“You need to choose the sword you fall on.”
Those words rang in my ears as I walked back through my office doors.
They hadn’t been said in warning. They were simply the last bits of a conversation with a wise woman who was commenting on my tendency to either push back or push the envelope, challenge the status quo and speak out loudly about my beliefs.
And yet, the words seemed to take on a shape of their own and drift behind me as I braced myself for my next challenge.
Don’t get me wrong.
I’m a firm believer that challenges are great for character development. But they can also be senseless and tragic when created by one group of people against another group of people.
And more and more, that’s the type of challenge I face on a daily basis.
Earlier in the week, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) officers conducted raids in my community and took numerous individuals into custody.
For some people, that just means they were following the law. For others, it demonstrates how a complex and outdated immigration system is hurting our fellow human beings. And for some hateful and spiteful individuals, it means that “foreigners” and “illegal aliens” are getting what they deserve.
But to people like me and my colleagues, it means families are being torn apart.
It means children are losing a parent.
It means people who have escaped desperate situations and horrific conditions are losing hope, struggling to navigate a complicated and bureaucratic system and living in fear that they will never see their loved ones again.
And it means that the challenges my colleagues and I face every day aren’t as simple as ensuring that families have housing, food and enough money to pay the utility bills.
The challenges aren’t as simple as advocating for immigrant rights or educating the community about the complicated immigration system in our country.
They aren’t even as simple as ensuring that teachers understand that a spirited debate about “illegal” immigration isn’t helpful when you forget that the child in the back of the room has a father who has just been deported.
The challenges we face aren’t simple because matters of the heart are never simple.
And the art of living with people who have different ideas, different skin colors, different religions, different beliefs and different histories is a matter of the heart.
Unfortunately, my heart has been breaking a little more each time I hear, read or witness another senseless attack on someone who is simply struggling to exist.
Which is the reason I’ve been sharpening that proverbial sword I was warned about.
My sword isn’t intended to hurt people, but, when it’s used correctly, it sometimes does.
That’s because swords were designed for fighting.
My sword is comprised of the words I write about the truth as I see it. My colleagues have their own swords built on experience, education and passion. And all of us are using our swords to fight against injustice and to defend hearts that can easily break in today’s heated attacks on minorities, the poor and the undocumented.
We may trip and fall on our swords by accident, but there is no doubt that we will ever regret the fight.
Amid the multitude of facts, opinions and news stories whirling around Donald Trump’s latest bizarre, unprecedented and seemingly self-serving action (that would be the firing of FBI Director James Comey if you aren’t even sure to which of his latest actions I am referring), one piece of the story has lingered with me.
I just can’t shake the image of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer hiding in the bushes to avoid a direct confrontation with reporters seeking more information.
I have no doubt my obsession is linked to a memory from my childhood and my need to uncover the truth.
My story begins when my parents purchased our house in a rural, Central Oregon town As part of the transaction, they had gotten a history from the seller, whose family had been the original owners. According to my mom, the seller’s father had “died in the bushes.”
I was six years old at the time, and the line of ornamental bushes that spanned the front of the house ran directly under my bedroom window. For months I was obsessed with the fact that a man had died in those bushes.
I would crawl under them trying to find any sign of either a dead body or, at least, some indication that a man had spent his last moments there. Even though I got nothing, I kept searching in hopes that some clue as to the man’s fate would emerge.
Then one day, my mom found me in the bushes and asked what I was doing.
“You said the man who used to live here died in the bushes,” I told her with all of the solemness that first-grade me could muster.
She had no idea what I was talking about. Only later did I discover that she had used the term “in the bushes” as a euphemism for alcoholism.
I’m now fifty years old, and I’ve never heard anyone else use that term in that way. But that doesn’t matter.
What does matter is that the term “in the bushes” has stuck with me for 44 years because it represents my passion for always pursuing the truth.
Which is why Sean Spicer ducking into the bushes to avoid facing reporters is not only completely ironic, it is more revealing than any lie Donald Trump could ever tell.
People in the public eye want to tell their side of the story. They want to share their opinions and the opinions of those they represent. They want to show evidence of what happened in the bushes and why it happened.
Unless, of course, the bushes are just a way of hiding the truth… be it the ugly truth of an addict who succumbed to a disease or that of an unqualified businessman who bedazzled voters with his wealth, his double speak, and his complete disregard for the truth.
But here’s the thing: when six-year-old me finally got the real facts from my mom, I stopped wasting my time under bushes and decided to devote more time to climbing trees.
Because when you climb trees, your perspective is so much better than the one you get crawling under (or hiding in) a bush.
And not only can you see what is actually occurring around you, you are also putting yourself out in the open for everyone else to see.
And that is what truth is all about.
Like many Americans, I had a visceral reaction to photos of Sarah Palin’s visit to the White House last week. (See Washington Post article.)
But my reaction wasn’t about how she, Ted Nugent and Kid Rock were disrespectful as they posed in front of the picture of Hillary Clinton as first lady. It wasn’t even about how hateful Ted Nugent is or how incredibly clueless Sarah Palin is (as evidenced by the flippant comment she made that she invited the musicians to dinner because Jesus wasn’t available.)
Instead my reaction was rooted in something I’ve carried with me since childhood. As an eight-year old girl, I wondered why boys who could barely read but acted tough were the ones all the other kids flocked to on the playground. In middle school, I suffered the wrath of mean girls, girls who were considered “popular,” because I was smart and actually cared about my education. And in high school, I rolled my eyes as class elections were always based less on which candidate was more capable and more on which candidate was the most fun.
Then I went to college and entered a reality in which the social pecking order had little place in a world where people wanted to broaden their horizons. Being smart counted. Being educated counted. Discussing ideas instead of other people counted. Understanding abstract concepts, diverse opinions and multiple possibilities counted. Most importantly, living a non-superficial life counted.
Or so I thought.
Between college and graduate school, I witnessed women purposely marry men for money and status. But I still appreciated my own independence and ideals, and I presumed other people respected me for it. After I had children, I endured social circles that centered around who could afford the best pre-schools and expensive houses in elite neighborhoods. But, I surrounded myself with people who realized that happiness doesn’t come from what we have but from what we create. And even as I watched my peers climb a corporate ladder, I knew that the work I did in social service agencies mattered. If nothing else, it had helped me value programs, services and policies that didn’t necessarily benefit me but did help individuals who hadn’t had the same opportunities.
I was well-educated, intelligent, and hard-working, and I assumed those qualities were widely respected.
Then John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate in the 2008 presidential election, and I felt as though I was right back on that elementary school playground. When a colleague asked, “Don’t you want our leaders and politicians to be smarter than you?” I realized many Americans didn’t. They just wanted to hear someone spout rhetoric that made them feel good about their own beliefs.
But, when McCain lost and the Obama administration spent eight years implementing policies and programs often intended to help our most vulnerable citizens and resources, I forgot about my disappointment.
Then Trump happened.
Shortly after he was elected, the pundits began to talk about how so many Americans were fed up with the “liberal elite,” and I realized that some people considered me to be one of those individuals.
I may be liberal and many of political beliefs may be rooted in my education, but I’m certainly not elite or an elitist. I’ve spent most of my adult life fighting for people to have the same opportunities I did. And yet, so many people who didn’t have those opportunities, especially those who fought and succeeded in building a good life, are voting to ensure that few others are given the opportunities. They even complain that they “gasp” have to pay taxes that benefit other people. The attitude almost seems to be one of “as long as I get what I want or need, I have no obligation to help others. They need to help themselves.”
Which brings me back to Thursday and Sarah Palin’s now well-publicized visit to the White House. As the photos started making the rounds on social media, so did the nasty comments. I saw several that made reference to “white trash,” a pejorative term usually used to describe white southerners of low social class. And even though I didn’t think these comments were necessarily appropriate, I totally understood where they were coming from.
They were coming from all of us who were picked last for teams during elementary school gym class because the boys who didn’t care about books were the captains. They were coming from those of us who actually studied for the test and then allowed the popular kid who sat behind us to cheat from our paper because we knew the consequences if we didn’t. They were coming from those of us who knew we would never get a job because of how we looked. They were coming from those of us who don’t hate people because of their religion, the color of their skin or their gender, who don’t believe more guns make us stronger and who don’t think that belittling others should make us popular.
They were coming from those of us who are disgusted that our country is now being controlled by the school yard bullies, the mean girls, and the people who think material possessions are a measure of personal value. They were coming from those of us who believe accomplishments and respect, not self-indulgent behavior and mean-spirited rhetoric, should be the ticket to a White House dinner.
So even though using the words “white trash” is not necessarily kind or even appropriate, it is accurate in describing the rude, white people who had dinner with President Trump on Thursday.
In fact, those two words are certainly more fair than almost everything else happening in the White House these days.
We’ve all been there.
We’ve had friends in relationships that we know are unhealthy for them.
To us, the problem is so obvious: our friend is being manipulated, or lied to, or charmed by money, good looks, popularity or power.
We know that our friend is being used by someone who doesn’t have his/her best interests at heart, and we try to warn them.
But they don’t want to hear what we are saying. “The relationship is special – you just don’t understand,” they tell us. “They are in love,” they say. And sometimes they even accuse us of being jealous.
When the relationship falls apart, our friend asks, “why didn’t anyone warn me?” And, because we care about our friend, we stifle the “I told you so,” and support then in their time of need.
Recently, I realized how many Trump supporters are like those friends in bad relationships. I’ve read articles about how the more we try to be rational, the more the more they cling to their presidential choice. Trying to argue using facts is pointless when they trust only information that affirms their own belief system.
They are so wrapped up in their sense of triumph, winning, and ideology that they refuse to see who Trump really is, how little he cares about other people, and how he is using lies to appease his base of support.
In other words, staunch Trump supporters are still in the honeymoon phase of their new, yet dangerous, relationship.
But in this case, I can’t accept that I will someday be forced to stifle an “I told you so.” That is simply unacceptable.
Unlike other relationship choices, this one not only affects me but has a devastating impact on those who have lived their lives trying to overcome poor relationships with people in power.
Individuals who have been marginalized because of their race, religion, sexual orientation or even country of birth have too often been on the losing end of bad relationships.
And since many of the individuals who chose that relationship for them are actually delighting in those struggles, I must say this to Trump supporters:
- I’m done trying to convince you that you are being manipulated.
- I will no longer warn you that our President does not have your best interests at heart.
- And when things go south, I will not say “I told you so,” nor will I expect you to say “thank you” for all I did to try to save you from this relationship.
Instead, knowing that I fought hard for everyone, despite their bad decisions, will be good enough for me.
I admit my emotions are still raw after Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States on Tuesday night. And yes, I’ve cycled through the stages of grief: disbelief to sadness to anger to acceptance then back to anger.
And then more anger.
I’m not angry with people who voted for Trump. Even though they voted for a man who used hate to garner much of his support, I understand they had various reasons for voting for him.
I’m angry because I am forced to accept their vote while most Trump supporters have shown absolutely no interest in understanding why I’m completely heartbroken for an America I thought existed. I truly believed that Americans could value the common good over money, dogma, single issues, self-interest and even the truth. And I was wrong.
I’m even more angry that I’ve been told to “just get over it,” “find something else to occupy your thoughts,” “accept God’s will,” and “stop being a tool of the liberal media,”
During my entire life, I have never, ever told anyone who was grieving to “suck it up and just get over it.”
Grief isn’t just about losing someone you love. It’s about losing something that you value and hold close to your heart. It’s about trying to get through a day in a fog when other people are acting as if nothing has changed. It’s about having to re-wire your brain to live in a different reality. Worst of all, grief harshly rips open old wounds and scars that some of us have spent decades trying to forget.
Which is why I was in tears this week when a friend asked the six women in the room “How many of us have been groped by a man we didn’t want?” Five of the six of us raised our hands. I was not the fortunate woman who didn’t raise her hand. I was the adolescent girl who had never even kissed a boy but was groped by a middle-aged man at church. I was wearing my favorite sweater on the Sunday when he grabbed my breast and told me I was developing nicely. I shoved that sweater to the back of closet and never wore it again.
That old scar tore open the day I heard the now infamous recording of Trump talking about “grabbing pussy.”
But grief isn’t just about the past, it’s also about losing hopes and dreams for the future. On Tuesday night, my hope for the future dimmed the second I received a text that my son, a college freshman, sent to his dad and me.
“Guys,” it read, “I’m terrified.”
And I knew exactly what he meant.
My son is a journalism major following in the footsteps of journalists on both sides of his family tree. His dad is a journalist. My mom was a journalist. His great-grandfather published a newspaper. And yet, my son’s professional aspirations were belittled and threatened by the future president of the United States. My son recognized this threat when, on the day his father and I visited the National Press Club, Donald Trump banned the Washington Post from covering his campaign.
Like me, my son completely understands that some media sources, both liberal and conservative, are truly biased. But he also knows that many journalists have dedicated their lives to uncovering and reporting the truth – whether or not they like or agree with it. All of their hard work is being completely disregarded and even threatened by a significant percentage of the American population. And he is scared.
I completely understand his fear.
A week before the election, I finished reading two books. The first, Lilac Girls, a historical novel by Martha Hall Kelly. Although it’s a work of fiction, the book follows real events, real people and the real tragedy of World War II when too many people were willing to blame, ridicule, persecute and ultimately kill people of a different faith because they believed in a leader who told them to hate.
In the second book, Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay, a French Catholic girl is sent to a concentration camp because she has Jewish blood. Despite her prayers, her entire family is killed, and she begins to doubt the power of prayer.
That story is so fresh and so painful that I can’t believe this election is “God’s will” any more than I can believe the rise of Hitler was “God’s will.”
I will never believe that God favors one group of people or one set of beliefs over another. The God I know encourages love and acceptance.
And if you tell me I’m wrong, I’m going to get angry. Just like I’m going to get angry when you tell me that I simply need to “get over” this election.
I won’t hate. I won’t belittle. I won’t even tell people they are misguided or wrong.
But I won’t get over my anger.
And don’t you dare tell me I should.
I’ve felt myself slowly sliding closer and closer to that proverbial deep end.
I made the mistake of reading social media posts from people who, for whatever reason, are incredibly afraid of the truth and therefore ignore facts, denounce credible news sources and cite dubious and/or biased sources to justify their own skewed beliefs. I’ve observed so-called Christians claiming that their version of Christianity is the only legitimate religion in the world. And I saw pictures of women making light of sexual assault.
My disgust hasn’t been limited to social media. My daily perusal of the Washington Post has provided regular reminders of the vitriol, misogyny, xenophobia, racism, disrespect and overall embarrassment of the 2016 presidential campaign.
I’ve wanted to close my eyes, put a finger in each of my ears and loudly yell, “La la la la la la la! Stop it! I’m not listening!” at the top of my lungs.
But I haven’t because I can’t. Of the billions of people on earth, I was lucky enough to be born in the United States and enjoy the rights provided to me in the 19th amendment (even though some avid Trump supporters are now in favor of repealing those rights).
So, despite how incredibly scary this election is or how history will some day portray it, I have a responsibility to use my rights (as they currently exist) to speak out.
But I can’t do that if I lose my sanity, so I must find a way to keep my grasp on it.
And to date, I have thanks to some bright moments as our nation faces such dark times.
- Staying up to watch Saturday Night Live has once again become worthwhile. Donald Trump can actually make me smile – when he’s played by Alec Baldwin that is.
- I’m rarely the smartest person in the room. I am surrounded by intelligent, well-educated people who amaze me with their breadth of knowledge and keen insights. As a plus, not only are they smart, but they are also very open-minded.
- Even though my man Jon Stewart is no longer on the Daily Show, my favorite acerbic political comedy hits the mark every single time. Each morning, I watch the first ten minutes from the previous night and am filled with appreciation that other people really do “get it.”
- The headlines about sexual assault and sexual harassment are increasing awareness of and support for survivors.
- There are a lot of men who are raising their voices in support of women and against white male privilege. I’ve loved spying on my son’s social media accounts, and, I have to say, I’m so proud of his acceptance of people of all genders, sexual orientation, race, religion and backgrounds (as long as they aren’t bullies and jerks of course.)
- Despite all the hate rhetoric, we ARE making progress toward being a more inclusive nation. On the day I was born, there was only one woman in the U.S. Senate and only eight in the House of Representatives. When I was a year old, Martin Luther King Jr. was slain. Just a year later, the Stonewall riot occurred in New York City, marking the beginning of the gay rights movement. Today, our president is a black man who has spent eight years in the oval office, gay couples have the right to marry, 104 women sit in Congress, and a woman is the Democratic nominee for President of the United States.
- History shows that good ALWAYS rises from the ashes. ALWAYS. No matter how horrible the circumstances, there will always be heroes and people who make history with their ability to not only rise above the fray but to make the world better for others.
And that is what I’m counting on to maintain my sanity after this election too.
There are two national headlines gnawing at my brain right now.
The first is about the murder of three police officers in Baton Rouge.
The second is about WV State Delegate Michael Folk tweeting that Hillary Clinton should be hung on the National Mall.
Both are senseless acts of violence.
An expression of hate is the ammunition that fuels physical assaults and attacks. It turns the words and actions of someone who looks, thinks, acts, or believes differently into a significant threat to individuals who have been programmed to protect their own closed-minded fortresses of right, wrong, and justice.
Making a statement that any person deserves to be hurt at the hands of another does absolutely nothing to improve anyone’s circumstances. Yet this type of brutality is quickly becoming the norm in the United States.
As a country, we are sinking fast in the rising waters of spiteful words, and no one throwing us a life jacket.
Only we can get ourselves out of this mess, which means we have to hold the haters accountable.
I’m not encouraging censorship. Freedom of speech is a core value, and our nation can only improve when we listen to ideas and thoughts that are different from our own. But freedom of speech must be treated with the same respect that we give to anything that is fragile and prone to break when it is mishandled.
And, as a country, we are being anything but gentle with each other.
Having a right to say what you want and not being held accountable for your words are two entirely different issues.
When I was a child, I lived with the taste of soap in my mouth because I was constantly saying things that provoked my parents. There was no law against the words I used or the tone with which they were said. But my words were disrespectful and inappropriate, and I paid the price by becoming a connoisseur of a wide variety of soap brands.
The soap in the mouth punishment isn’t feasible with politicians, community leaders or others who choose to continue to pollute political events and social media with their hateful and violent words.
But the rest of us can ensure that there are consequences.
We can choose not to vote for them.
We can unfollow them on social media.
We can call other leaders and lawmakers and express our concerns.
We can write letters to the editor.
We can even write blogs about them.
Collectively, when each one of us speaks up, our voices are bound to drown out the nasty ones.
“Gritter.” It was such a completely foreign and wrong word, yet it was also very powerful.
Until I moved to West Virginia as an awkward adolescent, I never knew such words even existed. I was aware that some people used negative words to describe different races, but I didn’t know that there were also words to describe people by their social status. I had certainly witnessed my share of ridicule of the poor and outcast, but I didn’t know there were actual labels for such individuals.
What I did know was that associating with people who wore such labels was social suicide and defending them could be just as dangerous.
I was already teetering on the edge of not belonging, and I was worried that even the slightest mistake would send me hurtling over the edge. I was already considered weird because I had transferred from a state that was thousands of miles away. Then I had made a near fatal error of comparing my old life to my new one. In other words, in the eyes of my peers, I thought I was better than they were.
Nothing was farther from the truth. Maybe, if we hadn’t all been so wrapped up in the complexity of adolescence, my classmates might have recognized how completely alone and alien I felt.
But, they didn’t. Or, if they did, they didn’t care.
And so, I felt a complete urgency to assimilate into a new culture and to adopt a new language, even when it went in the face of everything in which I believed.
I made the mistake of trying out my newly acquired word “gritter” on my family during dinner.
“What does that mean?” my mom asked
I tried my best to explain about the kids on the bus that were gritters and how they wore the same clothes over and over again, lived in the mobile home park and were generally unacceptable.
My parents got really, really angry.
More than 30 years later, I don’t remember much of what my parents said, but I do remember the look on my dad’s face when he said that he would have been a “gritter” in high school. And I remember my ambivalence.
To the depths of my soul, I knew how wrong judging and labeling other people was. But I also knew that I had absolutely no social footing, so standing up against what was a social norm would just further alienate me. My peers had a pecking order, and I wasn’t about to question it.
Until this past week, I’d completely forgotten all about gritters and my parents complete outrage at the ease with which I had used the word.
But then the West Virginia primary election brought it all back.
Donald Trump easily won West Virginia’s nod for President of the United States. While this wasn’t a surprise, the political pundits immediately began analyzing how one of the nation’s poorest states could engage in a love affair with a man who has nothing in common with the people, the culture and, of course, the lack of resources.
And even though I’m personally frustrated by the whole situation, I kind of get it.
West Virginians have been ridiculed for decades. The entire population is often stereotyped as poor, uneducated hillbillies whose culture is defined as being on par with the dueling banjos in the movie Deliverance.
No one wants to be called the equivalent of a gritter. We want people to believe we are better than that, even if that means we point our fingers at other people and blame them, not ourselves, for our problems.
That is Donald Trump’s schtick.
He builds himself up while tearing others down – the poor, the undocumented, women, people with disabilities, people with accents, etc. Basically, he has taken license to belittle anyone who isn’t exactly like him.
No wonder West Virginians are buying it. If elected, they will have a leader who gives them license to call their neighbors gritters and blame others for their problems.
I am only grateful that I am no longer that awkward adolescent that was afraid to speak out or embrace the wisdom of her parents. Now, I’m willing to yell at the top of my lungs “Putting other people down doesn’t make you a leader or a better person. In fact, it does the exact opposite.”
Maybe Donald Trump will never hear me, but at least I know someone will.
And that’s a start.
My family had just celebrated my son’s first birthday when the nation’s attention focused on a high school in Colorado where two students killed 13 people.
My daughter was less than a month old when terrorists struck the Twin Towers .
I’ve been a mom for 17 years, and I have absolutely no concept how it feels like to know my children are safe.
I can only hope the odds that they are more likely to graduate than they are to be the victims of horrific crimes.
My children grew up in a world where violence is a constant. They’ve seen news footage of shootings in elementary schools, high schools, colleges and movie theaters. They only know a life in which such events are just another blip in an ongoing story about how unhappy, angry and unstable people resort to horrible acts to express their feelings. Phrases such as gun control and school shootings are a part of their every day vocabulary.
But despite practicing school lockdowns and opening their bags for inspection everywhere they go, my kids don’t focus on what others might do to them. My son is concerned about his SAT scores and my daughter is trying to decide what song she should sing for an upcoming audition. The threat of violence is just the constant white noise that constitutes the background of their lives.
But not so much for their parents.
On the same day that a television reporter and cameraman were shot during a live newscast, my son wore a blazer to school.
He is part of the morning news crew at his school television station, and he was going to be on air.
He left the house at about 6:45 preparing for a live broadcast while at the exact same time, another live newscast had just ended in violence.
White noise for him, another reason to worry for his parent, and another opportunity for pundits, politicians and every day people to argue about how to prevent another such incident.
By the end of the day, my Facebook feed was full of posts from people arguing for and against gun control and pontificating about mental illness and violence.
And I said nothing because I’ve come to realize my words wouldn’t matter.
People argued after Columbine. People argued after Virginia Tech. People argued after Sandy Hook.
And despite all that arguing, the shootings and violence continues.
I’m not writing this because I have a brilliant idea how to prevent such events.
I’m writing this because when my kids left for school this morning, the white noise in their lives was louder than usual and my concern for their safety was heightened.
I am writing this because I am tired of everyone talking at each other, disagreeing with each other and embracing their hatred and anger toward anyone who doesn’t think like they do.
And I am writing this because my children have grown up with such behavior and have come to accept it.
And that is the greatest tragedy of all.