Sunday, January 29, 2017

Finding the Words Again

A long while ago, I was asked to speak at a women's retreat in Nevada City, California. It was the first time I had been asked and I am not much of a public speaker, but for some reason, I felt compelled to put myself in front of a group of women and talk about something I often had a hard time understanding myself.

I remember in preparation for the weekend, I wrote and re-wrote the words that I wanted to say so that they would convey simply and easily the message I felt I wanted to give to this particular group of women.

Of course, leading up to the day that I was to speak, I was growing increasingly anxious about the topic, the venue, the women in the room, what I would wear and even if I would be able to get through what I had to say without my neck becoming so blotchy it would prove to be a distraction. Just hours before I was to speak, I threw up a number of times in the wooded wonderland that was the retreat area.

I walked through the paths and trees trying to draw deep breaths and relax, all the while punctuating my meditation with retching. It wasn't pretty and it's a wonder I made it in front of the room at the end of the evening.

I remember pretty clearly getting to a point in my talk where I was sharing about a friend of mine who had recently passed away. I was embarrassed because even though I had practiced and practiced this part of my talk, I was becoming emotional as I relayed the story of Jody and her children and her fight against breast cancer, a fight she eventually lost.

I remember feeling like I needed to stop talking and just apologize and leave. But, I saw the faces of my friends in the first few rows, eyes welled up with tears along with mine and hands clenched in nervous empathy, and heads nodding, encouraging me on silently. It seemed like a long pause but it was probably only a moment, and I caught my breath and continued on with the story.

That's what these past few months have been for me as I've taken a break from blogging, though unannounced. I just have been overcome with emotion and wasn't sure I could continue on without completely breaking down and losing the message that I try to share with others. That loves wins. That good must triumph. That only compassion and generosity can combat pettiness and division.

So, since seeing the images of people being turned away from returning home to America, because they only had the audacity to be born elsewhere, despite their legal status and standing in society, I can no longer remain wordless, despite the threat of again being overwhelmed by sadness.

When a mother goes away on a business trip to represent the university she works at and speaks at a conference overseas, only to find she is barred from boarding the flight that will reunite her with her American born children...

When there is no warning but a lateral, sweeping motion that invalidates the human rights of a group based on religion, I can not pretend that it's not my problem because I don't live in America.

I grew up reading the stories of Anne Frank and Corrie Ten Boom, the heroes of a genocide that gave people the freedom to persecute a whole people group based on their religion. I grew up hearing the stories of my grandparents and their friends and families who hid Jewish children, smuggled documents, led the underground resistance against the regime that swept not just through its country of origin, but swiftly into neighbouring countries by force. I see the similarities though many would love to discount them. I wish I could.

And I remember that when I read their stories or watched a movie like Schindler's List or The Book Thief, I identified with the helpers, the heros, the martyrs. No one I know wants to identify with the Nazi sympathizers or even those who survived by keeping a low profile and not speaking out.

I remember when we lived in the USA, people around us would talk about "the immigrant issue" or the "problems with immigrants taking jobs from Americans". I would often quietly speak up and say, "Like us? We're Canadians. Here on a visa. Taking a job that could well have gone to an American citizen." and the slow realization on the faces of those speaking to us, who would hasten to say, "Oh no, we don't mean YOU, we mean Hispanic immigrants" ( although I promise you most times they didn't use such a politically correct reference.)  And I would say, "Oh, so because we're not brown or don't speak Spanish?" and it would get awkward and often I let it...because I can be an ass like that...and they would again often, laugh or smile, and say, "Yea, well, you blend in. And you speak English." and suddenly it was if we were on the same side of the argument, until again, the ass in me would rise up and I would say, "Those are my people."  Many times, this was the conversation stopper and as many times, I remember people walking away. (I'm really fun at parties, I promise!)

The interesting thing is, that when we lived in the USA, we learned a lot about our new country and the fundamental differences between our homeland and our new home. We learned that the USA has always considered itself a "melting pot" where immigrants come to America and are expected to blend in and add good to the pot but lose anything that makes them distinctly different. Language, culture and religion are meant to be melded into the already perfectly seasoned recipe that is "American".  Canada has always touted itself to be a "mosaic" where the colour and vibrancy of the diverse pieces that make up our people are celebrated as part of a greater whole. Now these are generalizations, of course, but they are sort of the underlying and accepted, though unwritten, expectations of immigration into our countries. As the father of a celebrated American war vet pointed out today, Americans still call immigrants "aliens"...something our family often made fun of about ourselves. If we didn't understand something culturally or historically, we would point out that we couldn't be expected to as we were "aliens".  Our two boys, just little,  could have been divided into "alien" and "all-American" using this criteria, simply by place of birth. Easton was born in the USA, just before 9/11 and was celebrated as our "American" boy.

The thing is, I have been looking back on that talk I gave in front of those women, all those years ago, and I realize that the subject I was struggling with then is one I still struggle with now. It was about understanding the big picture when our perspective is so very narrow and limited. Yet, I think that the lesson of that talk, even though I came to it and spoke it...that we are part of a bigger picture, one that just requires us to play our small role as we were designed to play it.  We can't shrink back because we feel we are insignificant to the bigger picture. We can't even let ourselves give up the littlest thing we feel compelled to be part of because we are afraid of failing. Or of being stopped. Or of paying the consequences of losing a job, losing a friend, or even losing our life.

The truth is, the closer we are to the issue, the narrower but more focused is our perspective. What I see in front of me is a group of people who I identify with because I was never a citizen in the country I lived in. I was there legally but could be made to leave at any time. Even having a child born in the US who lived there for his whole life, didn't entitle me to any rights of citzenship. I'm not saying it should, I'm just saying it didn't. So, I can't imagine the father who went out of the country on what was supposed to be a few days of work, that now can not return to his home or his family, despite having gone through all the legal channels and red tape and expenses to be entitled to. I know he's not thinking about the thousands he probably spent on an immigration lawyer or the day that he received his "green card"...he's thinking that he's missing tucking in his child, or a piano recital he had promised to be back for or even just family dinner, simply because someone with the power to do so, decided to enforce a measure that would keep him outside the gates of the land he now calls home, because he practices his Muslim religion or was born in a country where many do. And it's all so arbitrary on the part of a government claiming it has "no choice" and that the "chaos and confusion" are minimal. The "chaos and confusion" are what leads to insecurity and threats to safety...a well thought out plan would have included from the outset, those who hold visas, who have been "vetted" and deemed worthy by the amazing United States of America. How many of our forefathers in our relatively  new countries (excluding you, Australia...because...well....we know who was sent to colonize your country...) would have made it through the "vetting" process? And if it is a "pause to re-evaluate the lack of process"  which I would have little objection to...why doesn't it include Saudi Arabia (who had 15 American visa holding terrorists involved in 9/11)...or Egypt or United Arab Emirates...why the decision that those mostly Muslim countries don't face the same ban?  There's much to be said for the fight for human rights today. There's so many facets and falsehoods and flagrant violations...but it doesn't mean we get to despair and toss up our hands and give up. I don't get the "big picture" of this legislation nor do I get the perspective of those who fear anyone who doesn't resemble their image of "American".

We all have a voice in these days. In fact, we have more than a voice. We have our verbal voice to retell the stories and compel people to act in compassionate and loving ways in spite of the rhetoric and the seeming futility. We have social media and we have letters and we have our feet to march and our hands to raise and our homes to open and our lives to lay out for others. We must move forward with compassion and kindness though...regardless of the fight. It does not further peace to paint all Trump followers (or even the man himself) as throw away or racist or uneducated, nor for them to do the same painting us with their slurs.  The battle won't be won by name calling or generalizations.

What small things are you willing to do to fight injustice or to promote strength to the human rights of others who are suffering?   Add your voice. Speak up for others. Offer your services to those who are being discriminated against. Shut down the rhetoric of those who would use fear and religion as a tactic to incite people to discriminate against others. Live your life in a way that backs up your voice for peace and justice.

It's our time to speak up.
There must have been millions of Germans who watched the Nazis rise to power and think, "This is insanity but it can't possibly go on....someone will step in to stop him."  And by the time the world stepped in, millions were dead, simply because they practiced their religion or were affiliated with a people group.

Let's stop this so that people can call us hysterical or cry babies who don't like the President or bleeding hearts and crazy, irrational women and men who march for no good reason. Let's wear those names as the badges of honour that they are, coming from where they do. I will happily be called hysterical or dramatic, if it means people will wake up to where this type of discrimination leads. If I'm a crackpot or a crybaby, so be it... but I will err on the side of misplaced compassion over selfish inaction any day. And I know that there are a bunch of you who are just nuts enough to be part of that crazy club too.

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