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Mad Men Narratives

Now that so-called Mother's Day is over, I'd like to say a few things:

 

1.  It's a commercial holiday that I, as a mother, did not plan or request. Nor do I particularly care for highly-scented floral arrangements, nor am I sentimental, nor is my life a Hallmark greeting card. Yet, like other holidays on the American Holiday Calendar, I am swept up in the Mad Men hoopla; I have expectations. And when they are not met, I deflate. This year, for example, my daughter was up to her eyebrows in deadline work, had no time to think about a card or present, yet made time to come out for brunch with her near and dear parents. And though we had a terrific meal, lots of laughs, and she had taken the time to come out to meet us, she apologized for "not doing anything," meaning what the Mad Men narrative has subliminally told us to do: buy flowers or chocolates, or whatever.

 

Though it seems as difficult as shutting down social media, can we all please try to shut off the Mad Men narratives and write our own, original family stories?

 

2.  Several friends who do not have children called me on Commercial Mother's Day and wished me a Happy Mother's Day because, as one dear friend said, "I know you are a good mother." This same friend is one of the most caring, nurturing people I know. Why should he be excluded from my Mad Men celebration? And I have other dear friends who do not have children, either by choice or circumstance. They are, to a person, the most nurturing people I know, sometimes more than the parents I know. One is a teacher in the South Bronx in a very rough school who is completely devoted to her students. Completely. The other is an animal rights activist, another a humanitarian worker, another is caring for a very sick partner and has done so for many years. I could go on. Do you get my drift, dear reader?

 

3. Creating narratives of inclusion (mothers) and exclusion (everyone else), so that the floral and candy industry can flourish, is not my idea of compassion, caring, or mothering/parenting in the largest sense of that word. And we need largess right now, really big, capacious and compassionate gestures. Let us remember all those motherless children incarcerated on our border with Mexico. Let us think of their mothers every day, and their fathers, and their families, and their impoverished or war-torn communities.

 

4. As it turns out, the woman who "invented" American Mother's Day—and got Congress to declare it a national holiday in 1914—was  one Anna Jarvis who I had never heard of until I did a Wiki search. Her mother had cared for the wounded on both sides of the Civil War and Anna wanted to honor her. The carnation became a symbol of the day;  it has remained a floral and bonbon holiday ever since. Anna hated it. Indeed, she was so unhappy  about the commercialization of the holiday that she tried to have it removed from the calendar. Too late; the Mad Men had their teeth in it. Anna went crazy with her effort and ended her life in an asylum.

 

6. Instead of Mad Men's Mother's and Father's Days, how about we celebrate teachers and courageous politicians and socially conscious doctors and ACLU lawyers and scientists struggling to preserve Mother Earth, our beautiful mother, the mother of us all.

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Incarcerated Children; An Urgent Message

“Crimes against humanity are certain acts that are deliberately committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack or individual attack directed against any civilian or an identifiable part of a civilian population. The first prosecution for crimes against humanity took place at the Nuremberg trials.” Source: Wikipedia

I was on a bike at the gym trying to ignore the horrific news on multiple TV screens and searching my New Yorker Today for a good article to read when I found one I’d missed on April 3, 2017 by Rachel Aviv, an outstanding reporter. It’s about the epidemic of comatose children in Sweden whose parents have not been granted asylum after many years of exile, adaptation to new surroundings, and years of waiting for an asylum application to be processed. The children of these families are analogous to our Dreamers; though most have not been born in Sweden, they have spent most of their childhoods in Sweden. Children being children, they learn a language quickly, make friends quickly, and soak up their host culture like sponges—the clothes, the music, sport fandom. More than 400 have fallen ill when asylym has been denied. They become sick for the family, they cannot move. “They fall away from the world,” one psychiatrist said. "They willingly die," said another.

Sweden had been the most beneficent country, taking in more refugees than any other European nation. This beneficence is an expression of the moral center of a humane, previously homogeneous society. But there had been a retrenchment, a right-wing surge, and more deportations if the country of origin was not at war. These deportations, Aviv explains, had become an “affront” to the country’s national character.

Even the Swedish king was alarmed, petitions were signed, the deportations eased, asylum was granted to the families of the comatose children and they began to recover as soon as they “heard” the news.

What can we learn from this astounding story? A great deal, I would say. Most importantly that it is our mandate as citizens to pay attention to the dangerous erosion of our moral center as a nation. Secondly, that we must continue to protest and give voice, as writers, as citizens, to those who are incarcerated and cannot speak. Thus my urgent message today, dear readers.

I find it telling the United States is not a party to the International Criminal Court founded in 2002 as a permanent international criminal court to "bring to justice the perpetrators of the worst crimes known to humankind – war crimes and crimes against humanity,” nor, more surprisingly, is it party to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Indeed, the United States is the only United Nations member state that has signed but does not participate in the conventions all civilized—and even some uncivilized nations—have recognized as fundamental to the protection of the world’s children and world peace. And who can say that the United States is a civilized nation these days? I cannot.

Please read Rachel Aviv’s original article for full details about the “apathetic” children in Sweden:

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/04/03/the-trauma-of-facing-deportation

And join me on June 30th wherever you are, in whatever country, city or state you reside to demonstrate against the horrific, inhumane actions of the current administration. Please vote in the primaries and get out the vote in November.

Support the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law:

http://www.centerforhumanrights.org/Staff.html

and the American Civil Liberties Union:

https://www.aclu.org/  Read More 
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My Mother's Library

My mother, Gerda, as a young woman in Vienna. She arrived in America as a refugee.
She died at 99 holding a book. Not literally so, but metaphorically speaking, she was a free-thinking person of the book and interested in all books, all people, all of life, everywhere. She was difficult, opinionated, even prejudiced occasionally, but she usually returned to knowledge and tolerance. She was an enlightened, educated, emancipated, complicated woman.

She was fully conscious to the end, thinking about and verbalizing her experience. She lay in her hospice bed, her family around her, observing her own death, talking about it to us and to herself in an inward reflection. “I’m dying,” she said. She instructed the nurses to give her more morphine, or less. We played her music, put buds in her ears, read poetry to her. She wanted to wait for one of her grand-children to arrive from Wyoming, she said, clearly. As a physician, she understood the power and solace of morphine, how it could be used to control one’s last breath, or delay it. She consulted my sister and her husband, also both physicians, but this was pro forma. She didn’t really need them. She knew what she wanted, she was in control, she had come to the end of a long and eventful life, she was regnant upon her hospice bed.

Her father, my Czech grandfather, was a traveling salesman who traveled from Vienna to Yugoslavia to sell high-end leather gloves. My mother adored him—she was an only child—and dreaded his departures. The promise of a gift upon his return soothed her. It was always a leather-bound book, inevitably a classic. By age 10, my mother had her own library and become an avid reader. In America, in my childhood home, there were bookshelves in every room, the library organized by subject and author. My stepfather had his own shelves, his own interests: dictionaries, history, Goethe and Heine in German. My mother never read a word of German once she was on American soil. She spoke English, she spoke French and that was enough once she’d disembarked. It was odd and troubling, at times, how she’d rejected her mother tongue.

Often, I’d want to borrow a book and if I took it off the shelf and held it in my hand, she’d become agitated. Books were her totems. The library held life together, it was a commentary on the past and present, perhaps even the future. If it was disturbed, I thought, this held-together world might collapse as it had in Europe when the war began, and all was left behind, so many loved ones murdered. So I was careful, I always asked, I always returned books to their proper place on the shelf and rarely took one away. Which probably explains why my mother constantly bought me books and insisted that I read them right away so we could have a discussion about them. Many were duplicates of the books on her own shelves, and though this may seem profligate, it was not profligate; it was necessary.  Read More 
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There But

A Refugee Camp in The Democratic Republic of Congo. Courtesy: UNHCR
I went to my favorite fancy café to have a cup of cappuccino and a pastry. The bill was nearly $10. This may not seem like a lot of money to most people and it didn’t seem like a lot of money to me in that moment. I had just paid and was gathering my belongings when a young man sat down at the end of the communal table. There was something about his face that stopped me and I did not want to leave. I was feeling a familiar pain deep inside my body I call “my refugee pain.” Somehow I knew, I knew instinctively as I always do, that this man was a refugee or an asylee. My parents were refugees and I grew up witnessing this pain and feeling it. Writing eases the sensation and is therefore of some use to me and others, I feel. I am writing about it now.

I took off my coat and sat down again. The young man did not take off his grey wool coat or his green knitted cap. I was relieved to note that these clothes were clean. He was wearing large glasses that were slipping down his nose, shiny with sweat.

He sat for a while and looked around, bewildered. He was black. He was African. All the other visible employees in the café were white. One of the waiters put a menu in front of him. He picked it up in a desultory way and then looked around the capacious room. Conversation was buzzing. It was lunchtime. Finally, I said to him, “The service is not great here. You’ll have to call someone over.”

I don’t know why I said this. Maybe just to open a conversation. Because I knew that this young man was not there to drink cappuccino.

“I’m here to see the chef,” he said. Behind the hutch where the waiters collect the food were two men in toques. Both were black.

Then the manager came over. She was from Finland, tall and lean and blonde, studying to be a fashion designer. I bring my students here, sit for hours and read their manuscripts, and I know all the hired help. I was sure the well-dressed beautiful manager from Finland was on a student visa. She bent over the young man instead of sitting down next to him and asked a few questions. And though he didn’t have a CV, he’d been recommended by one of the chefs so she gave him an application and left him to fill it out. She’d been kind or kind enough, I thought.

The young man was from Congo, he told me when I asked. I could not imagine what he’d had to leave behind or who had been killed—friends, an extended family, maybe even a wife and children. He had escaped. He was safe. Was this enough?

I watched as he began to fill out the form. He stopped to think. Congo is a Francophone country; maybe he was having trouble with the English questions. Should I do more? Help him fill it out? His pen ran out of ink and he flicked it with his wrist. He put it down and I offered him mine. It was the least I could do. He needed a job. I doubted this would be his lucky day.  Read More 
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Lifelines

The asylees and refugees arrived at Fordham University at 1 p.m. last Thursday for a CV clinic. I had volunteered because I wanted to do something immediate and useful after the horrific events in Paris and the backlash against refugees in the EU and the US. My parents were refugees. I could see them in that room, feel them there, nothing but the clothes on their back, speaking in a foreign tongue, all their valuable dog-eared, well-fingered documents neatly held in a small satchel, the sorrow of family and friends left behind visible in their gestures and facial expressions despite their courage and pride.

I was matched with a young man from Sierra Leone whose father and uncle had been killed in the civil war. His schooling had been interrupted, his family dismembered—literally and metaphorically—yet he’d recovered enough to volunteer in various UN-sponsored youth empowerment and HIV prevention programs. Then Ebola hit—more trouble—and he escaped that scourge and the persecution of secret societies, though what these are is unclear. I didn’t get the full story; that wasn’t my job. I had to find a way to create a one-page CV quickly so that he could find an internship or volunteer position while awaiting asylum. This meant using my interviewing and rewriting skills. The CV he presented was mostly in Krio, not standard dialect, and needed a lot of work. It was challenging to figure out what experience would be applicable and how to present it.

The young man has to be nameless here—political asylum is not guaranteed—but suffice to say he was sophisticated, comparatively well-dressed, a former competitive swimmer and marathon runner, easy to work with—eager like all young people are—to complete his education and remake his life. I enjoyed myself, enjoyed getting to know him, enjoyed helping him. I am a swimmer, too, so that was our first touching point. Many others followed. Now, two days later, we are communicating by text, honing the CV, and I have put him in touch with another wonderful young man I know who has agreed to mentor him and steer him towards volunteer opportunities. It takes a village and this asylee has lost his through no fault of his own. That sounds cliché but it is more than true and so I will repeat it: through no fault of his own.

No atrocity and subsequent migration happens in isolation from the flow of history. Sierra Leone was founded by the “Back to Africa” movement in the early 19th century – a combination of freed slaves, Quakers, British and American abolitionists, and reactionary slave-holding whites who feared that freed slaves would incite slave rebellion. In other words, the legacy of slavery and colonialism is still present everywhere, undermining progress and civil society. What is our responsibility and what isn’t? That is for every person to answer individually according to his or her own conscience. Some people feel the world’s woes keenly, some are insular and apathetic. But we now have a situation—global terrorism—that the president will address tonight, as I write. At the very least, it demands a fuller attention and empathy for displaced populations and a reckoning of our role—as Americans—in the world’s upheavals.

The CV clinic I attended was run by RIF, the Refugee and Immigrant Fund, founded by Maria Blacque-Belair. I first met Maria when I was compiling “Another Day in Paradise.” She wrote a story about her four years in Bosnia as a relief worker. When she returned from that war zone, she got her MSW with a specialty in trauma and recovery from NYU, married, adopted two children, and eventually began RIF. She is a model of hard work, devotion and common sense. I am happy to use my skills as a writer and educator to help her clients whenever and however I can.  Read More 
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