Josna Rege

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436. Feel-good, feeling good

In Aging, reading, reflections, seasons, Stories, Words & phrases, Work, writing on June 13, 2019 at 12:09 pm

from Friday’s Tunnel, written and illustrated by John Verney

It is a grey weekday morning. Rain is forecast, with gusty winds and temperatures 20°F below what is usual for mid-June weather, but so far it is pleasantly cool, overcast, and expectantly still. The street, too, is still, now that most of the students have left for the summer, with only the occasional dog-walker dawdling in front of the house with his cell-phone, studiously indifferent to his companion marking my newly seeded strip of lawn, and a car going by maybe once an hour, if that, and at a snail’s pace.

Yesterday I pruned the bushes out back, inexpertly and overzealously. Now the clippings lie in heaps on the terrace steps, and before the rain I ought to pull on gumboots and tick-proof clothing to dump wheelbarrow-loads of them in the copse at the end of the garden. All such a joy and a luxury now that my grades are finally in and I am officially on summer break. But instead, a lady of leisure, I have donned an old dressing-gown of Andrew’s and gone back to bed (after a breakfast of oatmeal and strawberries) to read and write. Rain looms, brush clippings beckon, and a clipboard with its fresh notepad awaits my long To Do list, but it will all just have to wait; I’m feeling good.

In ten days I will turn 65—or complete 65, as we say more accurately in Indian English—officially a Senior Citizen. I wonder, will I command greater respect, inspire pity, or simply become irrelevant? Will I cease to strive or strive with all the more urgency? Will I slow down and count my blessings, or set myself demanding new goals to keep mind and body active? I’m noticing the aches and pains in my joints, especially my thumbs, the decisiveness with which exhaustion dictates my bedtime at the end of the day, the lag before the word I want comes to me. How much more time do I have to set my house in order, to write, even to think?

As a young smart-alec, I routinely mocked and dismissed “feel-good movies” as sentimental, without any critical edge, opiates synthesized simply to attract the largest possible audience (and, of course, box-office profits) and turn their minds to mush. Yet at the same time—and I didn’t seem to notice the contradiction here—I personally avoided horror films, thrillers and tragedies. Life was horrific enough, I argued, with more than enough misery to go around; why pay to subject oneself to even more? I preferred to lose myself in romantic comedies—why? Because they made me feel good.

In an email a few years ago, Barbara, an old friend, made an observation about me  which I continually find myself returning to and mulling over; she had noticed that I didn’t want to do things I didn’t want to do. Although this may appear tautological, in fact it goes right to the heart of things. My attitude toward the feel-good movie—and perhaps to feeling good in general—is of a piece with Barbara’s penetrating insight. There are things I need to do that I must tackle with a will, whether or not I want to do so. Afterwards there will be time to relax and feel good in the knowledge that the work has been accomplished. On the other hand, there is nothing inherently wrong with doing things that make one feel good, as long as it isn’t at the expense of doing what has to be done. And it is downright counter-productive to make oneself, or others, feel bad about wanting to feel good.

I’ve looked up and it’s already raining, hard. That’s put paid to any hopes of garden clean-up today. Andrew’s just come in—he’s already tackling the To Do list I haven’t even made yet—and I’ve told him guiltily that I am about to get up and at ‘em. So, signing off to face the day but feeling defiantly glad that I made the feel-good decision to go back to bed. Old and obstinate and feeling good about it!

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435. Wild Things

In Nature, Stories on June 4, 2019 at 1:47 am

I. Grandfather
Stink bugs were my nemesis. In our old farmhouse, everywhere I looked, there one was. Late at night, while I was dropping
off to sleep at the laptop, one would materialize, right on my keyboard. When I was in bed, all defenses down, a stinkbug would appear, all alert, on the edge of my bedside table. Flicking on the light to go to the bathroom in the dead of night, I’d find stink bug poised on the edge of the sink. I was starting to take it personally, even getting superstitious about it. But one day, everything changed.

My old friends Maureen and Ruth had come to visit, for a “girls’ sleepover” we were having once a month. This was the first time I had hosted and, sure enough, a stinkbug appeared obligingly, as if I had whispered it up. Because I had an audience, I squealed out loud; though when I encountered them alone I shrieked inwardly. Ruth, always a person to count on in a crisis, remained perfectly calm. Josna, she said, speak to it and call it Grandfather. Out of politeness, I complied; inwardly, I scoffed. But it worked! Never have stinkbugs troubled me again. Oh, they still dog me unfailingly, but they menace me no more; I simply speak to them, unperturbed. Grandfather, I say, in respectful tones, let me take you back outside.

II. Eyes to see
We were in the dining room the other day, having a late breakfast with our friend Michael, and talking about the wildlife we’d seen in the neighborhood in the ten months since we’d moved here: a plump and very complacent rabbit, a well-established resident squirrel whose methodical daily routines put me to shame, a chipmunk who lives under the overhang of the magnificent stone that is the back doorstep, and a massive attack-cat who rules our terrace as its personal den. I had exaggerated these commonplace sightings as if they were something rare and precious, rueing the loss of the rural. Slowly sipping my morning tea, I remembered our old place, just across from a large conservation area with acres of wild woods beyond, and the many wild creatures we’d encountered there over the years: squirrels, rabbits, and chipmunks, certainly, but also fireflies, crickets, tree frogs, snakes, toads, mice, skunks, raccoons, woodchucks, pheasants, and red foxes. Just then, what did I see loping across my field of vision in our next-door neighbor’s back garden, but the biggest, shaggiest, bushiest-tailed brown fox I had ever seen? It wasn’t a hallucination because Michael saw it too, though by the time I had sprung to my feet to look out the door, it was long gone.

The wild things are still with us, if we have eyes to see them. Thank goodness.

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434. Friends from Way Back

In Books, people, reflections, Stories, United States on May 26, 2019 at 9:59 am

In Chinua Achebe’s modern classic, Things Fall Apart, the hypermasculine, highly-strung protagonist Okonkwo has a best friend and agemate, Obierika, who is the only person who can speak home truths to him without making him fly into a rage. They are both well-placed, well-respected family men, but Okonkwo, bull-headed and defensive, is perpetually falling afoul of the community because of his uncontrollable temper, while Obierika is a much more deliberate, thoughtful man, with a wry sense of humor. Even though he is the stereotypical strong silent type, Okonkwo will regularly go over to Obierika’s place where they may share kola nut and palm wine and sit quietly for a while, until Okonkwo blurts out what’s on his mind, or his friend raises the subject more delicately and then gives Okonkwo a piece of his. In Igbo society back at the turn of the twentieth century, agemates had gone through the circumcision rituals together in adolescence; having shared that arduous coming-of-age experience, there was little they could hide from each other ever after.

As I get older, the people in my life who have known me since childhood and youth get fewer but all the more precious. Yesterday old friends visited who go all the way back with our family. The parents were good friends of my parents, who met them on the IIT campus in Kharagpur in 1955 when they were still newlyweds and I was just six months old and “still crawling”, as Mona remembered yesterday, visiting us with her daughter Ginny on her 92nd birthday. Mona’s son Jim, just a little older than me, was my playmate, and when our families miraculously crossed paths again in the U.S. after having lost touch with each other for fifteen years, we took up the friendship as if it had never been interrupted. By now each of them had had another child, and the two daughters were also agemates whose lives proceeded to take parallel tracks. Fast-forward 33 years, and Mona and Bajirao attended my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary celebration, bearing the ceremonial cake. Like my parents, they had a mixed marriage, Bajirao coming from the same part of the country and the same community as Dad, and Mona, like Mum, a foreign wife in early post-Independence India, though Mona was American and Mum English. Bajirao was the first to pass away, nearly nine years ago, and as my sister Sally and I drove back in the snow from his wake, Sally pointed out that our friends had shown us the way we, as fellow half-and-halves, might honor the passing of our parents in a foreign country. At Dad’s memorial both Jim and Ginny spoke eloquently, and Jim’s heartfelt words for our father brought tears to his family’s eyes as they no doubt remembered their own. Now, after our families’ lives have been intertwined for nearly 65 years, there is little that we can’t share with each other.

This is Old Home weekend for us. Today we are eagerly awaiting the arrival of our dear friend Michael, Andrew’s best friend from eighth grade on, sharer with him of teenage exploits of all kinds, who now lives in New Mexico and is driving down to us from Maine where he has just scattered his parents’ ashes by the ocean. Michael and I go way back, too, back to 1970 and my very first day at Brookline High, a new immigrant entering an entirely foreign school system mid-year. I took the first joyride with Michael and his then-girlfriend Laura the day they got their drivers’ licenses, an important American rite of passage, and when I met Andrew it turned out that he and Michael were best friends and that they had built a treehouse together, a dream of a treehouse in which we three shared many happy hours and which helped us all survive high school (see TMA#4, The Tree House). Later in the decade, Andrew and I drove out to New Mexico in our 1950 International Harvester milk truck (which Andrew had bought at the same time and from the same man who sold Mike a 1964 Triumph TR-4 sports car) and lived with Michael in Albuquerque for nearly a year, sharing another defining period of our lives. His parents retired to Portland, Maine, so as they grew older, Michael made the pilgrimage Back East to visit them more and more frequently, and we got together almost every time. Once he brought his parents to visit us in Amherst, where his father had attended “Mass Aggie,” as UMass, then the state agricultural college,was called, and he pointed out some of his old haunts. We gathered to toast his parents’ on their 50th wedding anniversary, celebrated landmark birthdays with them, and attended Mike’s father Pete’s funeral. Pete, who managed the farm and greenhouse on the Brookline estate where Andrew’s family rented a house, was Andrew’s first employer, and later, for a few months after college when I worked at the same greenhouse, he was my employer too. The last long car ride Mike’s mother Velma took was down to Amherst with him to attend Andrew’s father’s memorial, and we went up to Maine to dear Velma’s funeral just before my own mother passed away. This weekend I look forward to the three of us sitting out back just hanging out, Andrew and Michael agemates from way back, both men of few words, and for once I think I will quiet my chatter and be content to just be.

Here’s Jimmie Rodgers singing My Old Pal. Thinking of all my old pals with love and gratitude.

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433. No particular place to go

In Education, Family, people, Stories on May 12, 2019 at 2:20 pm

For the first time ever I’m starting a post with nothing particular in mind. It’s a cold, rainy Sunday, and there’s a pile of student papers waiting on my feedback. It wasn’t on my radar that rain was forecast, so when I woke up the cushions on the outdoor furniture were soaking wet and I’ve brought them indoors to dry on a tarp and turned the heat on for the first time in a couple of weeks. There’s laundry to do, and a long To Do list. But the past two days have had more highs and lows packed into them than I can process, so after a Sunday morning lie-in I’ve made a pot of tea, eaten the last Digestive biscuit with my first cup, and am sitting at the dining table looking out at the raindrops dripping off the pine needles and onto the ivy.

Andrew just texted a Mother’s Day message from a family breakfast in New Jersey. He and my sister-in-law Vera will soon be heading back from the funeral of John, Andrew’s dear cousin Juliana’s lovely husband, who passed away earlier this week. I rode down with them on Friday for the wake, and rode back with Nikhil and Melissa for my nephew Tyler’s graduation from UMass Amherst. It was a fittingly overcast Friday in New Jersey for the wake, and a fittingly glorious early-May Saturday to celebrate our graduate with all the trees on the campus dressed in their Spring finery. So, two days of sharing rites of passage; first with Andrew’s family—all his siblings, Juliana, her beloved and dearly remembered sister Nadia’s two sons, Matt and Phil, who were there to support their aunt every step of the way, Nikhil, who had his car totaled at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel on his way down and had to get it sorted and then drove down with his girlfriend Melissa in her car. Thank goodness no one was hurt. So many memories, since Juliana and John’s wedding 45 years ago was one of the first big occasions I celebrated with Andrew’s family, and Juliana and John had held the family together, always inviting the elders, hosting Easter feasts at their home, and meeting at Mount Olivet cemetery on Cemetery Day (the first Sunday after Orthodox Easter) where we would visit all the graves on both sides of the family. Yesterday Andrew and the family, including John’s two brothers and their families, drove from the funeral home to the church for the funeral, then the church to Mt. Olivet for the burial ceremony, then out for a meal together, and finally back to Juliana’s house. As the Ukrainians say, Memory Eternal!

For our part, Nikhil, Melissa, and I took our leave on Friday night for a long drive back to Amherst in the rain and a few short hours of sleep before heading down to the Mullins Center the big indoor stadium at UMass where justly-proud parents Sally and Kevin had saved us seats, a brass band was playing and everyone was in celebratory mode. We cheered Tyler as he processed in in his robes and accepted his diploma in Environmental Resources Conservation (with a minor in Environmental Science) and then went on to celebrate at a department reception, a last lunch at his dining hall (the food at UMass Dining was deservedly voted #1 in the country), and finally basking in the afternoon sun on our terrace with the Man of the Hour popping a bottle of bubbly for a toast. Mum and Dad would have been so proud and so happy to see us all together.

Now I know why I don’t start my blog posts with no particular place to go (thanks, Chuck Berry). I wrote and posted a piece almost every day throughout the month of April, hoping that it would jump-start my blog again after it had been lying fallow for more than two years, since my parents’ deaths. I’d like to return  to writing a new story every week; but for now, I’m still sitting here at the dining table looking out at the rain and my first cup of tea has gone cold.

It is Mother’s Day, and a day to honor my dear mother, who passed away a little more than a year ago. I spent an hour in bed this morning looking through photographs of Mum to post on my Facebook page, but eventually gave up. Instead, I’ll light a candle for her and remember her sweetness. Her Easter cactus, a gift from Kimberly, is blooming, and on Friday Andrew picked a posy of flowers for me, including some of Mum’s primroses, which come up anew every year.

Now I know why I started writing this morning, although it took me a while to get here.

Love you, Mum.

 

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432. Zero-tolerance Policy

In Family, history, Immigration, India, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on May 3, 2019 at 7:49 pm

(Photo: Spencer Platt, Getty Images)

My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles. This is the last entry, for the letter Z.

Although I’ve known from the start that Z had to stand for zero-tolerance policy, now that the time has come I can hardly bear to write it. My very worst nightmare was one I had when my son was a baby, only just able to stand. I was standing, with Nikhil clutching my hand, on the crowded Howrah Station in Calcutta (Kolkata), with two million people boarding 617 trains leaving from 23 platforms to points north, south, and west every single day. I must have been distracted for just a minute, but that’s all it took. Suddenly something was wrong with the universe; those warm, chubby little fingers were no longer gripping mine. I looked down: he was gone. I looked around, wildly: I couldn’t see him anywhere. Everywhere I cast my eye, it seemed, I saw a baby, but none of them was mine.

Utter despair ripped through me as I saw, as if in a movie, the endless train of people of people moving inexorably outward from the high-ceilinged central hall to their designated platforms and thence dispersing themselves throughout India. The odds of finding and recovering my helpless, innocent baby, however many years I combed the subcontinent for him, were several millions to one and I had only myself, my irresponsible, inattentive self, to blame. All the dire warnings our parents used to try to frighten us with as children when we travelled from our quiet university campus to the big City—those lurid tales of unscrupulous men who kidnapped and maimed children to make them more lucrative beggars—now came flooding back to my mind, all too late.

That nightmare held me in its grip for hours. Long after I knew intellectually that it had been a dream, a terrible, terrible dream, I couldn’t shake the guilt and the sense of utter devastation. Imagine, then, the parents who had just made the more-than-one thousand-mile trek from Guatemala to the Mexico-U.S. border, on foot, with children, to seek asylum in the United States. But starting on April 6th, 2018 when they finally reached there, bone-weary after weeks of walking, they were arrested and their children taken from them. This was the administration’s new “zero-tolerance” policy at the border. Under this policy, the Department of Justice started criminally prosecuting all adult “aliens” apprehended crossing the border illegally, with no exceptions for asylum-seekers or those with minor children. Since children cannot be held in federal criminal facilities, after 20 days in a family immigration detention center they are taken into the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) under the Department of Health and Human Services (DHS).

After the U.S. public got wind of this Draconian policy and large-scale protests ensued, on June 20th, 2018 the Trump Administration issued an executive order “claiming to end family separation but without providing instructions on how DHS should reunify more than 2,300 children with their parents” (Congressional Research Service). A week later, on June 26th,2018, a U.S. district court ruled “that children cannot be separated from their parents and [set] a timeline for reunifying children who have already been separated (younger than 5 years within 14 days, all others within 30 days) unless the parent is unfit, presents a danger to the child or declines to be reunited with the child” (Catholic Legal Immigration Network).

Children sit for breakfast after spending the night sleeping on church pews or the floor in a shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, April 25, 2018. (Meghan Dhaliwal/The New York Times)

Unfortunately, as time went on, not only did the DHS fail to meet its court-mandated reunification deadlines, but in January, 2019 it was revealed that thousands more children than initially reported may have been separated from their parents since June 2017, that the government had not kept proper track of where they had been sent, and that many of them could not be located. The Justice Department wanted up to two years to locate the missing children, many of whose parents had been deported without them (Spagat). And on April 28th, 2019, instead of redoubling his efforts to find the missing children, the U.S. President went on the offensive, saying that “ending the practice of separating children from their families at border crossings [had] been ‘a disaster’ that…resulted in a surge of people coming into the country illegally” and that it “had served as an effective ‘disincentive’ for illegal immigration” (The Washington Post). He followed that statement the next day with a quick one-two punch, calling for still-further restrictions on asylum within 90 days, including charging a fee for asylum applications (Horpuch).

(Source: Instagram)

Zero tolerance refers to a policy of “giving the most severe punishment possible to every person who commits a crime or breaks a rule.” The hard-line zero-tolerance policy at the United States’ southern border has criminalized what was formerly a misdemeanor, making the already difficult crossing a nightmare that will haunt many families for life: the loss of one’s children, the very reason one has undertaken the wrenching decision to leave the country of one’s birth in the first place.

As I write this piece, the death of a 16-year-old Guatemalan boy in U.S government custody alone and unaccompanied by parents or family, has been announced, the third such death in the last few months. The first two children, seven-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin and eight-year-old Felipe Gomez Alonso, had been traveling with their parents and then apprehended. In December, 2018, when the news of little Jakelin’s death broke, then-U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan put the blame for the tragedy squarely where he thought it belonged: on the bereaved family: “‘No one should risk injury, or even death, by crossing our border unlawfully,’ said McAleenan. ‘This is why I asked Congress on Tuesday to change our laws so that the United States is not incentivizing families to take this dangerous path’”(NPR). Incidentally, onApril 11th, 2019, President Trump names Kevin AcAleenan as Acting Secretary of U.S Department of Homeland Security, following the resignation of Kirstjen Nielsen. He still holds the position of CBP Commissioner as well.

As refugee children cry themselves to sleep in converted Walmarts, the nightmare continues. When are we going to wake up? Demand zero tolerance for the real criminals, those who have hijacked American democracy and are violating every principle of human decency!

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431. Y is for Youth

In blogs and blogging, Childhood, Education, Immigration, India, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 30, 2019 at 8:43 pm

My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles and today the letter stands for youth.

Youth is an estate from which I would be far removed were it not for my work, which gives me daily contact with undergraduates. As an oldster but a woman, at times I exert less authority than I might like, but most of the time I am grateful for the easy, if somewhat quizzical, familiarity between us.

 first-time voters in Arunachal Pradesh, India’s Easternmost state

But enough of the chit-chat. As I age, along with the world’s population, what role are the youth playing in the current zeitgeist? Where do they stand with respect to immigrants, refugees, and exiles?

It depends, of course, where they stand. Refugees and asylum-seekers are getting younger, with children making up 52% of the world’s refugee population in 2017, according to the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). White supremacist groups and ISIS alike woo alienated youth, hoping to recruit impulsive young people seeking a sense of belonging. As instability and economic crisis increases, youth unemployment and despair rises, and the average age of suicide bombers and child soldiers falls, as groups like Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram forcibly recruit younger and younger children. In the United States, aging Baby Boomers, now in their sixties, decry the apathy of the youth, who are much less likely to engage in electoral politics than their elders. But leaders can rise and fall based on the youth turnout. In India’s 2019 general election, now underway, out of 900 million eligible voters, 84.3 million youth are eligible to cast their ballots for the first time, including 15 million who are 18-19 years old.

While it is easy, as one slides into senescence, to bemoan “the youth of today,” in fact many of these youth are showing us the way forward. In the United States, in contrast with the sensational media images of young men joining white nationalist groups in droves, there is the quieter evidence in opinion polls that on the whole, young people are much more liberal and open-minded than their parents and grandparents. In a heartening January 2019 report from the Pew Research Center, a majority of Americans polled said that immigrants strengthened the country, but while only 44% of the “Silent Generation” (born 1928-1945) agreed, a whopping 75% of Millennials (born 1981-1996) weighed in with a Yes. In a Spring 2016 Global Attitudes Survey also conducted by Pew Research, the young were much less likely than the old to say that birthplace was very important to national identity. In the U.S., only 21% of 18-24 year-olds felt that it was important to have been born in the country to truly belong, as against 40% of those 50 and older. The poll revealed an even greater generational difference when the respondents were asked about the importance of observing national customs and traditions to national belonging. Among the Americans, only 28% of the 18-24 age group thought that “sharing such cultural elements was important to being truly American”, in contrast with 55% of those age 50 and older.

Increasingly, as ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and the Border Patrol (CBP) are ramping up detentions and deportations of children and more aggressively separating children and their parents, as the current administration is attempting to do away with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) making it harder and harder for undocumented immigrant youth to get access to an education or a decent job, the youth are mobilizing to fight back. As evidence and inspiration, I give you SIM, Student Immigrant Movement, the dynamic Massachusetts-based immigrant youth-led organization. Go to their website: it is a happening place.

SIM’s mission: We fight for the liberation of the undocumented community through the development of a network of immigrant youth organizers in high-density immigrant communities. We organize youth, ages 13-30, and provide political education, leadership training, protection, guidance, mentorship, and safe healing spaces.

SIM’s vision: Our vision is that all immigrant students have equal access to higher education, are not discriminated against based on their immigration status, collectively realize their full potential, define their own identity and become fully engaged in every aspect of society that affects their lives.

Join SIM today as a youth (ages 13-26), an ally/supporter, an immigrant or refugee (temporary or permanent, documented or undocumented). You can also become a monthly DREAM sustainer to help immigrant youth protect their communities. Just looking at a group of SIM youth gets my mojo and my metabolism working. When youth are at the leading edge of positive change, the only thing to do is to work with them.

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206. Xenophobia

In history, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, Politics, Stories, storytelling, Words & phrases on April 28, 2019 at 7:26 pm

My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles and today the letter X stands for Xenophobia. As it happens I wrote a post on this very topic back in 2013, the very first year I participated in the Challenge, so I hope you will forgive me for re-blogging it.

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Xenophobia: an undue or irrational fear of foreigners or outsiders

Okay,  some will say, but this is a natural human fight-or-flight response, stemming from the days when outsiders were a threat to one’s very survival; for that matter, they still can be, and are.

Fair enough; but allow me to make just three points.

First, note the “undue” and “irrational” in the definition:  a natural instinct to be a little wary of outsiders at first encounter is understandable; but a paranoia that persists even after the outsiders are a known quantity is unreasonable.

Second, ask yourself if you know who these outsiders are. Do you mean the people who come from outside your community or country or who speak a different language from your own? I submit to you that any of us can feel like or be perceived to be an outsider, even if we share the same…

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430. Walls

In blogs and blogging, Books, history, Inter/Transnational, people, Politics, Stories, storytelling, United States, Words & phrases, Work on April 28, 2019 at 5:17 pm

My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles. You can catch up on the posts you’ve missed here. Today the letter stands for Walls.

I suppose I can’t write a post on walls without addressing the wall that’s sucking all the oxygen out of the room—the current U.S. President’s border wall. At every one of his campaign rallies his supporters are whipped up into a frenzy, chanting  “Build the Wall, Build the Wall,” replaced periodically by “Lock them Up” or “CNN Sucks.” But it emerged recently that Donald Trump’s speechwriters  originally put forward the “wall” not as a policy proposal but as a metaphor–in fact, as a mnemonic to remind him to talk about border security in the course of his rambling speeches. Apparently the fans loved his fairytale so much that he got locked into it as a campaign promise that he had to deliver.

I am anxious to turn my attention from this particular wall, but thought you might like to see this little bedtime story, Donald Trump and the Big, Beautiful Wall, courtesy of Late Night with Seth Myers.

Now that we’ve dispensed with that, where was I? Oh yes, fictional walls.

***

There is a brilliant metaphor of a wall in Amitav Ghosh’s 1988 novel, The Shadow Lines. After the Partition of India and Pakistan by Britain, two brothers in Dhaka, East Pakistan (formerly partitioned by the British as East Bengal, later to split off from Pakistan as Bangladesh), have become estranged, and the hostility between them is so great that one brother partitions the house. The resulting wall runs straight through the lavatory, “bisecting an old commode,” obviously making it exceedingly difficult for any of the house’s residents on either side to perform their natural bodily functions

Then there is Wall, an actual character in Pyramus and Thisbe, the play-within-a-play in William Shakespeare’s 1595 A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A story of star-crossed lovers performed by rude mechanicals, skilled

PTTP production of “A Mid Summer’s Night Dream” by Shakespeare.

laborers, on the occasion of a royal wedding, it indirectly provides the means of reconciliation for the three pairs of estranged lovers in the main plot. In Pyramus and Thisbe, the parted lovers, separated by a wall, manage to commune with each other through a chink in it, after which the wall exits the stage, to hilarious effect. In the end, the heartbroken lovers both kill themselves, and Wall is left to bury the dead. But to please the king by turning the tragedy into a comedy, Bottom the Weaver assures him that now “the wall is down that parted their fathers.”

Indulge me in one more wall story, this time a real one from my boarding school years in India: one night, in one of the built-in clothes closets in the girls’ dormitory, we discovered a small hole in the back wall. On the other side of the wall was a backstage room of the main chapel where students rehearsed school plays in the evenings. What a thrill! Some of our boyfriends happened to be rehearsing in there, and we were able to whisper to them clandestinely through the wall.

What is  the upshot of these three stories? Walls are ridiculous and unnatural; they only serve to divide us; and though they may have parted our fathers, we must find a way to get through them, or to take them down. Otherwise, tragedy will surely ensue.

Marathon, Bethlehem, April 21, 2013. (Photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

And now, from fictional walls to an all-too-real one: the heavily militarized Israel-Gaza border barrier that runs between Israel and the Gaza Strip, controlling movement from the Palestinian Territory to Israel. This wall, constructed to make Israel more secure from armed incursions, has done nothing to improve the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians or to help resolve the underlying conflict over the land, which both groups claim. Today, most Israelis and Palestinians  hoping for a resolution look to a two-state solution; however, not only is there currently no constructive movement in that direction, but that in itself would not get to the heart of the matter. The current regime in Israel, led by the hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu, is taking a hardline stance whereby he has declared Israel to be a Jewish ethno-state, rather than a democracy in which all its citizens have equal rights. Sadly, his “solution” to the problem of Palestine appears to be not so different from the Nazi Germany’s Final Solution to the Jewish Question.

The late Edward Said was an important commentator on the Israel-Palestinian conflict and a rare voice in the U.S. who spoke for the Palestinians; sadly, he died in 2003 and his clear and erudite voice of reason is sorely missed. Said advocated for a one-state solution to the conflict, in which everyone learned to live together in one democratic state. While that solution may seem wildly utopian today, it’s worth revisiting. In a 2014 article in the Middle-East Eye, In Memory of Edward Said: the One-state Solution, Ibrahim Halawi wrote:

Edward Said described the claim that Palestine is “principally and exclusively” Arab as a nationalistic myth and a radical simplification of “a land of many histories”. This is not to feed the Zionist myth either, but it is to acknowledge the rich multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious nature of Palestine which is perpetually threatened by Zionist hegemony. In a realistic yet principled stance, Said admits that both the claims of a God-promised land for the Jews and of an Arab land for Palestinians must be “reduced in scale and exclusivity”. This can be done while preserving both the Jewish culture and the Palestinian culture, and all the other diverse subgroups in between…

Said believed that the most important social feature for a successful one-state in Palestine is the practice of citizenship in a modern sense of the term. In other words, by sharing rights and responsibilities under a law that treats all as equal, citizenship prevails over ethnic and religious chauvinism. When the same privileges, resources, and opportunities are available to all, the legitimacy of nationalistic ideologies and exclusionary dogmas will be forever lost.

In order to trigger a citizen-driven culture, Said suggested drafting a constitution and a bill of rights that acknowledges both peoples’ right to self-determination – as in the right to practice communal life freely under the law…This humanistic alternative that Said and many other scholars from both sides argue for is the alternative to further outrageous colonial partition and/or continuous war. (Halawi)

In a 1999 article in the New York Times, The One-State Solution, Said himself wrote:

The alternatives are unpleasantly simple: either the war continues (along with the onerous cost of the current peace process) or a way out, based on peace and equality (as in South Africa after apartheid) is actively sought, despite the many obstacles. Once we grant that Palestinians and Israelis are there to stay, then the decent conclusion has to be the need for peaceful coexistence and genuine reconciliation. Real self-determination. Unfortunately, injustice and belligerence don’t diminish by themselves: they have to be attacked by all concerned.

Waiting near the Bethlehem checkpoint to attend Ramadan prayers at Al-Aqsa Mosque         Aug. 10, 2012. (Photo: Anne Paq)

Given the conditions in Israel and the Palestinian Territory today, one might ask, How realistic is Said’s vision? However, the alternative does not bear contemplation. Said felt strongly that in this shrinking, globalized world of greater mobility, growing population, and dwindling resources, different peoples were inevitably going to rub up against each other, and that attempts to keep them apart would only be disastrous. Learning how to live together in one democratic polity was the only way forward.

To this end, I offer examples from a 2016 Guardian article, The Israelis and Palestinians who work together in peace. Against all the odds, “in hospitals, schools and businesses, Israeli Arabs, Jews and Palestinians are working side by side to forge a better future” (Shuttleworth).

Nadira Hussein with her students at Max Rayne Hand in Hand school. (Photo: Kate Shuttleworth)

Siham Sheble Masarwa, an Israeli Arab and head technician of Hadassah Ein Kerem’s catheterisation lab, teaches Jewish Israeli students. (Photo: Kate Shuttleworth)

Children playing at Max Rayne school. (Photo: Kate Shuttleworth)

***

Together We Stand is one of my favorite songs by the band Canned Heat. Listen, and take heart. Building walls is no solution; working together is the only way forward.

And a reminder: every wall will eventually fall. Here is Paul Robeson, singing Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho. 

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429. V is for Vigilante

In blogs and blogging, Books, history, Immigration, Music, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 26, 2019 at 6:59 pm

My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles. Today, the letter stands for vigilante.
Vigilante Man (recorded in 1940) is one of Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl ballads. In it, he bemoans the armed man who lies in wait for hapless migrants, who has hunted, chased, and “herded [them] like cattle,” and killed Preacher Casey, who sought to unite and organize them. Casey’s murder was also mentioned in John Steinbeck’s 1939 Dust Bowl epic, The Grapes of Wrath, in which the Joads were one among many desperate migrant families driven West from their homes in Oklahoma by the climate catastrophe of the Dust Bowl, looking for honest work in the fertile fields and vineyards of California.

 migrant family, 1930s

In this excerpt from the novel, Steinbeck describes the response of local people to the migrants:

The moving, questing people were migrants now…. And the hostility changed them, welded them, united them — hostility that made the little towns group and arm as though to repel an invader, squads with pick handles, clerks and storekeepers with shotguns, guarding the world against their own people.

        In the West there was panic when the migrants multiplied on the highways. Men of property were terrified for their property. Men who had never been hungry saw the eyes of the hungry. Men who had never wanted anything very much saw the flare of want in the eyes of the migrants. And the men of the towns and of the soft suburban country gathered to defend themselves; and they reassured themselves that they were good and the invaders bad, as a man must do before he fights. They said, These goddamned Okies are dirty and ignorant. They’re degenerate, sexual maniacs. These goddamned Okies are thieves. They’ll steal anything. They’ve got no sense of property rights.

         And the latter was true, for how can a man without property know the ache of ownership? And the defending people said, They bring disease, they’re filthy. We can’t have them in the schools. They’re strangers. How’d you like to have your sister go out with one of ’em?

      The local people whipped themselves into a mold of cruelty. Then they formed units, squads, and armed them — armed them with clubs, with gas, with guns. We own the country. We can’t get these Okies get out of hand.

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, Viking Critical Library, 1972, pp. 385-386
(originally published in 1939)

Steinbeck’s migrants were his own countrymen, not migrants from South of the U.S.-Mexico border; but their plights and the reactions of the vigilantes were startlingly similar.

A group of migrants in Sunland Park, New Mexico, where the United Constitutional Patriots, an armed rightwing militia, patrol the US-Mexico border. (Photo: Paul Ratje/Getty Images)

Last week, a story about armed vigilantes made national and international news headlines for a couple of days. Members of a right-wing militia group were caught on video posing as U.S. Border Patrol (CBP) agents to detain migrants and refugees at the New Mexico-Mexico border and then coordinating with the CBP to apprehend them. The Border Patrol could not be reached for comments but sent an email saying, for the record, that it “does not endorse private groups or organizations taking enforcement matters into their own hands.” However, the vigilantes themselves not only seemed to be working closely with the CBP but declared that they were doing their civic duty in the absence of adequate federal law enforcement; and a spokesperson for the city in New Mexico said, “I think they are just out there exercising their constitutional right.” Clearly, the Wild West mentality with civilian posses dispensing “rough justice” extrajudicially, still seems to be alive and well in the Southwestern borderlands. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Mexico has called on the state’s Governor and Attorney General to investigate the “fascist militia,” saying, “we cannot allow racist and armed vigilantes to kidnap and detain people seeking asylum.”

However, even preliminary research into the problem reveals that vigilante violence against people crossing the border has been a reality since the 1970s, something of which locals are very aware, but which has been insulated from the nation as a whole. However, in the past couple of years the groups have grown, organized, formed broad coalitions (joining the Tea Party, for instance), and become much more heavily armed and more closely enmeshed with law enforcement officials. In this February 2019 excerpt by Greg Grandin from his new book, The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America, the author claims that many of the vigilantes are veterans of U.S. wars, with “fortress mentalit[ies]” and post-traumatic stress disorder, or worse:

In the last years of the Obama presidency, as fallout from Iraq worsened and Central American children arrived, vigilantism surged anew in a more aggressive form. Its ranks were filled with younger, angrier men than its earlier version, outfitted with military hardware and desert camouflage, intent on stopping “f***ing beaners”, obsessed equally with Isis, Central American gangs, Mexican cartels and Black Lives Matter. Most have done multiple stints in Afghanistan and Iraq. “For me, it is therapeutic to come down here and join my fellow veterans,” said one veteran, who after four tours in Iraq was left with brain injury and stress disorder.

You can listen to the piece here as a podcast if you don’t want to read it. And you can watch and listen to Ry Cooder’s rendition of Vigilante Man here.

A closing thought: It’s worth remembering that New Mexico was only granted Statehood in 1912, and was part of Mexico until 1848, when it was ceded to the U.S. after the Mexican-American War (New Mexico Joins the Union). Local Native American peoples fought hard against U.S. colonization, but were defeated in 1886, with the surrender of Geronimo. Andrew and I lived in New Mexico for some time in 1978-1979, and it did not feel like the United States; it was a multilingual, multicultural Borderland—Land of Enchantment—with a character all its own. Today, 47% of the state’s population claims Hispanic ancestry, and nearly 10% more are Native American. Additionally, for decades there has been a pattern of circular, seasonal migration between Mexico and the U.S. Southwest, in which Mexicans would migrate north as temporary farm laborers and return home when the season was over. Apparently the recent crackdowns at the Southern border have disrupted this pattern and actually driven up the numbers of Mexican migrants who stay in the United States.

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428. Unalienable Rights

In blogs and blogging, history, Immigration, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 26, 2019 at 1:54 pm

My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles. Today, the letter U stands for unalienable rights.

As far as the Law is concerned, if a person’s papers are not in order they are what they lack:  undocumented, unauthorized. Their character may be unimpeachable, their credentials unassailable, but if they hail from the wrong hemisphere, they will be unwelcome and deemed unassimilable. A single misstep can set them on course for becoming an Orwellian unperson; I won’t elaborate because the details may be unappetizing, especially for those with delicate stomachs.

The inhumanity of the overdeveloped world (thank you, Paul Gilroy) is unfathomable. To the global elite, we are all the Great Unwashed. No matter to them that every last one of us has the awesome gift of living as a human being on this beautiful, damaged planet in all its plenitude and possibility. Collectively we have the power and the responsibility to hold these self-proclaimed Deciders to a higher standard: in the United States, we need look no further than the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Unalienable. Roll that word around on your tongue. There are no aliens here.

Let us remind ourselves that the U.S. Constitution extends almost all its rights and protections to all those living in the country, not solely to citizens. Noncitizens, too, are protected by the Constitution, and they have as much right to demand that it be upheld.

People gather to take part in a protest to protect the investigation led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, in Los Angeles, California, U.S., November 8, 2018. REUTERS/ Kyle Grillot

Let us further reaffirm, that we, the people, are the Deciders, not the unindicted co-conspirator who currently occupies the seat of power. Unhand us, Villain, and prepare to be unceremoniously unseated!

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