experience, doubting and questioning herself at every turn, wondering if she had led them on, if she had asked for it. As if she could have changed the story if she’d done something, anything, different. “Please don’t blame yourself for what those fuckers did to you,” I said over and over to her.

Unwanted attention.

The summer I turned 20, I went to Club Med on vacation with my family. The hyper Brazilian activities director with the bad perm went by the name of Doodoo. Doodoo wouldn’t leave me alone, kept nagging me to come do water aerobics or some other activity with him and a bunch of middle aged women; I think he thought we were lonely. I kept asking him to just let me read in peace under my umbrella on the beach. One night at the bar, where I could get virgin (and sometimes real) pina coladas with the payment beads I kept around my wrist, Doodoo sat himself down next to me and told me that I should lose weight. Because then I would meet some feminine standard he’d decided he was the arbiter of. Because I should give a shit what he thought of my body. I told him to fuck off. In English.

Unwanted attention.

I spent a good part of high school and college carrying more weight than I felt comfortable with. It was hard to feel good in my body when I didn’t meet the standards of beauty ascribed to me by whom… Men? Society? The media? I craved attention that I didn’t get. I was every guy’s friend, but never anything more. In a crowd of skinny California blondes, nobody notices a chubby brunette.

What does that mean, to want the attention and not get it?

Then to start getting it,

but it’s not me who’s in charge of

when and

why and

from whom,

but someone else?

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within the discomfort

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I’m sitting in the sukkah on our back deck. Poles of PVC tubing hold up three walls of plastic tarps, while the fourth side of the square structure remains open. The “roof” is wooden lattice, we didn’t get around to covering it with fallen branches from the trees in the woods across the street before it started raining. The rain stopped yesterday but it still smells wet, clean and fragrant. And it’s still humid from the hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico that caused devastation in Nicaragua but was only a storm by the time it reached northern Georgia.

The sukkah reminds me of when I first went to the Burning Man festival, where friends and I constructed a geodesic dome – also from PVC – covered by a translucent white parachute. I can’t remember how many rolls of duct tape it took to put that thing together so that it created some semblance of shelter and shade from the hot desert sun. But I do remember the massive high desert dust storm that blew off the parachute and almost blew away the structure itself and everything that was inside while we kept cover inside our cars.

Everything is temporary.

So striking – and humbling – when you are in the middle of a vast empty desert, in a temporary “city” that only exists for a week. This was back when very few people came to the festival in RVs and most people slept in tents or domes like ours.

That’s one of the lessons of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, one of the reasons we build this “temporary dwelling” and spend time within it each fall. We’re also supposed to invite people into the sukkah, including the spirits of our ancestors.

Everything is temporary.

I feel incredibly uncomfortable right now. Last night I couldn’t fall asleep, my body was restless, my skin felt itchy and dry, my belly rumbled, my mind swam with unsettledness, and I was annoyed that I was so tired but still awake.

My beloved California – where I grew up, where I come from – is burning and I am so far away. One calamity follows another right now, before we are able to catch our breath, before there is time to recover. No time to heal, no space to hope.

Everything is temporary.

I think about all of the people in the world for whom this is their always. The constant worry about where their next meal will come from. The loss of babies from malnutrition. The temporariness of homes and jobs when there is income insecurity or no jobs at all. The fragility of health. Fear of violence. And even the ability to summon up hope for something better, perhaps, one day.

Somehow the discomfort feels like my responsibility right now, like this dwelling I need to sit in and stay connected with. Especially as someone whose actual home is intact, whose family is safe and well, whose pantry is full, whose job is secure, whose car runs well, whose children get to go to school, whose skin is white.

Are most of us feeling this right now, or are there people, maybe entire communities out there that remain untouched, that don’t feel troubled, that are not concerned? Is it business as usual for anyone, or is this now our new business as usual? Is there anyone who doesn’t feel like we have fallen into an irreversible dystopia fit for fiction? Because I’ve read a lot of those books and it doesn’t feel as though we’re headed there, it actually feels like we may well have arrived. Dystopian fiction is written as a warning. What we need now are prescriptions…

for resolution

for answers

for unity

for justice

for healing.

Please tell me that everything – even our collective discomfort and all of this pain and destruction – is temporary.

capacity & tears

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“Well some say life will beat you down
Break your heart, steal your crown…”

~ Tom Petty (1950-2017)

I cried at my desk today. The tears fell quietly as I was reading…

About Las Vegas.

Puerto Rico.

The Virgin Islands.

Mexico.

Houston.

Florida.

West Coast wildfires.

About the genocide against the Rohingya people in Mianmar.

The violence inflicted on innocent people by Spanish police during Catalonia’s elections for independence.

The relentless disease of racism in our country.

The brutality and militarization of American police.

The mass incarceration of black and brown people on American soil.

About our national addiction to the right to bear arms over the right to live free from the fear of violence.

The destruction of the EPA because who cares about climate change when there’s money to be made.

Last night I cried into my daughter’s belly as we listened to Tom Petty, who may have, in that moment, been breathing his final breaths. I remembered details of when I’d seen him in concert in 2009, on one of the most beautiful spring nights I have ever experienced, watching the most gorgeous sunset over the San Francisco Bay. Quite possibly the most incredible live performer I have ever seen and heard.

Last night it felt as if all of the rock stars of my childhood and teen years in the 1970s and 1980s were being taken away, one at a time. Last night I felt every single one of my years, hyper aware that when you’re in your forties, the people around you start to die more steadily. Should I be getting used to this by now?

Today I learned that a childhood friend had died of cancer in the past year. That was the piece that got me in that deepest place in my gut, and then the tears fell more quickly, less gently.

A dear friend recently told me that she thinks my “heart and mind have tremendous capacity.” Most of the time I think I can hold all this, the deep pain that is all around me.

The wounds I know my refugee clients hold from their experiences escaping war and losing everything they had known before.

The brokenness and injustice, in plain view or hidden, in every corner of my city, my state, my country, my world.

The image of the two black people who were pulled over by two white cops a few weeks ago when my family and I turned a corner in our car and we pulled over to film what was going on, just in case things went south and somebody with dark skin ended up dead. Thankfully they didn’t this time, but the imprint of the potential injustice that was happening before my eyes as the cops searched the car for what…? An excuse to lock up – or kill – two more black people for a broken tail light? For driving while black?

When I was younger I used to feel like a sponge, super sensitive to all that was around me. But I’ve learned with age that it’s possible to connect with the pain all around without being quite so absorbent. How to hold the pain without it getting stuck inside. Still, though… Last week I took Facebook off my phone, with no regrets. I needed the reminder that I am the one in charge of what information I take in, and when.

* * * *

Last Friday night and Saturday was Yom Kippur. For the first time in many years, I felt moved to actually fast completely. I still drank water so that I wouldn’t get a three-day headache, but this year it felt good not to put anything else in my body. I also powered off my phone for the day, which felt amazing. During breaks from the services I read and wrote in my journal. I walked around and talked to people. I sat with two very tiny babies and their moms whom I’d just met.

I cried a lot. Not just during the Yizkor memorial service, but at other moments too. While the most incredible cellist played the Kol Nidre melody, accompanied by organ and choir and cantor, and even more magically, when he played the melody solo. While I closed my eyes and connected with each of my relatives who have died, picturing each of their faces in my mind’s eye, feeling them close.

The veil between life and death feels thin at Yom Kippur, and I held both the humbling awe of that understanding and the comfort of feeling held by my ancestors and even my tiny baby daughter who died before me.

I don’t take any of it for granted. I’ve been through hardship, tragedy, loss and struggle. I know how incredibly lucky I am for the stability and goodness of my life. For all of the people I get to love and hold dear. For my health. For my home.

For my life.

It feels like an incredible responsibility, to hold that gratitude along with the awareness that things are so bad and so hard and so incredibly messed up in so many places outside my safe little cocoon.

The awareness that there is so much work to be done, so much light I need to summon up and magnify to help balance out the dark.

And the awareness that it is all so temporary and fleeting. And so precious and beautiful. Even the tears.

 

cracked

Family at Brown AME church

Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, AL, central to the movement for Voting Rights

During my senior year of college I wrote my honors thesis about my family’s history in the Lodz Ghetto in Poland during the Holocaust. A year later, during a mostly solo seven-month journey through Europe and Israel, I traveled to Lodz, and went on to Warsaw, Krakow and the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camps. It was 1994 and I was 23 years old, and I traveled this piece of my trip with my best friend. I wouldn’t meet my husband for another five years, but I remember feeling unexpectedly victorious as I walked the tracks into Birkenau, toward the crumbling brick remains of the crematoria, dreaming of the Jewish man I would one day marry and raise Jewish children with. Another generation. I thought about how happy that would make my grandmother, a survivor of Auschwitz and Theresienstadt concentration camps, who had died when I was 13. (I know she smiled the day my husband was ordained as a rabbi.)

Walking on those tracks that the Jews in cattle cars had ridden toward their imminent deaths felt like the most powerful vindication to the evil forces and hateful humans who had tried to exterminate my family and my people. I found myself laughing because they had failed, because I was alive, two generations later, and my line would continue. I married a man whose family were also survivors, who came from a town just 30 kilometers from Lodz, where my family had lived for generations before the war. I like to think we might have met in a different way, in a different place, regardless of Hitler. Besheret. Meant to be.

Those two experiences – unraveling the untold stories of my family as I researched my thesis, learning about those who were killed by the Nazis and those who survived, and returning to the places where they had lived and where so many had died – were cathartic and healing. They were also infuriating and disheartening, because I knew I could never recover so much of what had been lost, and because I saw the way the Holocaust had inflicted a sharp and jagged crack in my family, one that has become a profound part of its legacy. One that still impacts who we are.

What I didn’t know that day walking down the tracks of Birkenau at age 23 was that I would, almost 20 years later, adopt a black son. And that the sharp and jagged crack of my family story would intersect with the sharp and jagged crack of his own history – one he is still, at age four, too young to comprehend.

Edmund Petus Bridge

Named for a Confederate general, the Edmund Pettus Bridge was the beginning of the march for Voting Rights from Selma to Montgomery, AL, in 1965, and also the site of Bloody Sunday, when nonviolent protestors were violently assaulted by police.

We just returned from a family trip to Alabama to visit the Civil Rights Trail between Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery. We’ve been living in the South, in Atlanta, for four years, touching Civil Rights and the country’s dark history of racial injustice against black people a little more closely than we did during our years growing up in California. But I wanted to know more, to touch more, to face more, to understand more about my son’s story – about my country’s story. So we set off with intention for all four of us – not just our black son, who is just starting to see the difference in the color of our skins, but our biological teenage daughter and ourselves, their white parents.

Foot Soldier

The Foot Soldier statue at Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, AL. There is a fascinating podcast about the statue at http://www.revisionisthistory.com.

I am filled with images from our journey, of the Civil Rights sites we visited and the stories we heard about the Voting Rights March between Selma and Montgomery in 1965. Of the juxtaposition of Civil Rights and Civil War that is ever present in the South – Confederate flags honoring the fallen soldiers buried in the cemetery in Selma, monuments to Confederate heroes celebrated for their valor in the struggle for “states’ rights,” (or the right to own other humans). Heroes who went on to don white hooded robes and lynch those who had recently been “freed.”

Confederate Monument

Monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest, Civil War hero and grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Old Live Oak Cemetery, Selma, AL

But this is the image that remains with me: We are in Cahawba, the ghost town that remains of what was the original capital of Alabama in the 1800s. A few fallen down houses remain, surrounded by barbed wire, one inhabited by the descendant of slaves as late as 1995. The slave quarters of a now-erased grand mansion remain, spookily boarded up but recently whitewashed with fresh paint.

Slave Quarters

Slave Quarters, Old Cahawba Ghost Town

We make our way through a field to what was the slave cemetery, and follow the guide on a piece of paper to the ten graves that are marked with numbers. We read that these ten are only the graves whose occupants are known, but that the cemetery has hundreds of other unmarked graves where people whose skin is brown like my son’s rest. You know you are passing one because the earth there is more sunken than its surrounding soil. It’s hot and damp because it is July in the South, and it is incredibly quiet. We are the only ones there.

Amelia Headstone

Celie Craig Headstone

Old Cahawba Slave Cemetery

My son runs ahead looking for the next marker, proud to show us he knows his numbers. My black son whose ancestors were abducted from their people and their homes and came to America on slave ships. My black son whose ancestors were sold at auction, enslaved. My black son whose ancestors labored their entire lives and were beaten mercilessly and separated from those they loved. My black son whose ancestors were raped by their white masters. My black son whose ancestors escaped bondage for freedom in the North, and who were recaptured by slave hunters. My black son whose ancestors labored as sharecroppers after they were told they were free. My black son whose ancestors were lynched on the town square surrounded by an audience of white spectators. My black son whose ancestors learned that separate was not equal, and that to stay alive it was best to look down when a white person walked by. My black son whose ancestors fought Jim Crow and marched for justice. My black son whose ancestors followed the Great Migration north into Ohio, seeking a better life, finding a different kind of discrimination and segregation in urban ghettos.

Lynching Jars

Soil collected from the sites of over 4,000 documented lynchings of black people in America, a project of the Equal Justice Initiative, http://www.eji.org

My black son whose history I don’t know and can only imagine; who only knows (for now) that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his sisters and brothers marched for justice because there was a time when things weren’t fair. My black son who grasped for the first time while we were in Alabama that black people – his people – were once slaves like the Jews in Egypt. This is his entry into understanding slavery, because for three years in Jewish preschool he has learned the story of Moses and Pharaoh at Passover.

He runs to the next marker and I walk toward him, wondering about those who came before him. In the same way I did about my own ancestors as I walked into Birkenau. My story and his story – our cracked histories intersecting – different stories with a shared experience of violation, of murder, of genocide, of a history and people exterminated. But our stories are different in one critical way: The violation against his people didn’t stop when slavery ended. It didn’t stop when Jim Crow was outlawed. It didn’t stop with the Voting Rights Act. (Especially as that is being unraveled today.) It didn’t stop when schools were desegregated. (Especially as schools resegregate today.) It didn’t stop when a man with the same color skin as his became President of the United States of America. The violation against his people keeps taking different forms, and racial discrimination is alive and well. That cracks my already cracked heart into a million pieces. Because these are the stories of his heritage and the reality of his present that I have a responsibility to explain to him as he grows older.

And I’m not sure how to tell those stories in a way that instills hope.

Tomb of Unknown Slave w Noose

Civil Rights Memorial Park, Selma, AL

I am the white Jewish mother of a black Jewish son. My ancestral story, my ancestors, will become his only if he chooses them. But even if he does, he has another critical story. His own ancestral story is a different one than mine. His roots originate in a different part of the world, and his path winds through other places in ways I don’t think I can ever claim to completely understand.

I want to give my son heroes; for now he has Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mrs. Rosa Parks. I want to give him ancestors, but I know so little about his roots that I can only put pieces together from a broader, painful story. I want to give him community, a sense of belonging to his own people – both black and Jewish.

I want to give him his own story, but I know it will be his to write, his to tell, and his to claim.

Kids at monument 2

Civil War Memorial, Montgomery, AL

resilience

Cracks

re·sil·ience

rəˈzilyəns/

noun

1.

the physical property of a material that can return to its original shape or position after deformation that does not exceed its elastic limit.

2.

an occurrence of rebounding or springing back.

3.

the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.

****

Resilience is a big word right now. There are studies about teaching resilience and grit to children in schools. Which I think is awesome, and much more helpful to becoming a functional human than understanding geometry, or even global politics.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, whose husband died suddenly two years ago, is making the media rounds speaking about her new book and foundation, Option B, which “helps people build resilience and find meaning in the face of adversity.” I admit that there is a part of me that is resistant to the idea of a celebrity making this into a movement – giving us collective permission to grieve properly and in our own ways through our losses, and teaching the world around us how to better support us. I’ve been talking to some of my friends who have also lost young children and our conversations seem to go like this: What do you think of this? Haven’t we been going there for years now? This stuff – this really tragic, really hard, really bad stuff happens so much more than people want to know. Why does tragedy need to happen to a celebrity for it to become okay for our society to finally talk about it?

But the nagging feeling I get when I look at the Option B website is this: Do we have to make something out of our losses, our challenges, our trials? What happens if we don’t?

I think most of the time, when it happens – when we develop resilience – it’s not because we did anything. It just happens. And sometimes it doesn’t, and the hard things are just hard, and they suck, and you don’t come out the other side feeling more capable of handling anything that might come next. You are just tired and you want to shout, Enough already! This effing blows!

And that’s okay. You are not a failure if you don’t come out the other side of your awful tragedy feeling stronger, wiser, or more resilient. You are not better than with resilience than you are without. There is nothing about resilience to be proud of. Resilience doesn’t have to be the goal. In fact, there doesn’t have to be any goal when life is hard except getting through a day.

Recently I had the thought that I have earned my resilience out of all that I have suffered or struggled through or overcome. But have I really? Or did the resilience I have just develop on its own? Maybe it’s even something I came into this life already possessing.

I just don’t know that I buy the notion that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger or more resilient. The idea that we are transformed into better people out of what we have lost, what we have grieved, what we have suffered. Because I would give up my resilience and strength and wisdom in a heartbeat if it meant that my baby didn’t die eight years ago and instead was a healthy girl about to finish third grade and celebrate her ninth birthday. Or that my parents hadn’t turned my world upside-down at age 15 when they divorced. Not to mention how quickly I would give back the autoimmune condition I have struggled to live a normal life with for 20 years.

Because living children are better than resilience. And physical health is better than the emotional strength gained from surviving an illness. And a stable family of origin is better than the wisdom I gained from being independent and responsible beyond my years as a teenager. All those hours in therapy and doctor’s offices and the neonatal intensive care unit took a lot of time, energy and money I would joyfully have spent otherwise. Like on a beach in Hawaii.

I get it: The human search for meaning, especially building meaning out of adversity. It’s what keeps us moving forward. It helps us to rebuild. Otherwise nothing makes sense, and it all feels like a big cruel joke.

But what if we can let it be okay to just live through adversity and arrive at the other side cracked, or even completely broken? What if we don’t have to overcome or become stronger, but just figure out a way to put one foot in front of the other and wake up each day feeling a little less shitty than the day before? What if there will always be a part of you that is keeping an eye over your shoulder for the next unexpected kick in the back of the head?

This is the thing: I don’t think we bounce back out of adversity to how we were before. Adversity changes us completely, forever. Even in our cells, our DNA. (see: epigenetics)

I think the idea of rebounding or springing back – which is often part of conversations about resilience – can be a setup for feeling 100% like a failure, even if you do manage to come out the other side a little stronger. You don’t bounce back because there is no back to go back to. You just do your best to move forward, maybe evolve a little, maybe transform a little – or maybe you just find yourself in unfamiliar surroundings, hardly able to recognize yourself, but accepting your changed self anyway. Because that’s your only option.

That kind of acceptance can require an enormous amount of forgiveness. Towards ourselves, mostly.

Maybe – not even by doing anything intentional – you even exceed your elastic limit, and you become bigger. Not better, just more expansive. Because we aren’t static. Even when we feel like shit, part of that feeling comes from knowing that there is something that feels just a little bit better. Even if we don’t exactly know how we might get there, or if we even want to.

After I lost my baby daughter, people would say things to me like,

I just don’t know that I could survive what you’ve survived.

And also:

You’ve been through so much.

With all you’ve been through, how are you as grounded and balanced (as you seem to be; meaning: How are you not a bitter, angry mess?)

You’re so strong. (Meaning: From now on, this is how we expect you to be.)

You’re so wise. (Really?)

And I would reply, But you would survive. Because you just do. Because you aren’t given any other choice.

I’ve surprised myself with what I can survive. People around me surprise me constantly, too. Friends and family battling cancer. My refugee clients at work. Everyone I know who lives with a chronic illness. I just don’t know that surviving is any great feat. It’s just what we do when shit happens.

I don’t get knocked down easily anymore.

I have survived “the worst” already, but I also know that doesn’t mean there definitely isn’t any more “worst” to come.

I know that I can handle what life is going to dish out next.

Maybe partly because of resilience, because of strength, because of wisdom.

But mostly because I just know I have to.

Perhaps that’s all resilience is. One step in front of the other. Forgiveness. And being really, really gentle with ourselves and each other.

Because life is hard, and it can be good too. That much I believe.

ports of call

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“Have you been to Brindisi?”

His eyes grow wide, he smiles, and there is recognition.

“Of course! Brindisi, Izmir, Haifa, Ashdod, Piraeus, everywhere!

“My father is from Egypt.”

“He is, really?”

“Yes. My family is Jewish, they were forced to leave Egypt in the late 1950s when the country was nationalized.”

His traveler’s eyes – which have seen every port of the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea, the Persian Gulf – remain wide.

“My grandmother and her second husband – he was in the shipping business – they moved from Alexandria to Venice. Then to Beirut, then to Haifa, and then to Brindisi. She lived 50 years in Brindisi and is buried there.”

“Brindisi is at the very bottom of Italy. I have been there many times.”

“Yes, on the edge of the heel of the boot. I visited her there.”

****

He was a ship’s captain for thirteen years. Large ships, ocean liners and cruise ships. He tells me about all the people he met from all over the world, fellow lovers and laborers of the sea. People of all religions but you kept religion and politics separate. He has seen what happens when you don’t.

He looks like a sailor. Hearty. Warm. Bright. Strong.

Again, that quality I continue to encounter in the refugee communities I work with: resilience.

He tells me that he swam across a river to escape his country, through one new country and into a third. His wife is still in that third country, where they met, waiting for the right visa to join him permanently.

He tells me that he has a green card but no passport. I understand what this means: He is stateless. Like my father and his family when they had to leave their Egyptian passports and nationality behind.

Refugees.

He can’t work on a ship again until he becomes a citizen.

“Perhaps in two years,” he says.

****

He asks me if I think he should try to apply for refugee status in another country, in Europe, where maybe they help refugees more. (Perhaps he is wondering if there is a place where maybe he can be more sure of what the future holds for refugees?)

“My friends in Germany, they get help paying for apartments, for medical care, for education.”

I suggest that he not do anything right now because everything is changing daily. I make sure he knows not to leave the U.S. right now, though I know he can’t without a passport to elsewhere.

We look at education programs because he wants to learn about something completely different in the meantime, something practical when you live far from the sea, far from your profession.

He tells me that if he were twenty years younger when he had come to the U.S., instead of in his late thirties, he thinks he would have more opportunities, more possibilities ahead of him.

Then he says, “I have one more question. Can you help me understand why the gas company takes so much money from me every month? I am just one person.”

We spend the rest of our appointment switching gas companies to cut his bill in half. I find a coupon code that gives him an extra $100 in account credit.

This makes him very happy, because an extra $50 a month is a lot, not just on principle.

the golden door

golden-door

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

– Emma Lazarus, The New Colossus

They come through the doors of the tiny office where I work every day. I am one of three staff working at a small nonprofit refugee organization in Atlanta, Georgia. They are the women, men and children who have come seeking refuge in the United States.

They walk through our door as they begin to “resettle” into new lives in an unfamiliar place where they rarely speak the language. They are refugees, asylum seekers, and those with special immigrant visas who worked to support the U.S. military – our military – in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. They are individuals who left everything they knew to escape persecution and death.

They carry trauma like I cannot ever imagine. But you would never know it from their kindness, their patience, their graciousness, their humility. Their resilience. They come to us at the end of a long journey that has taken them to places I cannot even begin to imagine.

Their homes and the lives they have always known turned to rubble.

The loss of livelihoods, careers, educations, family members and friends. Community.

The dangerous journeys into unknown temporary places where they wait, often for years.

Weeks and months of vetting before it is deemed they are “safe” for us to accept into our country.

Do you know how much vetting a refugee has to go through before they can come here?

They arrive with the clothes on their backs and the few items they were able to bring with them, all this way; nothing compared to all they have lost.

They are resettled into tiny apartments for often large families, nothing like the places they knew before.

They are given the minimum they need: a family of five gets five plates, five glasses, five forks, knives and spoons, one set of pots and pans, five towels, two or three beds.

They get help finding jobs – but not the jobs they used to do utilizing the skills they have; instead jobs for $8 an hour with no benefits, unreliable hours, long distances to travel, harsh and often dangerous conditions.

Do you know what goes into preparing the chicken we buy wrapped in Styrofoam and plastic wrap at the grocery store? Do you know the people who do this work?

They sign up for English classes at the local community college, but the community college doesn’t provide childcare, so some with small children – usually women – get left behind.

They connect with other refugees who speak their language, perhaps some who have been here longer, and they form new communities.

Word of mouth brings them to our door.

We help them with basic needs – diapers for their children, feminine hygiene products for the women, laundry detergent, dish soap, toothpaste, shampoo, linens, items to complete the kitchens of women who love to cook, cooking oil, rice, lentils, cribs, car seats and toys for the children.

We help them understand and file their paperwork for food stamps and Medicaid, help them navigate the transition when those benefits end, help them read confusing letters from landlords. We help connect them with emergency aid when an unexpected event prevents them from making their rent.

Do you know what it’s like to arrive in a new country needing open heart surgery, and then to not be able to work to support your family? Do you know what life is like in a refugee camp when your heart is failing?

We help them find better jobs with better pay, perhaps even benefits. We help them register for training and credential programs to improve their opportunities. We help them research what it would take for them to do here what they did in their home countries.

Do you know how many years of school it takes for an Iraqi dentist who had a private practice for twelve years to become a dentist here? How does he go to school for four years while supporting his family?

When they come through our doors I do all I can to welcome them, to let them know in a small way that they are home. The people who walk through our doors are scared, apprehensive, unsure. On top of the traumas they carry and the challenges of their new lives, the messages they hear in the media are not those of welcome. They, too, read the words of accusation thrown their way in the media: that they are a threat, that they must be terrorists, that they are undeserving of our help, that they are overwhelming our system, that they are Muslim. Even their faith is thrown at them as a flaw, a danger.

Do you know how it feels for a traumatized person to be retraumatized?

I hope they also read what the media wrote about the thousands of people who rallied at airports around the country this past weekend to protest the anti-refugee, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim executive orders of our new presidential administration.

These are men, women and children like all of the men, women and children you know. They had lives before like the lives you and I live. They took their children to school in the morning in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, and welcomed them home with a snack and helped them with homework in the afternoon. They went to college, built careers, went to their jobs, celebrated births and weddings, prepared meals for family and friends. They sat and watched ball games and shows on TV.

Before they were refugees, they were people. They are still those people. When I look into their eyes that is what I see – humanity. If ever you aren’t sure, just look into their eyes.

The lamp beside the golden door of our small office remains lit and the door remains open. All are welcome here.

welcoming the refugee

I work with refugee women and their families at the Refugee Women’s Network in Atlanta. We were asked by Reuters to provide one of several “expert views” about refugees and the incoming presidency. The piece we are a part of can be found here. What follows is the complete piece I submitted to Reuters yesterday.

The words immigrant, refugee, Muslim, walls, and terrorism have ignited fear, hostility and division throughout the 2016 presidential election cycle. The refugee communities we work with at the Refugee Women’s Network in Atlanta, Georgia, arrive to the U.S. from countries where conflict, war, persecution, killings – and terrorism – have torn them from their homes, their families, their cultures and everything they know.

In spite of the images we are bombarded with of boats packed with people off the coast of Greece, or long lines in a camp in Lesbos, a refugee is not an abstract identity. Refugees are people who had homes and careers, who studied in universities, fell in love, built families and raised children with an eye toward a better future. They hoped for the same simple things we strive for as Americans.

In their home countries, they are no longer safe. When they arrive in the U.S. and are resettled in Atlanta, we do everything we can to not only ease the transition to life in America, but also so that they know they are welcome here. With limited funding from federal and state governments, the resettlement budget per person is extremely tight, and the months they can receive support are few. Most refugees receive help finding work in often-dangerous food production or manufacturing jobs, even those who bring medical degrees or doctorates from their home countries.

Our clients bring with them the traumas of all they have experienced and lost – homes that have become rubble, spouses who have been killed, chronic or terminal illnesses they have contracted from all they have suffered. Our job is not only to help them adjust to their new lives so that they can gain social and economic self-sufficiency, but to help them begin the long process of healing.

Refugees are scared right now. Their safety and future here feels more tenuous, and the messages they have heard throughout this election have in many cases revictimized and retraumatized them. They are concerned their missing family members won’t be allowed to join them in America. They fear they will lose their green cards or be deported. Like their American counterparts, they worry about how they will get health insurance, whether they will be able to go to college, if their food stamps will be lowered, if they will lose the social security disability coverage they began receiving after an injury at one of the local chicken factories where many of them work.

There must be continued funding at the state and federal levels to support the work of both large and small refugee organizations nationwide. These organizations must be well-staffed to provide a continuum of care that supports the range of needs of all members of a family – not just for the first 120 days after their arrival.

As providers of this support for refugees, we look to the presidency of Donald Trump and his administration to remember that we are a nation of immigrants, and that our diversity is not our weakness, but what makes us strong. For 130 years the Statue of Liberty has stood as the symbol of our welcoming shores for all those who come from tyranny and oppression. The nations of the world are watching to see whether we will open our doors to welcome refugees into our democracy. Our hope is that the incoming presidential administration – supported by the legislature on both sides of the aisle – will retain a spirit of inclusion that makes refugees feel not only welcome, but safe.

dear california

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Dear fellow Californians, from your friend who left the Golden State seven and a half years ago:

I’m having a hard time with all the posts – both humorous and serious – about California seceding from the union. I’ll tell you why.

I left California with my nuclear family seven and a half years ago so that we could pursue a better future, and it has been a good move for us. It was hard to leave, believe me. I love California, and it will always be my home. I consider myself a native, even though I only arrived from abroad at the age of seven in 1978, also so that my family (of origin) could pursue a better future. I still have my 415 area code, and I won’t let that one go easily. California made me who I am, and I am proud of that.

But for seven and a half years now, I have lived outside of California – in places that have been good to me and my family. I spent four years in historically conservative Southwestern Ohio, where I got to be part of the vote in Hamilton County in 2012 that gave President Obama his victory. After voting in California since I became a US citizen in 1994, 2012 was the first time I could really feel my vote counting. It felt amazing, and I was not alone. I met really good people during our time in Ohio. People who love their children as deeply as I love mine, people who care and who work for justice and hope, people who may speak a different language or have different beliefs or religions than me but who ultimately want many of the same things. When we moved into our home in Ohio, a neighbor I didn’t yet know literally brought us cookies to welcome us to the neighborhood. I know, cliché, but I remember saying to my husband, “I love the Midwest. People are so nice here.” And I was right, they are. For the first time in my life, in the Midwest, I had African American neighbors and friends, and my daughter went to school for the first time where her fellow students did not all look like her. It took leaving my Bay Area bubble for this to happen. Because in spite of the great diversity of California, my world in the Bay Area was incredibly homogeneous, and I take full responsibility for that.

We adopted our African American son just a few months before we left Ohio. He is my gift from the Midwest, and because of him and the people I met while living there, I will always feel a connection to Ohio. To the “Middle America” I got to know for the first time because I left California.

We now live in the South, in Atlanta, Georgia. This is the second time I live in a red state. Again, I have African American neighbors and friends. Again, my son isn’t the only black person in our neighborhood or community. He isn’t even the only black person in our Jewish community. Here in the South I have also met good people – heart-driven people who also fight for justice, who are as dismayed by bigotry and hate as my family and friends in California, and as my friends in Ohio. I have friends who voted for Hillary and I have friends who voted for Trump, and both of those friends are raising really good children. I have met GLBTQ friends here in the South. I have met transgender men and women here. I have met friends of all colors and races. I have met friends who are native Southerners and others who, like me, are transplants with other area codes in their phone numbers. For the first time here in Georgia, we were able to buy a home. We couldn’t do that in the Bay Area.

California will always have my heart, and I will always feel like I am home when I land at SFO, drive past the Pacific Ocean and breathe the delicious mixture of salt and bay leaves. But a piece of my heart is also in Ohio. And now, it is also in Georgia.

Dear Californians, I know you know this, but I have to say it: You are not better, smarter, more focused on justice and what is right, more civilized, more progressive, more traumatized today after the election, than other Americans. 26% of people voted for one candidate, 26% voted for the other, and 47% didn’t vote – because either they were disenfranchised or apathetic. But not all of the 26% who voted for your candidate (who was also my candidate) came from California or the Northeast. They also came from Ohio, from Georgia, and from all the states that are so easy to dismiss as foreign, as different, as backward, as stuck in the past.

This is not a time for divisiveness. We need California’s elected officials in the U.S. legislature to partner with the elected officials of all the other states. We need your progressive messages. We need your activism. This is not a time to separate yourselves, to protect your bubble. This is a time to get out of that bubble, to sit in that uncomfortable place and connect, to reach out to understand – not to get to know “the other America” but to realize that we really aren’t different. We are all America. And we need you – not to be separate, but to work alongside us for unity.

the way back

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As I got into bed last night around 2:30am, I told my husband that I felt like I had fallen through a hole in time and landed in an alternate reality. Like the dystopian fiction my father introduced me to when I was my tween daughter’s age: Huxley, Orwell, Bradbury, Camus. As if real life were still moving forward somewhere in the place I had fallen from, and I just wanted more than anything to find my way back there.

I lay awake for a while, knowing sleep was going to be elusive even though I was physically, mentally and emotionally sucked dry. I thought of all the people celebrating the 2016 election while I was lying in shock, the depth of sadness I feel today only barely registering. I practiced the words I would tell my daughter in the morning, when she woke up and realized that we hadn’t woken her up from sleep to hear the victory speech of the first woman president.

I don’t believe people are inherently bad, but I do believe that when we act from a place of scarcity rather than abundance, of fear instead of trust, of individualism over connection and collaboration, that we can do incredible harm and create rifts that can take generations to heal. I don’t want to be a part of that.

I woke up this morning and recognized a familiar feeling. It’s hard to describe, but it reminded me of the day over eight years ago when I woke up from a dark and brief sleep and realized that I had – the night before – said goodbye to my baby daughter Tikva as she breathed her final breaths. In that remembering, I felt a combination of shock, bewilderment, disbelief, the beginnings of a grief that I would (will) never quite completely shake, and this question:

How will I ever reconnect with hope?

There is one difference between that morning in 2008 and this one today. I have the gift of hindsight, the gifts of my experience, and the big picture of all I have gained since then. I know how I found my way back to hope.

It was a dark time, and for days, weeks, months, and even years I felt it all – anger, sorrow, fear, regret, doubt, hopelessness, aloneness, grief. So much grief. I cried and I wrote and I cried and I wrote and I questioned every single moment of my daughter’s short life and I screamed WHY at the universe, which had no answers for me.

And then, as I did all those things, I began the long, slow work of healing. And I did it, without realizing at the time, like this:

I connected. I met other parents who had lost their babies. It was painful and terrifying because all of a sudden there were a million ways babies can die, and I became aware of how often it happens and how many cracked hearts there are in the world. But those parents – they saved me. We saved each other. Connection saved us. It saves us every day.

I wrote. I wrote as if my life depended on it. I shared my experience for my own survival. I shared in others’ experiences as a witness, as a friend on the most difficult road. I put aside shame and self-consciousness and fear of not being good enough and I spoke openly about my experience. And I heard from others that they understood, that they felt understood. And I was able to turn some of my pain into a love that I could share with others.

I owned my story. I took responsibility for it, recognizing it as the greatest gift my daughter had given me. I started to practice radical self-love, forgiving myself for the ways I thought my body had let her down. I told my story in a new way – as a story of the mighty power of unconditional love. As a story of resilience. Even as a story of hope.

I reached way beyond my comfort zone. I sat with the discomfort until its edges softened and ease sneaked in. I trusted that I could contribute to the collective healing even as I was struggling to heal myself.

I became relentlessly determined to be a light in the world. Because I have held both life and death in my arms, and I don’t take anything for granted. Because on my daughter’s headstone are the words, “Love is all you need.” Because I know that I came here in this lifetime simply to love and to connect.

This morning I said to my husband, “I really need to read something today that is going to give me guidance on how to move forward. How to regain hope in order to dissolve the fear and sadness I feel.” I held my children tight before sending them off into a world that feels changed from how it felt yesterday. I went on Facebook and found comfort there, in community. I cried. I listened to Paul sing Let It Be and Hey Jude. I cried some more.

I don’t know that I’m going to find that single piece that will tell me what to do because I think the knowledge of how to move forward is going to come out of each one of us – together. But I am determined to find my way back to hope, so I promise you this:

I will connect.

I will write.

I will be responsible for the story I choose to tell and the words that I use.

I will dare to do uncomfortable things and put myself in uncomfortable places in order to bring about justice for all people.

And I will remain relentlessly determined to be a light in the world.

Will you join me?