I recently came across a great quote that feels so relevant today- Never mistake a clear view for a short distance.
It applies to so many things. I think the va…st majority of us KNOW that love, tolerance, compassion, and equality are our destination. Our view is clear and YET, sometimes, we might wonder, when the smoke or haze of some heart-rending injustice or horrific attack obscures that view, whether we are really looking in the right direction.
Rest assured, it is the right direction, for going down a path of hatred and intolerance is a short, dark road to a bad, bad place. We only need to look back in human history to see where roads like that lead.
The road we must travel is longer than we like. Humans are also terribly impatient- our individual life spans are short. I know we all think of the world we are leaving for future generations and want to have it all sorted out by the time they reach adulthood, and that feels so frustratingly far away. But if you take a moment to turn around and look back down the road of history, it will give comfort, even in times like these, because humanity truly has come so far. We have a lot to be collectively proud of and grateful to our forebears for.
So, take heart, friends. The view IS clear. We must maintain an unwavering gaze on a community, indeed, a planet, that is committed to tolerance, justice, and opportunity for all. Human beings are complicated animals- we can be selfless and caring, we can be cruel and destructive, but we also have the ability to CHOOSE. When we just goodness, we take a step in the right direction. And when we take those steps as a group, we bound down the road. And if we can all take those steps together, we will soar.
Never mistake a clear view for a short distance. Keep travelling friends, we are in this together. Love.
ps- I came across this wonderful quote in the book Machines of Loving Grace, by John Markoff. Markoff was quoting Paul Saffo, an engineer and technologist. The book is about the future of AI. It’s a great book looking far (perhaps not that far!) into a future where humans and AI work very closely together for the common good.
Another day, another horrific shooting. 14 dead. Or is it more? Wait another day, we’ll have a new stat. The news cycle goes into overdrive. How does the adage go- If it bleeds, it leads. Both sides move to their respective corners. (Some) gun “rights” activists stock up on ammo and ludicrously, get MORE guns. The majority of the country- those who support sensible gun control search for a weapon of our own- we know that adding more guns to the equation is like adding more gas to blazing fire. That route is paved in nothing but more bloodshed.
We’ve written, we’ve talked, we’ve pleaded. We have shown charts, statistics, the tear streaked faces of families devastated- broken forever by the entirely preventable carnage that has been laid at their feet.
What we haven’t done and as much as pains me to suggest it, what I think we should do is show the photos. We have become a country that judges not on substance- who has the time to listen to a long speech on gun control and the success that Australia has had? No one- the Kardashians are on at nine.
Photos work. Whether the flag draped coffins returning home from Iraq, the humiliated prisoners from the same war, the burned child running from Napalm in Vietnam, or the wrenching images of living skeletons in striped uniforms from Auschwitz. Iconic photos have brought change. We are visual creatures and these photos have forced us to look at our culpability.
We have heard the stats- more mass shootings than days in the year, this year. We need to see the photos. Stalin famously said that one death was a tragedy, a million a statistic. Photos transform statistics into real people- into lives lost and potential cut short. What I am asking burns my soul. I wouldn’t ask it except that I’m desperate. I don’t want another child or teen or adult for that matter- not another innocent person to suffer a preventable death at the muzzle of gun in the hands of someone who shouldn’t have had access to them. I know we won’t eliminate all the deaths, but we can make a significant, measurable difference.
Photos will do it. I know they will. I am asking the parents, the loved ones, those left behind to do the bravest, most selfless thing imaginable. I know it will sear their hearts and open the forever sensitive wounds, but I know it will make a difference. Without a doubt, it will save lives.
Show the world the damage that large caliber bullets do. Show the NRA the carnage they have wrought on this country. Show the blood. Show the lifeless eyes and the tiny bodies twisted from impact. Show the teachers who have died shielding defenseless, terrified students.
Many of the families have never seen the photos themselves- but I know they are out there. Police officers, paramedics, doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers, social workers, and survivors are already walking around with these images stored away in lead-lined boxes tucked far back in their minds. Like soldiers home from battle, they must carry these memories with them everyday for the rest of their lives. It’s not fair to let them do it alone. Not when we can save lives by bringing them to light.
We need to see them. Every NRA member or politician still defending this madness should have their lawns blanketed with them. Mass shootings, suicides, preventable (aka “accidental”) shootings, domestic violence- the list goes on. Put them out there- lay them at our feet. Like the AIDS quilt in the late 80’s- just the sheer size will change us forever. I KNOW we have the capacity to change. The NRA has been banking on us being overwhelmed by the magnitude of the issue. Well, we can overwhelm them. We can create a tsunami. We can create a momentum that no amount of heartless profiteering can overcome.
I thought Sandy Hook was going to do it. For me, my imagination was enough. As a mother- I could see it. When I closed my eyes, I could imagine the horror of those terrible minutes. Now, at my child’s school, when I notice the blackout shades, or when I walk into a movie theater- I close my eyes and can imagine the fear and horror of it. But it’s not enough. My imagination has always been more vivid than most.
So, as a parent, a daughter, a friend, and a citizen of this country- knowing that what I ask is more than I have a right to, I am asking the families of victims to post the photos.
By holding this mirror up to our collective madness, by showing the awful, deadly truth- I believe it will finally galvanize us to action. It will set us free from the deadly addiction that the NRA has coaxed us into accepting as the status quo. Post the photos and may whatever god you believe in have mercy on our souls.
I woke up early today thinking about the terrible events in Paris- thinking about both the terror and grief, but also the remarkable courage of the Parisians that took to the street and bravely held signs saying, “Not Afraid.” The heart of Paris will not be cleaved in two by this event nor any other.
I love Paris, though I have only had the good fortune to visit a few times. It is a city of light, of beauty, of fierce independence, and I wish I could say that because I lived there in my 20’s and studied at the Sorbonne, but I will have to leave that to my daughters. My conviction in Paris’s resilience and courage comes from another passion of mine- I am a history buff and particularly a reader of the history of war. Paris has seen A LOT of war, a lot of deprivation, a lot of cruelty. It has been devastated, starved, beaten, and brutalized on numerous occasions throughout history and has always recovered. Vibrantly. Fiercely. Courageously.
Whatever terrible, murderous, cowards are responsible for this- ISIL or otherwise, they should know that they will never, EVER break Paris. They may have inflicted a grievous, heartrendingly sad wound, but they did it to a city that has taken much, much worse and has come back better for it. Liberty. Equality. Fraternity. It’s not a casual motto- it is a deep and meaningful identity. It is in France’s DNA and cannot be taken from it.
My heart is weeping for Paris and for the innocent lives shattered and ended by these cowardly attacks. I am thinking of the generation of young children, children who are close to the age of mine perhaps, whose lives will be forever imprinted with this terrible event- the fear, the horror, but I know they will also witness the bravery of their countrymen and see a city united to beat back terror and stand bravely against it.
Last evening, I was standing with someone who commented that they could understand the perspective of right-wing extremists (meaning: isolationist, nationalist, ant-immigrant, xenophobic) when something like this happens. They said, “I don’t condone it but I understand it.” To which I replied, “You are applying a simple answer to a complex problem.” As not just France, but the world grapples with how to combat this cowardly, vicious menace, we must remember to adhere to the ideals and beliefs that built these great cities, whether Paris, London or New York. We must embrace and use them as the foundation of our response, not just in times of peace, but in the dark times too.
Paris, you are a bright light of beauty and bravery in this world, but above all you are a city that embodies the humanity that defines us. You inspire the world. No terrorist attack will ever extinguish that.
My parental friends, can we please participate in a little collusion? A little organized action. I mean, we aren’t unionized, so “big birthday” can’t come after us, right? Although I have a healthy fear of clowns (thanks to Stephen King), I feel safe enough taking them on. And I know, deep down, you want to too.
Here’s what I’m talking about- yearly birthday parties. Every. Damn. Year. It’s too much. Can’t we all agree to just go every other year? I propose that A – L takes the even years and M – Z takes the odd years. We’ll make exceptions for sweet sixteens and quinceaneras. Voila- between presents for the parties our kids attend and throwing a party, we’ve probably saved a $1,000 per family a year. Then, put that money in their college account or spend it on yourself. You probably deserve a nice date night or ten!
This year, when our girls turned 8, we did a “family party.” This used to be an acceptable way to mark a kid’s birthday, and indeed- the most common “party” a kid had, but now- with the birthday party arms race that has sprung up- the family party has been replaced by the institutional party machine- bouncy houses, climbing walls (we are guilty of this one), bowling, trampolines, gymnastics, mobile video game trucks, professional laser tag, pony rides- there is no limit because with everyone throwing parties, all the kids have done all the activities. It’s gotten completely out of control. Six year olds are having more elaborate birthday parties than I have ever had and I’m forty years old.
I know it’s a losing battle to ask everyone to restrain themselves from throwing these parties- that would be like asking everyone to go back to riding horses. Cars are here to stay and so are these birthday parties. We’re just as guilty- we did a party at a climbing gym when our girls were 4 years old! Four. Years. Old. I must have been mental. But I’ve come to my senses! I am calling for moderation! A truce- let’s just tone it down a teensy-weensy bit.
I make this plea with tongue in cheek, but I do think there is a serious side to it. What is left for a young person who turns 16 or 18 or 21 when they’ve “been there, done that” at all the great birthday venues by the time they are 10 or 12? The only thing I haven’t seen at a kids party is a bartender (and maybe if a little booze was served up for the parents, I wouldn’t be so over it).
Chatting with another mom awhile back, she protested that her daughter would be disappointed if she didn’t have one of these IPC (Industrial Party Complex) parties. That all her friends had them. My thoughts were in rapid succession- 1) Getting used to disappointment is one of the most valuable skills you can teach, and 2) How many more times are we going to hear that excuse as our kids grow up? I mean, I have probably said the one about “If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you?” ten times already. Disappointment is part of being a kid. I WANT them to move out someday- we can’t make it too much fun to live at home.
Also, I’d like to say that our family party was really fun. We put up crepe paper streamers (the remnants are still hanging from the ceiling), had chocolate fondue instead of cake, and got to relax and enjoy ourselves- there was no 2-hour turn around on the room. Admittedly, I may have gone slightly overboard on things to dip in the chocolate fondue- we probably didn’t need donut holes, marshmallows, angel food cake, AND brownies… but I’m still getting used to toning it down too. (Side note: Angel food cake is THE BEST. Donut holes are surprisingly meh.)
A final, perhaps too radical, thought. I’m also an advocate for the “no presents/no goody-bag” party. I mean, I know I don’t live in Seattle anymore (being eleven whole miles outside of it) but I still love the sweet granola crunch of consuming less. (Sure, my eastside house is twice the size of the house we lived in, in Seattle- but we moved FOR THE SCHOOLS!) I know your kid doesn’t need the present we got at Target 45 minutes before the party and my kid doesn’t need a bunch of candy and crappy toys that I am going to surreptitiously throw away after they go to bed. The unicorn ride and custom, monogrammed cupcakes that you served at the party were treat enough.
I am not above admitting that I love a good barbecue on Memorial Day and for most Americans it signals the start of summer. There is something quintessentially American about gathering in the backyard or at a park, along with six-tons of picnic and barbecue equipment, food to feed 10x the number of people expected- no matter if it’s six or sixty, a combination that almost guarantees cleanup may take longer than the event itself.
Kids run around getting sunburned, burning off the wild energy that ferments inside them like yeast as they anticipate the end of the school year. Parents and friends stand around with cold beers, tending burgers on the grill and talking about their own plans for summer- maybe a trip to the lake, or Disneyland, or a road trip to see far-flung relatives.
I can imagine the men and women we are honoring on Memorial Day standing around the edge of these picnics and barbecues across America, in a very Field of Dreams sort of way, insubstantial as ghosts, but tightly ranked, as if all craning for a look. Asking themselves, was their sacrifice worth it? Did they enable the kind of Memorial Day picnic that they would like to attend- relaxed, fun, filled with good food and friends? Yes and yes. I imagine the soldiers nodding with satisfied smiles and fading away, allowing other curious ghosts a chance to observe. We are so lucky to be able to enjoy a carefree start to our summers, with Memorial Day symbolizing the peace and security that we are so fortunate to enjoy year-round.
That being said, we have a responsibility to not just enjoy the benefits of their sacrifice, but to understand those sacrifices- both on an individual and collective level. Particularly as the generations that experienced WWI, WWII, and even the Vietnam War leave this world- their memories of war, sacrifice, personal and national suffering, and loss are harder to find. Those experiences settle entirely into pages or images- no longer vivid stories held in an individual’s mind. Remembering becomes learning. Understanding is not a matter of recollection but of reflection. If we do not actively seek them out, they will fade from our consciousness entirely.
For a number of years, I have made a point of reading war stories- fiction, non-fiction, the Civil War, the Revolutionary war, WWI, WWII, love stories, tragedies, stories of soldiers, leaders, the families left at home or caught in the middle. I feel passionately that it’s important for us to do this. I think it is our duty- like proper funding for veteran care (but that’s another blog post…). I have four recommendations for this Memorial Day- pick up or download one of these today. You don’t have to start reading it today- but make a point to read one of them. Or read something else- there are thousands of worthy books- I’m not even trying to pick the most famous, just a few that I have read recently that I enjoyed and recommend.
The Girls of Atomic City, by Denise Kiernan, is the fantastic true story of a secret city, Oak Ridge, that was built in Tennessee in WWII as part of the Manhattan project. Its role? Enrich uranium for the atomic bomb, or the gadget, as it was referred to at time. What I love about this book- in addition to learning about the extraordinary, mind-boggling effort that went into the production of enriched uranium, is the intimate look into the toll war took on the American psyche. The level of secrecy, control, and commitment required at Oak Ridge is Orwellian and yet, was accepted by all without so much as a bat of the eye. That tells you something about the magnitude of war in a way that few other stories do. This book demonstrates how the war effort permeated every particle of a person’s life like smoke from campfire- it was embedded in the fabric of life in a way that people of younger generations can scarcely imagine. The book is engaging- telling the story both of the project itself and the workers through the eyes of women who made up of the majority of workers at this vast city- so large, that at its peak, the project was consuming more electricity that New York City. It’s a must read.
All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, is an entirely different sort of book. Fiction, set in France during WWII, it is a searingly beautiful story about a blind French girl and a German boy who’s paths are inexorably drawn together by the advance and devastation of the war. This book is a beautifully written account of life in war time interwoven with love, hope, loss, fear, and redemption.
Dead Wake, by Erik Larson, is a masterful telling of the story of the sinking of the Lusitania and of America’s entrance into the first world war. Like Larson’s previous work, The Devil in the White City, this book brings history to life through careful research and reconstruction of the events, and by employing the voices of those who were involved or impacted by the disaster.
1776, by David McCullough, is the story of one year (you can guess which one) in the birth of our nation, and tells the story of the beginning of the Revolutionary War. David McCullough is a master story-teller and a brilliant historian. We would be well-served to just toss out conventional history books and learn through reading his riveting books. This story brings the lives of soldiers during the Revolutionary War to life and is an eye-opening look at how precarious the American cause was at the beginning of the war. You will have newfound respect for the founding fathers and of the war fought to gain American independence.
As I said, these books are just a few that I have enjoyed recently and that, in addition to being entertaining, serve the real and important purpose of keeping the past alive- helping us to develop a sense of understanding and respect for the sacrifices made by soldiers in defense of the freedoms that we enjoy today.
So, definitely, have a burger and beer today and post a flag or a remembrance on Facebook, but don’t let that be the end. Don’t stop there. Read about our past. Learn, understand, and respect the sacrifices that have made it all possible.
With gratitude to all who have served and lost their lives this Memorial Day.