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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

What Calls Us

The New Year calls to us, summoning us to determine what we will carry forth from last year into this year, and what pray tell, shall we leave behind. Time magazine recently reported the U.S. spends more on military defense than the world’s next twenty highest budgets combined. 693 billion dollars in 2010. Defense spending has more than doubled in a decade.1 And in that same decade U.S. figures for incarceration reached two million people at a cost to federal, state and local governments of over 75 billion dollars a year. 2

As we commence 2011 it behooves us to ask what these numbers reveal. What does it mean that we spend more on war and locking people up than any other nation? Does it suggest being American makes us either endangered or dangerous? Does it harken back to the old adage, to a hammer everything looks like a nail? Or to the ax everything looks like something to split?

To the members of Congress who voted down the Dream Act apparently the eighteen-year-old Chicana who wants to attend college and the twenty-year-old Honduran who wants to join the U.S. air force are no more than driftwood waiting to be tossed back across the ocean they illegally crossed as babies in their parents’ arms. According to Bloomberg News, the Department of Homeland Security patrols the U.S.-Mexican border with three $4.5 million dollar predator drones. 3

We spend 3.5 times more to impose control in Iraq and Afghanistan, than to educate our children. 4 We spend almost twice as much to incarcerate as to educate. What would happen if we reversed those numbers? What would happen in we invested 46 billion in Afghani and Pakistani and Iraqi schools?

A student of mine at Keene State wrote a research essay on educating girls in Pakistan. She learned development experts agree on the value of educating females. The Brookings Institute found, and I quote:

Educating girls and women is one of most highly leveraged investments in long-term development. Learning to read and write opens up a world of possibilities for girls and women in terms of their self-confidence, their ability to make informed decisions, and their capacity to avoid manipulation by false information—all things inherently valuable in resisting oppressive forces. But educating women and girls has also been shown to improve the health status of children and the economic development of their communities. One 63-country study found that educating women was credited for 43 percent of the progress made in reducing child malnutrition. Another study across 100 countries found that every 1 percent increase of women’s education generated .3 percent increase in economic growth. 5

And what of the boys who leave school to take up arms, to express their outrage at western domination, at values they believe corrupt their own?

Alice Walker began one of her novels with this epigraph: “When the ax entered the forest, the trees said, ‘the handle is one of us.’”

When the nail sees the hammer coming, does it recognize the metal head? Can we be as the forest and claim the ax handle as one of us?

Would it improve national security even more than nifty new body scanners, to invest in education nationally and worldwide?

We make a choice to spend 693 billion on defense. We could choose instead to pay for state or community college for every American.

What if we gave subsidies not to the largest corn and soybean growers but the smallest family farms? What if for every predator drone strike we dropped durable laptop computers for every child in the region? For the cost of one predator drone we could drop 22.500 computers.

In the face of magnitude, of proportionality we can’t fully digest, perhaps we can focus on the handle of the ax instead of the clear-cut forest.

As humans we respond to the face we can see, the story we hear, the particular drama that unfolds before us. Tragedy stripes the world with such regularity it appears plaid. Yet in the vastness of the pattern there is the particularity of the weave and that may be what calls to us this second day of the New Year.

Last January I read an article in the New York Times about a woman, a dancer in the national troupe in Haiti who lost a leg in the crush of the earthquake. I was so moved by her story I took money out of savings to send for a prosthesis. The person at the foundation who received my check kindly reminded me tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Haitians now need prosthetic limbs. I knew that before I withdrew the money, but a 100,000 doesn’t hit home the way one does. Every fiction writer knows: you want to write about the human condition, tell a story about a person, preferably one you know something about.

Like many people, I watched several New York Times videos filmed in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake and I sent my check for the woman who lost her leg. Then, a few days before Christmas, I watched a video on the website of Soles4Souls, a humanitarian organization that collects and distributes shoes. Seeing not even the faces, but the bare feet of children and adults queued up called to me. Watching the anonymous white arms of volunteers washing those dusty Haitian feet before fitting them with shoes, spoke so directly of the third chapter in Exodus where God says to Moses, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground”—I knew I have to go there. I signed up to go the second week of March.

Will it save the world or the life of any Haitian? No, but it might help save me, and if such a trip can forestall cynicism and hopelessness in the enormity of the numbers I recited in the beginning, it will be a worthwhile trip.

It appears here in America we are on a frightening trajectory where fear propels us to keep sending more troops than laptops or shoes—and to keep filling prisons, to keep denying citizenship to eighteen-year-olds whose parents snuck them across a border sixteen or seventeen years ago in search of a better, or perhaps merely a viable life. We hear the cries to build a longer, higher fence along our southern border, and yet there are other walls coming down. The repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which is after all not simply a story of prejudice dismantled, but of thousands of individual stories of integrity restored. And not just the integrity of gay and lesbian service members, but the integrity of a nation. And as more federal judges are finding it harder to uphold laws that unfairly deny gay and lesbian folks the right to marry, it is often the particular gay or lesbian person we know: the siblings and children, the parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, the co-workers and friends, the neighbors that make the prospect of legislation based on fear such a dismal one.

So if we were to acquaint ourselves with any of the two million incarcerated people in the U.S. would we recognize the handle as part of us? If every legislator or judge who advocates a simplistic call to get tough on crime volunteered for a weekend to help facilitate an Alternatives to Violence Project training, or spent the same weekend with the spouse or children, the parents or grandparents who wait on the outside, would it make it easier to recognize the nail and the head of the hammer are forged from the same ore?

Would the particularity of their stories matter?

And if we were to spend a weekend in Washington with our elected representatives or their lobbyists, or a weekday down on Wall Street would it help us understand the stories of the 1011 billionaires on the planet who have tripled their numbers in the last decade?

After watching the documentary “Inside Job” I do not know. It is as easy for me as it is for many members of the Tea Party to express utter frustration even contempt at oppositional politics and seemingly unstoppable greed, but outrage alone will not serve us anymore than it will glorify the suicide bomber or justify the weekend militia men and women in camo practicing in earnest for the coming Armageddon.
Perhaps what calls to us in this New Year is a re-awakening of our attention to detail, our willingness to be arrested in our tracks by still images and video clips of bare feet in Port-au-Prince or Kandahar, in the weary gaze of a woman raped too many times to count in Kinshasha, or the two young sons forced to move from New York to Wisconsin as their single father deploys to Afghanistan.

Another year begins for Haitians still living in tents and uniformed women and men still being deployed, and all the civilians, especially children who disproportionately bear the brunt of war.

Herein lies the challenge: if only we could know all the stories of all the people we fear—and who rightly or wrongly fear us—of course we cannot, not even with the power of the internet. So often we remain strangers in one another’s land, or at least in one another’s view of it. As a species we differentiate not just in our cells but in our categories. We create taxonomies to order the universe, to distinguish class and genus and expressions of love. In so doing we not only identify difference; we cultivate it.

We create enclaves in part because we feel safer with our own kind, whatever we perceive that to be, than with the stranger. Yet it is the stranger we are instructed to love in the tenth chapter of the book of Deuteronomy: “You shall also love the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (verse 19)
The particularity of our experience—as a descendent of conquerors, or more benignly, settlers, as descendents of immigrants in search of survival, security or even prosperity, as descendents of the enslaved—means we have all been strangers at some time. No doubt even the descendents of indigenous people feel they too have been strangers in a land no longer their own.

Thus we are called to consider the experience of the stranger and to find ourselves in that experience as the trees of the forest recognize themselves in the handle of the ax. As discomfiting as it may be to think of ourselves as strangers, let this New Year usher in a particularity that allows us to stop before we turn the page or click the mouse or change the channel, before we zone out on the succession of zeroes by which every number in the news now seems to end.

The wise and beautiful prose poem by Naomi Shihab Nye entitled “Wandering Around an Albuquerque Airport Terminal” reminds us to recognize in the face, in the bare feet, in the desperation of another—ourselves. She writes:

After learning my flight was detained 4 hours, I heard the announcement: If anyone in the vicinity of gate 4-A understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.

Well — one pauses these days. Gate 4-A was my own gate. I went there. An older woman in full traditional Palestinian dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing loudly. Help, said the flight service person. Talk to her. What is her problem? We told her the flight was going to be four hours late and she did this.

I put my arm around her and spoke to her haltingly. Shu dow-a, shu-biduck habibti, stani stani schway, min fadlick, sho bit se-wee? The minute she heard any words she knew — however poorly used – she stopped crying. She thought our flight had been cancelled entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for some major medical treatment the following day. I said, No, no, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just late, who is picking you up? Let’s call him and tell him.

We called her son and I spoke with him in English. I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and would ride next to her. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and found out, of course, they had ten shared friends. Then I thought, just for the heck of it, why not call some Palestinian poets I know and let them chat with her. This all took up about 2 hours. She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life. Answering questions.

She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies — little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts — out of her bag — and was offering them to all the women at the gate. To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the traveler from California, the lovely woman from Laredo — we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There are no better cookies.

And then the airline broke out the free beverages from huge coolers — non-alcoholic — and the two little girls for our flight, one African-American, one Mexican-American — ran around serving us all apple juice and lemonade and they were covered with powdered sugar, too.

And I noticed my new best friend — by now we were holding hands — had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country traveling tradition. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.

And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought, This is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in this gate — once the crying of confusion stopped — has seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women, too. This can still happen, anywhere.

Not everything is lost.

Closing Words

Don't say, don't say there is no water
to solace the dryness at our hearts.

I have seen

the fountain springing out of the rock wall
and you drinking there. And I too
before your eyes

found footholds and climbed
to drink the cool water.…

Don't say, don't say there is no water.
…it is still there and always there
with its quiet song and strange power
to spring in us,

up and out through the rock.

~ Denise Levertov ~

1. Time, Dec. 6, 2010, p.20

2. The High Budgetary Cost of Incarceration, John Schmitt, Kris Warner, and Sarika Gupta June 2010, Center for Economic and Policy Research