November 14, 2016

Yes, This Matters....

This weekend, it was announced that Stephen Bannon would become President-elect Donald Trump's chief strategist. 

The internet-world exploded.

Understandably so. The accusations surrounding Bannon's history of sexism and antisemitism are inflammatory at their very best, and are indicative of a pattern of white supremacy surrounding the Trump administration.

"But it doesn't matter, not really, as long as they do a good job managing our economy, right?" 

I know some people - white, Christian people, probably - are thinking that right now. And I understand it, to a point. If you've spent your life in this country as a white Christian, you've lived a very safe life. You've probably never been challenged. A Swastika wouldn't send a lightning bolt of fear through your heart.

But though I am white, but I am also a woman, and I'm a Jew. And I'm here to tell you: the Swastikas being casually scrawled on walls around the country in the name of our upcoming President? They matter. They matter so much.

* * * *

I've written before about being a ten-year-old kid in New Jersey when some bullies vandalized our local synagogue. My mom didn't want me to see the broken windows, the antisemitic threats scrawled on the walls, but through a trick of fate, I wound up at the synagogue anyway.

I'm the only child in my family who didn't have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. I quit Hebrew School that day. I could never set foot in that synagogue comfortably again, not after seeing it covered in ugly, bleeding Swastikas.

I lost my religion at the hands of some mean-spirited vandals.

But even more...it stuck with me. It was this generalized feeling of being unsafe. In danger. Of being marked in some way, less visible, perhaps, than the yellow Stars of David worn by Jews in Nazi-occupied countries in the 1940s, but no less terrifying. 

It...stuck with me. I never forgot.

* * * * 

Twenty-five years later, the incident appeared in a book I was writing. A book that became about survival at any and all costs. A book in which I had to prove: a person can rise above the stem of hate and murder. But they cannot do it unscathed.

I promise you: every racial threat, every Swastika, every act of terror committed in the name of Donald Trump or Stephen Bannon...it matters.

It may take 25 years for people to deal with exactly how much it matters, but I promise you it does.

Here's what I wrote. The book's not published. Maybe someday it will be. But this is how much that incident affected me. And this is how much what's going on in our world TODAY is affecting our children RIGHT NOW.

* * * *

Chapter 2: September 1983

As Ruthie began the long walk home from school that day – the long walk that would begin her longest night – she felt a little off. A little tired. A little spinny in the head. She wasn’t thinking about boys or difficult teachers or pre-algebras test like she and her friends had discussed until she’d left them at their bus. As they squealed goodbyes out the windows and she took the first steps home, Ruthie began thinking, instead, about music.
But even that was off, in a way she couldn’t quite put her finger on. At least, not at first. The music that normally filled Ruthie’s world was from The Police or Michael Jackson or Madonna. Those voices shouted from boom boxes all around town, and Ruthie often walked home humming the songs of her generation.
But no, that wasn’t the music in Ruthie’s ears as she stepped onto Washington Road. Instead of Sting or Madonna she heard…violins. Yes, that was it. Violins, humming a mournful tune. And was that an…accordion? And a clarinet? Yes. Yes, it was.
She’d never heard this song, this music, but in that moment it felt familiar, and also terrifying.
It made her head spin, that’s what it did.
Ruthie paused, six cars whizzing past not seven feet from where she stood, and she glanced around. She thought someone nearby must have had a stereo system playing this bizarre-o music. But there was nothing, no one. Ruthie was alone beside a copse of trees in the park beside her school. They threw long shadows across the empty road.
The music was melancholy – that was a vocabulary word Ruthie loved, and she used it often – wordlessly singing of love long expired, perhaps a mother’s lament for a missing child. Ruthie’s eyes filled with inexplicable tears.
“What’s wrong with me?”
She spoke aloud to the trees, to the lone car that passed, honking, with a lackluster old horn. Ruthie waved a hand, a half-hearted gesture at best, but somehow it quieted the music in her ears. Slowly it receded from whence it came, bit-by-bit, note-by-mournful note, until Ruthie heard only the breeze blowing through the trees’ golden leaves, and the whish of tires on ancient asphalt.
“I should get home.”
Her voice echoed in the empty park. She shuddered, and then giggled, a weak, watery sound. “God, I hope no one sees me talking to myself like a crazy person. They’ll send me to the loony bin for sure. I should get home.”
With the repeated words, Ruthie found she was able to force a step, further breaking the spell created her by the unidentified music. Soon she was on her way in earnest, heading for home, which in the after-school hours was really her neighbor’s house. Her stomach rumbled with hunger for an after-school snack. An apple sliced and dipped in peanut butter sounded good. Mrs. Tilly usually had apples and peanut butter.
Or maybe her mother would have come home early from work, and maybe she could go home instead of to Mrs. Tilly’s house. Maybe Ruthie’s mother would be waiting with cookies and lemonade, and they could go to dinner later after Ruthie had finished her homework.
More likely, Ruthie knew with a sinking stomach, she would have to go next door like normal, to Mrs. Tilly, who was paid to keep track of Ruthie in the afternoons. Theirs was a quiet relationship, of long afternoons with tea and toast and homework and silence. Always silence. Miss Rachael, Mrs. Tilly’s daughter, was the loud one. Nights when Miss Rachael came home early were tempestuous ones on Orchard Street as old-woman-mother fought too-old-to-be-belligerent-daughter. Sometimes Ruthie listened to them from her own bedroom at night, wishing they’d stop, and often wishing she knew why they battled so. It was as though Mrs. Tilly wanted Miss Rachael to be something different. Something other.  
In Ruthie’s stomach, she felt the day would be tempestuous whether Miss Rachael came home or not. Something, somewhere, told her that.
Ruthie’s feet carried her homeward anyway, without thought to the direction they were taking. There were two routes home. The left-hand road would take her along the highway; the right would take her past her town’s lone synagogue where, if she’d given it any thought at all, Ruthie would have realized her feet were taking her anyway. Something, somewhere, was pulling her. Calling her. Had she only listened, she could have heard it, and she could have run. For the tempest was at the synagogue, and there, on the street, Ruthie still had time to escape. To run. To hide.
If only she had listened.
But she didn’t. She only walked, and her feet following the right-hand route, edging her closer and closer to the coming storm.
A cold breeze washed over her. The music that had given her goosebumps back at the park was long gone, but now, on a main road down which dozens of cars sped, she was overcome by the feeling that someone – or something – was watching her. Waiting for her. The hairs on the back of her neck, shorter, wispy baby-hairs that never stayed where they were supposed to, stood up like soldiers at inspection. She cast a glance over her right shoulder, then her left.
No one there but the cars on the road, the homes lining the street shut tight.
Maybe she should thumb down a ride, hurry up and finish this weirdo walk home. That would have saved her.
Instead, Ruthie sped up to a jog.
She flew down the street, backpack bouncing against butt, and tattered tennis shoes slapping the rugged pavement of the decades-old sidewalk. She turned right from Washington onto Bordertown Avenue, and she drew to a sudden halt.
Light blinded her, the sun’s clear autumn rays reflecting off the most beautiful building in the town.
The synagogue. Temple Beth Israel. The building that looked like it was made of gold.
Though her town was mostly Roman Catholic, with a few Irish Catholics thrown in, and though the town’s two churches held stately vigil on either end of Bordentown Avenue, dwarfing the synagogue with their spires and bells and their old, gothic architecture, to Ruthie the churches could never hold a candle to Temple Beth Israel. Her  golden bricks sparkled in the sunshine, especially on a day like this, with the sun a bright fireball in an azure sky. The synagogue looked as though it had been doused with glue and glitter, a child’s art project, but in the most beautiful of ways. Not gaudy, like the gargoyles on the churches, but shiny and glistening.
It blinded her, the synagogue, and she pulled to a sudden halt. The light was dazzling.
Which was weird too, all things considered, because although she’d seen it on many a sunny afternoon, she’d never quite been blinded like this. For everything glittered. Everything sparkled. The parking lot was coated with diamonds, or at least it looked like it was. Light reflected and refracted until it burned, burning, searing, tearing apart Ruthie’s eyes.
She squinted, throwing a hand up to block the sun, and through its meager shade, she was able to register that, among the glittering building and the sparkling parking lot, there were flashing blue lights. Red ones, too.
The police were there, a fire truck, too. Something bad was happening. The weird, creepy feeling that pulled her forward had a source. Like a magnet she’d been pulled to this time, this place, and something was very wrong indeed.
If only she had run.
And suddenly, as though there were a siren in her brain, one thought blazed forth in a painful scream.
Mrs. Tilly was in the synagogue.
Mrs. Tilly was in the middle of this.
Mrs. Tilly, a Holocaust survivor who never spoke of her experiences but who everyone knew had lived through the unlivable, was there, in a shattered, broken synagogue.
Somehow, Ruthie knew it was true.
And for some reason, this thought filled her with dread, but also with a feeling that she had to stop it. She had to fix things. That only she could make things right.
Now her run was fueled by fear. By the insatiable need to save her old, quiet friend.
As Ruthie ran, images as inexplicable as violin music crowded into her brain.
There was an old village in the middle of the woods. A red-headed woman in a white dress.
There was a pit, a burning pit, with naked hands and smoldering feet sticking up from the coals.
There was a man, a beautiful man, and he loved her.
But who was she?
Ruthie ran faster. Lactic acid built up, burning in her shoulders, her side, as she ran, her sneakered feet pounding the uneven pavement. She knew the path well, knew where the sidewalk stuck up from a persnickety tree root, knew where gaps necessitated ballerina leaps and bounds, and so she ran. She leaped. She bounded.
She only stopped when she reached the synagogue’s parking lot and saw the news vans. Then she staggered backward until she crashed into a man holding a video camera.
The news is here! This is bad!
Run, Ruthie! Run away!
But Ruthie couldn’t run away. She could only stare at her synagogue, broken and battered in the late autumn sunshine. The synagogue, her synagogue, whose tall glass windows now crunched beneath her sneakers, stood bleeding. There, slashed along the sparkling yellow bricks, were Swastikas. Dozens of them. They were red – dark red, the deep, black-red of drying blood. And between those Swastikas were written words, words Ruthie wished she didn’t know how to read, but she did. When you’re a child growing up Jewish in a Catholic town, and your neighbor and babysitter is a Holocaust survivor, you know how to read certain German phrases.
Verbotten
Juden
Arbeit Macht Frei
The sun above still shined. The sky’s cheery blue was unchanged. But Ruthie’s world went grey. It turned sideways. She wobbled on her feet, now planted atop broken glass, and her mouth fell open, then closed, then open again, a dying fish’s mouth, gasping for air.
A hand fell on her shoulder, clamping down. Ruthie screamed. She jerked. In that moment, she’d have fought for her life.
She didn’t need to, though. Not yet. Instead, the hand released, and as she turned she found herself facing the cameraman. He’d been watching her – filming her – since she crashed into him. But now his camera was off, hanging lifeless at his side.
“Are you alright, little girl?” His eyes, rimmed with thick glasses, were kind. Had the moment been a different one, Ruthie would have liked him. Or, at least, she’d have liked to explore the khaki canvas vest he wore, with all its pockets and secret compartments.
But this moment was different. Ruthie’s world was imploding, an avalanche of fear threatening to bury her. The cameraman was thus not her friend. His blue eyes were too Aryan, his pale hair to Christian.
He was an other.
An enemy.
She stared at him.
The Holocaust is happening right here in New Jersey.
A spasm of nausea gripped her stomach. She bent slightly, clutching her abdomen, and was overwhelmed with the crazy idea that the cameraman would shoot her, right there and then, if she threw up on his shoes. Of course she also knew the thought was ridiculous – cameramen don’t carry guns – but there it was. Life was different now that her temple bled, and maybe cameramen did carry guns.
Ruthie backed away. He reached out again, perhaps to steady her, but perhaps he wanted to pick her up and throw her in his windowless news van. Perhaps he wanted to kill her.
Eyes glued to his, she kept moving. She would not turn her back on him. The cameraman was not to be trusted. Walking backward over the broken windows to the battle-scarred, bleeding building, she swallowed down a flood of fear. She choked back vomit. She had to get inside, safe within the building’s four walls. There she’d be among her own kind. There would be more Jews, like her. Together, maybe, they’d be safe.
The cameraman shrugged and went back to filming, keeping his camera on Ruthie as she continued her backward trek. She stopped only when her back hit the hard, cold brick wall.
She turned. There, before her, surely having left its mark on her denim jacket, was a Ruthie-sized Swastika, as tall as she and twice as wide. It glared at her, red and gory, oozing its hatred all over the gold brick walls. Ruthie’s chest tightened. Her hands trembled. She squeezed her eyes shut, sure that if only she waited, if only she counted to ten, she’d awaken from this terrible nightmare. She’d find herself safe in bed, her mother coming into her darkened room to kiss her.
But when she opened her eyes, the Swastika remained, burned into the brick like so many bodies up a crematorium’s chimney.
She reached out a hand to touch it. She had to touch it. Had to feel it. Had to let it wash over her with its anger and its accusations. Yes. She was a Jew. She would wear this scarlet paint – this blood – with honor. With pride. She would own her fate, now that the Holocaust had come to find her in New Jersey.
The paint was dry, though. Cold. Not wet, not warm like real blood, but when Ruthie pulled her hand away she felt slick with it anyway. Dyed red, forever, marking her Jewness, making it known.
“Ruthie!” The booming voice over her shoulder froze Ruthie where she stood. “Ruthie, what are you doing here?”
Thankfully, this was a voice she knew. This was a voice she loved. The synagogue’s patriarch, tall and ample-bellied, Rabbi Portman appeared at her side, his hand taking hold of hers and pressing it down, away from the bloody wall.
“Rabbi, I just…I was walking home…and I saw the lights…so I stopped…and now I…oh, Rabbi Portman, it’s terrible.”
Keeping hold of the hand of the man who’d sat patiently through countless hours of practice for her upcoming Bat Mitzvah, she raised her eyes from the Swastika to his face. She was surprised to find his eyes wet and ringed with crimson, a shade not unlike that which somehow, impossibly, coated her fingers.
It’s spreading.
The Rabbi let go of Ruthie’s hand, opting instead to stretch an arm – a heavy arm, heavier than Ruthie would have guessed – across her shoulders, pulling the girl to him in an awkward embrace. Though the Rabbi had never, ever hugged one of his students, she felt no urge to pull away. Instead, she leaned in, breathing in the scent of him – smoked cigarettes and Wintergreen Lifesavers.
“I’m so sorry you had to see this,” said the Rabbi. Ruthie was vaguely aware that she was walking, letting herself be pulled by the Rabbi, as he continued. “The police think it was kids. Vandals. It’s nothing to worry about, not really, and I wish you hadn’t seen it, but I’m glad you’re here. I need your help.”
Ruthie raised her head from its resting place against the Rabbi’s belly, held in its place by a button-up dress shirt and an old corduroy coat, both of which stretched like sausage casing. He led her inside.
Now Ruthie’s eyes found more Swastikas, this time on the interior walls. More threats. More words. Die Dirty Jew. Kike. Rat. Pig.
At least they’d switched to English; English insults felt more familiar. She’d heard them all before. Surrounded by broken glass and vitriol, Ruthie pulled away from the Rabbi and tried hard to meet his watery hazel eyes. “Why do you need my help?”
He sighed, his graying mustache rising and falling with his breath. When he spoke, it was with the thick Williamsburg accent Ruthie knew he worked hard to keep under wraps during services. “Mrs. Tilly is here. She’s...she’s not taking this well.”
Ruthie could only nod. How could she explain that, somehow, she already knew this?
“I was hoping you could help her home? She’s been here all day, and she won’t let me move her. I know your families are close, so maybe she’ll listen to you? I haven’t been able to get in touch with her daughter.”
“She works a lot, and she has a new boyfriend I think. Based on what I heard the other night. Mrs. Tilly doesn’t like him.”
“Right. And you know that Mrs. Tilly was in the…”
“The camps. I know, Rabbi. I know. She doesn’t talk about it.”
The Rabbi nodded. “She’s in the sanctuary, by the Ark. It’s…well, it’s a mess in there. I wish you didn’t have to see it like this. I wish she hadn’t seen it. Can you help her home?”
“Yes. Yes, I can.” She tugged the Rabbi’s arm, pulling him to the thick swinging doors that led into the synagogue’s main sanctuary. The magnetic pull, which had seen her through her walk to the synagogue, the one she didn’t understand at all, was stronger here. A rope tethered Ruthie to what lay beyond the doors, and someone (Mrs. Tilly? Yes, that felt right.) waited at its far end, pulling and coiling the cord as Ruthie drew closer and closer to an end she could not yet see.
She pushed her way through the doors, doors that now were branded with the same swastikas as the bricks outside. These were different, though. These burns were real. No paint remover could ever get rid of those scars. Ruthie could see that much, anyway, as she burst into the sanctuary. Swallowing a huge gulp of air, willing her stomach to settle down, she almost stopped. She almost let fear overtake her.
But the invisible rope pulled her forward, regardless of her terror.
Every chair in the sanctuary – every single wooden chair, not a single one spared – was broken up like kindling. Some were piled in the center of the room, awaiting a bonfire that, for some reason, was never lit. It’s like it’s waiting for the Jews to come. Will it burn now that I’m here?
The room was filled, too, with the pungent odor of gasoline. Gasoline and something else. As Ruthie continued her journey, with the Rabbi’s hand pressing gently on her back and the invisible rope pulling her onward, she noted the smears of red paint splattered carelessly on the walls, lending an eerie blood-glow to the entire space.
Up front stood the Ark, open. A knife pierced the left-hand door as though it had been used for a handle. But that knife had been used for dirtier work as well. The Torah, the sacred text of the Jews, the heartbeat of the synagogue, lay un-scrolled across the floor. Parts of the ancient, acidic paper were ripped to shreds, the Hebrew words transformed to confetti. The Torah’s cover, once a lux, glorious piece of velvet and beads, with sparkling gemstones and embroidery, lay in a heap beside the scrolls, and it was then that Ruthie recognized that second odor. That foul, human odor.
She slapped a hand across her mouth. Her nose.
She gagged.
“Is that…”
“Yes. They used the Torah for a toilet.”
Ruthie shook her head, a long, silent no. She felt older now, somehow, as though the march into the sanctuary had aged her well beyond her twelve years. She would never again need to go to sixth grade, she knew. Not after seeing this, the culmination of ignorance and hate and desecration and defecation. What more was there to learn?
Ruthie was ready to leave. To leave and never return. She turned to the Rabbi.
“Where is she?”
The Rabbi sighed, and with two hands pressed to Ruthie’s cheeks, he shifted her focus to the corner of the room.
Finally, Ruthie saw her. Her neighbor. Her caretaker. Dare she think it, even her friend. They’d been through a lot, she and Mrs. Tilly. Long afternoons spent watching stories on the old black and white television. Hundreds of cups of tea. Thousands of sugar-free hard candies. They were close. Were friends. Despite knowing little of Mrs. Tilly’s past, she knew enough to know this would be devastating.
And there was Mrs. Tilly now, kneeling on the floor behind an overturned podium, praying before the shattered room. She was broken. Pitiful. She leaned forward, pressing her forehead to the ground, bending in a way no 70-something year old ever should have bent. Mrs. Tilly rocked, swaying side to side, and as she rocked she sang quietly to herself. Ruthie strained her ears, willing them to hear, and soon they zeroed in on the old woman’s rough voice, hardened by decades of chain smoking.
Yisgadal v'yiskadash sh'mei rabbaw.”
She sang the Kaddish. The prayer sung at funerals. The prayer that praised a God who allowed terrible things to happen. The prayer that was devoted in the face of devastation, defying those who would roll over and die at the first sign of adversity.
Amidst the devastation, Mrs. Tilly bowed and praised her God.
Ruthie couldn’t stand it.
“Come on, Mrs. T,” she called, her voice echoing through the broken, cavernous room. “Let’s get out of here.”



November 12, 2016

This I Believe: 2016 Edition

Mine is but a small voice. A tiny voice. A voice that makes no difference in the world.

Still. I use it.

This week has been difficult. Heart-breaking. Possibly Earth-shattering. Though I do hope and pray that last bit won't be the case. 

I watched Trump take the election on Tuesday night through a fog of narcotics. I'd had a small surgery Tuesday morning, and the pain pills kept my head spinning throughout the day. So, too, did the election results, as they continued to turn red.

I watched from the couch as Hillary's lead gained traction, but then slipped...slipped...slipped away, the first of many victims to the rush of the Trump Train. 

Choo-choo. That's all I heard from certain Trump supporters throughout the prior three months. Choo-choo. Here comes the Trump Train.

Indeed.

I went to bed, then awoke around midnight to see that Trump had, indeed, taken Florida. Then Ohio. Then the entire Midwest.

And I saw the world change before my drug-addled eyes. 

Since then, as I've worked hard to heal my body, it's felt as though everyone in the country has been working hard to open old wounds. 

Hate crimes are on the rise. Swastikas are spray-painted on walls. The KKK has planned a march in North Carolina, a state adjacent to my adopted home. "Go back to <insert country of possible origin here>!" has been shouted from rooftops, to citizens of this country who were born here, raised here, and hoped to, someday, die here, in safety and security. 

And the things that have been said to my brothers and sisters of the LGBTQ community? They're not even repeatable, so awful are they.

Anger. Venom. Vitriol. Both sides spewing red steam from any and all orifices. 

The country I love seems to be slipping away, and while the "other side" encourages us to accept the results of this election (the majority, they say, has spoken...which is a lie, since Hillary won the popular vote...but whatever), I feel the need to...not slip silently into the dark night. I feel the need to fight.

Here's why.

This, I believe:

I believe in human rights and dignity for all. I believe it does not matter where you were born, nor the color of your skin. I believe that who you love, or how you interact with your gender identity, does not change your legal and ethical right to fair, honest, and loving treatment.

I believe my "liberalism" stems from social issues, not economic ones. I understand this means I'm a bit on the lucky side. But I've lived in a world that was paycheck-to-paycheck, and often worse than that. I've lived in a world full of debt. I understand, however, that poverty does not equal hopelessness, nor does it excuse you from treating others with decency, nor believing in fair play.

I believe Donald Trump's behavior towards women...his call for building a wall reminiscent of the one in Berlin...his spewing of common anti-Semitic tropes...his call for turning away refugees that need only a place to be safe...I believe all of this paints a picture of a man full of hate and bile and venom, and I am afraid of his vision for our country. 

I believe, however, that he will tack center as he begins to govern (if he begins to govern), foregoing the most vile of his campaign promises, but I don't believe that'll be enough.

I believe, for the first time in my life, I have a major responsibility to work for a better endgame. I believe I must march when marching is required. I believe I must give freely of time and money and love. I believe that my voice matters in this tempestuous time. I believe that, if enough of us believe these things, tomorrow will be a better day. 

I believe in the Safety Pin Project. 


I believe there is so much work to be done to keep our families safe.

I believe we are all up to the task.

I have to believe this. I cannot give up. Not today. Not ever.



September 28, 2016

A Conversation

"Baby, there's something I want to tell you about. You're probably going to hear about it in school tomorrow, and I'd rather be the one to tell you. Can you put your book down for a sec?"

"Sure, Mom. What's up?"

"There was a school shooting today, up near Greenville. Near Clemson."

"A school shooting? What's that?"

"Like...someone took a gun, and used it, at a school."

"Did anyone die?"

"No, baby. It looks like everyone is going to live this time."

"This time? What? It happened there already?"

"No. I mean, not there. Not right there. But it's happened before. School shootings, I mean. And it's always awful, and it's always sad."

"But no one died?"

"No, baby. No one died."

"That's good. I'm glad."

"Me, too. But it reminds me to tell you something. I know you and your friends like lockdown drills. I know it's a chance to get away from your work, and get to giggle with your friends. But that's something you should really take seriously, baby. I want you to take it seriously, especially since I bet they'll have one this week."

"Why do we have the lockdown drills, Mommy?"

"For something just like what happened in Greenville. In case a bad person comes into the school one day and wants to hurt someone. If that happens, baby...if anything like it ever happens, I want you to do everything your teacher says. If you're not near a teacher, I want you to run as fast as you can. As fast as you do when you're trying to score a goal in a soccer game. I want you to find a hiding spot and make yourself as small and as quiet as possible, and I want you to hide until a policeman or a fireman comes and finds you. Or until I come and find you."

"But what if I can stop the bad man?"

"No. No, baby. You're still just a little thing. If someone wants to hurt people, you can't try to stop him. You can only hide. You can't be a hero. Not yet. You have to save yourself."

"Percy Jackson was just a kid until he was a hero."

"Percy Jackson was also Poseidon's child. Alas, you're just a normal kid. Unless there's something you're not telling me."

"Mo-om. Be serious."

"I'm very serious. I mean it. Don't think about heroics. Think about hiding."

"But what if Callie's there, too. Can I save Callie if she needs to be saved?"

"I...yes...I mean, I don't know. Of course you can save Callie, but then both of you have to hide. Hide until we find you."

"Mommy, is the bad person going to come to my school tomorrow?"

"No. No, honey, no. They caught him. You'll be safe at school. He was just a sad kid..."

"A kid?"

"Crap, no. not really. Um, crap? An older kid, okay? A much older kid. But he's caught and he'll get help and the kids at the school are okay and..."

"He was a teenager? Why would a teenager do that?"

"Oh, honey, I wish I knew. Why would anyone do anything like that? Why do people hurt each other? They'll find out reasons, I'm sure, and maybe they'll be sad reasons. There are always reasons why people do terrible things, but that doesn't make the things any less terrible, does it?"

"No. Not really. What kind of reasons?"

"Oh, babe. I don't know. Just reasons. Maybe someone hurt him. Maybe someone called him a name. That's why I always want you to be nice to everyone you meet. You never know if someone's having a bad day, if maybe you say something nice....maybe it'll help? You never know."

"Mommy, what if someone else bad comes to my school tomorrow? Will they hurt us?"

"No. Remember all the locks on the doors? And remember the policemen in the hallways? Like Officer Steve last year."

"And Officer Chris this year. He's really nice. He scared my teacher the other day and made her squeal!"

"Yes. Like Officer Chris, then. They're there to stop any bad guys, to keep them from hurting you crazy kids."

"Mommy, I don't understand why anyone would want to hurt us crazy kids."

"Me, either, baby. Here. Here's a tissue. Stop crying if you can. This story has an okay ending, right? The kids he hurt are going to be okay, and maybe someday he'll be okay too. Right?"

"Maybe. I wish it didn't happen."

"Me, too, baby."

"I wish we didn't have to have lockdown drills."

"Me, too, baby. But it's the world we live in, and remember...I'm always going to do my very best to keep you safe."

"I love you."

"I love you, too, honey. More than anything. More than the world."

"Hug?"

"Always and every day. I will always have a hug for you. Now smile, love, and go finish that book. Let Mommy worry about the bad guys. At least for today."

August 30, 2016

Suffering and Rage: the Controversy of a Children's Story

This is not what I want to be doing right now. Seriously.

I'd rather be relaxing, hanging out watching a show or reading a good book or doing something equally....quiet.

But while I was goofing around on the computer just now, I saw a tweet, which led to a web site, which wanted some rage from me, and I found that, on a subject on which I am rather well-educated (I know, right??), I actually had...none.

Here's the situation: a children's book came out in May to very modest reviews/rankings/etc. Called A Year of Borrowed Men, its author recounts her life during World War II in Germany, when she was but a tiny thing and her family lived on a robust farm in the German countryside. Since her father had been "borrowed" by the government (to go fight the war), three French prisoners of war were sent to the farm to work for her mother. 

But let's be honest here, and call it as it is. 

She lived on a farm with slaves that year. French slaves. Prisoners. Men who were unpaid, far from home, forced to work on her family's farm, reaping their crops, sowing their seeds.

So that's all clear, yes? They were slaves. She was a child, however, and certainly wouldn't have viewed them as such. Also, her mother went out of her way to act humanely to these prisoners, inviting them to eat with her at the family table, which (if we're being completely honest here, and I hope to be) could easily have resulted in imprisonment for the mom, and a huge loss for her family.

The author of the article that led me to this book, on Jewcy.com (ha!), argues vehemently that the book, lacking the context of the atrocities of WWII and the true experience of prisoners of war (not to mention all the Jews) during that time, is overly simplified. White-washing history, if you will. The author expresses anger. Outrage. Fury, even, that this little children's book, about kindness against all odds and finding friendship even in the most uncomfortable situations, talks about the "suffering" of German families during the war in which so many of my own kinsman were viciously murdered. 

Clearly, I should be pissed off, too, right?

The thing is...and I'm not sure what's going to happen to me for saying this...and maybe this is going to end my writing career right here and now...

...but I'm not angered by this book. 

Not at all, actually.

Let's unpack for a moment, shall we?

First off, World War II was a heinous war, and regardless of fault or the side of the war on which your country fell, the suffering was real. You know that stupid meme, the struggle is real? Yeah. That was the war, no matter who you were or where you lived. If you were alive at that time, your life was damn near impossible, all thanks to a massive, uncontrollable war. 

Millions of Jews: starving, dying, hurting, crying.
Millions of Germans: starving, dying, hurting, crying.
Millions of Japanese (particularly in August, 1945, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but that's an issue for another day): starving, dying, hurting, crying.
Millions of Allies: starving, dying, hurting, crying. 

Now, I don't care whose side you were on. Clearly clearly CLEARLY I believe wholeheartedly that Germany and Japan were at fault for what went down during those terrible years, but pain is pain and death is death, and the fact is: so many people died, I don't feel like you or I can begin to declare who suffered worst.

After all, is a little Jewish girl who's lost her entire family hurting that much more than a little German girl who's lost her entire family in an Allied bombing raid, or even simply her father and older brothers to a call of duty to their country? Is a small Japanese girl who's lost her father and brother to Kamikaze flights, and then endured radiation poisoning, hurting less than a British tot who's lost her mum and home to the Blitz?

Pain is pain and death is death, and innocence lost is never regained. 

All children suffer in wars, don't you think? Didn't we all just lose our minds with grief (and rightfully so) at the image of a small Syrian boy, covered in dust and blood, in the wake of a terrible bombing? 

Everyone suffers in wars, and the suffering is real.

This is a lesson I learned several years ago. I am educated, particularly about World War II. I've made it my life's work to understand what happened in Germany particularly, so afraid am I that it'll ever be allowed to happen again. I was smug, for a long time, in the knowledge that I got it. That I knew the Jews had it the worst during the war, and that I, an Ashkenazi Jew with family ties to Eastern Europe, owned a part of that pain. That it was my story, too, and that mine was the worst story out there. I was Jew, hear me suffer.

Then, my sister-in-law's family hosted a German high school student for a year. 

The student (also named Lea(h), though without the exceptionally important silent H) and I were getting to know each other the first time we met. Somehow the war came up. She grew silent, not meeting my eye, and at first I thought it was guilt that kept her from looking at me. 

But no. Her head hung low, and her beautiful face was stormy. 

"My grandmother was raped in the war," she said. "By Allied soldiers, after they took over her village."

Pain is pain and death is death, and innocence lost is never regained.

It rankles me anytime a person demeans another's suffering.

Rankles? 

No. It infuriates me.

Pain is pain and death is death, and who am I to judge whose pain is worse?

Look, friends. There's so much in the world to be angry about. So much pain. So much suffering. So much war right now. Let's all be mad about that, okay? Let's do what we can to stop that.

And let's not waste time arguing that a book isn't good enough simply because you don't think a little girl losing her father to war qualifies her to write a story of friendship in a time of darkness. 

I almost lost my dad to heart disease last week. I know firsthand right now the pain of a little girl missing her daddy. 

If anyone wants to reach out a hand to me, in friendship and love, I'll take that hand. And I'll let my child read a story of friendship, and the hell with historical context. Seven-year-olds don't always need historical context, and sometimes, history can take a backseat to love.

And that is what I believe about A Year of Borrowed Men.

July 12, 2016

Dear Lady Who Cursed At Me Outside Barnes & Noble Today

Dear lady who cursed at me outside Barnes & Noble today,

I feel as though I owe you an apology. I pissed you off. I stopped in front of the entrance to Barnes & Noble, blocking you from making a left into the parking lot. I know that. I do. I was ashamed of that fact before you drew close enough to yell. Perhaps you missed this, seeing as how you were the second of two blocked vehicles, and seeing as how I made you wait at least three extra minutes before you could make your turn, but I felt bad. So bad, in fact, I frantically mouthed "I'm sorry" to the driver of the car in front of you, who in turn waved and made a "no biggie" gesture. Perhaps, had you been first in line and seen my apology, I wouldn't have ruined your day.

You see, I feel bad. I stopped in a wonky way due to the big wreck at the intersection ahead of us. Maybe the flashing lights of the police car and firetruck got in my eyes and distracted me, or maybe the car in front of me simply didn't pull up as far as I expected him to. Either way, my blocking the entrance to the Barnes & Noble angered you deeply, and for that I am sorry.

I feel especially bad for the fact that your anger was so real. So visceral. I hate to think I could have made anyone feel that way. Plus, it appears you were late for something. Were you late for getting coffee from the Starbucks inside the bookstore? Or rather, based on your window being down on a 90 degree morning, was I making you late for the appointment to fix the air in your massive SUV? Either way, I'm guessing I was having a better morning than you. In fact, after you yelled at me, and after I comforted my eight-year-old daughter who was in the back seat with her best friend on their way to soccer camp, after her eyes filled with tears and she said, "Why did that lady yell at you, Mommy? What did you do?"my day got better. My next twenty-five minutes were filled with music and laughter as those same two little girls sang "Uptown Funk" at the tops of their lungs. We'll be okay, thanks for asking.

But back to you. You poor thing, bless your heart. Your air conditioner was possibly broken on a hot South Carolina morning. You were maybe late for an appointment. And there I was, blocking the entrance to Barnes & Noble, ruining your day.

One thing, though. You yelled, "You can't block the fucking intersection, you bitch." I take issue with one part of that. I wasn't, in fact, blocking an intersection. I was blocking the entrance to a shopping center. The intersection, as I mentioned earlier, was blocked by a fairly serious car wreck. Perhaps you didn't notice that. Maybe you were too stressed out.

Here's another thing, though. I'm not really a bitch. I didn't follow you into the parking lot to yell back at you (though I easily could have), and really, I wish you all the best. Like I said, it looked like you were having a rough day; I hope it improved after you vented to me. 

Oh. And here's the last thing you should know. You see, I'm a writer, and I can't always control the origins of my inspiration. Often, people and places in my life appear in my writing in all sorts of interesting ways. And let's be honest - you didn't make the best impression on me, in our three seconds of shared Earth. In fact, you hurt my feelings. I don't speak to people that way - ever - so it shocks me when people speak to me that way. You got under my skin enough that I'm still thinking of you, an hour later.

So it's likely you're going to appear somewhere, in something I write in the future. Based on our interaction, your portrayal is not likely to be a kind one. I write horror, and science fiction. I've recently watched a handful of interesting movies like Mad Max: Fury Road. I can already see a version of you, wanting to come out to play. In this version, you live in an arid, desert landscape. Your flesh, ample though it clearly was in real life, is drying out. Puckered. Scaly. Your hair falls out in sticky, stringy clumps. The beads of sweat collected on your lip in the comparatively balmy Charleston summer has taken on a milky tinge, and now that milky sweat coats your entire body. It creates sores where your skin folds over itself, sores so infected, so painful, they're like hot pokers digging into the flesh beneath your breasts. Your unshaven armpits. You smell of fish left too long in the sun, calling to the wake of vultures circling overhead. 

Or maybe you live in a world of the undead. Maybe it's time for me to revisit the zombies I love. Maybe, in this world, you and I? We're friends. Maybe we go way back to our idyllic childhoods in the northeast. Maybe we're on the run, together. But here's the thing with this picture: I'm smaller than you. I'm faster. I'm in such good shape it drives you crazy; you're jealous of my strong legs, my conditioned heart. 

Maybe, in this world, we're both starving. Maybe we're both tired from living on the run for so long. Maybe we're starting to fight.

Here's where things get ugly. Remember that I'm faster than you, okay? Maybe you drive us (our car still works in this scenario, our big, black, un-air-conditioned diesel-guzzling SUV) into a hotbed of zombie activity. Maybe you claim to have heard of a cache of food and weapons deep in the heart of the Charleston peninsula, and maybe things maybe won't end so well for you. Maybe the SUV finally runs out of gas, and we have to run for it, trying to escape the sagging-skin, torn-and-tattered, rotten-as-corpses zombies that are hot on our heels. Maybe you planned it this way, so you could finally leave me behind.

But as I said, I'm faster than you. I can run for hours if I need to. 

And all I'll hear, as I escape the zombie-horde, is the power of your lungs (so loud, they were, when they shouted at me this morning), as teeth bite into your ample, willing flesh, and you become a feast for the undead.

Again, I'm sorry about all this. I truly am. Bless your heart, you had no idea you were yelling at a writer this morning, did you? You had no idea you could be immortalized in my next story, an exaggerated, bastardized version of yourself that you may not recognize, but will exist in eternity nonetheless. I'm sorry for what I will do to you in the future, and again, I'm so sorry for blocking that silly entrance to Barnes & Noble. I'm sure I ruined your morning. I'll try not to do it again.

All the best, and lots of good wishes for a non-fictional future,

Leah