Election 2016: Our Children Are Listening

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kids

Part II

“Did Hillary Clinton kill people?” asks my nine-year-old boy. “Is she a liar?” For the last several weeks now, part of the daily debrief I have with my son after school includes decoding what’s being said there.  I attempt to clarify (and to correct when necessary) the election’s endemic hyperbole spewing from the mouths of children.  Much more difficult though: how do I ease the confusion and terror of a child who fears that one candidate (if elected) will start a nuclear war as I had to do yesterday?  I did not create his fear.  His fear was born on the playground, but it was not conceived there.

Let me tell you, children are engaged in this election, perhaps like never before.  They are out there stumping for their candidates—well, their parents’ candidates, which would be really cool if it weren’t so distressing.  Because while it is exciting to see the seeds of activism sewn so early, the political stumping taking place at the elementary school is done in the vernacular kids hear at home—more hate speech than dialogue.  On the one hand, I applaud discussions about integrity and dishonesty, know-how and ignorance, strength and weakness, but much like the grown-ups, the conversation has devolved and reason has given way to spin and insult.  Words like ‘Killary’ and ‘Drumpf’ and ‘crooked’ and ‘idiot’ are lobbed back and forth.  Too much like the grown-ups the disagreements at school have become personal.  What is happening among our children, young humans still in the single digits, says a lot about who we are, says a lot about the discourse of our nation.  One thing’s pretty clear, we are too emotional—far too angry, and our passion is mucking up the conversation.

When I was growing up, politics was a taboo topic, never ever discussed.  I had no idea whether our family was Republican or Democrat or other, because I grew up in a total political vacuum.  Only when I was an adult did I learn that my parents cancelled out each other’s vote.  They must have made the conscious decision to spare us the confusion, the battles, the drama, the pain of having to choose one parent over the other.  My children, on the other hand, are being marinated in political affairs, as if I have a choice these days. I can’t imagine raising unconscious children given the world they are inheriting.  I don’t have the luxury of controlling the message or hiding it from them altogether, because as I said it is no longer possible to hide from the campaign madness filling the airwaves all around us.

I was going to let my daughter watch the second debate, that is until that horrid tape surfaced and I knew that the evening would move in an unsavory direction.  It was late when I learned that the 11 year-old did in fact sneak out of bed to eavesdrop from her hidey-hole.  You know what America? Our children are listening.  They hear us bicker and name call and defend the indefensible.  I had work to do to undo the impact of the shit-storm of a debate.

As “punishment” for her indiscretion, my daughter was required to write a 200-word essay on both what she heard and what she thought about what she heard.  I gave her 72 hours to complete the task.  When I picked her up from school on the first afternoon, she presented her work to me upon entering the car.  “I finished it in first hour, 237 words.  I can write 1,000 words if you want.”  Among the many thoughts she had, she shared this: “I heard him say ‘No one respects women more than me.’  I also heard him insult lots of women before the debate.  Worse, he doesn’t limit his insults to women.  I do not think he is the president we want for the United States.”  Yes, our children are listening.

We are supposed to raise our children to be critical thinkers, to separate fact from fiction. Pretty difficult to do when our Presidential Candidates are free to sling mud and insult, and lie ad infinitum without penalty or consequence.  It’s being called the most negative campaign in history.  It paves the way for future campaigns to be even uglier and even more devoid of facts, if that’s possible.  Democracy is messy.  Nevertheless, I believe we have a duty to elevate our conversation for the sake of our nation, for the sake of our children who are listening.  The campaign season has been too long, too painful.  While this election may not kill me, it most certainly is critically wounding me and I know it is hurting my kids and yours, too.

NOT OKAY! My Sexual Revolution

chick

I write this in the wake of the release of Donald Trump’s vulgar statements caught on tape. For me, it is the proverbial straw that has broken my back. For decades I have been silent about these events in my life, but anger has gotten the better of me and I will speak now.

I was 15 when my 18 year-old boyfriend of six months (a long-time trusted friend of the family) took me from the prom to a hotel room he had secured earlier that day. I was younger than my years, unworldly, inexperienced, virginal. Within minutes he was out of his tuxedo whereupon he boldly produced a condom and a well-rehearsed speech. That I would comply was his absolute expectation. If not for the heroic entrance of my brother, I shudder to imagine how my childhood might have come to an abrupt end. I was not prepared for that moment. Perhaps a 15 year-old has no business being out on a date, even if it was with someone her family had known forever. In any case, he broke up with me that night because I would “not put out.”

I was 17 when I was nearly raped in the back of the station wagon that belonged to the family of my date, a boy from school. He was a wrestler, an all-state wrestler. He easily overpowered me. His aggression caught me off guard. Ours had not been a promiscuous relationship and he was going to change that. He was impervious to no. He barreled right through my protests. My status as a good girl angered him, emboldened him, made him feel as though he was entitled to me. It took all the physical strength I had, plus a few fingernails, to escape him. I ran home in the dark and never said a word about it to anyone.

I was 18 when I took a job as a night janitor in the university sports complex. Working evenings, I figured, would not disrupt my full schedule of college classes. I didn’t mind the solitary work, mopping floors throughout the complex, didn’t mind that the building was all but empty, that is until my manager trapped me in the utility closet and forced himself on me. I escaped that guy, too, but not before he chased me (literally) out of the building screaming all the while: “You can’t do shit about it. My uncle runs this place.”

I was 19 when I agreed to go out on a date with a professional chef employed at the same seasonal hotel where I worked. Less than an hour after our dinner at one of the finer restaurants on the island, he lurched at me on the stoop outside the door of my apartment. He attempted to force me inside. His lips, his hands, were all over me as I struggled to disengage. I will never forget his words: “You owe me.” And his parting word: “Slut!”

It happened again when I was 20, different man, same actions, same words, except now I was labeled a tease. Only a tease would allow a guy to take her out for dinner then not give up the goods that are owed back as repayment. I walked home in the dark, a long way home alone, because he refused to drive me. If you know me, you would know I am no tease. At the heart of it some gents feel entitled.

I was 21 when I took a job as a copy-writer at a small marketing company in the town where I was going to college. I was there because I needed the income to support my education. I was there because I wanted to populate my resume with professional work experience. One day I was summoned through the little speaker that was on my desk. Out of it came the voice of the owner of the company: “Lora, can you please come into my office and take “DICtation?” Yes, with the emphasis on the first syllable. Being the good worker-bee I was, I grabbed a notebook and pen and proceeded into his office, because that’s what we women do, we ignore and bear it. With inexplicable giddiness, he unveiled his newest furniture acquisition, positioned in the middle of the room: an examination table right out of an OB/GYN’s office, complete with stirrups extending from one end. “Please, hop up on that table. Put your feet in the stirrups. I am going to give you my DICtation.” Then he closed his office door. Scary.

Later that same year I graduated and accepted my first professional position as a marketing specialist for a computer manufacturer. My superior was a man in his 40’s, who under the guise of mentoring me attempted to establish a sexual relationship. You would think that given my previous encounters, I would have learned how to negotiate unwanted advances. You would think…but, he was the vice president of the company. He was relentless and I was intimidated. He made me feel cornered. I left the position after just a few months.

In the intervening years I left the United States to go live in a truly male-dominated culture, an Arab culture. I have written extensively about this in my book (sorry if this appears to be a shameless plug). Suffice it to say, I’ve spent years considering the countless incidents of groping that I encountered there, all within the context of a culture very different from my own. I do not excuse the behavior one bit as I found it as troubling as it was rampant. Whether here or there, it is culture which gives rise to and implicitly supports pervasive behaviors or it does the opposite, condemn them. Neither country does the latter.

I was 27, living back in the United States and working for the federal government when a colleague grilled me about the sexual orientation of my co-workers and of my significant other. His speech was explicit and unyielding despite my repeated attempts over several days to redirect his attention to the fiscal budget we were tasked with creating. I am, to this day, grateful that my superior—a man—took swift action to remove this person from the ranks of working with me. He did not lose his job. He did not lose his position. He was not sanctioned.  In fact, there were no repercussions for him, whatsoever.

And finally, the worst incident, this one by a complete stranger. This one is buried in a deep irretrievable place. This one I will take to my grave, because it is so heinous I cannot bring myself to tell it.  Then I hear about the college kid who raped an unconscious woman behind a dumpster and the ensuing campaign to paint him a wayward but good boy with oh-so-much-promise. Zero consequences. Sickening. And then I hear our Presidential candidate brag about grabbing women by the pussy. Zero consequences. Sickening.

To be clear, I have always been inclined to believe that most men do not behave this way. Yet the behavior is pernicious in our society, is pervasive. When Trump says it is locker room talk, when (worse) people defend him, when (even worse) women defend him, what I hear is ‘you should accept it for what it is: the natural order of things.’ Unacceptable.  There is nothing natural about unchecked speech against women or unchecked assault wrapped in the cloak of men being men. This is not okay. And frankly, I’ve had enough.

I am no beauty queen. I am not a woman who oozes sexual energy. I am not a woman without street smarts (those early days excepted). Yet look at the bevy of assaults that have come my way. My experience is not unique. Witness the women who have stepped forward in protest of Trump’s words. Ask just about every woman you know, and she will have a ready example of her own.

The saddest aspect vis-à-vis my long list of confrontations is that I did not discuss most of them—I absorbed them. I remained silent. I never informed my parents of the assaults during high school or those afterward because I was embarrassed, ashamed, and on some level believed I should have been able to prevent them from happening. I’m done with that. I’m done with owning all of it. We shouldn’t be a society that has to train our girls to absorb the onslaught; to accept it as part of being female. We should do better. Brothers of sisters, fathers of daughters, sons of mothers, I look to you. I think the change begins with you. First, please do no harm.

This is the reality into which I send my daughter, who I hope will be more equipped than I was, much more prepared to deflect assaults that are sure to come her way. It is one of the reasons she studies Krav Maga. It is why we have frank conversations about what is and what is not acceptable. It is why I encourage her strong voice. It is why in the midst of our raging debates—hers and mine—I smile inside and think to myself ‘yes, fight…stand up and fight.’   Preparing her for a world of men that disrespects her while trying to teach her to respect herself is clearly a challenge that for the ages shall remain.

We had better acknowledge out loud that girls need to be on the defensive from a very young age and they should be prepared to maintain these defenses for decades, because as this past weekend proves, there is a world of difference between an apology and justification. Our girls are at risk from a population of men that think sexual assault is okay.

What he said; what I heard

 

 

trump

 

I listened to every single minute of Donald Trump’s speech at the closing of the Republican National Convention last night. I listened, though I knew it would pain me to do so. Nearly eleven million people voted for Trump during the primaries—eleven million want this man to become the leader of the free world and I NEED to understand not why, but how?

Why is clear. Our great melting pot has truly never gelled, not really. While we inhabit the same nation, we have never been united. Along comes the showman, using his reality TV star superpower, he finds his ultimate audience: an America whose white majority feels like it is under attack, from immigrants, from refugees (NOT the same thing as immigrants, though we rarely hear the distinction from this man), from Muslims, from ISIS (again, we rarely hear the distinction), from liberals who want to rid our Constitution of the second Amendment (like they promised Obama would do), from Obama who forces healthcare on his uninsured citizens, from Hillary (because, let’s be honest, she’s a woman), from everything that scares them. The super capitalist knows exactly how to capitalize on fear. It is precisely what has fueled his rise to the top. Yes, why is clear.

How? This is where I get confused. I cannot understand how his supporters reconcile his words and upon closer inspection, his actions. As an electorate, we have come to understand the inevitability and preponderance of spin from our politicians and from the uber wealthy special interests who underwrite them. I used to think that most voters made some effort to parcel out truth, to fact check, to weigh the inevitability of bias and castigate the lies. Maybe I ask too much of the voter, because this is where we are: the Republican Nominee’s narrative is the greatest fiction of our times. We have elevated the Pied-Piper of our fears, a candidate who lies with impunity. We may even elect him.

I, for one, cannot reconcile what I heard with what I know. I wonder how eleven million people can:

“In 2009…Egypt was peaceful.” Mr. Trump went on to ascribe Egypt’s revolution to Hillary. She was hardly responsible for the country’s massive unemployment, or poverty, or corrupt government, all of which preceded her tenure in the Obama Administration. But sure, blame Egypt’s long-overdue uprising on Hillary.

“In 2009…Syria was under control.” Ummm hello? Syria’s dictator has systematically repressed his citizens’ wishes to change the direction of his government. He has secretly absented citizens, tortured and murdered them without consequence. All of the freedoms that Americans enjoy every day are and always have been absent in Syria. All of this preceded 2009. For a clear understanding, Mr. Trump (and his supporters) should review the Department of State’s Human Rights Reports on file.

“After four years of Hillary Clinton, what do we have? ISIS has spread across the region, and the world.” Hillary Clinton did not create ISIS. Hillary Clinton did not create the conditions that allowed ISIS to rise unimpeded in Iraq and Syria. That, Mr. Trump, was the work of Obama’s predecessor.

“Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo.” This smacks of self-interest; smacks of xenophobia. This says to me we shall take what we want to the exclusion of the rights of other nations. Millennials, obviously deficient from the ranks of Trump supporters, seem to understand that they are not a generation that will shrink away from the world…quite the opposite. Millennials are but one group that shall not be served by a President Trump.

“When innocent people suffer, because our political system lacks the will, or the courage, or the basic decency to enforce our laws – or worse still, has sold out to some corporate lobbyist for cash – I am not able to look the other way.” Never mind the indentured servants building luxury villas in your name in Abu Dhabi. How is it okay for these humans to suffer deplorable work conditions, to work for $150.00 a month in the richest country in the world? How is it okay to perpetuate their hopelessness and their indebtedness, to confiscate their passports, and remove all paths to independence? How is this okay? I’ll tell you how, as long as these humans are not Americans, it is okay.

“I have joined the political arena so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people that cannot defend themselves.” Again, as it relates to Americans only.

“We must immediately suspend immigration from any nation that has been compromised by terrorism until such time as proven vetting mechanisms have been put in place.” Clearly Mr. Trump has no clue regarding the incredibly complex processes in place for any person wishing to immigrate to the United States. As for those coming from states compromised by terrorism? They are fleeing war. War. They are refugees. When Trump makes statements like this, what he is saying is that we cannot trust the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, or our own National Counterterrorism Center, or the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center or the Departments of State or Defense or Homeland Security—all of whom have a role in vetting the refugees.

“We are going to build a great border wall to stop illegal immigration, to stop the gangs and the violence, and to stop the drugs from pouring into our communities.” This is bald-face race-baiting. This is pandering to fear, fear of the “other”. This is placing the blame for violence, for drugs, for gangs squarely in the lap of Mexicans. It is disgusting.

On January 21st of 2017, the day after I take the oath of office, Americans will finally wake up in a country where the laws of the United States are enforced. We are going to be considerate and compassionate to everyone…” Except for immigrants, of course, and refugees, and Mexicans.

“My opponent, on the other hand, wants to put the great miners and steel workers of our country out of work – that will never happen when I am President.” In seventy-five minutes of rambling, there was not ONE mention of the environment—not one. There was not one mention of alternative energy—not one.

“We will completely rebuild our depleted military…” What? Our military spending accounts for 54 percent of all federal spending. We spend $598.5 billion annually! We spend 3 percent on science. We spend six percent on education. We spend 1 percent on food and agriculture. If this is not fucked up (pardon me, but seriously) I don’t know what is.

“An amendment, pushed by Lyndon Johnson, many years ago, threatens religious institutions with the loss of their tax-exempt status if they openly advocate their political views. I am going to work very hard to repeal that language and protect free speech for all Americans.” In Trump’s America it is okay for religious institutions to utilize their assets to secure passage of controversial laws, not to fund charitable works.

“But here, at our convention, there will be no lies. We will honor the American people with the truth, and nothing else.”

Lying ad infinitum will never be truth. Not ever. So no, I do NOT understand how…

Failing Advocacy

M-Step Fail

“Do or do not.  There is no try.”

I understand why advocacy is so hard. I understand how people quickly become apathetic in the face of pushback and resistance. In less than 24 hours I have gone from a highly motivated canvasser to a mom shrinking in the corner. Given this fact, it is unlikely I will find the gumption to stand up the next time I witness an institutional wrong.

So here it is. I am perturbed. I seem to be one of the few willing to step into the murky waters of educational politics, to speak up on an issue that is patently wrong. Here it really is: I am surrounded by sheep (or are they ostriches?) and it’s bringing me down. Perhaps I am being unfair. You decide.

This week and next children across the state of Michigan are taking the M-Step, the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress. According to letters I received from our Principals: Our children’s “performance on the M-STEP becomes a part of their permanent academic record and is also used to measure our Schools’ progress toward important school improvement goals.”

My issue is not that my kids will spend up to eight hours (over several days) taking the test (last year it was a whopping 16) instead of spending that valuable time learning something, my issue is that my kids are being tested on material that has NOT YET BEEN COVERED in this academic year. And in case you missed it, their score will become part of their permanent academic record. What? In point of fact, in many cases our teachers have not been able to complete the units contained in the test. For example in my child’s school, 5th graders are being tested on the subject matter contained within eight units of math despite the fact that their teachers have only completed the first five units (and in some cases, less). For further clarification, my 5th grader will be tested on geometry despite not having HAD one iota of geometry. Outrageous.

I went looking for answers. I started by asking those who occupy the front lines: teachers, those we largely hold responsible for educating our kids. Here’s what one had to say: “I have to be very careful. My opinions could get me fired.” Whoa. This does not sound like one who lives in a democracy, let alone one whose occupation is education. Should not the free exchange of ideas be part and parcel of this teacher’s environment? And what of the curriculum? Should not those who administer it be allowed to comment on it? Are they not in fact in the best position to critique it?

Said another, “I can’t sleep at night. I worry about how I am going to get through all of the material, knowing I won’t, knowing there isn’t enough time for them (students) to absorb it at the rate I have to teach it.” I recall a scene from the old sit-com “I Love Lucy.” In it Lucy is working at a candy factory on the assembly line, packaging candies as they come along on a conveyer belt. She is struggling to keep pace and quite predictably, she falls behind. In an effort to catch up, she starts cramming chocolates into her mouth until her cheeks are puffed full and her eyes bug out. There are so many metaphors here, where to begin? We can start with the obvious. Maybe the conveyor belt is going too fast? Or maybe there is simply too much product to process? And definitely, cramming has mixed and disastrous results.

“I have to teach to the test.” “Every day I experience constraint in my classroom; I cannot veer off course, even when a student’s insight beg us to go there. If it’s not on the test…” Oh the things teachers say, so illuminating, so crucial, yet no one seems to be listening.

Teachers are overwhelmingly frustrated. I have previously written about our State’s adoption of the rigorous Common Core Standards, standards meant to elevate our children’s math and English language art skills, to prepare them for higher education and eventually to translate those valuable skills into better careers. I have also stated that I support these worthy goals. My problem, our teacher’s problems, have everything to do with the implementation of those standards which requires them to cram a heavily compressed curriculum into the school year while knowing darn well they cannot adequately cover the material—if at all. Looming large always is the M-STEP, the single measure of a teacher’s, of a district’s worth. Why would our State set up our districts, our teachers and our students to fail?

I spoke to parents. I sought a community of like-minded mothers who I assumed would, at the very least, express support for my assertion that students shouldn’t be tested on material they haven’t been presented (IQ tests excepted). I was stunned at how quickly they surrendered all control to our beloved school district, who they assured me knows what is best for our kids. I was distressed that they completely missed the point. I was disheartened at how dismissive they were. I was even told to be careful, that I could get people fired, that it was all too easy to know just who said what. Whoa. Talk about a chilling effect. No wonder they are all too scared to do anything about anything. My rallying cry was ineffectual. I thought I was being an advocate for our kids, for our beloved school district, compelled by our passionate teachers whose voices are loud and clear in the shadows but dare not speak to truth in the light of day. I thought harnessing the collective voice of parents and reaching out to our elected officials—the ones who helped create and administer this problem—was a natural next step. But there are no voices.

So I took mine alone to Lansing. I wrote to my senator and to each and every one of the senators who occupy the Educational Committee. I asked them to speak to teachers, to visit their classrooms, to observe the constraints Lansing has placed on them. I asked them to acknowledge that attaching the results of the M-STEP to a teacher’s performance and/or to a child’s permanent record is wrong. I asked them not just for my kids, but for all kids, not just for my kid’s teachers but for all the teachers in all of Michigan’s school districts. The response? Canned letters assuring me that my concern is important, reminding me how very busy my elected officials are; promises they will get back to me…eventually.

This is why it is so hard to do the right thing. This is why so few are willing.

Pay No Mind to the Man with the Golden Megaphone

golden man

Super Tuesday

Came and went.

Less primary

Than chance to vent.

So vent I shall:

I am deeply distressed.

At the state of our politics;

Candidates hard to digest.

Bombast leads the national race.

Void of shame, void of grace.

Speaks to vilify, speaks to base.

Speaks of body parts with a straight face!

It is the ego, not the man

that sways the masses.

Pits race against race,

Beatifies capitalist classes.

It is the ego, not the man,

that champions his rise.

Whose single talent

is to self-aggrandize.

“I am the greatest.

I am the best.”

When ever in an election

Has lack of humility been so expressed?

And the politics of fear?

Alive and well

Gathers unto it our huddled masses

Unexpected groundswell.

Build a wall;

Keep the rapists out.

Grand and tall,

‘Cause there can be no doubt,

Immigrants are bad.

They don’t have my clout.

And while we’re at it,

Muslims are very bad, too

So let me at them,

Just watch me subdue.

I’ll bomb the shit out of ISIS…

It’ll be beautiful.” (It’s true)

“I make deals

I make great deals.”

Good Lord if I had a dime–

I’d be richer than he is

By summertime.

Making great deals

Is not governing a nation.

Or diplomacy or commanding armed forces–

Are NOT this man’s station.

Why are people following this guy?

Why is intellect in such short supply?

Or reason?

Or charity?

I ask you, why?

For Bubba with Love

in the rif with Bubba

This year marks 55 years Peace Corps has been sending Americans around the world, to promote peace and understanding and share skills that will help others in some way. I think the greatest legacy of Peace Corps is the enduring relationships that not only span miles but bridge the gap of cultural differences. Today I write in honor of my Tunisian father, a man who adopted me during my Peace Corps service and who for the past 26 years loved me like I was his very own. I am so grateful that Peace Corps gave me the opportunity to know a love like that. I am so grateful for this man and his family, my family.

Bejascape edited

I was an English teacher in the town of Beja, two hours west of the capital, Tunis, in North Africa. As is standard Peace Corps convention, I arrived in Beja not knowing a single soul and barely able to speak the language, Arabic. My students ranged in age from 17 to the early 20’s. I remember feeling awkward the very first night of classes, fumbling my way through the roster of names so difficult to pronounce, blundering my way through those first moments. At the end of class, when most of the students had departed, one, Bchira, stayed behind to introduce herself to me. She quite boldly stated that she had little opportunity to have relationships with women her intellectual equal and fearlessly asked if we could be friends. Curious, I had never had a conversation or a relationship start in this way. Bchira invited me home to meet her family. And so I walked with her to her home that very evening. Immediately upon arrival, I was ushered to a low table in the middle of the family room. Seconds later, a feast appeared and I was requested to partake, solo

One by one, family members arrived home, five daughters, mother, grandmother, all of whom proceeded to fuss over and dote upon me. Bubba, the patriarch, was the last to arrive. Sporting a brown woolen fez, a well-endowed pot belly and a very warm smile, he was jubilant and openly affectionate. He welcomed me enthusiastically to his family, and then he took a place on the floor beside me. We talked about America, about politics and conflict, about education and women’s rights. We talked so late into the night that I ended up staying. It happened that fast: I was adopted on site, as if like a stray I was plucked from my isolation, from obscurity and enveloped completely by this family. From that point forward, I spent few days alone or and even fewer hungry.

mealtime chaos

My situation, the over-the-top hospitality that I received was not unique. Without exception, my Peace Corps colleagues around the country were similarly “adopted” by families, charity driven by their culture and largely by their religion, Islam. Indeed “Zakat” is one of the five pillars of Islam. It obligates Muslims to give of their property, their food, animals or grain, their silver, gold or in modern times, their income. That being said, the generosity I received came not from duty or obligation, but from a meaningful place: from a place of love.

(Excerpted from my book) “I love Bubba, as the paternal figure, as the defender of his women, as the driver of our family conversations, especially political ones. He is open and exceedingly non-confrontational and very good at keeping everyone engaged in debate. He surprises me. He is my reminder that I assume too much of some people and too little of others. It would be easy to gloss over a man like this, assume his life is as simple as anyone’s could be, without a great story, without tragedy or triumph. I did. I meet him as a loving father, devoted to his family and now, even to me. His simple life is good enough. His clothes are plain. In fact, most days, he wears the same thing, his faded blue union suit and brown fez. His home is strikingly unadorned, adequate. His day is going to and coming from his job as a supervisor of the barrage, a massive damn that holds and controls the flow of freshwater to the whole of the north and eastward toward Tunis. Work and family. Simple Life.

But nothing about a former freedom fighter is simple, especially one that has been scarred by conflict. Military service shapes and hones a man. But war sears the memory center, rendering everlasting hurt and wounds felt forever. Bubba goes cloudy at the remembering of war, eager to tell the overarching story, but with stops and starts and omissions. Deep pain, the never-ever-go-away-variety inhabits him, bubbling up when conversation veers there. His sorrow affirms how I feel about conflict. No good can come of it.

Bubba medal

This is a photo of Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, pinning the Order of Republic medal on Bubba, decorating him for his part in helping wrest control of the homeland from France in the early 1950s. He showed me his stunning bronze ornament, with a five-pointed star highlighted with green and red enamel, finely engraved with silver lances encircling a coat of arms, with a ship, the scales of justice and a lion, topped by a crescent moon and star. Republic of Tunisia is embossed in Arabic. He shows it to me and then it goes back in a box, back into the bureau. Out of sight. Out of mind, mostly.

In 1960, Bubba served in the Congo as part of a United Nations peacekeeping operation whose primary function was to ensure the speedy withdrawal of the Belgian military from the newly independent Republic of the Congo. For his participation, he was conferred a medal that bears the logo of the United Nations on its face. On the obverse, it simply reads “In the Service of Peace.”

Bubba’s exploits come as a surprise, given his lovable demeanor and easy way. He does not fit the picture of a military man as I know it. He is not at all authoritarian or regimented or orderly. Quite the opposite. He is soft, in every way. He is the undisputed head of a household teeming with females. Though one thing’s for certain, he is too yielding, too responsive to be its supreme ruler. That role falls to Naima, his wife. Bubba is surprisingly relaxed, progressive almost about his girls. That he supports their professional education is significant. That he says his girls will have a “say” in who they marry is a liberating avowal. Marriages are negotiated between families. Long before the marriage contract is signed, good mates are heavily prospected and vetted on both sides of the equation and too many times, the bride is not consulted. Bubba will not negotiate away a one of them.

He calls me daughter, tells me “as much my daughter as my other five, and as such I will share all that I have equally with you.”   Instinctively, I think of Dad. He would never compromise his fidelity to his family, especially never to an outsider. Never so callously dilute the holy relationship of father-daughter for someone not of his blood. I know it sounds dramatic, but, so is my dad. I look to the sister’s faces, Raoudha, Sonia, Bchira, Intessar and Raja, looking for hurt or dissent. There is only unanimous agreement.” …

with Bubba

Mehrez, my Bubba, died yesterday. As sad as I am today, I find the greater emotion to be anger. I am angry for having had to delay my return visit because of events so very out of my control. I am angry that ISIS (known as Daesh in Beja)—evil incarnate ISIS—is growing in influence within Tunisia, is making any return to Tunisia unforeseeable. I know my being pissed at ISIS for ruining my travel plans is absurd. But they did. I was not able to make it back to see one last time someone who was father to me. No, anger is not the right emotion. It would be better to focus on gratitude, to be thankful for the love and charity of Bubba’s heart. When all the world is awash in fear and hatred for Muslims and their perceived universal hate for Americans, I give you Bubba, a man who took me into his very crowded home and gave me the very best he had.

haj

Nshallah labess, Bubba. Nshallah I will see you soon.

Well-Seasoned

sunflower

 

My outward appearance,

my withering state,

may suggest there’s naught

to cultivate.

 

May have lost me

all your wonder.

May prompt you

to plow me under. 

 

My bloom is spent,

waning to the extent

that all you see is decay.

A flower knows her worth,

will return to the earth,

unfettered, cast away.

 

You dismiss me

because you cannot delight

 in the cycle of my life,

in my being finite.

 

Lose you this misconception,

that gives the perception

that I fix upon you like the sun.

In the fullness of flower

it was always in my power

to be contrary

to be solitary;

not undone.

 

In the space that remains

it will be worth your pains

to do the work required for release.

 

You should know:

it takes a lifetime to grow,

to become seasoned,

to become tolerant,

to find peace.