The Patchwork Quilt of America

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America is not so much a melting pot as it is a splendid patchwork quilt of all the races, cultures, religions, and traditions of the native people and the millions of immigrants who journeyed here over the past few hundred years.

The melting pot imagery took root during a time when complete assimilation into the dominant culture in America was the only road to prosperity and acceptance for new immigrants. Learning the language, of course, made sense. But what of subsuming one’s own cultural and religious practices under a sanitized, “apple pie” vision of what America should be?

Luckily, over the past two centuries, our Constitution has protected our right to be different – to practice different religions, dress differently, celebrate our unique holidays, and wear our cultural identities with openness and pride. As a result, America has been gifted with a plethora of colors and patterns. We have cuisines from all over the world. We have the ability in our big cities to spend the morning in Chinatown, the afternoon in a mosque or synagogue, and our evening at an Irish pub.

Far from being dangerous to American values, immigrants are often more patriotic because they take their freedoms less for granted than those of us who were born into a vibrant democracy. Their willingness to work hard, often at jobs most Americans would decline to do, make them assets to our society, not detriments.

Of course, when cultures clash, it can be unnerving. And there are practices that may be common in some societies that are illegal here in America. The rule of law in these cases should prevail.

The president’s attempts to demonize those people clamoring to come into our country fly in the face of reality. Immigrants are no more likely than native citizens to commit crimes. They are not eligible for welfare or other public assistance that detractors claim creates a strain on our resources. Most of us are the descendants of “aliens” who brought many things to this land – most especially hope.

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The crazy quilt was popularized in American during the Victorian age. Crazy quilts are hodgepodges of shape, color, and design. They don’t seem to go together until a skilled artisan takes the various pieces of fabric and makes something unique and beautiful out them.

America is a gigantic crazy quilt that at times can feel jarring but that ultimately makes our country beautiful and unique too.

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Indigenous Peoples Day

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Most of us know that Native Americans were driven off of their tribal lands by white colonialism and later U.S. territorial expansion from the day Christopher Columbus landed in the Caribbean islands, thinking he had found the East Indies. Far from celebrating Columbus’ “discovery” of America, many Americans feel it would be more appropriate either to eliminate the holiday called Columbus Day or change its focus and rename it Indigenous Peoples Day.

I would support the idea of reclaiming the dignity, traditions, and history of our native people by honoring them with a U.S. holiday. For far too long, Native Americans have been depicted as primitive and warlike people of whom white settlers were justifiably afraid. I will never forget how, as a child, I was terrified of the sinister figure Injun Joe from Mark Twain’s novel Tom Sawyer. Movie westerns portrayed Indians as savage figures eager to scalp poor defenseless pioneers. In this way, white America was able to gloss over or justify the extermination and essentially, the internment, of Native American people on small tracts of land called reservations.

More and more, American history teachers are bringing to light the larger story of American colonialism and westward expansion, a story that includes the unfortunate plight of the Native American. Understanding this history is an important step and should be acknowledged on this day set aside to honor a man whose actions towards the native people were often horrific and violent.

But we must go beyond a mere recognition of the atrocities of the past. Native Americans today suffer from high rates of poverty, alcoholism, and diabetes. Their right to operate casinos is a mixed blessing that brings with it certain unsavory elements. And the destruction of their tribal way of life has marginalized the customs and sacred traditions of disparate native peoples. Instead, Native Americans are lumped together in the public mind as the monolithic “other.”

Our government needs to do more to address the endemic social and health problems of our Native American citizens. Modern Native Americans need to be recognized for their contributions in many areas of society. And Americans need to give up their beloved Indian mascots in order to erase generations of stereotyping of Indians.

So there is much to do in our society to further the cause of Native Americans in our country. And a national holiday in their honor is a great way to start.

“Midwife” Delivers Nostalgia

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My sister and I share tastes in many things. We both love sweets, good books, and serious theater. So it was a bit odd that I didn’t immediately take her up on her suggestion that I watch the PBS series Call the Midwife. For the better part of two years, my sister would mention how much she loved this period piece about midwives set in London in the early Sixties. And for two years, the idea of the show lacked appeal to me.

Finally, I decided to give the show a try. I instantly fell in love with the nurses and nuns of Nonnatus House, a home for midwives in Poplar, a poor district in the East End of London. In each episode, these nurse midwives tend to the growing families’ needs for medical care, sustenance, and moral support in often rather grim conditions. Their life’s work is imbued with optimism and love, for both God and their neighbors.

The series, which completed its seventh season this past spring, also delves into the lives and loves of the Nonnatus House residents themselves. Based upon the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, the series begins with Jenny moving into the midwives’ domicile and struggling to be accepted in the small world of Poplar – and in the world of the religious sisters themselves. One of the nuns struggles with her growing affection for the local doctor. Another shows a gruff exterior that hides a kind and caring interior. The non-religious midwives also have their trials and tribulations, such as alcoholism and the hidden love for another woman.

I love the faithfulness to the culture of the early 1960s, where abortion and homosexuality were illegal, birth control was in its infancy, and most women in the area of Poplar gave birth at home. The clothing, hairstyles, music, and topical references all add to the realism that transports the viewer to another time and place that many remember well. In the season seven finale, for instance, the Nonnatus House residents learn that President John F. Kennedy has been killed.

I’ve learned some interesting things from watching the series. For example, I never knew that there were Anglican nuns. The sisters and their religious devotion are treated with great respect in the series. The beauty of their rituals, the habits they wear, and the love with which they minister to the needs of their community are all lovely depictions of what a life of faith can bring to the world.

Call the Midwife is a deeply heartfelt paean to a world and a time and place that seem distant but in many ways are not so far from our own modern trials and tribulations. There is plenty of childbirth on screen, so the show is definitely not for the squeamish. But the series has evoked so many tears from me – tears of sorrow, yes, but also tears of joy.

When season seven concludes, it is 1963. I look forward to next spring when the residents of Poplar take on 1964 with the same cheek, gusto, drama, and neighborly love that they’ve shown season after season on this wonderful series.

Newcomers to the series can catch all seven seasons of Call the Midwife on Netflix. Season 8 will debut with a Christmas special on PBS in December, followed by season 8 in the spring.

As for me, I will never doubt that sister of mine and her conviction that I’d like something. When it comes to most things, we are two peas in a pod.

Just Be It

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In our current political climate, controversies abound about displays of patriotism – or the lack thereof. Colin Kaepernick’s famous (or infamous depending upon your point of view) decision to take a knee during the national anthem has incited a nationwide debate over such displays. And last week, the Nike campaign honoring Kaepernick’s protest has fanned the smoldering flames just in time for the start of football season.

Also last week, there were protests about the new movie First Man, the story of Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon. People objected to the omission of Armstrong planting the American flag on the moon, correctly pointing out that the American landing was a victory in the space race of the 1960s during the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. The filmmaker’s decision to depict the moment as more of a human achievement than a political one was seen by some as evidence of a namby-pamby liberal sensibility.

Of course, controversy over demonstrations of patriotism in America is nothing new. In the Sixties, many protests against the Vietnam War featured the burning of the American flag. Fierce battles over Americans’ First Amendment rights vs. respect for our national symbol raged. More recently, President Trump has suggested punishment for people who would burn the flag. And so the controversy goes on.

The problem is that it’s one thing to stand up for the national anthem and another thing altogether to be a true patriot. It’s somewhat hollow to wave a flag over the bodies of men, women, and children killed in a pointless and immoral war. It’s easy to plaster a “Support Our Troops” bumper sticker on our cars but more important to fight for the safety and dignity of our military men and women, both active duty and veterans. And the sight of the Stars and Stripes is cold comfort to black families who have lost innocent spouses, parents, and children to police brutality.

The other day I noticed that the flags in my small home town had gone up, no doubt to commemorate the devastating losses our country suffered on 9/11. I admired the grace and beauty of the flags lining our streets as they rippled in the breeze. They brought to mind all that has transpired, both good and bad, since that horrible day when terrorists attacked our land.

What I most admire from that fateful day 17 years ago was the outpouring of support for the victims of 9/11 and their families. The courageous acts of first responders. The leadership of then-mayor Rudy Giuliani. The rebuilding of the site where the Twin Towers fell. The tireless advocacy by Jon Stewart and others to maintain the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund to help those affected by the horrific act of violence. Sure, people started putting out flags and adorning their cars with patriotic messages in the wake of 9/11. But it was action, not symbolism, that made a difference in people’s lives. It was people being patriotic, not just saying they were.

One of the most iconic photographs from World War II is the Pulitzer-Prize winning shot of marines hoisting the American flag at Iwo Jima. The image captures the gritty reality of war, courage, and sacrifice. Some of the flag-raisers were killed in action a few days later. The image has been depicted in movies and made into a U.S. postage stamp.

But it was the selfless sacrifice of fighting for freedom and against tyranny that made the difference – not whether or not the American flag waved from the top of Mt. Suribachi. So as we mourn the losses we sustained on 9/11 and in the ensuing years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, let’s do more to be the patriots we claim to be when we raise the flag or place our hands over our hearts during “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The Power of a Story

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3722407_070718-cc-thai-soccer-team-imgThe fate of 12 young boys trapped in a cave in Thailand for over two weeks has captivated the world. Daily news about the boys, the conditions inside the cave, and the perils faced by both the boys and their rescuers made for a riveting story. When all 12 boys and their coach made it safely out of the cave, there was widespread jubilation.

Even though these boys are from a country across the world, Americans were on tenterhooks praying for their safe escape. Yet here at home, as many critics have pointed out, young children continue to be separated from their families after being apprehended at our border trying to enter the U.S. illegally. Why the difference?

The Trump Administration has refused access to the media and most other Americans to see the facilities where children and babies wail disconsolately for their mothers. Photos are scarce, and there is no opportunity for us to learn the stories of these would-be asylum seekers. Without their stories touching us, it is easy for us to shrug or turn away.

The power of a story cannot be overestimated. As a literature lover, I have always preferred to learn about history and about real people through fiction – or through riveting memoirs and other non-fiction such as the works of Jon Krakauer. Where the starkness of bald facts can be numbing, a story helps draw us into the experiences of others.

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A good example is the 2014 story of Boko Haram and its kidnapping of almost 300 schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria. The fate of the girls became an international news phenomenon when prominent people, such as First Lady Michelle Obama, took to social media with photos of individual girls who were missing and feared kidnapped by the extremist group. The pressure created by the girls’ story prompted the Nigerian government to go after Boko Haram more aggressively. Ironically, another kidnapping of 100 Nigerian girls by the terrorist group earlier this year has been barely a blip on people’s radar. Without a compelling story, the situation is unlikely to capture the world’s attention.

Since ancient times, human beings have been storytellers. Our oral traditions were our histories. Our imaginations help us to envision the plight of others and give us more empathy. Perhaps if Americans knew the stories of some of the asylum-seekers at our southern border, they would demand a more humane response and the immediate reunification of families. Like the scared and malnourished Thai soccer players in the cave, these children are just like our own. Shouldn’t we care for them as if they were?

 

Land of the Free

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IMG_1229“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

With these famous words, our Founding Fathers began a justification for the thirteen American colonies’ Declaration of Independence from Great Britain, setting the stage for revolution and the creation of the United States of America.

Of course, the equality espoused in the declaration of 1776 applied only to white men, and that reality has been the source of many hardships and injustices that have stained the greatness of our great country. The fight to live up to that ideal goes on even today.

But the moral ideal encompassed by the most well-known words in the Declaration of Independence has also inspired a fight for freedom and equality in many parts of the world. And it continues to give America its conscience hundreds of years after it was written.

The idea that human beings have certain rights helped framed the U.S. Constitution. It guided us out of two terrible world wars and helped established international standards to which all nations on Earth are meant to be held. And while even in our own democracy we struggle to assure the dignity of each person, the concept that we share “inalienable rights” gives us something to strive for in our laws and policies.

Freedom is a tricky thing. Fifty states with different laws and customs must somehow stay united as a nation. Our democratic institutions allow for a certain amount of unrest and strife that is not seen in more autocratic countries. Even the current state of caustic discourse that is roiling our democracy is the fruit of that freedom.

When my children were young, I learned a method to teach them about freedom and responsibility. It involves locking the thumbs and forefingers of each hand to form interlocking circles. One circle represented freedom, the other responsibility. With the circles locked together, it was clear that as the kids grew and gained freedom, they were also saddled with more responsibility.

That is our challenge as a nation as we celebrate our two hundred forty-second birthday. We need to remember our responsibility to the ideals that gave birth to our great republic. We need to hold them as applicable not only to ourselves, but to every American – indeed, to every human being on this planet.

Happy Independence Day!

Fab Four

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I was just a little girl when the Beatles came on the scene in the mid-Sixties, but I quickly caught Beatle fever. The four English lads with dark mops of hair had an infectious sound and personality that made toes tap and girls swoon. I spent many an hour clad in white vinyl go-go boots dancing in the family basement rec room to Meet the Beatles, The Beatles Second Album, and Beatles 65.

This past weekend, I was able to reminisce about the Fab Four by listening to a weekend-long show on Sirius XM Radio’s Beatles channel. Hosted by music producer Peter Asher, the “All Together Now” show featured the top 100 Beatles songs as voted on by listeners. Although I might have quibbled with some of the listeners’ choices, I enjoyed the musical tour through Beatles history, punctuated by arcana from the knowledgable Asher.

Having not only been a music producer during the Beatles’ rise to fame but also a close personal friend, Peter Asher is well qualified to discuss the intricacies of their music and to share the personal stories behind many Beatles songs. In fact, Paul McCartney lived with Asher’s family for two years and wrote many of his beautiful songs in the Asher family home.

An interesting tidbit I learned was that the hit “Hey Jude” was originally titled “Hey Jules.” This makes sense since, as I once learned, Paul wrote the song to cheer up John Lennon’s son Julian when the Lennons were in the process of getting a divorce. John, for his part, wrote one of my favorite songs about his mother, Julia. McCartney also used many of his personal experiences to form parts of songs. For instance, the lyrics of “Let It Be” came from a dream Paul had of his mother. “Martha, My Dear” referred to Paul’s pet dog, and “Penny Lane” was based upon a street in his childhood neighborhood in Liverpool.

One of the most interesting details I learned was that Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird” is a song about civil rights. In Paul’s words, “This was really a song from me to a black woman, experiencing these problems in the States: ‘Let me encourage you to keep trying, to keep your faith, there is hope.'” Indeed, as the Beatles evolved, their songs became deeper and richer in many ways. They also got in trouble with conservatives for some of their comments and lyrics. I still remember my father’s outrage when John Lennon declared that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus Christ. And the John Birch Society objected to the upbeat “Back in the USSR,” which I interpret to be a tongue-in-cheek take on the Beach Boys’ “California Girls.”

To this day, I have a special fondness for the Beatles’ early music. It was so upbeat, sweet, and danceable. It’s just not possible to be in a bad mood while listening to “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” “Help!,” or “Happy Just to Dance With You.” I’m not such a fan of the psychedelic phase the Beatles had, in which all the lyrics sounded as if they were written under the influence of mushrooms or LSD. But much of their later music only improves with age. Soulful ballads such as “Let It Be,” “Something,” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” reveal a maturing foursome, ironically as the band started splintering.

There will never be another band like the Beatles. As I listened to song after song in the top 100, I realized that not only had I heard almost every single one many times, I knew most of the lyrics. The Beatles were a formative part of our lives in the 1960s and 70s. Hearing so many of their masterpieces this weekend, I realized that Beatles music will never get old.

The Beatles’ gift to music and culture is immeasurable. And I hope for each of them the lines of “The End” have held true: “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”