Author Archives: Daphne Freise

About Daphne Freise

I've enjoyed a great career in aviation that has given me the incredible opportunity to be a student of the world for many years and hopefully many more to come. Thought-provoking third world countries with ancient histories and literature appeal to me much more than a luxurious beach resort. Currently writing travel memoirs and an account of my father's career as a federal corrections officer and its connection to the last years of his life. Published in the Pearl S. Buck Literary Journal.

The Blue Room

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Also published on Once A Guard, Now the Guarded – A Federal Corrections Officer’s Journey from Advocate to Victim

The call to dinner was the regular punctuation at the ends of my days of untroubled 4-year-oldness, which were spent contentedly playing alone in my little bedroom while Lora dutifully attended second grade. I enjoyed learning and she enjoyed teaching me, so upon her return from school, she frequently bequeathed to me all her newfound nuggets of wisdom.

I was too tall for a booster seat but too little to reach my plate if I sat normally in the chair, so I sat with my legs folded beneath me and stood on my knees to lean into every bite. My long blonde hair dragged through the perfect pile of mashed potatoes that had been hollowed with the back of a large spoon to create the perfect pit to fill with salt-soaked brown gravy.

The only flavor on a plate that could compete with mashed potatoes and gravy was what lay next to it—green beans drowned in bacon grease, the nectar of the Hillbilly gods, so limp and tender that they were more easily scooped with a spoon, rather than fixed to a fork.

Nowhere in the world will I ever again delight in a more mouthwatering side dish. My house at 501 North Main Street will forever stand as the Sacred Chapel of the Most Holy Green Beans. By the time they ended up in the white Corelle cornflower dish, the high temperatures from the pressure cooker and the infusion of animal fat had turned them from the tree-frog green velvety pods we picked from our own garden with laborious itchiness to the color of a deep forest fern. Mom fixed them the way she grew up eating them—the same way Great Grandma Tatum taught her—with the snot cooked out of them so hard that they couldn’t possibly have any nutritional value left. Defeated, drooping, and boiled like a bad soul in Hell, they melted and fell apart at their seams and spilled out little brown baby beans.

Dad stabbed his slab of pot roast with a fervor that was dependable and mighty. His fork pinned it firmly in place on the plate and he sawed back and forth, squealing his knife against the plate with a force that suggested that he was not quite convinced that the cow was already dead and not about to escape.  

At the dinner table, Dad spoke a language that I heard nowhere else and did not understand. There were no “shysters and crooks” in Clifford, the Big Red Dog, nor any mention of “corruption and Watergate” in The Pokey Little Puppy. It would be many years before I learned that there were thinly veiled “thugs and mobs” in some of those Little Golden Book fairy tales, and I was thirty before I grasped that all the names in the Flintstones had to do with rocks.

My childhood bedroom was blue on blue with some blue added here and there, and on the side, a peppering accent of blue. Everything but the ceiling and windowsills was blue. Pale, my mother called it. Blue, it was. The little square room at the southwest corner of our house was an azure, night sky, sapphire, indigo cave. It is likely at the root of my fear of water and inability to learn to swim.  

One day, Mom hauled an old black chifforobe out to the back yard and painted it a shade between royal and navy, but some of the ebony still shone through the brush marks. After it dried and was deposited in my room, I examined it with all the scrutiny my four-year-old eyes could muster, alternately focusing on the streaks of black that still bled through and the areas where the blue was applied more liberally. It seemed unfinished. I wanted it to be one color or the other, completely black, or completely blue. In retrospect, it is likely that we didn’t have enough money for a second coat of paint, which resulted in a distressed “Shabby Chic” style that would today bring a respectable price from any fashionable soccer mom worth her salt.

The shag carpet that covered my bedroom floor was mostly cobalt blue with a bit of deep emerald green speckled in. Lora’s floor was dressed in the same kind of rug, but hers was a blissful pairing of red and pink, of which I was deeply covetous. Our carpets’ thick, curly pile felt ankle-deep and had the same scratchy, frizzy texture that vexed my Barbie dolls’ hair after I took them to the bathtub.

I had a Holly Hobbie card game. She was a young girl clad in a prairie dress with an apron of mismatched patchwork. Topping off her couture was a puffy, oversized blue bonnet that obscured her face, as she was usually illustrated from a profile perspective. My little girl mind enjoyed her little girl card game just fine—I felt sophisticated as I held my hand of fanned out cards and furrowed my forehead in the same contemplative scowl as the cigar-smoking, whiskey-slugging men on Kojak and Columbo. Grown-up cards scared me—they were too busy, too cluttered with shapes and numbers, but above all, I was terrified of the faces of the jack, queen, and king and how their squared heads turned to the side, emphasizing the nose and chin whilst their eyes seemed to bore directly into mine.

 Mom was a seamstress and co-owned a sewing store and, while I am confident that she never had the slightest inclination to decorate my room in a poker den motif, I am grateful that her store never tempted her with material covered in red and black ghoulish face cards. However, she must have thought that I really, really liked Holly Hobbie for she found bolts of a cotton-blend fabric emblazoned with her likeness. Conveniently, the background color was blue. Behold, curtains.

Ruffled at the top, ruffled at the bottom, and ruffles on the panels’ edges, the little prairie girl whose face I could not see taunted me every time I looked at the windows. The disturbing theme intensified when Mom found the same print on a quilted bolt of fabric. Then, not only did repetitive images of the little prairie girl stare down at me from two windows, but hundreds more of her suddenly manifested on my bedspread and crept all over me as I slept.

Enter the red-cased record player and spinning disks of sound that drowned out all bother and boredom. I turned to Olivia Newton-John for comfort and imagined that she and Glen Campbell loved each other like Sonny and Cher and that the pretty blonde lady with an angel’s voice and the Rhinestone Cowboy were out there looking for me, their little girl, who somehow found herself living under the rule of a silent, faceless Holly Hobbie Gang.

Clayton Fountain, Inmate

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Also published on: Once A Guard, Now the Guarded – A Federal Corrections Officer’s Journey from Advocate to Victim

Dinner at our house was where I learned the word “President”. It is where Dad furiously ranted about something called Watergate and continued into fuming and venting about “thugs and crooks”. I was about four years old when those events happened, and I had no idea what a Watergate but, and Dad’s tone of voice made it clear that I should not ask.

Other things my father talked about during dinner every night were almost always related to his work. Ours was not a loud, abusive environment with an overstressed parent who took out his frustrations on his family, but the dinner table was a place where he sometimes released his tension.

He was well into a lifetime career as a federal corrections officer and after getting his feet wet at the prisons in Lompoc, California and Leavenworth, Kansas—both notorious for hosting the worst of the worst—he settled down at the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners, or as he referred to it, “the Joint”.

Red-faced and slamming the spoon into the dish that held the mashed potatoes, his knife and fork squealed across the plate as stew from the pot roast splashed onto his chest.

“This cock-eyed Watergate!” He was careful to not use curse words around us and made-up phrases that allowed him to adequately express his degree of disdain.

“What in the Sam hill were they thinking?” I didn’t know who Sam was, why he had a hill named after him, or how it was connected to what Dad was so mad about. Adding to my confusion, our beloved beagle/shepherd mix was named Sambo. I worried that Sam was going to take the blame for something that an innocent dog could not have done.

Dad wasn’t a heavy drinker, but he did frequently have a bit of red wine when he came home from work. We didn’t have the proper stemmed wine glasses, and the first time I saw one at Red Lobster, I thought, “Boy, this place is fancy! I wonder how we can afford to eat here.” To top it off, Dad left a few dollars on the table when we got up to leave. I recalled the scolding I got and the tears in Mom’s eyes when I lost a little purse with a five-dollar bill in it when we went to Texas to see my uncle. I grabbed the money and caught up with my parents at the door.

“Dad!” I cried out in panicked urgency. “You left this money on the table!” I was so proud to have prevented the loss of two precious dollars.

He grinned and took it from me and said, “Honey, that’s the tip for the waitress. You give the waitress a little money at places like this,” and he walked back to where we had been sitting and replaced the money. The next time we went to McDonald’s, I left a few pennies on the table.

Whether the absence of formal stemware was because we were not elegant entertainers or to downplay the consumption of alcohol, I can’t be sure. Instead, he drank from a small etched-glass jar that an olive and pimento cheese spread came in. When the last of the spread was smeared onto a slice of Wonder white bread, Mom threw away the metal lid and washed the jars until she had built a nice collection. They were just the right size for a drink of water before going to bed or to wash down a pill.

I loved purple grape juice, but we rarely had it at the house. I salivated when at church the communion tray of tiny shot glasses full of the delicious nectar bypassed me because I hadn’t been baptized yet. One day, I sneaked a sip of deep magenta liquid from a glass Dad had set down and reeled from its bitter horror. What I thought was a rare treat of church communion juice turned out to be from one of those bottles he bought at the Brown Derby liquor store. He always gave me the miniature plastic bull that dangled from a wire around the bottle’s neck. After tasting it, I wasn’t even interested in them anymore.

Sometimes Dad would pour his glass of wine and lie down on the couch without bothering to change out of his uniform, a sky blue short-sleeved button-down shirt, and charcoal gray pants. With the TV tuned to the news, he lay down, and soon his eyelids began to slowly lower, but not all the way shut. He looked like he was sleeping but sometimes I couldn’t tell for sure.  Some of the whites of his eyes still showed like they were rolled back in his head and it didn’t look like he was alive, but not yet dead either.

If I dared to change the channel to watch Tennessee Tuxedo, he jolted awake and scolded me to change it back to the news. When I protested that I thought he had fallen asleep and was not watching, he asked me who paid the rent here. I didn’t know what rent was, but I knew the answer was not me, so by deductive reasoning, I concluded that if you don’t pay rent, you don’t change the channel to cartoons even if Dad looks like he’s dead and can’t possibly be watching the news.

One evening, Dad was anxiously pacing through the house. His expression was more intense than usual—this was more than a bad day at work or exhaustion from the routine of double shifts. I studied him as he stepped into the living room and took determined, heavy strides to the front door, stepped outside for a minute, then thundered back inside. He paraded past me and around the corner of the dining room and I heard his every step as he marched up to his and Mom’s upstairs bedroom.

“Momma, what’s wrong with Daddy?” I asked, stealing a moment when he was out of earshot.

“Nothing, Sweetheart. Daddy just may need to go away to work for a few days,” she said. “But he’ll be back, it will just be a few days.”

I didn’t understand why he would have to pack a suitcase and leave town. I knew where Dad worked– I often rode with Mom to take his lunchbox to him. That was usually when he was working in the guard tower at the end of the lane that led from Kansas Highway to the menacing brick prison building.

Working in the tower was a preferred shift and Dad was grateful when he got that assignment even if he did occasionally get bored. Tower duty was checking in visitors and employees as they came and went, and obviously, keeping watch for escape attempts. But the greatest advantage was that it was a respite from the brain-rattling clangs of the iron cell doors and the gut-wrenching—and often dangerous—proximity to the inmates.

Drawers creaked and slammed and his bootsteps announced that he was returning down the stairs. He was troubled, and so distracted that he didn’t notice me sitting on the couch as I watched him carry a small bag out the front door. I heard the door of his pickup truck slam shut and he came back inside.

The 5:30 national evening news was on TV, but he was too agitated to sit down. He glanced briefly at the images being broadcast. A large stone and brick building was on fire, and smoke billowed into the sky as the news helicopter hovered to film.  Next to the burning building stood a tall, narrow structure that resembled Dad’s familiar guard tower. The anchor man’s voice was somber as he struggled, unscripted, to explain to the country what was happening. Dad’s worried expression deepened before he turned away.

The black anvil-like rotary dial telephone rang, its clangor amplified by the mahogany cabinet it sat upon. Mom later thought to put a folded towel under it in a futile attempt to soften the earsplitting peal so that it wouldn’t wake Dad when he was sleeping after a night shift. Dad stomped to the dining room and picked it up.

“Yeah. Yeah. Uh-huh. Okay.”

The conversation was short and cryptic. Dad hung up and continued to pace back and forth through the house and out to the truck and back. Several more calls rattled the evening, and the last one before my bedtime seemed to calm him. A palpable sigh rushed through the house and out through the doors and windows.

Dad was still staring at the floor as he hung up the receiver. He looked up at me…then to Mom…and the color of his face changed as his scowling frown relaxed.

“We’re not going,” he said.

They stood staring at each other. Their shoulders fell, their bodies released the fear and sense of foreboding that had overtaken them during those hours that evening.

We didn’t talk about what happened or nearly happened. I don’t remember how I learned that Dad and some of the other guards from The Joint were perilously close to being sent to Pontiac, Illinois, to help contain a riot. It was considered the most dangerous prison in the system. Three correctional officers had been murdered, and fires started in a violent, well-planned attack that involved hundreds of inmates. The facility’s staff was completely overwhelmed. The siege finally ended when state troopers and local police armed with shotguns and teargas were brought in.

A few years later, on October 22, 1983, two Aryan Brotherhood gang members murdered a couple of guards at the prison in Marion, Illinois. According to court documents (Silverstein v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, No. 12-1450,10th Cir. 2014), as Officer Merle Clutts and two other guards escorted Thomas Silverstein back to his cell after a shower, the convicted murderer walked behind Clutts. He paused at a cell and put his cuffed hands through the bars, where another inmate quickly unlocked the handcuffs and handed over a large shank—a rudimentary knife. He charged at Clutts, shouting declaration of a personal vendetta against his keeper—he had accused Clutts of intercepting his mail, destroying his artwork, and other offenses—and stabbed him forty times.

Documents from the court proceedings (United States of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v. Clayton Fountain, Thomas E. Silverstein, and Randy K. Gometz, Defendants-Appellants) state that after the killing, Silverstein paced the prison corridor pronouncing to all the other inmates and responding guards, “this is no cop thing. This is a personal thing between me and Clutts. The man disrespected me, and I had to get him for it.”

Later that day and in a different area of the prison, Clayton Fountain staged a second attack that mirrored that of Silverstein’s—with assistance from other convicts to unlock his handcuffs, overtake his escorts, and supplied with a shank. Officer Robert Hoffman died in the arms of his own son, who was also a guard at the prison. Two other guards were injured in the assault. One was left permanently disabled and the other’s injuries were minor.

Various accounts allege that Fountain’s reason for attacking the guards was that he did not want Silverstein to have more murders to his credit than he did. One guard testified that he also overheard Fountain say to another inmate that “it would have been fun” for him to have killed Hoffman’s son also.

These horrendous attacks led to extraordinary measures to contain the country’s most violent convicts. A few days after Clutts and Hoffman were killed, the penitentiary at Marion, the replacement for Alcatraz, went into lockdown. The Aryan Brotherhood inmates had savagely killed two of the guards’ brothers and it was time for pay-back.

While most of the convicts were already held one to a cell, their lifestyles were completely redefined. The complacency that allowed Fountain and Silverstein to coordinate with other inmates and murder two guards ended with absolute and unquestionable clarity. The twelve to fourteen hours a day that an inmate would typically spend outside of his cell was reduced to an hour and a half. Socializing was all but terminated. For all but ninety minutes a day, the most violent, demented convicts in the country were caged in tiny cells that held only a sink, a toilet, and a concrete bench for a bed.

According to a 2013 interview of a former Marion Correctional Officer by Slate journalist Justin Peters, up to possibly 50 inmates bore ferocious beatings at the hands of guards “exacting a measure of revenge”. (How a 1983 Murder Created America’s Terrible Supermax-Prison Culture, by Justin Peters, October 23, 2013)

The new policies alarmed advocacy groups who scrutinized them as beyond the pale of humane and fair, even for a maximum-security prison. Inmates claimed that the stricter conditions exacerbated mental health decline and therefore caused irreparable damage that crushed any degree of rehabilitation.

Silverstein was sent to Atlanta’s prison but was deemed a threat there following a scuttle in which Cuban detainees facilitated his release from solitary. He was then sent to the new prison built in Florence, Colorado, the max of the max for the worst of the worst.

Fountain was sent to the MCFP, where Dad worked. Depending on which old news article or crime blog you read, he or Silverstein were alternately considered the most dangerous convicts in the country. In Springfield, Fountain lived the rest of his life in a cell that was custom built (Special Housing Unit) for him to accommodate extreme isolation and supervision. Select staffers were specifically trained to oversee him and his liberties were austere. Showers were limited to several times a week and he was only allowed out of his cell for an hour and a half each day, and three guards were required for his movement. Meals were slipped into his cell through a shallow opening in the bars near the floor.

The lay criminal-mind hobbyist may not be familiar with the name Clayton Fountain, but prison personnel and fellow inmates, once their paths crossed, would never forget him. His crimes were heinous, and the spree began when he was only 19. As his victims were fellow correctional officers—who should have never been so vulnerable to him—special disdain and fear were levied on him. Even with his restrictive quarters and handling protocol, occasional reminders were shared with the staff to never underestimate his ability to outthink and overpower them.

Almost a year to the day after the Marion murders, on October 16, 1984, a memorandum was sent out to all the corrections officers working on the ward that held Fountain’s cell. It was a dire warning from the warden who, in conjunction with a mental health case manager, feared that if past behavior was prescient, Fountain’s pattern of violence was ripe for re-eruption. Attached to it was a two-and-a-half-page narrative recounting his criminal history, written by J.R. Linton, Case Manager on the Mental Health Unit. It was dated December 7, 1983, so it was likely the intake brief compiled upon Fountain’s transfer to the MCFP. Dad sent me a copy sometime after he retired and started writing about some of his time at the Bureau of Prisons.  

J. H. Hayden wrote:

Dating back to 1974, Fountain has been directly involved in a murder or brutal assault of another person. This has occurred on an annual, or nearly so, basis. As you are all aware, it will be one year, at the end of this month, since he murdered one Correctional Office(sic) and seriously assaulted two (2) other Officers at the United States Penitentiary, Marion. His history clearly indicates that he is due to attempt another assault, even another murder if he gets the slightest opportunity. I also want you to know that Fountain is increasingly making comments and references, in his correspondence, to the effect that he considers himself a “warrior”, believes that he will go t a “warrior Valhalla” when he dies, and has also stated that he is a “cold-blooded killing machine”. He has also indicated that he will fight when he has the “element of surprise” and the situation is “on his ground” or to his advantage. He refers to US as the Enemy.

The bottom line is this:

       His past record indicates that he is due for a violent outburst.

       He is obviously psyching himself up for it.

       He is very capable of doing great physical damage.

       He will maim, cripple, KILL YOU if he gets the slightest opportunity.

Fountain came to Springfield around the time that I was in eighth grade. Dad, with twenty years in the Bureau under his belt and counting down to retirement, worked a lot of night shifts to reduce his interaction with the most dangerous individuals in our society. He was just getting home in the morning as I was leaving for school, and often napped in the evening before going to work. He also frequently worked double shifts from 4 PM until 8 AM, which exposed him to more inmate activity but limited duty with administrators around, and he liked to stay under the radar of “the brass”. There were weeks when I wondered if he even still lived with us.

Betsi

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This post is a slight deviation from my travel stories, but I was deeply moved by a stranger that I met and felt compelled to record the encounter. 

I was out for a walk today when a young man called out to me. At first, I thought he was an Amazon delivery driver shouting a friendly hello, but as he started walking more quickly from a front porch to catch up to me, his gait suggested that he was a salesman. I stopped and turned to him and paused the audiobook that I was listening to.

“Hi! I’m just putting out some Trump campaign material. Who are you voting for?”

I was dressed in black knit pants and a black T-shirt emblazoned with “Let’s Begin With Justice!” in white painted over-sized letters. It is one of a few ‘statement’ shirts in my wardrobe. A pretty turquoise one begs people to “ vote as if your”…and lists various upsetting situations or conditions a person could be faced with such as if your land is on fire, your water is unsafe, your child is gay, your parents need health care. A royal blue one has images of the four female Supreme Court justices (Ginsburg, O’Connor, Kagan, and Sotomayor) and above them, large black letters declare “The Supremes”.

Every time I dress to go walking or bike riding, I wear one of these shirts and more than once, total strangers have commented on the Supremes shirt and asked where I got it.

“From my mom, who sent me two of them for Christmas!”

“Good on Mom!” they reply. The Vote shirt is just as popular. But today, Ruth Bader Ginsburg lies in state at the Supreme Court, so I chose the “Justice” one.

I looked straight into his eyes and said, “Biden.”

“Oh!” he said as he exaggerated a comical gesture, grasping at his chest as though his heart was wounded. He was good-natured and young, and I chose to engage him.

“What are the issues that are important to you?” I asked him. “What issues do you want to resolve in this election?” I was curious about what would inspire this young man with the friendly, smiling eyes, and deep olive-toned skin to campaign for Donald Trump? He had an accent and features that I could not place—hints of Latino and Asian. This was an opportunity to speak to someone personally–not through keyboard warfare or Twitter bots.

His shoulders rounded and he looked away from me. He looked up at the sky, then down at his feet his gaze resting on a few orange leaves that have just started to fall from the trees. He shrank.

“A job, a way to support myself and help my family,” he said humbly.

I wondered what he was hearing from Trump that resonates with him? What motivates him to walk around neighborhoods and to the front doors of homes to hang Trump campaign swag? Four years ago, many votes were won with the pledge to reopen steel mills and coal mines—unrealistic feats in industries forever shifted by technological advances. Even more votes were secured with the promise of a great border wall—to keep people who look like him out of the country. What is the missing link in this chain of reason?

“That’s important to me too. And so is health care,” I said. “Do you know that the Affordable Care Act will be in front of the Supreme Court a week after the election? And that it is the GOP and Trump who pushed it through the court system to get it to that level to try to get it struck down? And if it is struck down, 100 million Americans could lose access to health care?”

“What?” His eyes widened. “I don’t watch much TV…”

“Yes. This is a major issue. The ACA—Obama care is what you’ve heard it called the most, but Obama did not name this law or insurance after himself. The Republicans started calling it that to place a negative nickname on it to press people to hate it,” I started.

“But it came out while Obama was in,” he said. “He didn’t name it that?”

“No, he did not. He only started referring to it that way because everyone else did and it was recognizable. The law, as the Democrats wrote it, is called the Affordable Care Act, and what it did was make health care more affordable and accessible to people of lower-income who may not have otherwise been able to get it. It also stopped insurance companies from being able to refuse to cover preexisting conditions,” I continued.

He squinted as he looked at me and I took it as an invitation to explain more thoroughly.

“What that means is, let’s say you have an aunt who is forty years old and she just battled breast cancer. She had good health care, had treatment, and seems to be in the clear. But, for some reason, she either loses her job or gets hired somewhere else. If the ACA gets struck down, then the law about covering preexisting conditions goes away.”

I explained, “If that happens, in a year or two when your aunt finds another lump, her new insurer can look at her and say, “Well, you have had breast cancer before, so this is a preexisting condition and we are not covering any tests for this, no chemo, no radiation, no surgery, no treatment.” If this ACA gets struck down, her new insurer could deny her coverage if her cancer comes back. That was the norm before the ACA which includes this protection. The Republicans have fought it from the start, and they have taken it all the way to the Supreme Court. They promise a replacement because they know that this is a huge voter concern, but they clearly do not intend to live up to that. They refuse to explain how they will prevent people from losing this protection when they are the very ones taking a sledgehammer to it.”

“Wait. That could go away?” he asked, genuinely befuddled.

I tried to not let my frustration show. Oh, my God, how many of these voters are out there? How can anyone still be so unclear on these issues? On the other hand, I was glad that he asked that question—it showed that he was hearing the information with discernment.

“Yes, it very well could. If it weren’t for Trump and his party, it would not be in front of the Supreme Court now and at risk. Democrats fight for your health. I have good health care because I’m in a union and have a good contract— ten years ago I had a major back surgery that cost $250,000 and I only paid $150.00. That is why I vote the way I do. They aren’t always firm and successful, far from perfect, but they are much more dedicated to that platform than the GOP. I didn’t even want to be in a union, but now I can say it ended up being a really good thing.”

“You had a surgery that cost that much, and you only had to pay what?” he asked, stunned.

“It was $150.00 out of pocket for me because my union negotiates strong benefits. But Republicans are union-busters. It’s not that they want everyone sick, they don’t care if you’re sick or not, except if they are making money off the drugs you need. It’s just that they are more concerned with keeping large insurance companies richer and richer. Insurers don’t pay your bill because they care about you. They don’t want to pay your medical bills. They are in the business of trying to take more premiums and pay for fewer patients.”

“Democrats are not Communists or Socialists like conservatives want to overwhelmingly label us,” I said. “We just believe that everyone has a human right to better resources. The less fortunate should have opportunities that improve their quality of life.”

Friendly Eyes Guy looked around and with his chin tilted, looked up at me from a furrowed brow.
“I mean, I found this job on Indeed. I didn’t even know what I would be doing when I got here. They offered to pay for my airline ticket, put me up, pay me,” and he gestured to the nice car he was driving. “I needed a job. I didn’t even know what I’d be doing until I got here.”

“Where did you come out here from?” I asked him.

“Well, I’m from the Marshall Islands, but I came here from Las Vegas. Do you know about the Marshall Islands?”

“A little. I know that since World War 2, it’s been subjected to dangerous bombs and tests that have left horrific radiation. I can’t believe that anyone has been able to live on those islands since the war. The radiation—the danger in the air and water, the fish. How old are you? Are you registered to vote? Or can you vote?” I asked.

“I’m 25. I’ve never voted. My passport isn’t US,” he said. “I don’t remember much. I was really young. We left there on a ship to go to Hawaii and that’s where I grew up. Then we moved to Vegas. Hawaii is too expensive. Vegas is too hot.”

“What kind of ship did you travel on?” I wondered if they took a cruise and settled on Hawaii or had they been evacuated.

“I don’t remember, I think it was like a…some business ship. Everyone was sick at the islands. Everyone had cancer, cancer everywhere,” he said as he waved his hand over his chest and abdomen. We couldn’t find food, you know, nothing was safe. We had to wait for US ships to bring canned food,” he said.

My heart broke in that moment. Here was a guy who had to leave behind his beautiful native island—to live in one of the countries that made his island unlivable. Warmongers used it as a nuclear bomb testing ground, and now the only job he can find is one campaigning for the man who currently has the power— and the temperament— to gleefully wreak the same destruction anywhere on the planet.
I may only have this one chance to open this man’s eyes and what he learns, he will hopefully share with others.

“You need to understand,” I started, “that Trump and his party want to shrink or stop most foreign aid. They always say that under the guise of ‘we need to take care of our own before everyone else’, but the truth is, there is still a lot of homelessness and poverty and hunger here. He is a power and money grabber. His family can’t even run charities in New York state anymore because they got caught skimming money away from funds that were intended for wounded veterans and kids with cancer—they spent that money on luxuries and his campaign. Those fliers you have were paid for with money that may have been meant to go toward sick kids or wounded veterans!”

“Oh, man, I’ve seen homelessness! Man, what is homelessness here? I lived in a hut!” This sweet man, an immigrant, has a perspective that I, nor a single one of my acquaintances will ever have. There was no way to bridge that gap, but I wanted him to know that I recognized the disparity. I shared with him a scene that I witness every day at my job—not a Facebook post, not Twitter, and not through an Instagram filter, but a personal experience.

“Look, I’m a flight attendant. I’m on a leave right now but I am a flight attendant on private jets. I fly the wealthiest movers and shakers of the world. Have you ever seen a parent who can’t afford a bowl of berries or an orange or apple as a healthy snack for her kid? Well, I’m up in the sky serving sliced fruit from a silver platter. Someone paid $500.00 for that tray of fruit— and they are laughing at people like you and me, out here working. They laugh. They watch the news, they watch movies—they see the way most of the country live, but it doesn’t affect them!”

“Five hundred dollars for fruit!” he gasped.

“That’s only one example of the disconnect. They can afford any meal or doctor’s appointment. They can call up a flight to go from Vegas to Aspen just for lunch. Now, a lot of them are very philanthropic and do a lot of charity work—but they put people in office who install laws and regulations that allow them to keep getting richer and richer. The problem is that poor people often don’t get that same benefit. A lot of the measures that make rich people richer are directly responsible for keeping poor people poorer.”

“Poor, sick people can’t afford insurance, so they are limited to cheap medicines, so they get sicker instead of getting real help to heal. I know people who can barely afford to take a sick kid to the doctor, a car, gas, food—the $300 or so that got taken out of their paycheck for taxes would have covered some of that. I wish they could see what I see when a millionaire has a plane all to himself and pays a far lower percentage of taxes compared to the average worker.”

His eyes were wide, his mouth agape. I think the point of income disparity was getting through.

“Now, let’s talk about security. Trump has thumbed his nose at the norms. He has rebuffed oversight, such as security staff listening in while he talks to foreign leaders. He has ordered the translators to destroy notes taken when he’s speaking with foreign leaders. He’s got properties and business interests that give other countries—hostile ones like the Middle East—leverage over him because he wants to keep making money from those while he’s president. He has ignored all the previous standards set by previous presidents.”

“A hundred or so of his administration people— some high-ranking military officials and those in international security roles— have left and are coming out in public saying how dangerous he is. Professionals who have worked for Republicans their entire careers are saying that he is a menace, has no idea what he’s doing, but even worse, knows how destructive his acts are, but has no regard for the country, only his business and bottom line.”

“There are ways that other parts of government are supposed to be able to oversee or investigate these risks to keep our elected officials in line and keep them from being vulnerable to foreign influence. He is decimating all those measures. If it looks like he’s falling short of winning a court case, he fires the attorneys, prosecutors, or judges. It’s a slippery slope to autocracy.”

He was still rapt, and if it weren’t for this raging virus putting a stranglehold on warm social norms, I would have invited him to come have a beer on the porch where I could show him where to find sources to read.

“Your islands are what they are because of Hitler. We are at risk of Trump being able to wreak similar damage to many, many more areas. This is not the candidate to work for. Please watch Rachel Maddow. She’s overwhelming, but you’ll see how some of these issues are covered. She has scholars on, documents from courts— there are resources for you to look at, so you don’t just let someone tell you what to think. Anderson Cooper is great too. He’s on at 8:00 on CNN.”

“Who?”

Oh, Lord. He’s never heard of Rachel Maddow or Anderson Cooper. And he is putting out fliers for Trump.

“Watch AC and Rachel, CNN at 8:00, MSNBC at 9:00.” I’m sure he is drowning under my blue wave.
“Rachel Maddow and Anderson,” he repeats.

“Now, let’s talk about voter suppression. For example, Florida is in a fight to keep convicted felons from voting. The law says that after they’ve served their sentences, they are supposed to have their voting rights reinstated. They are out of prison and trying to rebuild their lives and should have a say in their society. But in Florida, the GOP is trying to keep people from voting if they owe any fines or court costs associated with that sentence that they had to serve.”

“In court, it was argued against as a poll tax, intended to prevent lower-income people from voting, because the GOP realizes that this is a demographic that leans to Democrats and they don’t want that population to be able to vote. Consider the kind of people this most affects—black men and lower-income. That is the overwhelming demographic incarcerated. They are the ones that could possibly be prevented from voting. Poll taxes are illegal, but the side that wants to keep lower-income people powerless get around this by holding these outstanding fines over their heads.”

“Now, former New York City mayor Bloomberg has raised funds to help those released felons pay off those fines so they can have their voting rights reinstated. It is just to clear their debt so that they can vote—they are not obligated to vote one way or the other, this just allows them to have a clean bill so that they can go to the polls and exercise their rights.”

“Republicans are mad that he did that and are trying to accuse him of illegal campaign financing, but it’s no different from paying off a bill so you can get more credit. Or a bar bill so you can start another tab. This is important because there may be some people out there who only owe less than $100, but that would keep them from voting if they can’t pay that fine. And there is enough to worry about when you’re fresh out of jail—housing and food—if you have no friends or family to help you. And the friends who may be able to help may be friends who you were involved with before you went to jail—or be part of the reason you ended up in jail. If that’s all you have, you may go back down the same road and end up back in jail.”

“Oh, man, I need to read up on things. I don’t know about any of this,” he said. I felt bad about overwhelming the guy, but how often do you get a chance to engage like this?

“I mean, I don’t get the whole Black Lives Matter,” he said.

“I don’t either, to a point. I don’t like how the message has been twisted. Marches and protests are fine, but the rioting is awful. The violence and looting just have to stop. It is ridiculous to destroy neighborhoods and businesses—it kills families and creates more hardship for anyone who lives there. They are only making things worse for themselves. But it’s a cycle we can’t seem to get out of. Are you familiar with To Kill a Mockingbird?” I asked him.

“Mockingbird? I… think,” he searched the sky for what to say. He obviously didn’t know the story and I didn’t want him to embarrass himself by pretending that he did, so I lunged right into it.

“To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most beloved books in American literature, widely taught in schools. It was written decades ago but will forever be a relevant lesson. The story is set in a small southern town in the 1930’s. It’s about how the town reacts to a respected local white lawyer when he stands up to defend a black man who is falsely accused of raping a local white woman. Even when Atticus’ argument in court proves that the woman lied, the townspeople were so determined in their racism and bullishness, that they will not back down. They won’t acknowledge that the man is innocent. They want to kill the black man and they want revenge on Atticus. His kids are attacked. It’s a tragic story—this shirt I am wearing is from when I went to see the play in New York, but I’m sure that as neighbors see me in it, they assume it’s from Black Lives Matter.”

“To Kill a Mockingbird,” he repeated.

“These issues are still unchanged. The candidate you are helping to promote is no friend to people of color—not just blacks, but people like you. They are pursuing measures and legislation that will be detrimental to families like yours. They act like if more people have better rights, it decreases the rights of the rest of us. It just doesn’t have to be that way. I’m not saying Democrats are perfect or that there aren’t any crooked ones—there are bad players, even criminal—all across the board. But the platforms are rooted in trying to improve the lives of everyone, those who can’t fight for themselves, who don’t have access to information or resources that could help them, civil rights, human rights.”

“On the flip side, I’m not trying to say that all Republicans are bad. I know a lot who cry their eyes out at other people’s suffering. But the major weight on the issues for Republicans in power always leans more to the “I got mine. Pull yourself up by the bootstraps.” Well, not everyone has the strength or opportunity to make those efforts.”

“When someone can’t walk, you don’t leave them alone in a basement. They need help getting up the stairs. No, we can’t just be giving out all kinds of handouts. No, it’s not okay for some of us to be expected to work and fund a lazy person’s sloth without them expected to make some effort. I’ve worked my butt off, I’ve had twenty-hour duty days and I agree that it’s not fair to be expected to hand it all over to someone who can work but refuses to. But there has to be a balance of effort here, just some common sense.”

“Oh, man.” He put his hands on his hips and surveyed the neighborhood. Large two-story houses with richly manicured and landscaped lawns, three-car garages, and rose bushes exploding with pink and crimson blossoms surrounded us. Every occupant over the age of 10 likely had his own smartphone and a world of information within a few taps of his fingertips. The homeowners here are people who likely decided their votes long ago and no new flier or sound bite will influence a change of heart. I was relieved at that. At this point in 2020, after nearly four years of Trump and just days into the chaos and heartbreak of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, I can’t imagine that there are many who can be swayed to vote for a candidate just because of the freshness of a piece of campaign material presented on their front door.

“What about this COVID thing? I mean, I don’t understand about this whole virus,” he expressed.

“Well, nobody does yet. We just know that it is spread the same way as a cold or flu—touching something that is contaminated and then getting it into your body by rubbing your eyes or touching your nose or mouth. If it touches your mucous membrane, it is in your system. It can also spread by breath if you are too close.”

“Think of the jetway that you use to board a flight. I keep a scarf to cover my face when I’m in that walkway between the airport building and the aircraft. All the passengers are crammed close together, everyone coughing and sneezing, and as the line moves toward the boarding door, you’re walking right into what they just blew out. The reason COVID is such an issue is because it is a strain that we have never dealt with before and have no natural immunity to, and it is breaking all kinds of predicted patterns. At first it seemed the most vulnerable people were elderly, especially those who may already have weak heart or lungs like with lung cancer, congestive heart failure, or asthma.”

“But it has killed young, healthy people as well,” I continued. Some people who would seem vulnerable to it have tested positive for it and never had even a mild cold symptom. It’s extremely contagious, spread by people who don’t even know they have it—which is great that they don’t get sick. But the person they spread it to in casual contact may be affected to the other extreme.”

“It’s the unknown that makes it still so dangerous. Even those who recover are seeing lingering effects, some severe. It turned out to not just attack the lungs and breathing, but is vascular as well, causing clotting issues, strokes.”

“And again, about that ACA? If the Supreme Court strikes that down, everyone who has had COVID—whether just a positive test with no symptoms or recovered from being down with it—will be considered to have a preexisting condition. Suppose someone had it and was in the hospital and had the vascular issues which leads to some kidney issues, which damages them badly enough that they lose some function, but the patient recovers. Suppose he lost his job due to COVID. He gets a new job in a few months.”

“A year later, his kidney issues are worse, or he has a stroke. That new insurer can refuse to pay for his care if they say, “You had COVID before you were insured with us. Your kidney and vascular damage happened before you got this coverage. Those are preexisting conditions due to COVID. We’re not paying for your ambulance, your ER, your MRI that diagnosed the stroke, your stint procedure, your blood thinners, your rehabilitation, your physical therapy.”

“This is the kind of situation that could happen if this law gets struck down. It was argued through the courts before COVID, but the GOP has not been satisfied with the lower courts’ rulings, so they have succeeded in getting it to the Supreme Court. The timing could not be worse. Over the summer, in the depths of the pandemic, they scheduled to hear it a week after the election. The actual decision won’t come right away, but we have to vote for president and Congress with this up in the air.”
“By the way,” I said, “You’re okay out here walking around outside, but you need to have a mask on to go into a building. And try to keep about 6 feet between yourself and anyone, especially if not masked. Everyone around here is pretty good about taking these measures. It was really bad here on the east coast, especially New York. People are tense.”

“I know, no one wants to look at you, say hello…” he lamented, looking sad and lonely.

“Well, this isn’t the friendliest area even in the best of times, but really, everything is just really bad right now between the virus and politics. I know nurses who are working with this illness. You don’t want to risk it. Please, just look into these things. At least look into the issues and learn how each candidate stands on them. Learn about what can affect you. Health care affects us all and that is one of the greatest risks right now.”

“I will! I’ve got a lot to look at tonight,” he said. “What’s your name?”

I liked the kid, but I gave him an initial instead of my real name.

“I’m D.”

“Betsi,” he said, and he reached out to shake my hand. I hesitated but reached out to meet his. It’s been months since I’ve shaken hands with anyone and I knew that I shouldn’t, but I did. And then I wondered how fast I could get home to wash my hands and hoped that he had some sanitizer in his car. That was stupid and another possible teaching moment, but I didn’t take it. I had already spent the last 30 minutes telling the poor guy how he was on the wrong side of everything— I didn’t want to leave him feeling that I thought he was dirty or dangerous.

“Okay, Betsi, you be careful out there and have a good day,” I said.

“Thanks, D, and enjoy the rest of your walk!”

I put the buds back in my ears and pushed play on my audio book again, even though I wasn’t listening to it through the storm of thoughts screaming in my head. A few houses down the street, I met my husband as he rode his bike. We stopped and I told him about Betsi. He got out his phone and looked up Marshall Islands and found an article from the LA Times that was published last December. It explained the possible vulnerability of its citizens who have come to the United States. They are able to come to work and go to school without visas—as long as we have the military presence there. If we leave, they will lose their legal status to live in the States.

I got back to the house and went in to wash my hands and look up the article that my husband had pulled up. I copied down the link and went to the garage to get on my bike and hoped to catch Betsi before he left the neighborhood. The loop around our subdivision is a mile and a half. I rode all the way around it once, looking for his car on the side of the streets and down the cul-de-sacs. I looked to the front doors of all the houses in case he was walking around door to door, but he was gone.

There is another similar subdivision that I often walk and bicycle around that is separated from ours by a two-lane highway. If I were canvassing this area, that would be a reasonable place to go after exhausting my own loop, so I started in that direction. With the piece of paper that I wrote the link on wrapped on the handlebar under my grip, I thought, “This is stupid. It’s just a missed chance and I won’t find him. I probably upset him so badly that he’s crushed and decided to chuck the day.”

But then there was another thought. “I don’t believe all this awful can continue to happen. What does it say to those who have fought so hard and haven’t lived to see this ship get righted? What are John Lewis and John McCain thinking when they see what is happening right now— and how easily it can be changed if the right information gets power?” And then, as goofy and hokey as it sounds, I prayed, “RBG, lead me to this guy. I’m doing my part, I got back out here on a bike to find him when I could have stayed home, now just make it work. The energy of the universe says you’re going to do this.”

The other neighborhood is smaller than mine and I was about half-way around it when I glanced down a cul-de-sac as I passed it. There were several cars parked along one side, and a person on the sidewalk, texting as he walked. I rode on by. Was that him? What was he wearing? I don’t remember. He was wearing a ball cap, I remember that. Was that guy walking back there wearing one? I’ll go around the whole loop and come back around. No, he may get in his car and go. I should turn around now and go look again just to be sure it’s not him.

I slowed my ride and did a U-turn in the street. The person walking was wearing a white ball cap.              Then I recognized his pants—a gray and silver camouflage pattern.

“Betsi!” I yelled. He looked up at me, shocked to hear someone shouting his name. “Betsi, I was looking for you!”

“You were looking for me?” he said with a surprised smile.

I rolled up to him and handed him the piece of paper. “Here. I want you to read this article. I was telling my husband about you and he found this.” I told him a little about what it said. “I don’t know what Trump’s plan is for the islands, but he’s pulling troops from Germany and has talked about pulling troops from Korea. If he pulls everyone out of Marshall Islands, you and your family may not be able to stay here. You’ll lose legal status, according to the agreement we’re under now. This could affect you. This is directly about your family.”He looked at the paper and looked at me. “But that would be like, I don’t know,” he said, confused.

“It would be like deportation. It would be deportation,” I said. “Look, this guy is trying to get rid of everyone here who came from somewhere else. DACA—these kids and young people who have amnesty because of Obama—they were brought here by their undocumented parents. But they are now adults and in college, working—the only life they ever knew is here. But the GOP and Trump are trying to kill that agreement. Some of these kids don’t even speak the language of the country they could be sent back to. You need to get this! Again, I know you’ve got to do today what you’ve got to do. But learn about this and try to find a different job. And if you want to give me all those fliers, no one is going to tell on you…” I offered, jokingly—well, halfway jokingly. I envisioned burning them in a trash can. Not in my fireplace. I won’t have that energy sullying the air in my home.

“Oh, now, I…” he started with a sheepish smile.

“I know, Betsi, I know, just kidding. But I want you to look at that article and find more information.     These things could directly affect you. And another thing—don’t shake hands.”

Taken aback, he said, “Don’t shake hands? Why?”

“This virus. It is really dangerous. Very contagious. Everyone understands—it won’t appear rude if you can’t shake hands. Especially out here on the East coast. People here are taking the precautions seriously.”

“Can we fist bump?” he asked, putting forth his fist.

“Elbow bump is better,” I said and offered him my bent arm. “Okay, you be careful out here, okay?”

He bumped my elbow with his and laughed.

“I will. Thank you, Dee Dee.”

If I owned a business, I would have given him a job, any job—I don’t care what his background or skills are. I rode away with a heavy and anxious heart. He walked on as he held a stack of doorknob fliers bearing the smiling face of the man with his fate in his hands.

 

A Letter to my 14-Year-Old Self

Standard

Previously published in the Pearl S. Buck Literary Journal

Shut that closet door and stop looking at Dad’s guns. They are all too large for you to handle anyway. You can’t position a rifle at yourself and reach the trigger. You will just make a mess. The pills in the bathroom medicine cabinet may not work either. You may just make yourself sick or end up comatose.

You are only fourteen years old. You have no way of knowing what you will miss out on if you do this. One day you will wake up to the unnerving realization that had this been your last day, it would have been a tragic forfeiture.

Your pain is real, and it feels unconquerable, but you can get through this. It begins with this moment and when it is gone, you can get through the next one, and the next, and the next. One by one, if you follow them—think ‘one more day’—instead of succumbing to the blinding turmoil in your mind, you will come through this dark place.

You will not be a teenager forever. Your current troubles will subside and yes, they will yield to other nuisances and setbacks, as all lives impart. But you will learn that a diverging path is more challenging and the reward for navigating these curves is the added scenery and preparedness for the next twist in the road, You cannot begin to grasp the magnificence of the visions that lie ahead of you. Just wait until you see the bigger picture!

No matter how stuck you think you are right now, the wheel of your life is in motion. Every friendship, relationship and experience has the potential to change your trajectory beyond anything you can imagine, and when that happens, you will set upon another path to encounter others whose trajectory you are destined to affect. You must stay because you never know what impact you may have on another’s life, nor they on yours.

For in a few years you will fall in love, and you will feel adored and protected…until you are not. Then you will learn how strong you are when you sever the ligatures of a toxic relationship and leave the one who demeans and insults you. His words are flames that burn you, an inferno that consumes you until you are melted down to a dangerously thin frame. The taunting pushes and shoves that were “just playing”, the arrogant gloats and declarations that you will never leave him immobilize you for days. You would not, you could not. But you can and you do. You will never question your decision, nor will you grieve the months that you tolerated his scalding, dispiriting abuses. You left with the tools to extinguish any future immolation.

You will laugh and curse as you attempt to remodel your first home, a structure that was so fixer-upperish that it was barely worth fixing up. There will be times that you question your own senses—what business do you have taking on such a project? Squirrels play in the crawl space and get into the walls. They sound like fish in a bucket, flopping about. You try hanging your own kitchen cabinet by drilling screws through the back without fastening to a single stud. It breaks from the wall and falls, collapsing your ironing board and stack of books that it was propped upon. You are crying with laughter when you call a friend and describe the scene. His mother chides him, “Go help that poor girl hang her cabinets.”

You will smile at the thought of that dumpy old house on Jeffery Lane because it was your escape from the abuser who sneered that you were incapable of doing anything on your own. Yes, it was ugly—hideous—the fences shrugged, and the roof leaked. The fireplace was an afterthought, awkward (and likely dangerously) built into a corner of the living room so that it enclosed a window! The propane tank gauge was corroded and unreadable, so you frequently ran out. You hung wallpaper poorly and your attempt at crown molding looked like it was done with a chainsaw. But it was your soft landing when you leapt from the grip of the abuser.

And when it is time to move on, the Karmic wheel rolls right up to your front door. The shabby little house that you fear you will have to pray away is the palace that answers the prayers of a down-on-her-luck single mother.

When you were a little girl, you wanted to stay home from church on Sunday night and watch the Miss America pageant. Every summer brought two weeks of Bible School, learning memory verses and countless stories from antiquity on the other side of the planet. Old Jerusalem was just an ancient, unimaginable city in a story on thin pages of a heavy book.

But years from now, you will say a prayer at the Wailing Wall and the memories of youth will swarm and flit about like butterflies. Oh, the countless hours spent in church on snowy Sunday mornings and firefly lit, muggy summer evenings! The illustrations in your old children’s Bible come to life as you survey the craggy, rocky streets of the Old City, with its churches and temples. You explore the souvenir shops and enjoy the dance of price-haggling between merchants and penny-pinching tourists. When you return to the maze of streets, you draw your fingers along the walls built of stone in shades of sand and bronze that bled into one another like watercolors. The scene is monochromatic sepia except for the brilliant splashes of colorful flowers that spring from some of the cracks or spill over the top of the wall.

Green ivy cascades from the trees and blue aster reaches out from small soil beds inserted between stones. Bougainvillea bushes abound with dazzling fuchsia blooms. The branches arch over the top of the wall and reach to join the other flowers. They are perfectly manicured and pruned to discourage overgrowth. Visitors will not be scratched by prickly barbs as they admire the tree’s beauty while retracing the route that Jesus walked while the thorns tortured him.

With every step you will be mindful as you wonder, “In whose steps am I walking?” With each placement of your feet on the stones, you will imagine how others have stepped there. Who were they? Did they live peacefully here during that time, or were they rife with conflict and heartache as so much of the history of Jerusalem holds? What did they experience here hundreds or thousands of years ago? You look at the ground and create a vision. Are you standing on the erased footprint of a thick leather sandal worn by a powerful warrior? Or in the knee prints once made in the mud by a broken, collapsed slave?

But if you keep looking at the guns, this scene will not happen.

You are only fourteen. You cannot know that your future includes living in India and Saudi Arabia. Your adventures in these two wildly different cultures will challenge you on everything that you have ever felt or thought about humanity and the universe. The train journey from New Delhi to Agra will prove a pivotal time in your life. The impossible beauty of the Taj Mahal—as the poet Tagore described, “a teardrop on the cheek of time”—will cast her spell and create in you an unquenchable thirst for everything Indian.

In Mumbai, you will see a young girl carrying an even younger baby on her hip while she extends to you her free hand, begging for a rupee. There will be sandalwood incense making a futile attempt to mask the smell of urine and curry. Varanasi’s sadhus appear other worldly as they meander the winding alleys naked and smeared with gray ash. A bearded Shiva devotee with a mischievous smile and a saffron painted forehead squats at Dashashwamedh Ghat, the steps descending from the city street to the Ganges. He keeps his gaze fixed on you as he wrings the holy water from the marigold robe he is washing. He will continue chanting, “Ram, Ram, for it is his belief that if he dies with the name of his god on his lips, Lord Ram will whisper the secret of life in his ear as the soul leaves the body.

These visions will return to you often and it will be in those moments that you are the most aware of your heart unfolding in your chest. You will wonder why you feel passionately drawn to a culture so different from your own. What is the appeal of this continent, a history, a religion, and a people so unfamiliar to you? As a lotus flower’s root reaches far beneath the water’s surface and cannot be seen, your connection to India will be visceral and its source you may never understand. The mystery will be as thrilling as it is bewildering.

But you will never experience this wonder if you open the orange and white pill bottle with the Family Pharmacy label wrapped around it.

In Saudi Arabia you will spend a year feeling as though you have been dropped onto another planet. The men wear white long robes and red and white checked patterned scarves on their heads. Within a few weeks’ time though, you will decide that they appear familiar to you, and that it is your American colleagues who look out of place in their blue jeans and T-shirts.

You will be living in Jeddah, when two young princes suffer the heartbreaking loss of their mother, who was loved by the world. You will draw the curtains closed and sit in the dark with Karen and Deborah, sobbing while watching William and Harry follow Diana’s funeral procession.

A few days later you will be enjoying a delicious cup of sweetly spiced chai in the Pakistani quarter of Jeddah. Sami, your Bangladeshi-born friend will translate what the server says as he walks away from the table, patting his hand to his heart and waggling his head side to side.

“She looks like our princess. Our kind, dead princess.” And your heart will melt.

For the first time in your life, you will be subjected to discrimination and a lack of simple liberty that drives you to tears. There will be separate seating areas for women in restaurants, you will not be allowed to drive, and will be required to wear the abaya, the long black robe. You will laugh in the old Souq when you purchase a flamboyant hot pink one and taunt the religious police with your uncovered long blonde hair. There will be stores that display signs in their front windows stating, “No Ladies Allowed,” and you will be rendered apoplectic, but with time youwill reflect on the value of the occurrence. Yes, even this vile, fracturing moment will enrich your soul, for in no other place and at no other time, would you, a twenty-six-year-old white privileged American woman, face such a severe lesson in humility.

At fourteen, you cannot foresee that on a future 4th of July, you will take pictures from a camel’s saddle as you ride around the Sphinx and the great pyramids of Giza. A frail, old man with sun-weathered skin and a turban of white gauzy layers wrapped around his head approaches you. He peddles trinkets to tourists. His kind eyes meet yours and when he places a cheap resin beetle in your hand, he declares, “Gift for you! Now give me money!” It will be a talisman that you never let go.

You will spend hours exploring the Cairo museum, touching towering ancient statues that were carved before Moses walked the land. You will weave through endless aisles of glass cases displaying jewels, intricately painted pottery and papyrus sheaths. Astounded by the volume and ages of the bountiful collection, you will linger to read and reread the caption for each piece, and you send a prayerful thanks to your parents. It was a Christmas gift that you received when you were eight years old that ignited that yearning to learn of other cultures—a globe.

You will be horrified when within weeks of your visit a bus full of German tourists is

attacked as it is parked in front of the museum. Nine people are killed. Thirteen years later, a civil uprising called the “Arab Spring” overthrows the government and thousands of artifacts are lost to Tahir Square rioters, looters, and fire. You will be gripped by your memories and feel sorrow for Egypt’s loss, and grateful for the visions left in your memory.

One evening, you will see on the news a country whose name you have not yet heard, Rwanda. The whole world will learn about this tiny, central African nation when it erupts into an unspeakably savage genocide.

Two decades later, you will hike that Land of a Thousand Hills and marvel, unblinking, at the family of Silverback Mountain Gorillas as they wrestle and chase one another. They are so close that you can hear their breaths as they chew bamboo shoots that they snapped off at the ground. The babies playfully roll around, screeching and teasing the adults. The giant male grunts and rushes past you and your companions, protesting your proximity to his ladies and offspring.

You will spend a few days in an ivy-embraced white stucco cottage that was home to an idyllic American woman and read her personal journal. As you leaf through the red leather-bound book with her elegant penmanship, you will marvel at the whimsical courage that married her to a big game hunter and followed him to Africa. She became so enchanted with Rwanda that even when the marriage failed, she adopted it as her home and lived on their plantation for the rest of her life.

She was a nurturer and became friends with an anthropologist who would one day be famous. When the doctor’s emphysema or local tribal conflicts flared, she descended from her mountain camp in the higher altitudes. She wrote “Gorillas in the Mist” while resting in a bedroom in the cottage, next to the room you will sleep in.

Though in her 80’s when the genocide stormed through forcing a brief evacuation, the lady of the manor returned to her lovely acres of dahlias and daisies, and with the help of the UN, rebuilt the property into an orphanage. She became a mother to hundreds of parentless children, decades after her child-bearing years ended. You will love this story but that you get to walk in her footsteps amongst the flowers and sit at her table will make it so much more meaningful. A picture you take of the African plantation at sunset will be one that, of all your travels, you hold the most dear.

You will struggle in the city of Kigali as you go through the photos and dioramas of the museum that documents the genocide. You will feel the souls of the churchgoers who were killed in their perceived safe place as you walk past the weathered pews, left strewn with the dead’s clothes and possessions as a monument so that they are never forgotten. You will fall in love with the kindness and elegance of the Rwandan survivors. The serenity and grace that you find there will leave you astonished at the human capacity for resilience and forgiveness.

There is a spouse in your future who needs you to survive. When his family breaks apart and he is shaken to the core by the silent absence of his children and pet, you will be the one with whom he builds a future. You will sunburn on Caribbean beaches and delight in Broadway shows. Your disdain for cold weather will acquiesce to the majesty of snowy Swiss Alps when he takes you there at Christmastime. He will indulge your inner Hippie when you embrace yoga, meditation, and pink hair.

At 14 you cannot embrace this concept. You cannot see past tomorrow, but that is not because of stubbornness or “being a teenager”—it is perspective. It is understandable that the thoughts and fears that you cannot articulate are all-consuming and that you feel disconnected from the adults you try to confide in. You sense that they are growing tired of you, that they think you are being vain and unreasonable.

You feel that you have control over nothing in your life—you are an animal in a snare and there is only one way to stop this crushing feeling.

Exasperation flattens you when they say, “This is temporary,” and that, “You’ll get over it”. Your despair is compounded when your feelings are trivialized and dismissed. You know that they do not mean to sound this way, but clearly, they cannot grasp the gravity of your emotional state—and you desperately need them to.

What you need to know is this: They are not apathetic or unconcerned with your despondency —they have forgotten how it feels to be powerless. No one gets through adolescence without some tears. Almost everyone who has muddled through it to reach the liberating milestone of adulthood discarded the armor long ago that deflected their own daggers of teenage angst. They must be reminded that you are unable to see your situation the way they do. Your short fourteen years of life have not provided enough experiences to look back on to show you that it truly does get better, that there really is a good place waiting on the other side of this challenge. All you know is where you are now, how you feel now.

Here is what else you need to know: There absolutely will be evenings of gut-wrenching laughter with wonderful friends that you have yet to meet. You will read books that change your heart and beliefs. You will travel around the planet more times than you can count. You will sip a Moscow Mule across the bar from a former British Prime Minister in a swanky European piano lounge. You will pour coffee on a private jet for a former President—he takes it black and in his paper cup, not the china. You will discover Eton Mess in London, have pizza in Perugia, and roam Rome. Maybe you’ll even write a story or two. But you will never see any of this if you leave now.

Seek out what fascinates you and pursue it in your spare time. Notice the adults with whom you feel comfortable—teachers, friends’ parents, or neighbors. You may be drawn to them because of a common interest or talent. Take advantage of their age and experience to lead you to opportunities. Follow an issue as it evolves from one project into another that may seem unrelated—and then marvel at the journey. Learn as much as you can about other cultures and engage in thoughtful conversations that stretch your soul and vision. Devour books and see movies that do more than entertain, but also inspire and teach. These are the actions that nurture curiosity and dialogue, and dialogue nurtures compassion, which nurtures connection—a lack of which is precisely what brings you to this moment.

Be aware that at any time, there are many others like you who are confused, defeated, lost, and standing on the same ledge that you are. When you see them, I hope that you are confidently the one to help. It will be your time to talk them down, assuring them that you all have grand lives to look ahead to.

Thirty years from now you will be haunted by an epidemic of teen suicides. When that day comes, I hope that you remember the words that pulled you through your own dark times. You will know that those kids need a guide to that tells them that they have adventures to look forward to. They just must be convinced that there is a future and it can be more than mere existence. Life can be full of purpose and awe, as yours has been and you never saw it coming. One day you were on an ill-defined path just out of a rotten relationship and living in a slightly less rotten house, the next you were on your first flight to Paris. That was twenty-six years ago, and you are not finished yet—but if you do what you are thinking of doing right now, none of this will ever happen.

It is sobering to think of how many others have not walked away from the closet during the past thirty years, but instead reached inside, picked up the weapon, strung the rope, or swallowed the pills. Sadly, it is reasonable to believe that over the next thirty years there will be other fourteen-year-olds, 17, or even 10-year-olds somewhere looking in a closet. If you don’t walk away from your closet, they may not walk away from theirs.

 

The Overstayer

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Previously published in the Pearl S. Buck Literary Journal

I remember his eyes, the rims raw and red with fatigue and stung by air that was thick with sand and acrid, burning pollution. Tired and yellow where they should have been white, they held a deep copper-tinged gold ring around the brown iris. The tears welled quickly and steadied themselves for a few seconds before spilling over his lower lid and spreading, losing their edges as they bled into the veil of sweat that covered his face. He was an empath, this chai wallah, and from his tiny tea stall tucked between rows of dilapidated shops of aluminum scrap walls and crumbling plaster, his gaze looked over and beyond my shoulder. Fear and panic, defeat and grief all stabbed at one another in his expression.

I turned away from the shade of the awning and to the blinding street scene. Mid-day in midsummer Jeddah was unrelenting in its assault on the senses. The sun, unfiltered by even a passing feather of a cloud, showered steadily over the Kingdom and sucked up particles of pollution and dust from unpaved roads. Hundreds of billions of grains of sand that were carried in by long gone windstorms salted every surface. This area of the city, the Pakistani quarter that was home to many cab drivers, construction workers, and shopkeepers, was an undefined explosion of visual and respiratory pests.

A young man stood in the street, stopped on the order of two policemen who were gleeful with authority and hubris. Humble and submissive, he held his head low and his deep Persian skin glistened with the sweat that dripped from the wavy layers of black hair resting on his forehead. His fearful eyes were fixed on the ground just beyond his toes. Bony shoulders and a lean ribcage rounded forward to hug himself or to have a shorter distance to collapse with the next predictable slap on the side of his head. The long-sleeved button-down shirt he wore untucked was soaked and stained with several days’ wear. Threadbare khakis hung from his frame. He was a splinter of a man swimming in clothes and exhaustion.

The officers were not much older than their prey and while they had been deprived the gift of impressive height, thick beards and smug smiles camouflaged their shortcomings. The dull tan uniforms they wore were typically military and emblematic of the color of the desert. The sleeve’s green patch bearing the Saudi government insignia of crossed swords and a palm tree was reminiscent of the red armband and tilted swastika of Hitler’s Nazi party. It was a license to abuse their authority.

I asked my Bangladeshi colleague, Sammy, “What’s happening? What are they doing to him?”

“They have demanded to see his papers. His visa and sponsor papers. All the foreign laborers can be stopped anytime and asked to show their papers. If they cannot, they can be arrested and deported.”

“What do you mean, deported?”

Sammy squinted and took a draw on his cigarette as he leaned on the tea stall counter. He nodded to direct my attention to our surroundings.

“You see all these men walking about, having lunch and tea, standing out here in the sun? In the evening there will be even more hanging out here in the shops and streets. They live maybe 8 or 9 guys to a small apartment and try to work different shifts so they can take turns sleeping. The apartments have no AC so they stay outside as late as they can, so they aren’t all crowded inside together.”

My naivete and lack of comprehension was clear to Sammy. I was a 26-year-old flight attendant from Nixa, Missouri, with only 2 years of aviation and a few weeks of Saudi culture and residency under her belt. He was in his mid-50’s, a Bangladeshi- born flight engineer and business owner who emigrated from Pakistan to the US with $18 when he was in his early 20’s. We were testing the fates ourselves that day, by just socializing openly in public, a man and woman unmarried and unrelated.

He could at least blend in with the locals. His thick salt and pepper hair, dark olive skin, and command of Hindi and Urdu—along with a boundless ability to bamboozle and charm—rendered him a precious asset in Saudi Arabia. I, however, foolishly challenged my host country’s edicts every time I left my villa with my long blond hair uncovered by a hijab and my dazzling, if scandalous, hot pink abaya. Soon after arriving in Saudi for the year, we found common ground in deep conversations about human rights and religion. Later, these often occurred while smoking Cuban cigars on playground equipment.

I stole a glance at the chai wallah, and he shrank. He wanted to remain in the shadows and if the police were to notice me, he would draw their scrutiny as well. I froze. If they were about to cast a broader net in their harassment of these desperate beings, I did not want to be the one who exacerbated the scene.

Then there was noise, metal clanging on metal, a jingling, and a car door slam. Back on the street, one of the cops was bringing the laborer’s arms behind his back and placing handcuffs on him.  The “papers” that he had produced had not been satisfactory and the other officer wadded them, before throwing them to the ground and spitting on them. Both tipped their heads up high and heaved laughter. They had a bounty and they had an audience and it gave them insidious joy. Their subject was trembling and as they led him toward the government vehicle, his feet were heavy with dread and his legs nearly failed him. His knees buckled and bent, and he stumbled but his tormentors kept laughing as they pulled on him.

Sammy continued, his Hindi-laced accent requiring my concentration. The nature of his language had a melodic rising and falling of intonation and I strained to register the matter of his words against the sing-song nuance of his voice.

“Most of the people you will meet here are from other countries– third world countries. Many Saudis do not work. They get a stipend from the government and, especially if their own family is well-to-do, they do little. All these men that you see here–and most of the people that you see when you’re out in town and away from the hotel—came here for work,” Sammy explained. “Generally, the cabbies, manual laborers, and shopkeepers are Indian, Paki, or Egyptian, some African. Many maids and nurses are Filipino, and a lot of the schoolteachers are Egyptian ladies.”

I found the whole concept baffling. The occupations that Sammy mentioned were not those unique to Saudi Arabia such as specialized oil industry jobs with Saudi Aramco or engineering with Lockheed Martin. Jobs he named were common sources of livelihood in any society. I could not square why so many people would come to endure these less than desirable conditions for opportunities that existed in their own home countries.

“But why, Sammy?” I asked. “Why go through all this? What is different about the jobs here that makes it worth it? How is this better?”

“There are more people trying to get fewer jobs at their homes. So, they may not be able to find work. A three-year contract here– although the conditions here are rough—it’s better than they could do at home.”

My chest burned at the inequity of it all. Thinking of the choices that some people in this world had to make and suddenly realizing my privileged ignorance at its proximity to me was crushing. I wanted to shed my whiteness, my Americanness, my need-for-nothingness.

I asked Sammy, “So how does this work for them? How does this work from here?”

He said, “When you go shopping at the Souq, you will see these guys lined up at the phone cable office to wire their money home. What they earn here and send to their families sets them up to live better when they return. They may be paying for a parent’s well-being or a sibling’s education and hopefully there is still some saved when they get back there.”

My attention returned to the street to the captured man in cuffs. The officers continued to taunt and humiliate him, seemingly, just to occupy time. I was furious at their efforts to reduce his character, but I knew that interfering would have produced unthinkable consequences for everyone present.

“What are they going to do to him?”

“His visa is probably expired. He stayed undetected until now and maybe his sponsor will not pay his way home, so he may still be working but for lower pay. The sponsors know these guys will not complain because then their expired visas will be found out. The overstay fault will fall on the migrant worker, not the Saudi business owner. He may be arrested and thrown in jail until either the employer pays a bribe to get him out or he will have to wait in jail until the government sends him home, soon if he’s lucky. It is not good conditions, living in a Saudi jail. Overcrowding, sickness, heat, food, sanitation. Some men just disappear. Their families back home never know what became of them, why the money stopped coming, why they never came home.”

The gravity of this man’s situation sunk in and I became dizzy with the awareness that I was amid modern-day slavery. The chai wallah was silent. Sammy had just described his identical circumstances and we all knew that he could be met with the same fate at any time. This scene played out repeatedly many times before I came to work in Saudi and would likely occur many times after I returned to the US and my privileged blonde, white-skinned life.

The noises and kerfuffle quieted. Other brown skinned, cardamom and sweat-soaked men joined Sammy, the chai wallah and me as we watched the conclusion of the scene.

The handcuffed man was thrown into the back of the jail wagon about the size of a mail truck. Its windowless interior was empty but for him and the wheel wells. There were no seats, no benches, no dividers in the suffocating metal box—nothing to brace himself against or use to support himself upright for the ride. The two back doors were slammed shut and the jubilant officers flashed brilliant white smiles to the spectators as they got into their seats and closed their doors, igniting the engine and revving it noisily in a final flaunt of supremacy.

Tears burned my eyes and bile rose in my gut as they sped away, weaving and dodging from one side of the street to the other and back as I envisioned the doomed and broken man tossing and crashing violently against the walls of his dark, steel box.

 

 

All Grown Up

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This is the first Memorial Day with my father in the ground. The first Memorial Day that one of my parents is in a grave that needs to be decorated, and I cannot be there to do it. I am one-thousand, one-hundred and ten miles away, and it hurts to be missing out on this simple gesture — a punctuation at the end of the last few years of Awful.

I was there to hire a lawyer when he wanted to divorce the spouse who he suspected was harming him. I was there to buy the clothes that he liked, Western shirts with snaps, no buttons due to his arthritis. She left him at the nursing home with nothing but sweatpants and a few white T-shirts. He was embarrassed to go to the dining hall because he felt that he was wearing pajamas in public.

I was there to get the forensic tests that alarmed the prosecuting attorney and initiated a criminal inquiry. I was there to show the judge enough red flags to quickly rule in my favor and order him protection. I was there to find the bank account that she bled of his inheritance four days after he fell gravely ill.

But I am not there to bring him flowers today.

I bought him a phone so that he could connect to the friends and family from whom she gradually cut him off, systematically isolating him. I was there to file a missing person’s report when he could not be reached by calls or email. I was there to learn that she had moved my father, 20 years her senior, to a town two hours away, and kept it a secret from his loved ones. The group of retired federal corrections officers that met for breakfast once a month was missing him.

I spoke up for him at court when his lawyers failed to. I demanded to be allowed to advocate for him when his legal guardian refused to — and again the court ruled in my favor. I was awarded access to his medical records to scrutinize and found lies and inaction — and again the court ruled in my favor over his guardian’s objection.

And when it was over, during the four-day blur that followed his death, I chose the casket, a prettier and more expensive one than his guardian dictated. I wrote the funeral program, published the obituary, and ordered a glorious floral spray in autumn colors –he died in October, the same month as his birth. I procured the DD214 that secured his place of honor at the Missouri Veterans Cemetery, a basic record that his spouse and his guardian had refused to request despite my multiple pleadings over the course of three years.

I have not seen Dad’s grave since the day he was laid to rest. That evening, my husband and I went to see where he was buried. The gold, red, and orange flowers burst brightly against the dark fresh dirt. Grass certainly covers it by now. I have not seen the simple white marker that the cemetery engraved with his name, birthdate-hyphen-death date, Marine Corp, Korea, and the cherub emblem according to the form I filled out.

I filled it out. It is my name on the government forms, my signature, my address that the memorial certificate was mailed to. Nary a squeak of protest from the still barely legal spouse who had nothing more to gain. No proclamations of innocence nor demands to participate in his funeral. How quietly the guilty go…

The graveyard grounds are beautiful, well-suited for the final resting place of thousands who wore the uniform and traveled the world to make our own country stronger and safer. Far too many modest white markers stab the earth here, including one for my mother’s parents, marked with Grandpa’s service in France and Belgium.

Dad lies amongst those he revered the most for the rigors of combat and sacrifices that they endured, but he was spared during his enlistment. Still, I know that he was glowing with pride as he felt the Honor Guard ceremonially remove his casket from the hearse, stepping in time to the shouted commands.

Loved ones who live nearby will wander the bucolic field today to find their veteran’s graves. Kids will play hide and seek amongst the trees and white upright slabs, too young and restless to understand how the dead there were once young and restless as well.

Respectful grown-ups will daintily lay flowers on the grave of a parent, friend, or other loved one. Another layer of melancholy will fall on them at the sight of all the undecorated, unflowered stones. The cemetery caretakers will stake obligatory tiny flags on every plot but many of the dead will not feel the heat of green plastic stems melting in the sun and polyester roses that bloom perfectly fluffy, rain or shine.

I should be there, traveling along the picturesque road that winds by the river’s side where tendrils of creeping jasmine and tangles of trumpet vine cling to the oaks and elms. I should be driving under the shade of the dense canopy of those trees. I should be approaching the entrance to the cemetery with the handsome iron gates that close at dusk, tucking in for the night those who rest in its grounds.

I was there for all the other Awful.

 

 

 

A Fleecing in Mumbai

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The breeze is heavy with heat and stench. It carries particles of pollution and garbage, microscopic ashes from fires that never fully extinguish. Dark foamy water laps at the seawall, gagging on rotten hot fish.

I am smothering and squinting in the scorching India sun and my head throbs from the cacophony of horns and motors from cars, lorries and mopeds. Every moment in India is a violent assault on the senses.

The Port of Mumbai is home to the ornate Gateway to India, a monument that commemorates the first visit to India by a British monarch. King George and his Queen Mary entered the colony at this spot in 1911. Immense and ornate with intricate carvings, the stone arch and surrounding promenade is abuzz with tourists and darting children. Street merchants compete against their friends to sell their postcards, viscose scarves, and Rajasthan marionettes. Mocha skinned ladies with long black hair in plaits wear saris in every brilliant color and the metallic embroidery shimmers as the fabric floats in step. Its neighbor is the majestic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel that regularly hosts world dignitaries and celebrities.

“Miss! Miss!”

I heard her before I saw her. This is the most unpleasant thing about India—the moral conflict regarding beggars. It is impossible to deny a begging child, but there is a societal push to discourage supporting them on the streets in efforts to lure them into school. But I don’t have the time to get caught up in a flurry of distractors, 25 more pairs of outstretched arms, if others were to see me fill her hands, a lesson learned when I was based in New Delhi and Jeddah. I have an hour long road trip back to the hotel and am working an early flight to China in the morning.

“Miss!” She is striking in her bright yellow billowing chiffon salwar. Her black eyes are lined with kohl, giving her the appearance of a tiny, more mature woman. I dig in my purse for a few rupees.

“No! No! I don’t want money. But, can you buy my sister some rice? Are you Christian?”

And there is the hook. Oh, she’s good. She learned at a tender age how to ensnare White Privilege.

Her hand reaches out to me, cupped and open, like a baby bird’s beak, ravenous and trusting that feeding is imminent. She has a red string around her wrist, a Hindu symbol of a brother’s commitment to protect his sister. But she also has two colorful pendants hanging from a black strand around her neck. One is the Virgin Mary. The other is Shiva, the Hindu deity who creates and destroys the world. She’s got several of the world religions covered. Pretty clever to enhance her income at this popular touristy spot.

“Habibti, I really don’t have much time. I’ll just give you some money to buy the rice?”

“No. no. I cannot take your money. The store is very close. My sister is hungry. Please. Can you?” Her speech is melodic with the lilting Hindi accent and her little head gently wags from side to side as she pleads.

She seems desperate for food but determined to not take my money. I of course, cannot resist.

The store was not so close, and she led me through some alleys and turns and I am feeling foolish and anxious for continuing with her. I look back to take a mental picture that will find my way back if we go too much farther. There are fewer and fewer tourists and every turn finds an emptier and more narrow passage. Every time she senses my hesitation and reassures me, “It’s just right here.” We round another corner and she disappears; she has stepped into the store.

It is smaller than a closet. Really just a booth in the sprawling web of shops in this part of Colaba, its walls painted a bright, peeling robin-egg blue. The man minding it sees her and scolds her with a glare. She silently responds to him with a satisfied expression, like the retriever who drops the wounded pheasant at his master’s feet. His scowl softens and looks to me.

“May I help, Miss?”

I look at the girl and ask her, “What do you need?”

The question is interpreted as an open-ended offer. The modest request for a bit of biryani for her sibling expands to add a large can of powdered milk. She stands on her tippy toes and pulls herself up to put her chin on the counter and tilts her head to look at me sideways, measuring her catch.

“Ahn-yahn?” A sweetly sly grin slowly appears when she detects no opposition. The man puts an onion on the counter.

“Two, please, “ I add.

“Ool!” Emboldened and excited, her smile broadened, and she jumped up and down, Cooking oil for the burner stove.

“Okay, that’s good. How much?” I fumble with the tangled wad of cash in my bag, careful to not expose the entire amount or risk buying the rest of the shop’s inventory.

The man hands her a bag of rice and the onions and sets the oil and milk to the side for her return. She disappears running, heavy and gleeful with her booty.

Frazzled, I give him the charged amount and leave in a rush, clueless on the prices I just paid because I can barely add in dollars, let alone convert to rupees.

“You know what she’s doing with that, don’t you?” I turn to see a woman who apparently witnessed the transaction. She is also Western, possibly Australian, and her bobbed gray hair sticks to her sunburned neck and face, matted with perspiration. She looks like she belongs here, clad in her hippie-style flowing chambray skirt and white t-shirt.

“Well, it’s food. She’s poor. It will tie her family for a few meals,” I replied. The woman sounded annoyed by what she had seen. I wondered if I would ever sound so blasé and desensitized to a young girl begging for food for her hungry baby sister.

“She wouldn’t take your money. Asked you to buy things for her instead and took you to her family’s store. That big bag of rice? She will divide it into smaller portions and sell it. It’s their new scheme. They think it looks less like begging if they have you buy food rather than hand them money. The government is cracking down on the beggars in the cities, especially in tourist areas.”

I am momentarily offended. Well, that little…! I had lived in India for several months—I thought I was more street smart! How did I just get fleeced by a kid? Indian merchants practice liberal pricing on their wares. There is the Indian price that a local will pay and there is the foreigner price that is inflicted upon the naïve visitor. I am quite sure of which scale determined my purchases.

And then, the flush of punishing shame rains over me. I think of the incomprehensible disparity that lies between this impoverished little girl and the immense wealth of the client who brought me here.

I recall the untouched, obscenely expensive catering that I threw away at the end of the 9-hour flight on a fifty million-dollar jet. Perfectly picked, artistically shaped slices of fresh mango, cantaloupe, and pineapple arranged over ruffled green and amethyst kale on a silver tray, garnished with pink and white plumeria blossoms. A carton of 2% and skim milk and a liter of tangy orange juice. Brilliant, hand-painted dishes of colorful chopped vegetables for dipping ordered for, then left unconsumed by the single passenger on the flight from Athens to Mumbai. Tender sesame-glazed chicken skewers–10 pieces in tin foil for reheating. A quart each of minestrone, seafood bisque, and creamy tomato basil gourmet soup. It was all wasted and is only a representative portion of the food that found its way from the galley to a landfill that day.

In my grocery store in the Midwest, one hundred dollars would buy all the items to assemble the menu for this single flight, but the CEO who travels by private jet effortlessly pays one thousand five hundred dollars. One…thousand…five…hundred…dollars. Invulnerable to the growling beast of poverty, why would he care that the amount he paid for 9 hours of provisions would cover the cost of my sister’s rent for 3 months?

I let the Aussie get a few steps ahead of me but keep her in my sights assuming that she is going to the bustling harbor, and I need to be guided out of this mess of back alleys. I imagine the girl laboring at a small table in a cramped room separating portions of rice into smaller muslin bags, tying them off with a piece of green yarn from an unraveled sweater. She should be in school, but for the poorest families of India, even the smallest pittance of an income is indispensable. Dowries are costly and crippling. A man’s monetary burden of securing a suitable husband for his daughter begins at her birth. It torments the exhausted father like a vulture pecking and tearing at an injured, not-yet-dead cub.

As I approach the end of a building row, the alley widens and the chaotic clamor of car and moped horns welcomes me back to the cafes and shops of Colaba, where displays of postcards, textiles, and cases full of dull metal Bohemian jewelry lure souvenir hunters. The banging dishes and blaring Hindi music replace the quieter back alleys behind me.

The harbor’s paved open area in front of the Gateway is crowded with locals on lunch breaks, Asian and European tourists. Almond eyed ladies in a dazzling smattering of saris chatter as they pass by me, staring, smiling and I am treated to the endearing Indian head waggle that says hello, goodbye, I don’t know, and yes and no. A skinny teenage boy in a tea-stained white shirt rushes by, nearly toppling his tray of 5 cups of hot chai. He stops and rebalances it, checks for spills and continues with more caution toward the group of police officers standing close to the monument.

I turn from the Gateway. The colossal Taj Mahal Palace Hotel is before me. A grand ruby hued dome adorns the top of the magnificent edifice, an homage to the building’s inspiration. By day, she is beautiful. At night, her lighting is radiant. Glittering windows and a curved, fanciful façade separate the marble floors and crystal chandeliers from the filth of the city. Shiny onyx Bentleys and chrome clad Rolls Royce autos line the front, bringing international diplomats and top-level executives for high tea over which business deals amounting in the billions will be discussed. It is the most historic and opulent hotel in this part of Mumbai, where Bollywood celebrities choose to see and be seen, just because they can. Graceful bellmen emanate royalty from their white turbans, the front twist adorned with a tall peacock feather secured behind a large jewel. They are impeccably handsome in their magenta dinner coats with gold stripes at the cuffs and stand ready to greet guests and to open the palatial glass doors where beyond, everything sparkles.

Through the din of the bustling crowd, I hear her familiar shouts.

“Sir! Madame! Madame!” The kohl-eyed enterpriser in the canary yellow salwar kameez has already returned. She has selected a mature couple wearing straw hats and matching khaki pants to repeat her shrewd business acumen and bolster her cottage industry.

“No, no. I cannot take your money…” She follows her script and resumes hoodwinking her hunger away. The little shop with the bright, peeling, robin-egg blue paint is just a two-minute walk from here.

Ghosts of Rwanda

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A palatial white stucco wall bore the hotel’s name at the entrance from the city road. Brilliant large cobalt blue letters declared a welcome to the De Mille Colline in colors that one would expect to see at a resort in the Greek isles rather than this place—Kigali, Rwanda. The wall divided the entry drive and parking lot awkwardly. At first, I thought it was an inefficient design that inhibited the ability to turn around in the parking lot without going all the way through the property. Then I realized that it was a security effort that modified how vehicles approached the hotel after the 1994 genocide. This was “Hotel Rwanda”, where hundreds of terrified Tutsis huddled for protection under Paul Rusesabagina, the general manager who had warm relations with the United Nations delegates stationed in Kigali.

Rwandans move with a poised, unhurried elegance. The bellman broke into a slow brilliant smile as he walked in graceful strides to greet me. I wondered how he managed to perform this way every single day in mid Africa in his heavy, wine-colored polyester dinner coat and pants. If he was too warm or uncomfortable, he hid it well. I felt unkempt and odorous and fully in the grip of jet lag after the previous day of flying from the east coast to Lisbon and on to Africa.

As I entered the lobby, the marble floor shone and reflected sparkling prisms of light. Majestic columns were wrapped in complimenting colors. An elegant and welcoming reception area allowed warm cross breezes that carried the scent of fragrant potted flowers. The whole back wall of the room was plate glass that yielded a gorgeous view of the hotel grounds which were enclosed by another glowing white wall, covered with vibrant explosions of fuchsia pink bougainvillea.

The swimming pool shone like a giant square blue topaz set in the middle of a yard of meticulously manicured emerald grass. The beauty and tranquility were disarming. There was a palpable, stark contrast between this scene and the horrors it hosted nearly eighteen years prior. During the one hundred- day genocide in 1994, this pool provided water for drinking, cooking, and bathing for the people who found refuge at the De Mille Colline. It gave and sustained life until it was too choked, too soiled from lack of maintenance and decay began. Once the water level was low and the remaining became unsafe to use, the pool became a cistern for waste when the plumbing was shut off by the predators who were always waiting outside the walls.

I wondered, how many hours of cleaning and rinsing, disinfecting did it take to breathe new life into these beautiful grounds? The scope of the atrocities it witnessed was unfathomable. Could every molecule of water that was present at that time—even after nearly two decades– truly be gone? The Indian poet Rumi wrote that every raindrop becomes part of the sea–the raindrop still exists in its individuality but at the same time is indiscernible from the wave that it rolled into. Was it forensically possible for every trace of those horrible days to be erased as far down as the cellular level? I wasn’t concerned with cleanliness or sanitary conditions. I wanted to respect the ghosts that I felt there. I felt their eyes on me, pleas to see and feel them, to acknowledge what happened to them and to not let them be forgotten.

I checked in with the front desk, but the room was not yet available, so I left my luggage at the concierge desk and reunited with Muzay, the driver who had offered to take me to visit some of the nearby memorials. Already overwhelmed with the weight of grief, I wondered why I felt compelled to experience such places.

The day was warm but not stifling. Stunning views revealed themselves as we drove to the edge of town and entered the openness of Rwanda, the land of a thousand hills, rolling and lush, blanketed in various hues of emerald. Coffee and tea plantations grew into one another. I was overlooking the source of the product that brought my client, a prominent US business man to Rwanda to meet with President Kagame for talks on exports.

We arrived at the first memorial, a small church with a tall chain link fence surrounding it. Muzay stopped the car and parked. I felt awkward, leaving him to sit and wait for me but I could sense that he did not plan to accompany me inside. In the eighteen years since the world witnessed the mind-numbing horrors, he had hosted many Western gawkers. I wondered what he thought of me. What is the psychology that plays into the ability to chauffer guests to the very scenes of the mass murder of your own villagers and family members? Which idea is the strongest or in what order do they occur for someone who has endured so much? Acceptance? Forgiveness? Peace? Strength? Would I ever be as good and strong as these people?

A small, bored looking man at the door of the church stood to greet me. He was sizing me up, evaluating who I was and what business I had there. Of course, had every right to do so, and every second was more humbling as I told myself, “Let him feel his authority. They have to be so tired and it must feel so insulting that their tragedy is often treated as a spectator sport.” I knew that though President Kagame is credited with stopping that rampant streak of violence all those years ago and went on to promote the “reunification of all Rwandans”, the survivors are still forced to share their country with those who killed their families. Differentiation of Hutu and Tutsi was banned after the genocide—all citizens are collectively Rwandans. And all Rwandans know that on any given day, they may be looking into the eyes of an individual that they had once seen wielding a machete.

I smiled at him and patted my right hand to my heart, a gentle greeting that is recognized in many Asian and African cultures as a sign of respect. His face softened and he began to recite his soliloquy, starting by gesturing to a bent-up mess of heavy iron bars, a tangle of metal that was what was left of the gate that secured the entrance to the church. It had been blasted with grenades to gain access to the terrified prey. As the violence heightened and the danger spread from all villages, government radio told the people to go to churches, that they would be safe in the churches with their families, neighbors, and local leaders. The reality was that they became fish in a barrel.

Inside, the pews were simple benches, made of wood like that of a picnic table that has been out in the weather for many years. They were short and pieced together at thirty-degree angles to follow the hexagon shape of the room. Piled upon them were heaps of clothes and shoes that had burned edges, rips, some shredded, some slashed. All were covered in eighteen years of dust at this preserved scene. Thousands of items littered the church. Dresses, shirts, skirts, wraps, pants, headscarves, shoes.

At the front of the sanctuary stood a podium bearing small keepsakes that were protected under a sheet of plexiglass. My attention was drawn to something resting against the dark scarlet lining, a piece that was the color of a robin’s egg, a bright sky-blue. It was a singular splash of pretty in the grim scene, like a lone twinkle in an otherwise starless night sky. I stepped closer to the podium in the dimly lighted ruins.

The lovely spot of blue was a child’s coin purse that was no larger than a toddler’s fist. It was shaped like a triangle that had the top point shaved off and replaced with silver trim and a clasp. The once glossy vinyl coat had dulled but a ruffle embellishment of the same material had held its shape. It had a few scruffs and scratches, and pea sized silver bead adorned the side of the purse in the center of the ruffle, the finishing touch like a kiss that blessed it.

Breath left me. Grief-laden breath heaved out of my chest and rushed toward the little blue coin purse with a force as though it believed it could reach the little girl who clutched it as the exploding grenades tore through the church gate. As if it could swoosh backwards through the years, blow its force into the church, lift and carry her and all those terrified people into the clouds and away from the bombs, guns, and machetes.

My chest hurt. My throat choked. I felt the sky collapse and the walls were squeezing in on me. Everything in the world felt fractured. Everything crumbled and dropped apart in pieces and particles. Everything except the baked mud and blood that attached these pieces of clothing to one another, piles upon piles on the pews, as inseparable as the souls of those who wore them.

I thought of the news footage I had seen at the time of these events of the people who were filmed by journalists, begging the world for intercession, begging the US to save them. Disbelief and fury conjoined. What is the power—or the weakness– that it leads societies to do this? To allow this? To ignore this?

I walked out of the church and toward Muzay and the car. A banner was stretched between two high posts above the gates just outside the church. Every April the government hangs thousands of them throughout Rwandan towns for 100 days to commemorate the genocide. Against a purple background, weathered white script read, “Never Again”. It flapped in the breeze noisily as air passed through the many rips and holes.

 

Writing and Meditation Workshop at Kripalu

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Last weekend I returned to the lovely property of Kripalu in the Berkshires of Massachusetts for a couple of days of writing and meditation. It renewed the passion necessary to create a regular writing practice and I realized how unproductive I have been lately.

During the course of several classes, we were shown how to give ourselves permission again to identify ourselves as “writers”, but more importantly, commit to actually writing. If  you have an interest in writing but have never been to a workshop with others struggling with the same blocks, time constraints and excuses that we all make to not regularly enjoy this cathartic experience, I encourage  you to do so. What I took away from the weekend was a refreshing perspective of how easily writing comes to those meant to do it. A few minutes of guided meditation that leads your brain in one direction followed by a writing prompt that can either continue on that which came to you in stillness or surprise you by providing a spontaneous change in trajectory was an eye-opening exercise! Dani Shapiro was the author leading the workshop and she had a brilliant way of making you feel as though you were in the passenger seat riding along a country road, allowed to close your eyes and go wherever the driver chose– but then suddenly your eyes are opened, the vehicle makes a sharp turn and now YOU are the one in control of the steering and speed.

Dani led a meditation of about 10 minutes and then we were given the prompt, “It could have happened.” For 20 minutes we wrote and then broke into small groups to share what had come to us. There was no time for editing, no time for revision or polishing.  Writing in longhand, pen to paper, thinking and composing much more slowly than I write by typing, was yet another new lesson in how a new stimulus can tweak the brain into expressing its thoughts in a different style. The following is my result of that prompt.

It could have happened. I could have been left to swelter in the July Jeddah heat, the driver refusing to re-enter the cab as long as I remained inside. It could have been Saudi police who came upon us and pulled up behind the vehicle, who would have seen me, a 27 year -old white skinned, blonde American stewardess who defied social laws and dared to venture off the compound, out of the city, without the required male relative as an escort.

The Egyptian driver, only in the Kingdom for a minimally better opportunity to provide for his family, would have surely been arrested, beaten, and…? Simply for having accepted me as a passenger.

Had the police come upon us, this man’s family could have never heard from him again, the first inkling of something being amiss would be the money wire that failed to appear this week at the Bank of Cairo. Days, weeks, months this man would languish in jail; maybe not. Maybe he would have soon been deported back to Cairo with is visa revoked and his passport bearing an enormous “Exile” stamp, forever ending his contract of employment in the Kingdom, no longer to support his aging parents, put his children through school, start a business upon his return to Cairo.

The police would have arrested me as well. But…I had value. Even as a woman I would have been a valuable hostage, for as an American, my absence would not have gone unnoticed. I could be traded for ransom, negotiated as a political pawn. I could have been paraded on the news in clean, beautifully stitched abayas, veils with intricate lace borders. But off-camera? Off-camera, lewd eyes in front of distorted perspectives of religion, decency, and entitlements would make me part of a much more ominous narrative.

As I sat in the back seat of the taxi far on the outskirts of town, still far from the airport, I looked out the back window and watched the man walk away. It turned out that he actually didn’t speak English; he didn’t have the foggiest idea of how to get me to the compound to which he had agreed to provide me transport.

When it became apparent to him that I couldn’t give him pointed direction, he realized his risk of being with me and knew he had to immediately separate himself from my company.

I saw ancient abandoned minaret towers, desert grass, sand dunes, and camels. I had heard of the Filipino nurses and teachers who were lured to Saudi for work in privileged homes—and who were used up by the salacious Saudi men, their bodies dumped at the bases of these prayer towers. Did the offenders choose those locations with the intent to follow their crimes by climbing the stairs inside to pray for absolution?

Saudi police made routine sweeps around these structures to collect the remains.

Our twenty minutes was up. For over a decade I have been trying to think of a way to start writing about the year I spent as an expat in Saudi Arabia. All it took was a prompt from a single dramatic sentence of four words.

 

 

For Grandpa on Pearl Harbor Day…reposted for Memorial Day

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December 7, 2011

Update: Grandpa passed July 13. 2012.

 

Grandpa is a Railsplitter, a division in the Army originating with Abraham Lincoln that also boasts Malcom Forbes and Henry Kissinger. He is 85 and still lives in Nixa. Recently we’ve seen the importance of recording his stories that he loves to tell even though we’ve heard the same ones repeatedly. He grew up in the hills of Hurley, Missouri and his thick Ozarks accent is just too musical to not try to translate. It’s a rough read but once you get the sound it’s the only way to hear these stories. Age and dementia make him jump from thought to thought with missing segues so as you read, you’re not missing anything –the conversation really is this fragmented. I wanted to transcribe as authentically as possible and maybe one day I’ll polish it up but for Pearl Harbor Day here are some small bits of his experiences in his own words.

Oh, them storms and snow and weather and so on was somethin’ else to bug with. Uh, we had more rain in England than it did in Germany. I don’t recall too much rainin’ in Germany, not like we had in England. Oh, we had snow in Germany and France. That winter snow, we had more of that stuff to put up with than rain. Had clothes to put on, course them, you’d hole up in that snow quicker than anything. Course then you’d cover up in that white stuff, that snow, an’ o’course that covered up any o’ that color. I’s more int’rsted in food than anything. We’d get us in a house if they was any houses available. An’ if we was still out in the fields out there, they’d be, well, they’d occupied that country, the Germans had, and they’d made dug outs, big as that room there, and I carried in pine needles in the floor. Course, you din’t dare start a fire with them pine needles in the floor. Hoooo!

No, them, them dug outs, they uh, they was one of them places to git into. Course somebody had to stand guard at the entrance. That time I was checking that prisoner in, I knew where the dug out was, and got there about from here to that tree, and I stopped him and I hollered out, “Guard at the dug out! Mitchell with a pris’ner approaching! Allowed to come in!  And it’s, Proceed! Come on!”  So, we went on. The Platoon Sgt there delegated somebody to take him on back to Battalion headquarters. Supposed to give him some information on locations. I don’t know. I wadn’t in on that part. They had interrogators to uh, to uh, get it from em, but they might talk back down the line when somebody give ‘em some food or somethin’.

This was a…this guy wandered into our lines. I couldn’t figger out why. Well, yeah I could too. He wound up bein’ some kind of a officer. I don’t know whether he was platoon leader or that size but anyway he was an officer in a German army and he was seekin’ information and locations, and walked into our line. Hooo! Shouldn’t a’oughrta done dat! But anyway, he did. I don’ know if he give ‘em any valuable information or not. S’posed to have been. S’posed to have later on, I understood, he s’posed to.

We had dug outs, we had houses we stayed in. Lot of ‘em was 2 and 3 story houses. If you wanted to, say you stayed below the top floor, you stayed in the 2nd, artillery comin’ in. They, they throwed shells in on us.

Yeah, I killed that rooster that time. We had chicken n’ dumplins.”

I needed clarification to set this scene.

         “Grandpa,where’d you find that rooster?”

“In that chicken coop behind the house we was in. Him and about a half dozen old hens was in that chicken coop. I went out and he squawked like…tore his head off and throwed him out that snow bank and let him flop and bleed and die. I went up there and told that other feller that I…was ready for you to work on ‘im. He said okay. He fixed him, they put him in a big pot, cooked him up, got some o’ them GI biscuits, made dumplins. Hoooo. (smacked lips)

No, a, a warm place to stay was uh, and food, was the two things we looked for. We had a…most of us had a K ration or at least one. They was 3 of ‘em. Breakfast, dinner and supper. K rations. They come in a box about that long, about that deep, about that wide. Scrambled eggs and…I forget what else…. With some o’ them…they was dried biscuits. It was a bread thing, kind a like crackers. Part o’ the time they’d be a powdered envelope ‘bout so big of some kinda drink. Sometimes it was Nescafe coffee.

I carried a little field pack on my back. It wadn’, it wadn’t, nothin’, it just stuck up a little bit if I decided I wanted to stay undercover… it was a field pack. Stuck up ‘bout a little bit higher than my normal body. Anyway, I usually tried to have some kind of one o’ them boxes of food in there. Yeah.

BAR—Browning Automatic Rifle, it’s called. It’s shaped like a rifle but it had bipods out on the end of the barrel, heavier than a rifle and it had a magazine of 18 or 20 shells in each magazine. And I think they was 8 o’ them I could carry in that, in that uh thing at my waist.

At this point in the recording, Grandpa was distracted by some video on TV of extreme weather and a bridge being washed out by floodwaters. It reminded him of the portable floating footbridges that were often built ahead of his platoon to enable them to cross rivers with little interruption to their progress.

 

“There, looky there, there’s one of them bridges. We had some of them. Some that tried to keep them intact …so we’d cross ‘em.”

And back to his train of thought…

No, I tried to carry at least one of them meals in my field pack for when I might want something to eat.

Floods in the basements… I slept in a potato bin in my sleepin’ bag one night. Yeah. Me an’…me an’ taters slept there together. Hooooo. Anyway, it was, it was a warm and safe place and that was the 2 things, 2 things.

Them trucks and tanks would slide off on them sides of the places, get stucks, the, the, uh, wrecker sized stuff would have to come pull ‘em out, get ‘em goin’. The noise made it, they made a noise and gave the Germans an idea of where they’s located and they’d throw artillery shells in around ‘em.

No, they had what they called a tank retriever. It was a, it was a trailer and it had a wench set up so they could pull one outta the ditch with a wench. And they had hooks on ‘em—cleavis’s, I guess they’d call ‘em—of some kind that they could tie onto ‘em with a cable. Yeah. Anyhow, back on the road and get ‘em goin’.

No, them tanks. They throw that 75mm shell and machine guns was hooked up inside ‘em and they was 2 and 3 inches of armor, of metal. Yeah.

Another pause…Grandpa lost in thought (or tired). It gave me the chance to prod him back to another story that he tells a lot but I didn’t have the bits and pieces that led into it and set it up.

 

“How did you find that house you stayed in?” I knew he had stayed with families in Belgium but never was clear on how they came to be houseguests in the war torn countryside.

“We uh, well they had advanced party in lot of them things. And the advanced party would go in and, I don’t know, they had some kind of way to negotiate with or talk to the people that give our troops certain rooms.  I don’t know. I wasn’t in on anything like that. I don’t know what exactly the operation but anyway that… them towns just like down here. We’ll just say downtown Nixa. That old uh, hardware building you know, it’s got a lot o’upstairs to it. It’d, it’d, course, that was the first floor. That was the dangerous floor to be in. Now, that’s an example of findin’ them places. Lot of them homes, like this one, be 2 stories, that way we could get upstairs in this thing but it’s still dangerous for the artillery shells to hit the roof and the pieces come through. But it they’s a basement in this thing that’s the place to git. Whooo, yeah.

Oh, I walked out one morning, Daphne, they was snow on the ground, it was one o’ them blue cold days. Walked out the basement of that house, they was a ‘lectric line pole like this one out here on the corner right there. Walked out up them steps, sun was shinin’, we was blinkin’ and a’blarin’ with all the snow on the ground. Saw a shadda, we could see shaddahs, looked up, and the civilians had caught a infil—a German soldier had infiltrated in sometime durin’ the night and they’d caught him and hung him to that pole! There he’s hangin’ there! Blue cold. Somebody said, “Well, should we cut him down?”

“No, let the sonofabitch hang there, Goddammit, he didn’t have any business over here.”

“Well, that was the kind the attitude we had you know.

Anyway, one day we was sittin’ out there out in front of this cow shed….

To be continued…

Daryl Mitchell       September 25, 1925- July 13, 2012