Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

478. Sheer Cruelty

In Family, health, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, Stories, United States, Work on May 14, 2020 at 2:48 pm


In 2018, 18.3 million people lived in mixed-status families in the United States. A mixed-status family has at least one member who is an undocumented immigrant. Hundreds of thousands of young DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients live in these mixed-status households with one or both parents undocumented as well as younger siblings who are citizens. Everyone in these households is subject to tremendous stress at the best of times, living in poverty, having to keep their precarious status a secret, and living with the knowledge that one of their loved ones could be deported at any time. Even when the citizen children are old enough to sponsor family members there are roadblocks put in their way; and family members who are citizens are frequently denied benefits for which they are eligible.

Soon after Donald Trump took office as President he announced his intention to do away with the DACA program, established by President Obama in 2012 as a stopgap since Congress had been unable to pass the DREAM Act, which would have offered a path to citizenship to millions of hard-working, tax-paying, law-abiding undocumented Americans. At one point he floated a deal to DACA recipients that he would offer them a path to citizenship in exchange for getting the funding he wanted to build the massive border wall between the U.S. and Mexico . To their credit, DACA recipients refused to throw their even more vulnerable fellow-immigrants under the bus in return for their own security. Now DACA is before the U.S. Supreme Court and hundreds of thousands of young people are waiting anxiously for the decision that is due any day now.

Now add the COVID-19 pandemic into this nightmarish situation. Here are two diabolical moves that the administration has made:

First: According to the Migration Policy Institute, there are 15.4  million people in mixed-status families who have been denied their federal stimulus checks. Joint filers cannot receive a stimulus check under the CARES Act if one spouse does not have a Social Security Number (SSN). Stimulus checks are even being denied to immigrants who have Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITINs) instead of SSNs. According to the Center for Migration Studies, “ITIN filers pay over $9 billion in withheld payroll taxes annually.” Several lawsuits have been filed challenging this CATCH-22, on the grounds that it is unconstitutional for the federal government to exclude someone from financial assistance because of who they married. Meanwhile millions of hardworking people are being denied emergency help.

Lorena Espinoza de Piña, ready for work as a registered nurse

Second: US Foreign-Born Workers by Status and State, and the Global Pandemic, a May, 2020 report from the Center for Migration Studies, shows how many immigrants are putting their lives on the line as essential workers at this time. The report shows that there is a larger percentage of immigrants than US-born Americans working in essential jobs. It lists by state and occupation the numbers of immigrants doing essential work, and breaks it down by immigration status. You can see for yourself how many undocumented Americans are risking their lives taking care of our elderly and sick, cleaning our buildings, and growing and processing our food, among many other essential occupations.

President Trump and his senior adviser Stephen Miller are itching to crack down even further on immigration, taking advantage of COVID-19 fears to make sweeping changes to the U.S. immigration system. In this climate, will the U.S. Supreme Court vote to strike down DACA? According to the Center for American Progress, more than 200,000 DACA recipients alone are working on the front lines of the coronavirus response. Public health experts have made the case to the Court that their deportation would be catastrophic for the nation at this time, vital as they are to the fight against the coronavirus. Of course, it would be catastrophic for them as well and for their families: sheer cruelty.

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473. Violence

In 2000s, 2010s, Aging, blogs and blogging, Britain, culture, Family, Immigration, Media, Politics, Stories, United States on April 27, 2020 at 2:11 am

This is the twenty-second entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

The United States is characterized by violence. After 50 years in this country, I am still not inured to it. Is it more violent than other countries? Certainly more violent than other wealthy countries. And the violence is not only measured in firepower, although there is plenty of that, but in the less visible structural violence of a dog-eat-dog society, and the epistemic violence that creates and marginalizes people whose lives are expendable.

I could write a long, mind-numbing piece documenting the violence at every level: the permawar, the mightiest military by far on the planet by just about every metric, a military presence in the most countries–of military bases, combat troops, and counter-terrorism forces–the preemptive strikes, the drone bombings, the U.S. as simultaneously the world’s foremost arms exporter and the world’s policeman. I could write all that; but you already know it, don’t you?

What about the culture of violence at home, the militarization of our society that goes so deep we no longer even notice it? Take the top-grossing movie in the U.S. in 2019: Avengers: Endgame. It had been one of the most expensive to make, but soon paid off and became the highest-grossing movie of all time. I haven’t seen it, but watched the trailer (which, like the succession of trailers one is forced to watch whenever one goes to the movies, was absolutely draining, and robbed me of any desire I might have had to watch the whole film). Take a look and see what you think of both the violence and the militarization. I read the plot summary, then went to the parents’ guide to the movie to see what they had to say. By the way, it is rated PG-13, and according to Commonsense Media, not only have films got much more violence of the past few decades, but the rating have changed accordingly as viewers have become desensitized to the violence. Most films rated PG-13 today would have been R-rated in the 1970s. The parents’ guide described the scenes that might be experienced as disturbing, of which here are just two:

At the very beginning, Thanos is decapitated by Thor. We briefly see it fly off. This is somewhat graphic, but later on in the film we see a flashback through Nebula’s eyes showing it up close. This is extremely graphic and gruesome. However the disturbing aspect of this scene is lessened by the fact that the character deserved it.  

As long as we label the recipient of the violence the bad guy, it seems that we need not be disturbed by the gruesomeness of the violence inflicted on him. Interesting too, that beheadings are supposed to be the province of the barbarians. But when the good guys decapitate the enemy, it is something to revel in.

During the battle at the Avengers’ headquarters, the final battle between the Avengers and their now restored allies against Thanos, numerous filler characters / minions die, including getting blown up, tossed about, stepped on, impaled, blasted or shot, etc. None of it is bloody or dwelt on, less so than the climactic battle of Wakanda in “Infinity War”, but it’s still rather brutal and it has an even higher body count.

I flinched when I read the term “filler characters”, since the deaths of these characters were clearly not expected to be as disturbing because those killed weren’t the main characters with whom the viewers identified. In a battle with say, ISIL forces in Iraq, would ISIL and Iraqi casualties alike be in that same category of “filler characters” to an American TV audience, even though the Iraqis were U.S. allies and would be on the ground taking the direct hits, while the U.S military personnel provided the supporting firepower from a place of safety on high?

SWAT team prepared (Wikipedia)

It has been increasingly evident over the past decade—actually, since the beginning of the never-ending War on Terror in September, 2001—that U.S. society itself has been becoming more militarized, as has the police force and policing in general. A recent study has demonstrated that the police use of SWAT teams more often deployed on communities of color, is counter-productive: they do not reduce crime or protect the police but they do hurt the reputation of the police in the eyes of the public. Whether studies like this one will affect policy remains to be seen.

The violence at home has also been amply documented and, I have already prevailed upon your forbearance too long. Suffice it to say that the U.S. rate of incarceration is the highest in the world bar none, that there were more mass shootings than days in the year in 2019. The Gun Violence Archive documents them, and the Giffords Law Center both document and seeks to prevent gun violence in general, pointing out in its informational brochures that Americans are 25 times more likely to die of gun violence than residents of peer nations—France, Canada, Germany, Australia, the U.K. , and Japan.

But there is yet another pervasive violence that is less visible but no less deadly. It’s the jungle of unregulated U.S. capitalism, a structural violence that creates ever-deepening economic inequalities in American society. The more than half-a-million Americans homeless on any given night attest to it, as do the 8.5% or 27.9 million Americans uninsured against medical expenses as of 2018; and of the people who were insured, 29% were underinsured. The uninsured and underinsured people are disproportionately poor and people of color; and for those whose health insurance coverage came with their jobs, the massive job loss that has resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic has left millions more Americans without health insurance in a global pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also made American society’s invisible structural violence starkly visible in the shockingly high percentages of the coronavirus fatalities who are African American and Latino who are dying at two to three times the rate of white Americans. On the Navajo Reservation during COVID-19, where the death rate is nearly 10 times higher than in the State of Arizona, many people are unable to take the basic preventive measure of hand-washing because 30% of homes do not have running water. Similarly, in the hard-hit hotspot of Detroit, Michigan, where approximately 80% of the population is African American, the city shut off water to 11,000 homes in 2019, and many have still not had it restored.

This is the daily violence of pervasive inequality in the richest and most powerful country in the world, which shows in poor health, high rates of chronic disease such as diabetes and respiratory conditions, higher rates of poverty, incarceration, and death. Poverty is violence; and so is our political system with its roots in slavery and dispossession. The very language we use is structured in violence, epistemic violence that dehumanizes whole groups of people and makes their lives cheap.

The English side of my family always thought we were fabulously wealthy because we had moved to America. Little did they know that even the poorest among them, at least before the recent cuts to the National Health Service, were more at peace than my immigrant parents were in their old age, despite their house and car and bank account. The Welfare State that was put in place after the Second World War was a safety net for elderly and vulnerable Britons, providing a sense of security that my parents, who had both worked hard to enable us to attain a comfortable middle-class life in the States, just didn’t have.

It’s a jungle out there.

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464. Middle Age

In 1990s, Aging, Family, Immigration, parenting, reflections, Stories, women & gender on April 16, 2020 at 10:26 pm

This is the thirteenth entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Middle Age.

In the late 1990s I officially entered middle age, if the authority of the Oxford English Dictionary and the United States Census are to be accepted. Since they both designate middle age as the years from about age 45 to 65, I am just moving out of that middle period now, and entering a whole new stage of life. But can I cast my mind back to those years in which I was still approaching it? To be honest, it is all a bit of a blur.

During the decade of the 1990s our son moved from starting kindergarten to finishing his first year of high school, with the dizzying array of activities that fill those years. How busy we keep our children! In parallel, I completed my doctoral work and started my first fulltime faculty position, a 215-mile roundtrip commute north of us. Rather than relocate our nuclear family, which was settled happily in a congenial community with our parents on both sides having recently retired nearby, I opted to drive up on Tuesday mornings, rent a room in a house for two nights a week, and return home on Thursday evenings. I suppose it worked, more or less, but it was exhausting, and the almost-continuous shuttling made it hard to simply rest in any one place for long. Sometimes I wonder what it was all for. Perhaps that’s the nature of the striving that defines so much of our working lives. At the time it seems essential; but in retrospect, not so much.

Despite how officialdom defines age groups, they also vary depending on place, education, and social class. In the mid-1970s, when I was looking into midwifery, one of the paths I considered for a time after college, the British midwifery manual labeled a thirty-year-old first-time mother an “elderly primipara.” (Now, by the way, that age has been scaled up to thirty-five.). In  the 1980s when we moved to a farm in a rural community I was an ancient first-time mother at thirty. There were plenty of grandmothers not much older than I was. But when in 1990 we moved to the university town where we still live, I was enviably young with a kindergartner at 35, since so many women had postponed having children until they were established in their professional careers.

The 1978 portrait of the Brown sisters (© 2014   Nicholas Nixon)

There’s another interesting thing about the relativity of age: one’s perception of one’s own age in relation to the rest of the population. In my twenties and early thirties, I felt that I was younger than most other people round me. Whether or not that was indeed the case, I was caught up in my youthful concerns and nobody else really mattered. In my later thirties and forties, I still felt on the young side, but noticed that there were about as many people younger than me as there were older than me. But increasingly, entering my fifties and on up into my sixties, I’ve become acutely aware that I am either the oldest person in the room or alternatively, one among many grey-haired or bald people in my age group, with nary a young face to be seen.

  The 1988 portrait (© 2014 Nicholas Nixon)

How did my perceptions square with actual population demographics? In 1980, when I was 25, the median age of the U.S. population was 30, so I was younger than many others, but comparatively speaking not as young as I had thought. Ten years later, in 1990, when I was 35, the median age was 32.9, so I was just about in the middle; and by 2000, when,at 45, I was entering middle age, the median age of the U.S. population was 35.3, making me fully ten years older than the average American. I still didn’t feel my age.

The 1999 portrait (© 2014 Nicholas Nixon)

All through the 1990s I had the metabolism of my youth. I was pretty much the same weight as I had been in high school, and I still could and did eat anything, and as much of it as I liked without the scales moving in the slightest. My hair was getting greyer, but I was dyeing it at home with an peroxide-free German product that looked very natural, so nobody noticed but me. I seemed to have boundless energy, too, although the long commutes were silently taking  their toll on my system.

It turns out that I was a kind of Dorian Gray through most of my middle age, in that while until age 55 I was regularly considered the person in our group of friends who had aged the least, I was living as if there was no tomorrow in terms of diet, exercise, sleep, and stress reduction. The hidden painting was the one that was aging, not me. But sometime in my early 60s it all caught up with me at once, the middle-aged spread, wrinkles, thinning hair, “senior moments,” the inability to concentrate after a certain hour in the evening. Suddenly, it seemed, far from looking young for my age, I looked considerably older than my agemates who had been steadily taking care of themselves. But perhaps that too is all a matter of self-perception.

Something else happened to me as I approached middle age that was less about self-perception than about how one is perceived by others. Not just anyone, though; I’m talking about women in particular. At a certain age, women just disappear; once they are no longer perceived as sexual beings, they are no longer noticed at all. I had read of this phenomenon of middle-aged women’s invisibility and my mother had been telling me about it for years. She would storm in, furious at having been passed over while waiting for service in a store in favor of a much younger woman. “It was as if I wasn’t even there,” she would fume. “I complained, but then they looked as me as if I was crazy and answered in patronizing tones as if I were a child.” I would sympathize with her but had no idea of what it was really like until it started happening to me. With regularity.

Still, despite the messages from society, I persisted in feeling younger than I was. A 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center, Growing Old in America: Expectations vs. Reality, found that the older people get, they younger they feel; until they’re about 30 they feel their actual age, but by age 45 they feel ten years younger.

What has advancing middle age meant to me as an immigrant? Having come to the United States when there were very few immigrants here from anywhere except Europe, I feel like a living historical archive, that I have a lot to share with those who have arrived more recently. I also feel less lonely. As a 1.5-generation immigrant (known as such because they bring with them or maintain characteristics from their home country, meanwhile engaging in assimilation and socialization with their new country), I feel that I can understand both first-generation immigrants and their American-born children. And as I move into and beyond middle age, I delight in the fact that the demographics of the American population are starting to skew in favor of immigrants and people of color. While I was in a tiny minority when I first arrived in this country in 1970, when immigrants made up only 5 percent of the population, in 2020 it has risen to nearly 15 percent; if you additionally count the American-born children of immigrant parents, we are looking at fully 28 percent of the population.


Going back to that 2009 Pew Research Center survey about growing old in America, it found that people aged 75 and older had a count-my-blessings attitude when asked to look back over the full arc of their lives and measure it against their expectations. Younger people, by contrast, were much less forgiving of themselves. I am learning to replace judgement with acceptance. My invisibility—a magic cloak for older women. My steel-grey hair—I embrace it. As for my middle-aged spread, I’ve always been scarecrow-thin. Now I’m what Indians of an earlier generation would have called “healthy”, before Euro-American norms reshaped their standards of beauty.

Looking back, I feel protective toward the forty-year-old me, approaching middle age. I want to give her a gold star for effort, but also give her permission to slow down, breathe, and enjoy life a little more.

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463. Love, Longing, and Living in the Moment

In Books, Britain, Family, Immigration, India, Inter/Transnational, poetry, reading, reflections, Stories, United States, writing on April 15, 2020 at 1:51 pm

This is the twelfth entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Love, Longing, and Living in the Moment.


Loch Lomond, looking south from Ben Lomond (Wikimedia Commons)

For migrants, longing comes with the territory. Many migrants—especially women—did not choose to leave a place they loved, where they themselves were known and loved, and where many of their nearest and dearest still live; it is only natural, then, that they would yearn for home and for those they left behind. At the same time, they must love and protect those who migrated with them and who may be particularly vulnerable to the vicissitudes of everyday life. Finally, they have a duty to themselves, to allow themselves to live in the present, to open themselves to the possibility of love flowering anew.

In the 1990s, after not having traveled much in the 1980s, I took three or four short trips to England, one for an NEH summer seminar that allowed me to stay in London for the better part of a summer with Andrew and Nikhil joining me for a month, and one long trip to India, where Andrew, Nikhil (then 8 years old) and I stayed with family for nearly six months while I was doing research for my doctoral dissertation. These visits allowed me to renew my connections with the beloved people and places of my own childhood and of my family, which, in an important sense, helped me maintain my equilibrium back in the United States. By the mid-1990s I had lived in the U.S. for 25 years. Was it still not home for me, and if not, was I living too much in the past?

                             Early-morning view of Kanchenjunga from Darjeeling

So many expressions of love are outpourings of longing. Langian, the old English word for ‘long’, means to grow long, prolong, and also to ‘dwell in thought’. It is also related to the German langen, ‘reach, extend.’ Immigrants in particular, unless they choose to burn their bridges completely, to cut themselves off surgically from their past lives, are particularly susceptible to this complex and persistent emotion. But if you think about it, many if not most of the most moving poems and songs of love are in fact songs of longing or loss. Kālidās’s Meghadūta, or Cloud-Messenger, comes to mind, a lyric poem written in the 4th-5th century CE in which a yaksha (nature-spirit) in exile for a year asks a passing cloud to convey a message to his wife. In song, think of The Water is Wide, Loch Lomond or Danny Boy. In fact, songs that celebrate love fulfilled are few and far between. The Beatles’ And I Love Her is a beautiful expression of love realized in the present. John Prine’s The Glory of True Love springs to mind, too, mostly because it is so uncharacteristic of the rest of his love songs.

Hampstead Heath, North London

My mother never stopped longing for her family and home, even though she lived away from them for nearly 65 years. In her late seventies, just as, unbeknownst to us, Alzheimer’s Disease was beginning to attack her mind, Mum joined a group called The Power of Now, after the book by Eckhart Tolle. In it she struggled with the idea of living in the Now and ceasing to dwell in and on the past. She argued with the group and with herself, asking how she could and why she should let go of what was, in her view, the very best of herself. Sadly, the fog of Alzheimer’s descended soon afterwards, progressively robbing her of her precious memories. However, even when she could hardly talk, evidence of her continued love for her family in England would still surface from time to time, and her remaining sister and brother in turn continued to express their love for her, calling to talk to her on the phone every week, even when she could no longer reply.

I have just started participating  remotely, via Zoom, in a daily mindfulness meditation session with John Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). As he says, we only are alive in this one moment, now”, and mindfulness practice trains us to make our default refuge our awareness in and of the now. Like most people’s, my mind has the habit of dwelling everywhere but here, and I am reaching gratefully for this gift of being fully present in the moment as one of the unexpected silver linings of this terrible pandemic. (This does not mean, though, that we censor or condemn our mind when it we find it reaching across time and space; just that we observe it, and bring it back here, to this breath.)

I want to close this reflection with a quote from the late, great Toni Morrison’s perfect novel, Beloved, which I have just finished teaching. In the penultimate chapter, Paul D, who came back into the protagonist Sethe’s life after an absence of two decades, left again, and now re-returns to find her in mourning for the lost ghost of her dead daughter. He attempts to comfort her, but Sethe is disconsolate, saying, “She was my best thing.” Gently, tenderly, and without any judgement, Paul D responds.

     “Sethe,” he says. “Me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.”

     He leans over and takes her hand. With the other he touches her face. “You your best thing, Sethe. You are.” His holding fingers are holding hers.

     “Me? Me?”

As immigrants, as human beings, we owe it to those we love who are here with us now, to give ourselves to them in the present. More importantly, we owe it to ourselves to live fully in the here and now. We are, each of us, our own best thing.

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461. John Prine

In blogs and blogging, Family, Immigration, India, Music, parenting, postcolonial, singing, Stories, storytelling, United States on April 12, 2020 at 3:40 pm

This is the tenth entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

John Prine.

John Prine’s music is so much a part of me that upon hearing he was in intensive care I felt a blow strike my very core. It was the first time that the enormity of the coronavirus pandemic hit me personally. When he died last Tuesday after 13 days on a ventilator I was gutted, as they say in England. I haven’t been able to write the tribute that he deserves because nothing I can say could possibly measure up; but I must, because in my fifty years living in this country, John Prine’s songs have probably done more than anything else to make me feel that I belong here. I could write a book about what they mean to me, but for now I’ll focus on what they mean to me as an immigrant.

At age three, in 1987 or 1988, my son Nikhil’s first joke was sparked by John Prine’s Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone, a song with that distinctive blend of pathos and quirky humor. Of course Nikhil was too young to know anything about the 13-year-old Indian boy’s induction into a string of stereotyped Orientalist roles in the British and American film industries until they didn’t need him anymore;* but something in the song made an impression on him. Here are the lyrics:

 The movie wasn’t really doing so hot
Said the new producer to the old big shot
It’s dying on the edge of the great Midwest
Sabu must tour or forever rest.

Hey look Ma here comes the elephant boy
Bundled all up in his corduroy
Headed down south towards Illinois
From the jungles of East St. Paul.

His manager sat in the office alone
Staring at the numbers on the telephone
Wondering how a man could send a child actor
To visit in the land of the wind chill factor.


Sabu was sad the whole tour stunk
The airlines lost the elephant’s trunk
The roadie got the rabies and the scabies and the flu
They was low on morale but they was high on …


That day we were recording Nikhil and Eric on cassette tape. I remember our friend Bill Beardslee commenting that Nikhil must be the only three-year-old who knew all the words of John Prine’s Paradise (that devastatingly beautiful anti-stripmining anthem), and it was true of the Elephant Boy as well. He started out, performing in his inimitable toddler’s accent, with all the ‘l’s replaced by ‘y’s.

By the time he came to the second verse, he knew he had a captive audience, so he decided to play us a little. He sang the first line:

The manager sat in the office ayone

paused as if to make sure he had everyone’s attention, and continued:

Staring at the numbers on the teye. . .

Then he went silent. We were unable to say a word since the tape was running, as Nikhil waited; so did we. We were eating out of his hand. Had he forgotten what came next, I wondered? But no, here it came:

. . .tree!

And he went off into peals of three-year-old laugher. One of the principal elements of comedy is the unexpected, and of course we had expected him to finish the line with, “…phone.” He had got us grown-ups, all right!

All this is just to say that John Prine was practically a member of our family. Andrew and I saw him in concert several times over the years, starting with Passim’s in Harvard Square, Cambridge in 1972, on tour for his very first album; later, in 1973, outdoors at the Music Inn in Lenox, Mass, still later at the Calvin Theater in Northampton sometime in the early 2000s. I’m so glad that Nikhil was able to join us once to see John Prine in concert, in 2007 while he was still in college.

It had never occurred to me how sad most of John Prine’s songs were until my cousin Jacky remarked on hearing a JP cassette that I had made for her; I just knew how often they got it exactly right: about how I felt in a whole gamut of moods (mostly sad, I’ll grant) about small-town small-mindedness (The Accident), about self-destructive bloody-mindedness (My Own Best Friend, Sweet Revenge), about the glorification of war (Take the Star Out of the Window), about love, longing, and loss ( “Wait a while, Eternity” from Christmas in Prison), respect for marginalized people (Forbidden Jimmy) and yes, about being an immigrant, even though this was not part of his own direct experience.

In my view, a few lines of John Prine’s Common Sense explode the myth of the American Dream like nothing else:

They came here by boats, they came here by plane
They blistered their hands and they burned out their brain
All dreaming a dream that’ll never come true
Hey don’t give me no trouble or I’ll call out my double
We’ll play piggy-in-the-middle with you
. . .
It don’t make much sense that common sense
Don’t make no sense no more.

My all-time John Prine favorite, if it is possible to say that I have one, is the song about the longing and dread of a lonely migrant in Mexican Home, whose chorus goes,

Mama dear, your boy is here, far across the sea
Waiting for that sacred core that burns inside of me
And I feel a storm all wet and warm not ten miles away
Approaching my Mexican Home.

How did he get it so right, I often wondered. Several years ago I came upon a one-and-a-half-hour “literary evening”with John Prine that Ted Kooser, then-U.S. Poet Laureate, had conducted in 2005 for the Library of Congress. At 47:05 minutes, Ted Hooser asks a question from the audience: “What is the song ‘Mexican Home’ about?” and then asks John Prine to play it. Here’s what he replied, as he introduced it:

It was just a feeling I was trying to capture in “Mexican Home.” Actually, the song began with one of those spells I used to have. And I hadn’t had one in years and years and I had one when I was about 23 or so. I pulled the car over and tried to write down what I was feeling, because it was such a strange way to look at the world.

After he put his guitar down, he continued,

A lot of times after I write a song it’s not until I put it on a record that anybody ever asks me, How come you wrote that song?, ‘cos I never figure out an answer until somebody asks me. . . . I was just trying to capture an emotion that was very strong to me.

The answer to the question remains a mystery, but he sure did capture that emotion; he nailed it. And that feeling expressed by a migrant in this song is quintessentially American, quintessentially human, so that hearing it and singing along, too many times to count, this immigrant felt less alone, because John Prine got it.

Thank you for the huge body of music you have given us, and for the soundtrack to my fifty years in America.** As you asked us to in Please Don’t Bury Me, we’ll pass you all around, and not just in this country, but the world. And I’m so glad that you found love, and happiness. I want to close with Spanish Pipedream, the favorite of Andrew’s cousin Mischa, who first introduced us to you, way back at the beginning.

* Sabu was the son of a mahout working for a maharaja in a princely state in Mysore, India, who was literally scooped up from a stable at age 13 to star in a series of Orientalist roles (a mahout in Robert J. Flaherty’s Elephant Boy (based on Rudyard Kipling’s “Toomai of the Elephants,” Mowgli in the Korda brothers’ Jungle Book, Abu in The Thief of Baghdad, Ali Ben Ali in The Arabian Nights–you get the idea) in 1930s and 1940s films by British and American filmmakers, until they didn’t want him anymore. John Prine captures with perfect economy the incongruity and desolation of this Indian child star at the mercy of heartless minders, a beautiful young man cast in the stereotypes of their tawdry colonialist imagination and forced to traverse the frozen wastelands of the American Midwest to market a failing movie.

** Doing a search, I find that there at least 14 stories in Tell Me Another that quote or refer to John Prine, at least as often as my closest friends.

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460. Immigrants

In blogs and blogging, Family, Immigration, Politics, Stories, United States on April 11, 2020 at 4:00 am

This is the ninth entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.


Throughout the 1980s I retained my Permanent Resident Alien status. My father had become a naturalized citizen as soon as he could, back in the 1970s, and had applied for my sister at the same time, since she was still a minor. He had had an unsettling experience in the early 1970s when the City of Newton where he was working had hired an American citizen into his position and let him go, so that he was suddenly out of work; frightening for anyone, particularly an immigrant with meagre savings and college bills to pay. The law required that if there was a U.S. citizen who was qualified for a job held by a noncitizen, then the citizen must be hired instead. Fortunately the City found my dad irreplaceable so they quickly created a different position just for him, but I feel that that sense of insecurity never left him. My mother, on the other hand, refused on principle to take U.S. citizenship when a Republican was President, and had missed doing so under President Carter, so the Reagan Years, followed by the term of Bush (Sr.), were out for her. She somehow missed the boat again in both President Clinton’s terms in the 1990s, and then we were back with two terms of another Republican President, Bush (Jr.). Mum would have loved President Obama but, sadly, by then she had Alzheimer’s Disease. So she never became a citizen, and I think it was really because she never felt (and in truth, never wanted to feel) American.

As for me, in the 1980s there were other things on my mind. I was more concerned with being naturalized into the small rural town of Winchendon, where we had moved in 1984 from the Boston area. I worked hard to be accepted in this tiny town where almost everyone, it seemed, had been at school together. When I first got there I was afraid that I would be stifled living in a monoculture, but soon came to realize that it was in fact very internally diverse, not only in terms of ethnicity, but also class. Working for the local newspaper (which sadly, ceased publication in 2019), I proposed a series of feature articles about the different ethnic groups in town and worked my way through the Irish, the salt of the earth who had built the railroad but were locked in enmity with the upwardly mobile lace-curtain Irish; the Finns, a spirited group who had organized food cooperatives and labor unions in this country; the French Canadians, who had been recruited to work in the mills, and the most recent arrivals, the Cambodians who had come from refugee camps in Thailand, and were still living in run-down tenement housing.

Working for the newspaper made me realize that Winchendon was a town in which you had to be a native to be accepted. Even someone who had married a native but who had been born in nearby Holyoke would never really count as a local. Nevertheless, interviewing people from all those diverse groups made me feel less of an outsider. Except for those who had come as refugees they had all been immigrants, and in living memory.

Also in the 1980s, I encountered some migrants from another part of the world, Central American refugees fleeing political repression in El Salvador and Guatemala. Because Reagan Administration policies prevented them from being granted asylum in the U.S., they were on their way to Canada, which at that time was much more friendly to refugees, and friends on another farm in Winchendon gave them safe harbor for a spell as part of the Sanctuary movement.

Like my mother, I remained a permanent resident, although I could have become naturalized at any time. Though I worked with the League of Women Voters in Winchendon and fully intended to put down roots in U.S. soil, somehow I was not yet ready to go all the way. Although I was officially an alien and not allowed to sit with the other townsfolk during Town Meeting, I had a relatively secure and privileged status as a Permanent Resident and, during that decade at least, felt in no danger of anyone coming to take me away.

After our son was born, I began making phone calls to find out whether he was eligible for dual citizenship based on my having been born in Britain. My first phone call got me an angry lecture from an official at the Boston field office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS, later renamed the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service (USCIS), part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS)). Incredulous at what he saw as my ingratitude to my adoptive country in not considering U.S. citizenship enough for my son, he refused to give me the information I was seeking. In contrast, I saw dual citizenship as something to be aspired to, something that would offer greater security, freedom, and opportunity to him. So I called the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C., where I was put through to an immigration attorney who didn’t take my question so personally. She assured me that my son was eligible for both British and U.S. citizenship as long as we lived in the States for a certain minimum amount of time before he came of age; she even offered to send me a letter formally confirming his legal status; sure enough, it arrived promptly, on State Department stationery. I kept it safely in my files, just in case his Americanness was ever called into question.

 (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

At the same time that I was making those inquiries about my American-born son’s status, Congress was debating and passing the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which was to grant amnesty to about 4 million undocumented immigrants in exchange for cracking down on employers who hired undocumented immigrants and intensifying Border Patrol activities. In the end, nearly 2.9 million immigrants applied and about 2.7 million were granted some form of legal status,  though only about a million of them are full citizens today. A report released in November, 2019 estimated that there are some 10.5 to 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States with no path to citizenship in sight, since immigration has become an increasingly fraught issue. Currently, with widespread and indiscriminate deportations, the chilling effect of the new ‘public charge’ rule, capricious customs and border practices, a cruel policy of family separations, and the opening of a denaturalization office, I’d say the political climate is hostile to immigrants. That is a sad state of affairs, when, as of February 2020, immigrants and their U.S.-born children number 90 million, or 28% of the U.S. population.

As the pressure on immigrants continued to mount, I would eventually decide to become a U.S. citizen some 20 years later, but in the 1980s I didn’t yet feel the need to do so.

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456. The Eighties

In 1980s, blogs and blogging, Family, history, Nature, parenting, Stories, United States on April 6, 2020 at 11:53 pm

This is the fifth entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

The Eighties. 

We human beings like to find ways to order and keep track of the passage of time, as if by packaging and labeling it we can convince ourselves that we are in control of it. So it is when we carve time into decades and then slap a label on each one, a label that is almost inariably a gross oversimplification. But in the United States the Eighties are an exception to this rule; they are known as the Reagan Years, referring to the two-term presidency of Ronald Reagan (1981-1989), and Reagan’s policies really did not only span the decade but came to define it. Andrew and I lived a thrifty life throughout the Eighties, working very hard and making very little, but since we were largely removed from the mainstream economy, Reaganomics, as it was called then, or neoliberalism, as it came to be known, didn’t do the damage to our lives that it did to so many others.

Reaganomics, simply defined, was “the set of economic ideas followed by Ronald Reagan when he was US President in the 1980s, [which] included lower taxes and spending on public services, and less government control of the economy.” Here’s a short video that states in a fairly balanced way why Reaganomics was so controversial, and here’s a longer article, Reagan’s Real Legacy,  that doesn’t mince words about its devastating long-term damage. Back in 2011, the centenary of his birth, those of us who remembered the terrible Reagan years were outraged by the way politicians of all stripes were trying to outdo each other with praise for him; the man was practically being canonized. It’s important to set the record straight–and don’t worry, I’m not going to do so here except to highlight a couple of features of the Reagan era that bear remembering.

This was the era of the so-called War on Drugs, when heroin and crack cocaine trafficking and addiction ravaged the cities and destroyed the lives of millions of African Americans in particular. In this war, as War on Drugs–or War on Blacks? argues, black people were seen as the enemy, not the victims, and as Reaganomics cut social programs, including funding for public education, it ramped up policing and incarceration, targeting and prosecuting blacks disproportionately, and slamming them with heavier sentences.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, there is a preponderance of evidence showing that a drug trafficking cartel that was operating in Los Angeles in the 1980s was funneling its profits to the contras in Central America–the U.S. funded mercenaries whose mission it was to overthrow the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Reagan’s administration was heavily involved with funding, training, and arming the contras, just how heavily they were doing so came out in the Iran-Contra Affairs, leading to a long-running Congressional investigation in which National Security Council staff member Lieutenant-Colonel Oliver (Ollie) Norththe White House official most directly involved in secretly aiding the contras, selling arms to Iran, and diverting Iran arms sales proceeds to the contras, testified–and lied repeatedly under oath–to the joint congressional committee.

Funnily enough, during the 1980s, this era of privatization when public-sector entities were sold off to private companies, when unions were systematically smashed, when social security was slashed and welfare and other programs cut right back, privatization was happening on a personal level in my own life. This was the decade when Andrew and I started our own small job printing business, first as a partnership with his sister Eve, and then as a sole proprietorship. It was the decade in which we were married, after which I took Andrew back with me to India in my first return visit since I had left in 1968. Also during this time we moved out of the Boston area with three friends to a hardscrabble farm in the arctic corridor of North-Central Massachusetts, where our son Nikhil was born and where we lived until 1990, just before he was due to start kindergarten. During that time we cultivated a large home garden, canned our own food, made our own maple syrup, watched hundreds of VHS movies on those long winter nights, changed a whole lot of cloth diapers, and shoveled a whole lot of snow. I became a householder and a mother, in some of the happiest and most all-absorbing years of my life. Later in the decade, I began a course of graduate study and, almost accidentally, found myself on an entirely new trajectory. I will write about some of the highlights of these years–my Eighties–in the next few entries.

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452. America

In blogs and blogging, Family, history, Immigration, Politics, singing, Stories, United States on April 1, 2020 at 8:21 pm

This is the first entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.


So much in this word and yet nothing at all. Perhaps I risk arousing the (easily-arousable) ire of American nationalists, even decent American patriots, when I say this, but when I say the word America and wait, it ripples through the air and then pretty much sinks like a stone.

What, and you an immigrant?! Don’t you have a heart-warming coming-to-America story, in which your family came from a god-forsaken nowhere of a place in pursuit of the American Dream? And in achieving that dream haven’t you benefited from American freedom and generosity? What ingratitude! You disgust me.

Please, loyal American, hold your fire and hear me out.

Where to begin? First, let me tell you that I recently marked the fiftieth anniversary of my coming-to-America on February 6th, 1970, a date that my sister and I will never forget. My parents always remembered it with us, that brilliantly sunny, bitterly cold day when my mother, my sister, and I arrived at Logan airport to rejoin our father after a year-and-a-half of separation. But now both our parents have passed away and this country has become, as it is for millions of our fellow-Americans, the land where our fathers died. I arrived at 15 and am now 65; so most of my life has been here; but despite the fact that I’ve been pretty actively engaged with society throughout this past half-century, it has taken me a very long time to actually feel American; to be honest, I still don’t, though I feel a little guilty about it.

  Anti-Vietnam War Rally, Boston, 1970 (Spencer Grant)

My mother never wanted to come to this country. We were living in India and my father was restless, frustrated with Indian bureaucracy (he worked for a government institution), and wanted to move somewhere else. I think he thought of America as a wide-open place with a lot of scope for a city planner like him. (It didn’t turn out to be, but that’s a different story.) Mum was aghast: not America, I can hear her saying (not that I actually overheard their deliberations about this momentous move), Anywhere but America! If the Star Wars films had been out then–and it wouldn’t be for another decade, since my parents must have been discussing the move back in 1967–my deeply egalitarian, anti-imperialist mother would have considered the United States the equivalent of the Evil Empire. Why not stay in India but move to a different part of the country, or return to England and to her family? Australia was another option and so was Ghana, I learned later.

But in the end Dad got a gig in the U.S., and so, after a long and tortuous application process (which is infinitely longer and more tortuous today), we migrated here in the relatively secure possession of the coveted green card, which gave us the status of Permanent Resident Alien. And that is the status I retained for nearly 40 years, until I traded it in for naturalized U.S. citizenship.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s not that I’ve been unhappy here, or that I haven’t had lots of opportunities that I might not have had elsewhere. I‘ve written elsewhere about the reasons for my long-held in-between status (TMA 282, It’s Only Temporary), so I’ll just say here that it took until I was in my mid-fifties, until the U.S. had been in post-9/11 mode for nearly a decade, for me to feel that I would gain more than I would lose by becoming a U.S. citizen.

Note that I didn’t say ‘American’ citizen. I always felt that it was arrogant to call the United States America, when the Americas are composed of 35 sovereign nations, with North America alone containing twenty three. So while it may seem stilted, even perverse, to insist on saying the United States rather than America, ask anyone from Central or South America what they think. Ask a Canadian. They’ll give you an earful, I guarantee.

  Kerry at an anti-war rally

Having been born in Britain, a former colonial power, and raised in India in the decade after its independence from British colonial rule, it’s probably not surprising that I was and still am passionately against the invasion and domination of one country by another. It didn’t help that I arrived in the United States at the height of the movement against the Vietnam War, at a time when many young Americans felt deep shame and sorrow at what their country was doing in their name, at home and abroad. Before I had a chance to get acclimatized I was plunged in at the deep end, as that Spring of 1970 the news broke of the secret invasion of Cambodia, and U.S. students protesting against the war were shot and killed by the National Guard at Kent State and Jackson State. My new high school debated going on strike against the war, and a week of teach-ins followed, in which I got a crash course in American history and politics. (Among other events, I remember vividly the young John Kerry, on behalf of Vietnam Veterans against the War, coming to the school to show us a documentary about atrocities committed by Americans in Vietnam; I realize now that this was a year before he was to testify in the U.S. Congress on the same subject.) It wasn’t until 1973 that President Nixon was to withdraw U.S. troops from Vietnam, and not until 1975 that U.S. involvement in that war finally ended with the fall of Saigon. This was the America that was to be my new home.

A view of Pikes Peak from the Carroll Lakes, circa 1925. Katharine Lee Bates’ trip up the Colorado mountain inspired her poem “America,” later to become the song “America the Beautiful.” [Harry L. Standley/Courtesy of the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum]

In high school in India we used to sing a beautiful song we called, “Oh India, Mother India.” It started,

Oh, beautiful for azure skies, for amber waves of grain
For snow-capped mountain majesties, above the fruited plain

And the chorus went,

Oh India, Mother India, God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.

Americans will of course recognize that song. It didn’t take very long after I arrived in the United States for me to realize that we in India had changed a few words of America the Beautiful to make it ours. I’ve always thought that this national hymn (sung here by Ray Charles, who leads with one of the less-known verses), its words a poem by Wellesley College professor Katharine Lee Bates, composed in 1895 after gazing at the glory around her from Pike’s Peak in Colorado, would make a better national anthem than The Star-Spangled Banner (sung and played here by Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, six months before my arrival in the U.S.). As Eric Westervelt wrote, in an article in the National Public Radio series American Anthem, “if ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ boldly proclaims the country’s greatness as fact, ‘America the Beautiful’ is more aspirational.” If you read all four verses of the poem, it will be abundantly clear that Bates wanted her beautiful country to fully live up to its ideals–to realize its promise and keep its promises.

But back to me, in my teenage alienation.

After two restless years in college, still feeling like a fish out of water in the United States, I took the 1973-74 academic year off to study in London, the city of my birth, and to live on my own for the first time. I had a wonderful year, all in all, and returned to the U.S. to finish my undergraduate education with a much greater sense of purpose. I love London and made it my own that year, as I walked for hours around the city on foot. But that return to England gave me a new appreciation of my adoptive country.

Not only was England permanently cloudy and grey, but it was socially restrictive in ways I hadn’t recognized before. I remember one day, traveling on the London Underground in rush hour wearing a men’s military surplus bomber’s jacket. If truth be told, it never suited me, and I didn’t bring it back to the U.S. when I left. But the point is, I started feeling extremely uncomfortable, and suddenly realized that it was because the entire subway car was radiating disapproval at me and my attire. In Boston at the time, a teenager in an army-surplus jacket would not have even raised an eyebrow.

I experienced the skies in England as oppressively close that day. A few months later, when I returned to Logan Airport in Boston, it was as gloriously cloudless a day as it was on the day of our very first arrival in the United States.

Oh, beautiful for spacious skies!

I remember raising my face to the heavens in celebration, for the first time, of the beauty and freedom of America’s spacious skies.

I want to close with another version of America the Beautiful by Buffy Sainte-Marie. (Here are her lyrics.) Like so many Americans who love this country, whether indigenous people or immigrants, this Native Canadian American singer and songwriter, composer of Universal Soldier back in the days of the Vietnam War, has spent the last fifty years working to make it better. (And by the way, she describes herself as someone “who keeps one foot firmly planted on either side of the North American border, in the unsurrendered territories that comprise Canada and the USA.”) I think that Katharine Lee Bates would have loved it.


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449. The Farthest Field

In Aging, Books, Childhood, Family, Music, Nature, parenting, people, reflections, Stories, Words & phrases on February 15, 2020 at 11:47 am

painting by Jim Turner

As I advance farther and farther into the territory of old age, I notice that time is doing funny things. It’s a truism that time speeds up as one gets older, and so far I must report that it appears to be true. (It’s mid-February already; weren’t we just marking New Year’s Eve? My friend’s granddaughter is ten already? Surely not; didn’t we only just celebrate her third birthday?) The events that follow inexorably upon each other—daily, weekly, semester after semester, annually—seem to be scrolling by until they are almost a blur. I used to be pretty good at anticipating, preparing for, and keeping track of them; now I can barely nod to them as they gallop by, while—unless I exert a tremendous effort of will—I am increasingly a bystander rather than a participant.

It’s not just the pace of life that I notice, but also the problem of desire. Increasingly, if I miss a meeting or a deadline, I find that I don’t much care. As Arundhati Roy wrote (in a very different context) of her main character Rahel (at the “viable-dieable” age of 31) in The God of Small Things: “Nothing much mattered. And the less it mattered, the less it mattered.” Am I letting myself go, as my mother would have put it? Succumbing to inertia, as my father warned me when he was the age I am now? (See TMA 19, Lively Up Yourself.) Is this a phenomenon I am simply to stand back and observe, or do I force myself to jump back into the fray?

The thing is, I do care, deeply, and have never stopped caring, about the people whom I love and the struggles and injustices in this world. I want to keep acting in it until I can do so no longer. But, as John Prine wrote in the voice of an old man in Hello in There, “all the news just repeats itself like some forgotten dream”(see TMA 333).  As I watch history repeating itself I’m still trying to sound a warning note, but increasingly allowing myself to let younger people take the lead.

I realize that the mere fact of getting older doesn’t let me off the hook. I have responsibility for those around me. Roy’s “the less it mattered, the less it mattered” is a real thing, and at the core a symptom of depression, as indeed it was in Rahel’s case. Surfacing from those depths requires more than an  act of will. But there’s another responsibility I have now that I am officially an Elder, and that is to step back and take a long view of the frenetically unspooling action of the world. As long as I am alive I can’t stop acting, and I certainly can’t stop the world, but it is high time that I gave as much time and attention to reflecting upon action, most especially my own.

If I can’t stop the world, I can endeavor to slow it down, at least long enough to hold it for a moment in my mind’s eye. Looking back at the events of the past month, decade, fifty years—for February 6th marked the 50th anniversary of my first arrival in this country—not with nostalgia, but with as much honesty and insight as I can muster—I must try to learn something from it all while I still can. Last month I found a bag full of diaries, including my schoolgirl diaries from 1966 and 1968, and hardly dared read through them in my jaded hindsight, to look with compassion on the mostly-clueless young me, emoting and reacting and taking so much for granted. I made myself do it, though, and among the typically adolescent banalities, found threads that carry forward to the person I still recognize today, in all her flaws and fierceness. I see now why people of a certain age write their memoirs, not so much for others—although no doubt they hope to be able to pass on something that they have learned—but for themselves, as they try to make sense of all that has unfolded in their time and their place within it.

Two more observations before I put the laptop away, dress, and plunge into this busy Saturday.

I want to note the distinction between the words farther and further. In the United States, according to Merriam-Webster, “farther” tends to refer to physical distance while “further” more often refers to metaphorical distance. “Further” also means “moreover” or “additional”, depending on whether it is used as an adverb or a verb. But Merriam-Webster further observes that the two words have been used interchangeably for a long time, and the distinction is by no means a clear-cut one. While The Cambridge Dictionary (U.K.) makes similar but more nuanced distinctions between farther and further, it ultimately maintains their interchangeability. In its book, “farther” is used to refer not just to distance (for which it says the more common word is “further”) but to distance away from the speaker. Since we experience the past and project the future in terms of their distance from ourselves, “farther” is the operative word here, for my purposes. But why does this matter here?

Roger, the beloved founder of RUSH, the singing group I participate in every month, recently passed away, to our abiding sadness. In the last couple of years he had introduced us to a number of songs that looked ahead to the as-yet-uncharted territory of death and dying, and retrospectively I see that he had been preparing himself and us all to face what was to come with courage, and even with gladness. One of those songs was The Farthest Field, which I now sing with gratitude for his farsightedness. Death is not metaphorical.

And a memory of my dear mother, who died nearly two years ago. As the Alzheimer’s advanced, that dreadful disease that progressively blocked her cognitive pathways and ultimately took away her voice, all time seemed to her to fold, like a closing concertina, into the present. Of course I can’t know exactly how she experienced it, but one Christmas season found her taking out all the old cards sent over the years by her distant family members and lovingly displaying her favorites all over the house. Our first reaction was one of annoyance: why was Mum taking out all these old cards, and mixing them up with the new ones that were starting to arrive? How would we be able to tell who had sent us cards this year? But upon reflection I thought differently: Mum had always treasured the Christmas cards sent to us by her family in England, no matter where in the world we were living. Now, as the significance of any time of year— indeed, of Time itself—was fading rapidly, what mattered to her what the joy which welled up in her as she handled each of these precious expressions of love. Increasingly, I too find myself sharing Mum’s feelings about these cards. It is February, and I have put away the cards with overtly Christmassy images on them, but have left some of the others up, simply because they are beautiful and continue to bring me joy.

Oh my dear friends/I truly love/to hear your voices
Lifted up in radiant song;
Though through the years/we all have made/ our separate choices
We’ve ended here where we belong.

There are further adventures ahead to which I look forward with anticipation and, of course, with some quickening of the heart. As the songs tell us, this path is each of ours alone but also, that we are all on the journey together, and I take heart from that fellowship. Until Time folds up like a concertina for me I will make the effort to stay engaged, but must increasingly take time out to pause and reflect on what it all means and how far I have come.

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447. Christmas is Coming

In Aging, Britain, Family, Music, seasons, Stories on December 11, 2019 at 1:18 pm

Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat,
Please to put a penny in an old man’s hat;
If you haven’t got a penny a ha’penny will do,
If you haven’t got a ha’penny, God bless you.

Whether or not one celebrates Christmas, the season comes around every year without asking for permission and there ain’t nothing anyone can do to fend it off. It doesn’t come quietly, but bold as brass, with all the attendant noise and paraphernalia of a traveling circus. And all over again one sighs, acquiesces, and gets with the program.

For academics in my field it’s the worst time of year bar none, with end-of-term grading followed in short order by back-to-back conferences as often as not in a distant city (for me Seattle, Washington this year), followed immediately by the start of the Spring semester which is always much more hectic than the one before. Such are my gloomy and self-involved thoughts in the fall semester’s last week of classes with the holiday season knock-knock-knocking at the door.

2019 Christmas Lights, Regent Street, London’s West End (photo: Jeff Moore)

In England, or at least in the England I know, which is, admittedly, a Ghost of Christmas Past, one can’t help but get into the spirit this time of year. The Christmas lights have come on in London’s West End (in my time the magic date was December the 6th; now, ridiculously, earlier and earlier in November), the children have written their lists and sent them off to Father Christmas, the parties at work ensure that no work gets done, Auntie Bette’s Dundee cake  has been made weeks ago and is richly beckoning in its special tin. But most of all, no matter where we are in the world, Mum is in Christmas mode.

Whether we were children in India or teenagers in the United States. as Christmas approached that magical feeling would descend upon our home. Cards would arrive from our far-flung friends and family, each one lovingly opened, pored over, and displayed to best advantage, family cards given pride of place. Mum was not much of a baker the rest of the year, but now delicious aromas would waft through the house as she made her legendary chicken pies with the flakiest of crusts, mince pies (in later years made with hard-to-find vegetarian mincemeat tracked down especially for Andrew), and for Christmas Eve, shortbread and sausage rolls. Most thrilling of all, the house would fill with whispers and secret places and rustlings of wrapping papers, as Mum would come home late, laden with bags and boxes from after-work shopping, and slip into her bedroom. She would shop for every single child in our lives, no matter how far away, painstakingly picking out something she knew that they would delight in (never anything merely useful), wrap, package, and rush to get it to the post office before the last safe mailing date for Christmas delivery. For picky people like me, who highmindedly pooh-poohed commercialism but in actual fact had rather expensive tastes, she would fret over getting just the right thing, often driving to the mall more than once to take it back and exchange it for something closer to perfect.

Teenagers are the hardest people to shop for. Not that they don’t want things—they absolutely do, no matter how much they may sneer and turn their noses up at the efforts of the clueless oldsters—but they want exactly what they want and will take no substitutes. Mum knew this, and was determined that no child of hers (and this was very broadly defined) would open a Christmas present and be disappointed; so she annoyed the rest of us to no end as she dashed back and forth to the shops, fussing and fretting over whether a particular pair of jeans, say, was the right brand and model and size and cut, to be sure that the Landlubber low-rise corduroys or Levi 501s or shrink-to-fits would fulfill our hearts’ desires on Christmas Morning.

All Mum’s racing about as Christmas approached had at its core what it had meant to her as a child who grew up in poverty but with the riches of a big family, and as someone who had left her childhood home and family after marriage, never returning to live there again for any length of time. She was determined to recreate that spirit for us in our home, and went on doing so as long as she possibly could. It could be infuriating for us as adults to have to try to live up to her impossibly high standards for the season. But the externals, though they seemed to be desperately important to her, didn’t in fact mean a damn thing. It was the Christmas Spirit she was rekindling, it was the loving connections with distant family and friends she was maintaining, it was everything she held dear that she was honoring, and, to her mind, it was what would keep our family strong in a strange land.

Now that Mum is no longer with us in person, it’s down to me whether or how I choose to celebrate the season, which will surely come and go whether I enter into it or not. All the rest of life’s commitments—student papers and recommendations, committee work, application deadlines, taxes taxes taxes—are of course there as always, however much I may try to clear them away in time. But so are they for everyone else. Hono(u)ring the season is not about duty, or religious observance (for Mum was secular to the core), or keeping up with the Joneses; it is about opening up your heart and your home and making room for who and what matters most to you. Dare I say it: Christmas is about love and hope springing eternal. At the darkest time of the year comes a shift, invisible but no less real, and we, in the northern hemisphere at least, begin moving toward the light again. So all over the world around this time of year we humans celebrate new life, the hope for redemption, even in the mess we’ve made of this beautiful planet we’re privileged to inhabit for a time.

For Dad, Christmas wasn’t Christmas until we had all watched Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the 1984 version starring George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge. No matter how many times he’d seen it before he would get misty-eyed at Scrooge’s awakening in the proper spirit on Christmas Morning. He especially approved of the moment when Scrooge instructed (and liberally tipped) the street urchin to buy the biggest goose hanging in the butcher’s window and deliver it to Bob Cratchit’s. Because for Dad, besides indulging Mum in celebrating it as she saw fit, the Christmas spirit meant Giving. Spend as much as you want, Darling, was his silent message to Mum as she raced about, perennially unsatisfied, because perfection is not something that clicks its heels on command; one can only do one’s best to prepare for it, and hope that it will come.

So here I am. Now I need only please myself. I don’t believe in wallowing in nostalgia, but certain things mean what they mean to me. Probably the carol that best embodied both Mum and Dad’s idea of Christmas was Good King Wenceslas (sung here by The Irish Rovers). When we sang it on Christmas Eve, we women would sing the page’s part and the men the King’s. Dad the inveterate meat-eater always delighted in booming out, “Bring me flesh and bring me wine,” as the King commanded his page to prepare a feast for the poor man. Mum’s favorite part was the moral at the end, although she disregarded the religious part of it:

Therefore Christian men be sure
Wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.

One year, when Mum’s Alzheimer’s Disease no longer permitted her to prepare for Christmas as she had done all her life, we went to the Pelham Library for their annual holiday tea, English Mummers’ play (complete with fighting the Saracen, which always makes me wince), and Christmas caroling. She could still read then, albeit with difficulty, and joined in, clutching the song sheet in her hands. When we got to “Good King Wenceslas,” she welcomed it like an old friend and sang along heartily.

After those closing lines she turned and looked at me, as if for affirmation: “That’s good, isn’t it?” My heart melted. “Yes Mum, it certainly is.”

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

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