*Photo taken at Sequoia National Park. It’s hard to tell the way the photo cropped, but the shape of a heart appears in the tree, with the graffiti word, “rage,” above it.
I had a blog post about self-care all set to go, an article about prepping for the trail and the importance of diet and exercise…but I decided instead to share some stories with you, reader. Next week I will get back to trail prep, but for a moment let me take your hand. Hear me say I love you, no matter who you are. I do. Your purpose in this world is important. Be here with me for a few minutes, and know that I realize we may be miles apart, but that does not change how I feel about your importance. We all have stories, we all tell stories when we meet; stories string us together like knots in a net, and we are all tied to one another whether we know it or not. For a short time, let me tell you a few stories because I feel right now it is important. My purpose in life is to tell stories and hopefully change lives, or at least draw attention to the need for humans to take care of each other. My first story begins at the Canada-US border on the Peace Bridge.
Long, long ago I went on a trip to Canada with my parents and a family friend. After so many years, I have no idea why we went to Canada, or what we did there. What I remember is sitting in the back seat of our family car, hearing the conversation of the border patrol officer as he questioned a man I cared about, a man accused of being a foreigner attempting to gain entry to the US without documents. His name was Gordon, and he was a Seneca. The accent heard by the officer was not foreign, it was more American than my own. After several questions and answers fired back and forth, the officer insisted we pull over and park, saying that Gordon needed to go inside to answer more questions. My concern grew like a balloon filling with water, the weight of my anxiety trembling and contained only by the confines of my inability to understand what was happening. When we pulled into the parking space by the concrete building, my parents asked Gordon if he would like them to go with him. Gordon said no, he was used to this, and he would be fine. I didn’t feel like it was fine. I knew this was wrong, and I was afraid for him to go into the building alone. I knew this, even though I was under the age of five or six.
We sat waiting in the car, though I don’t know how long. My fear held me prisoner while I watched for Gordon, a man I knew as kind and funny. He made me laugh, as did many of our Seneca friends, and I associated our visits to the reservation with a great deal of joy. Campfires and dancing, stories, delicious food, beautiful colors on hand-sewn outfits that jingled and whirled as if alive. I sat in the seat, waiting. In my memory, I am cold. I don’t even know what time of year this happened, but I remember being cold, and dark. The wait for Gordon didn’t last terribly long, according to my parents, but it seemed infinite. When he returned to the car, he was full of assurances that he was fine, but that exchange at the border remained in my memory, rooted to me as a lesson of the reality of how people I love might be treated because they speak with an accent. To me, Gordon’s accent sounded beautiful. To border patrol, it sounded an alarm to protect the country. Though both points of view may be valid, what is the truth? The officer’s fear, or my love? My love caged with fear?
When I was a few years older, we had moved to a small town in Western New York. My parents wanted to move away from the Buffalo area, where we lived back when the border patrol incident happened, because they thought small town life might be safer and better for my brother and me. The town they chose had a population of about 650 people, and was situated close to Houghton, a town where a conservative Christian college is located. At school I befriended children who lived in Houghton, and who were vocal about their beliefs. I was not Christian. When my “friends” at school discovered this, it became routine for them to tell me I was going to hell because I wasn’t saved. They thought I didn’t believe in Jesus, and that I was condemned. My retorts always revolved around the fact that I didn’t believe in hell, so it didn’t matter, but those accusations still stung. My “friends” labeled me as an outsider, a heretic, a person undeserving of the compassion of God because I didn’t share their religion. For all the years we lived in that small town, those girls kept at their consistent denial of my right to heaven. Their judgement of my right to God’s love left an indelible rift in my spirit, and anchored a deep well of insecurity in my desire to discuss religion with people. I felt the need to hide my beliefs in God, and the fact that I was raised to believe all people are equal, no matter what. It also bred a sense of shame about being different, and I still believe now as I did then that no matter what religion (or lack of it) we choose as our community, I don’t think God, if God even exists, cares. I think what matters is whether or not we are kind, take care of other people, and express love for each other. What I felt from my friends did not strike me as love. Later in life, the religion to which I clung in my childhood and young adult life also left me reeling, bereft, and lacking in love. I left.
In sixth grade, I still lived in the little town next door to Houghton, and we were learning about the Holocaust. I know what you’re thinking. Oh, no. Here we go again with another Holocaust story. No, it’s not really about the Holocaust so much. Our teacher, Mrs. Cummings, was a sweet, kind, mild-mannered woman near the age of retirement. I remember she wore glasses which she kept on a chain around her neck, and I used to think I wanted to have such a necklace because I liked the way the chain looked when it dangled from the sides of her liver-spotted face. One day Mrs. Cummings brought in the movie projector, and we all got excited, as kids did back in the 70s and 80s, because movie time was fun. The lights went out, and the screen shone bright white before the film caught, and then the black and white images of people in labor camps flooded my head with nightmares which revisited me for years. I have no memory of what Mrs. Cummings said during that footage. I do remember the outrage in her voice, uncharacteristic of her usual soft-spoken tone. One particular image of a man in a barber chair stood out as particularly horrific: a man having his hair pulled out by the roots. Even now, it brings tears to my eyes. I was in sixth grade, and it was too early for such images to be tethered to my soul. Sixth grade.
Yesterday, a woman I only know through Twitter posted a response to a tweet about the children being separated from their parents at the border. She said she understood their pain because she had been abandoned by her own mother at the tender age of five. Fortunately she had a grandmother who took care of her, but she said her experience left her with scars she still must manage today. I tweeted back to her I was sorry she had to experience such a loss, and that I understood her pain as a survivor of my own past abuse. She thanked me for my comment, and I was glad I connected with a woman I never met in person, a woman who deserves to know her compassion is recognized, and that someone cares. So many of us do care. We care deeply, and many of us are deeply troubled by the knowledge that children are being taken from their parents, especially when we learn many of the people suffering this fate have come asking for asylum. Certainly there are those crossing illegally, but do we know why? Are they fleeing danger in their home countries? It’s possible some are criminals, traffickers of humans or guns or drugs, or maybe they have gang affiliations. Even if that’s true of a few, the number of people in the world who do harm to others purposefully is much smaller than those who want to do good. I am willing to believe most of the people coming to the US only want to be safe, get a job, take care of their children. And now babies as young as three months old are showing up in Michigan in need of shelter because the border patrol took those babies from their parents.
I grew up knowing and loving all kinds of people, from all parts of the world. Thanks to the religion I left, I did learn the value of multiculturalism, equality, and the beauty of honoring our differences. Individuality was seen as a strength, and I learned to take care of people because they needed help, not because they belonged to a certain group or had a certain skin color. I have a lot to learn about prejudice and how it affects people of color, but I do understand being treated as “other” even though my skin is white. As a woman, I have been subjected to plenty of unwarranted abuse which I must work hard to overcome. When I became a mother, it turned a key in my subconscious. Any time I hear a child cry, it urges me to run to the rescue, to help, to hold, to reassure. The cries of babies, toddlers, grade-schoolers, mothers, and fathers stirs up the memory of cold vinyl in the back seat of our car, cold condemnation of my religion, a cold black and white image of a man having his hair torn out, and the cold white background of Twitter when a woman speaks of the loss of her mother at a tender age. We cannot afford to be cold now. I cannot. Those babies need their mothers and fathers. Every single one of us who knows about this horror, we are all part of this cold, despicable network of agents who are parting parents and children, often losing the children in the chaos of detention centers spread across the nation. A child as young as three months has absolutely no means of advocating. How will that child’s cries be interpreted? Who can hear the names of a child’s parents in her cries? Only the parents, and they are lost in prisons, waiting for who-knows-what behind bars, possibly to be deported while their children are still in the hands of those who took them.
My fingers are icy and clammy while I type, despite the comfortable temperature of the room. The temperature of my heart has dropped down into the hypothermic space of hate, a gray lining around the bubbles in which we live, the hazy cloud of misunderstood meanings which we create around “others.” There are no others. There is only us. Humans. We belong to the same family. Those babies are our babies. Those mothers are me. Their hearts are mine. Their grief is my burden. I already donated to the ACLU and Together Rising to help get lawyers to advocate for the human rights of the families being broken apart. If you believe in God, your prayers are not enough. If you are a parent, hear the cries as your own children, because they are. Those are your children sleeping in cages, being given to strangers to hold them if they are fortunate, begging for their loved ones. We cannot undo the suffering our nation has already caused, regardless of how long this has been happening, but we can begin building a future bound to love. Let love be your fuel to propel you to whatever action you can take. This is my action today, to ask you, reader, in your importance, to make a choice of love. An action list can be found here to give you ideas for ways to help, if you feel inclined. You may want to call your US senators to tell them to support the families, deny funding to ICE, or whatever else you believe is in their power. Do what your heart tells you, and know that I love you no matter what you choose.