Skittles and Fish

Some things stay the same. I believe I’ve mentioned this before. Even though time does the only thing it can, never stopping, always marching on, some things stay the same. In March, I wrote about refugees having become such a hot issue in the furious clamor of our presidential campaign. We have since gone from a fractious and divisive campaign to… well, to… to now. Little has changed.

“… closing the borders, sending people back to where they came from, for example. Can anyone have a civil conversation on that subject? I wonder. I know people who are working with refugee resettlement agencies, helping war refugees — refugees from bombing and fires and knives and threats and killings, who have lived in refugee camps for years and years, in tents or temporary shelters with freezing winter huddle-around-a-fire misery or desert scorching hot blazing-sun misery, relieved to be out of mortal danger but living in uncertainty and frustrated with slow-molasses bureaucracy and hopeful, ever hopeful of a life where they can work and raise their children in peace. “

In Bulgaria, near the Turkish border on the ragged fringe of the desperate struggle toward Europe, refugee camps are anything but peaceful or hopeful. “Police in Bulgaria have fired tear gas and water cannon at refugees protesting about restrictions on their movement after authorities barred them from leaving the area where they stay pending medical checks.” 1 The article goes on to say that “some 13,000 refugees, mostly from Afghanistan, are currently trapped in the European Union’s poorest country.” Increasingly, Bulgarians are feeling threatened by the presence of refugees in their country. After the riots at the camp, the UN has urged Bulgaria to “improve living conditions… and establish a constructive dialogue with asylum-seekers.” 2

In Germany and other Western European countries, after so famously accepting anyone and everyone for refuge, pressure and tensions are mounting, and accusations escalate. And here in America, in Minnesota, even after the US picks out the best bets by screening refugees while they live in refugee camps for years, some Somali refugee student, no, psychopath, no, radical terrorist, no, I don’t know, (damn, without a label how do I know what to believe about him?) swerves into a crowd and starts attacking people with a knife. The President-elect had an immediate answer, via Twitter, that the guy “should not have been in this country.”

GhotiA poisoned Skittle, that’s the argument. You’ve heard that one, I’m sure. An interesting Forbes article makes the case that, given a sufficiently large bowl, poisoned Skittles are safer than seafood. “The real issue here clearly is food safety, and acceptable levels of risk.” (Go ahead and read that article. I’ll wait… Oh, all right, here’s the recap. 16.8 billion seafood meals a year, making 589,310 people sick: each meal presents a 0.0035% chance of getting sick.) If you like seafood, you accept the risk. Same concept for traveling: the benefits, for most people, so far outweigh the risk that they travel without dwelling on all the things that could go wrong and result in the worst outcome, which is usually something involving a smoldering tangle of metal and billowing plumes of thick black smoke. I like to travel. Every conceivable action that offers a benefit carries a risk. What to do? We deal with it.

Deal with it. We deal with risk every day, for the good that comes from our decisions.

In Colorado alone, we accept 2,000 refugees a year. That’s more than the per-state average, since the U.S. has taken in about 70,000 a year since 2013 (more before then, with a peak of twice that in 1993). 3 If you don’t want to go to the article, there’s a recap down below in the footnotes. 4 I bring up Colorado because that’s where I live, and because I have a personal interest in the quality of life here. Remember now, these are people who are fleeing from war — real war — and it is with the spirit of the Statue of Liberty that we want to help them. That is the benefit: to be human, to live in consonance with high ideals and a spirit of charity and love (sometimes gratuitously called “Christian” or “Judeo-Christian” ideals, charity and love). It’s the same reason we have charities and nonprofits, churches, veterans’ groups and government social services: to help those who need it. For a better quality of life for all.

I do a little work with refugees and asylum seekers in Denver. I have met people from Somalia, Rwanda, Burma, Nepal, Cuba, Congo-Kinshasa, Afghanistan, Iraq, and yes, Syria. These are people who fled with or without their families from terrorism, war, torture, bombs, gunfire, rocket attacks. Some were threatened with death, or had relatives killed, for cooperating with the U.S. Most have been stuck in refugee camps for two years or more, some as long as 18 years. In my mind I have run two scenarios for how they are treated and how it affects the way they will integrate into our society and contribute positively to it. One is to isolate them and keep them apart from the rest of us, in hopes that they will not be a danger to our schools and communities. Scowl at them in the grocery store, spray-paint messages on their doors, throw rocks. What the heck, tear gas and water cannons. The second way (you might guess) is to see that they learn our language and get job training so they can start working their way to a useful and rewarding life. I’ve thought about which way will make them better neighbors.

It’s kind of like being careful what fish you eat, and how they’re prepared. If I’m going to eat seafood, after all, I want it to be good.

Going Back

We’re going back! Toward the end of October. It’s just for a week, but it will be the first time Stormy and I will have returned to Bulgaria since we went back to celebrate at The Ball in 2004. Memories rush back as we think of what it was like when we were there, and we’re looking forward to seeing some of the people we knew. There is a little trepidation as well. We’re twelve years older now for one thing, maybe a bit slower, and the resilience we relied on as volunteers may have ossified a little. Bulgaria will have changed too; we hope we’ll still be able to get around with what remains of our old familiarity. The language we learned has been packed away like an old souvenir up on a high shelf in the spare bedroom closet. There are Bulgarian phrases and random words that rattle around in my head from time to time, but they’re not much more than in a tourist phrasebook. Still, it’s exciting to be traveling to that place that means so much to us.

As a side benefit, it will be a respite from the yammering back-and-forth cynicism and hateful diatribes of our current political process (though don’t get me wrong our democracy is perfect and a model for the world and we should export it everywhere even if by force oops no I mean be a shining example of how a country should be governed). I hope the subject won’t come up. I do recall, though, how I was mercilessly held to account for U.S. foreign policy in 2003 by my eleventh-graders and by strangers on the street, about the events broadcast on BTV and CNN, red and white and orange flashes in the dark sky and American soldiers pulling down statues of Saddam Hussein while Iraqi fighters shed their uniforms on the run and melted into the night. It was the first-ever American preemptive strike, setting the “America will never” bedrock military principle afire and leaving it to smolder in the ruins of another country. They thought we were doing it for oil. Our country, in the eyes of the old-line European countries with so many more centuries behind them, was looked upon as a two-year-old having a tantrum. A two-year-old with bombs.

Lady Liberty Crying

From friend Chasen’s Facebook page. I don’t know where he found it.

One might have thought we would have grown up as a country since then, having been through such perilous times and so many challenges. I wrote last month about the severe divisions we Americans are feeling these days as our elections approach; drawing closer to November the acrimony has only intensified. Looking at the picture of Lady Liberty, I know that many of my friends will have different ideas about why she’s crying. I hope to put it aside for a while, or if I can’t do that I might find a new perspective.

As in our own beautiful country, Bulgaria has lots of beautiful places that we enjoyed while we were working there, with mountains and seashore, forests and fascinating cities, towns and villages. As it is with life wherever we find ourselves, it was the people — the real human contact — that made it so great to be there. We’re looking forward to seeing our Bulgarian family, school colleagues, former students and neighbors, who made such a difference in our lives with their open and generous spirit.

We won’t get to see everyone, of course. My former students are scattered all over now, in their professional and family lives all over the world. People move on, and some will never cross our paths again. I remember so fondly the brash young guy in my classroom, who later apologized on behalf of himself and his classmates for giving me such a hard time (he said they called it climbing on my head). He was the one who set our goal of coming back for the Graduation Ball. Warm memories, forever locked in time. His name was Georgi. Our hearts were touched, time and time again, right up to the day we left.

A little after midnight, we said our goodbyes. One of my students, Maria, gave me a little slip of paper from her family’s Easter bread, with Kusmet, Good Luck, written on it. She wrote her name on the back, with her class number and “I won’t forget you.”
     — Breeze, p. 337

I still have that little slip of paper in my wallet.

Life Artist

Trump.

Clinton.

Your Vote CountsIf you are like some people I know, one of those names throws you into paroxysms of loathing, disgust, or rage. If that’s true for you, everything you read and hear confirms that you are right. If (that name) prevails in November, life will be unbearable. Everything that happens for years after that will demonstrate to you that you were right all along.

“You have a confirmation bias!”

“No I don’t! You do!”

“See? I told you so!”

I have friends and brothers who stand on one side of that divide, and friends and brothers who stand on the other. I do not think their thoughts.

“Out of the cacophony of suffering and chaos that can mark human life, the life artist sees or creates a symphony of meaning and order. A life of wholeness does not depend on what we experience. Wholeness depends on how we experience our lives.”
     ― Desmond Tutu

Life artist. A life artist. What does it take to be an artist? My sister is an artist, a real one in the usual sense of the word. She paints and draws with passion and intelligence. She teaches art too, has for years. Our dad used to ask her when she’d get a real job, not just making pictures. She knew all along, though, that what she was doing was important and rewarding. She would open new worlds for young people, one after another after another. She would save some kids’ lives. With art. Her art.

In recent months she has faced some big challenges — you know, that C-thing — meeting them head-on with passion and intelligence. That was when I started to notice her mastery as a life artist. She decided what to do (what picture to paint) and started by assembling the tools to do it. Some art projects need charcoals, paint, canvas and brushes; others need medicine, instruments and machinery, a healthy diet, rock-solid belief and gritty determination. Both need vision, seeing beyond what is to what can be. I see a pattern here. Attitude.

“We cannot change our past…we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude…I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it. And so it is with you… we are in charge of our attitudes.”
     ― Charles R. Swindoll

I admire my sister the artist. She takes the 10% and smothers it with the 90%. Kills it.

We're All Screwed 2016We’re all screwed! Ha, funny little thing to say, or is it your belief? I don’t want this to be the attitude I choose. No matter what happens in November, I will still live my life. Do you really think we’re all gonna die, or that you’ll have to defend your home against marauding (that name again) supporters? C’mon. We’re friends. We love the same country.

I remember not-so-many words from all the countless sermons I have heard in oh-so-many church services over oh-so-many years. Some of those long-remembered words (I was about ten, but sixty-some years later I can still hear Fr. Herbert’s voice) are these:

Two men looked out from prison bars.
One saw mud; the other, stars.

I want to be a life artist. It’s a real job, and it’s about attitude, choosing my own attitude. I choose how I experience my life.

And, oh yes, I vote.