My son reads us the headlines aloud from the CNN ticker that updates every few minutes.
“There’s a guy they’re calling the Ghost of Kyiv. He shot down six fighter jets.”
I understand why this Ghost has captured my son’s (and the world’s) imagination. Like Snoopy’s need to fight the Red Baron, there is a hunger for hope to conquer evil. Or at least to take a swing at it. Most of us feel helpless here on the ground.
He says that folks are not sure if the Ghost is real, “or if he is an urban legend the people of Ukraine need right now.” Real or not, Twitter users are cheering the real downing of the Russian planes and helicopters. I cannot cheer, though, reflexively thinking of the mothers of those Russian pilots, whose dead bodies are not myths. Who are victims of Putin, too.
He pipes up with another horror story from the news ticker. “On Snake Island, a tiny island, eighty Ukrainian soldiers were surrounded by Russian warships. The warships told them to surrender or die.” They did not surrender.
How can this be happening? How can this carnage be real? How can missiles fall and tanks roll while I am ensconced with my family on a weekend trip to the snow, planned when the strangest thing happening in the world was Covid?
“Go to Google Earth,” I say. I need to see our planet looking like a big blue marble, insignificant, with no borders drawn on its curves and swirls.
I cannot stop madmen from starting wars. (No one can, apparently.) So I try to locate the balance between sorrow, empathy and gratitude, to allow myself to enjoy the rare gift of a conversation with my son while we traipse through fresh snow. For the beauty around us, as fragile and as temporary, as it may be.
My father’s father was born in Chernobyl, Ukraine in 1917 before the Soviet Union existed. He died in 2000 after the Soviet Union ceased to exist.
“Go back to the view of Earth from space,” I urge. “See if you can find us.”
The weeks do not fly so much as they race. A frantic regatta of days, each one catching a greater gust and passing the others. Before you have a chance to say, Hey, Monday–you again? you are greeting Friday with, Thank God it’s you.
Time is playing its tricks on me.
It feels fluid again. Not as disorienting as at the doldrums of the pandemic, when I felt compelled to share the occasional “PSA: Today is Monday”, but not the same as Before. I have one foot in the pandemic and one out. One foot in retreat, and one standing in the wide world. The mind tries to keep up with these gymnastics; my center is doing the splits.
These trickster days become wicked prankster years. Lying on my side in a colonoscopy recovery room (for goodness sakes!), a purple-grey gown wrapping my body and propofol wearing off, I asked the nurse — a kid half my age, within spitting distance of my own kids’ age — how did I become 52?It was supposed to be my parents in there, and me off at college. He smiled, understanding I was telling him, I was your age once. This is waiting for you, too.
An hour earlier, I had texted my friend from the dressing room, “Do I want the twilight or the full knockout?” This is the kind of thing we ask our friends now; this same girl I asked for boy advice at 14, love advice at 27, and parenting advice…well, still.
And maybe it is not all bad, to lose track of days and hours, or even years. To have to pause when you wake up while you figure out what day it is, and what role that means you will play: Am I packing someone’s lunch, or sleeping in? Am I planning my family, or my empty nest? To make dinner plans with a friend, look into her eyes and forget the years, or better yet, to see each of those years, those wisps of gray materializing at our crowns (okay, fine — mine, not hers), like shimmering medals for having arrived at this mile marker, with the finish line (god willing) far from our view.
With love, a few extra deep breaths, and appreciation for your time here,
P.S. In case you missed it, I think you’ll enjoy my post this week on Medium: How to Structure a Writing Retreat, which pertains to life beyond writing, and could just as easily have been called, “How to Slow Down and Do Whatever the Heck Calls to You.”
And remember you can follow me on Medium for free, or subscribe for unlimited accessto all of Medium’s articles, which supports my work and that of other writers.
Last night I got stuck in that thin layer beneath consciousness, running through lists and worries. A single consolation prize — an idea for an essay. I did not get up in the dark, pilfer a pen from the mess on my window seat, and tiptoe to the bathroom where I could turn on a light without waking Christopher to write the opening sentence that was speaking itself, as I sometimes do. Sleep might be on its way, and I did not want to scare it off. I had a feeling that this one would stay with me until morning, unlike most nighttime whispers.
I would remember to call it “Welcome,” I told myself, and it would connect two stories: one about welcoming Maria home for Thanksgiving, her first visit after a year and a half; and one about finally welcoming an asylum-seeking family from El Salvador into America. I would write about chalk drawing in rainbow colors with my six-year-old neighbor Winnie, Maria’s former pre-school student, who calls me “Maria’s mom” because that is how Maria introduced me and she accepted it as an uncontroversial truth. And I would write about the asylum hearing that finally happened the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, the day Maria arrived home.
Back in June, when the hearing was supposed to have happened, I practiced every question to ask on direct and re-direct as I coasted over pre-traffic freeways on my way to court. I expelled all my anxious fumes back then, and this time my nerves were less ratcheted. I felt confident. Ready. My clients were prepared. I knew where to park. I knew which of the several government buildings housed the court, and on which floor the courtroom was. All these knowns added to my sense of ease and mastery, my sense of control.
Of course, I knew anything could happen. I told myself to expect the unexpected. For sure something would go sideways.
While I drove to court, Maria’s name and number lit up my phone. She wished me good luck and said her cousin would be taking her to the airport soon. We would hopefully have something to celebrate that night.
In the courtroom, we faced a raised “bench” where the judge would sit, a desk for the interpreter, and two rectangular tables, one for the government and one for my clients and me. Ours was set with two pairs of headphones for them to listen to the interpreter and two microphones for us to speak into. Their four daughters, ages 6, 12, 13, and 19, waited in the hallway so as not to be exposed to their parents’ testimony about why they fled their home — the multiple death threats from gangs because the father was a police officer. On the right, an empty table where the government attorney should be. The judge called our case, then dialed a conference line.
The government attorney’s voice materialized. Present by phone, a Covid option.
We began. And the sideways detour arrived: the judge asked if we could skip my direct exam (all those questions I had practiced!). “In light of the voluminous and detailed record” I had submitted – hundreds of pages including my clients’ written testimony, psychological evaluations to prove their trauma, personal references, police reports corroborating their persecution, expert government reports and news stories – “could we proceed to any clarifying cross-examination, and then any redirect, if necessary?” I understood that we had made our case. I agreed to skip direct, sparing my clients the rehash of their trauma.
The government attorney launched into his cross-examination, something he had not expected to do for a couple hours. He began with the husband, pushing him as to why he did not “do more” to get the police to investigate the death threats against him and his family. The lawyer’s tone grew increasingly hostile as he warmed up. Besides making the police reports, what else did you do? What else?What else? My client held his ground, explaining the steps he had personally taken to protect his family when the police would do nothing. Reinforced bars on the home. Extra ammunition in his gun. Sleepless nights watching out windows. Pulling his kids out of school to keep them safe at home.
Finally, his composure broke and his wife sobbed as the memories of her family’s danger flooded her. I interjected once. After forty minutes, the judge stopped his questioning. “You cannot see their demeanor,” she said to the disembodied government voice, “but they are…affected.” A weak word, I thought, to communicate to the official who could not see his prey, that they were wounded, distraught. He finally understood the outcome as much as I did. When the judge asked, he said the government would defer to the court’s decision (i.e. he would relinquish his right to appeal if she granted them asylum).
Under this circumstance, the judge then asked me if I needed to ask any questions on redirect. It was apparent from her expression that she did not need any more information.
“No re-direct, your Honor.”
The judge indicated that I should go get the daughters. The detour had found its conclusion. I knew in my gut good news was coming.
The girls flowed into the room and sat together, four in a row behind their parents.
The judge looked into my clients’ eyes, and spoke slowly enough for the interpreter to state without a stumble:
I find the Respondent to be credible.
I find that he has suffered past persecution
And has a well-founded fear of future persecution
Based on his political opinion.
A grant of asylum is merited.
Welcome. I do not know if the gasp I felt at the ridgeline of my heart is audible in the recorded transcript.
We took a photograph in the courtroom after the judge left, the mother telling her eldest daughter to be sure she got the flag in it. I turned to see an American flag standing at attention that I had not noticed the whole time we had sat facing it.
Six days later, my family and theirs met for a picnic celebration at the park. Emmett taught the dad to throw an American football. Christopher entertained the six-year-old with his unique antics. Maria told the teen girls and their mom about her path from asylee to Legal Permanent Resident. The 13-year-old daughter interrupted to ask Maria, Wait, so how are you related to these people?
“Son mis padres,” she answered with a smile. Unlike little Winnie next door, who had taken our relationship at face value, this teenager’s face twisted into a universal expression of, what in the hell are you talking about? Maria laughed and added an explanation. We are her extra parents.
So yes, these are the things I wanted to write about this morning, about welcoming someone home with a gorgeous sign made of chalk and love, and of welcoming a family with sandwiches and football into our country’s safe harbor.
But my story turned sideways this morning when my high schooler texted at 9:40 a.m.
Hey guys, apparently there’s a rumor of a kid with a gun that might be on campus.
It’s probably BS but about half the student body left.
Oh hold up
They found the kid
He had a gun
He was tackled
I have a Spanish quiz
But I think I’ll leave just in case.
Any day can go sideways.
My morning drowned in fielding texts from him, talking to him to hear he was safe, texts from other parents, replying in a daze, chasing down more rumors:
They were locked down.
They were not “on lockdown” but they were locked in, no one allowed in or out.
They were not locked in, they were just processing departures slowly due to demand.
Another local high school had been threatened and kids had fled it, too.
The school sent a message to parents after 11 am, long after the exodus of our children: There were no “credible threats” to campus. There had been rumors among students about threatening social media posts. All information has been reported to LAPD, which continues to investigate and monitor. Extra security had been requested as a precautionary measure.
So those texts from my son? Pure rumors. No kid, no gun, no tackle. But there had been enough concern that the school had requested “precautionary measures.” Was there a real threat, or were they being (thankfully) responsible in light of last week’s abhorrent breach of duty in Michigan?
The school had left us without any information. My son and his peers were left to decide whether to stay put or flee. I had no information to help guide him. What was their conversation as hordes of students flooded out the gates? Did they wonder if their teachers would let them make up tests and quizzes? Did they wonder what might be in the backpack of the kids leaving with them?
My son’s voice was light when we spoke soon after. He was with friends, going to one of the girl’s houses. A free pass for a day. I was taking this harder than he was, at least that was what it seemed. Who is to say? Maybe he walks around in a ball of anxiety because this could happen any day.
I left the house to take a walk and I found myself across from the school. A bell rang and kids materialized in the quad and the paths. Easy targets. One local news station had set up a camera on a corner, pointed at the school as if to capture a moment no one wanted to happen but would be a great scoop if it did, fellas! I kept walking, a stray thought that I could take a bullet for my chosen path. When I got to the bluffs, I sat on a bench and cried, though not enough to release all my clenched fear. Maybe the body needs to hold some of it to remain alert.
My client stood at the window of his house while his family slept, looking out for danger, locked down in his house waiting for bad guys to come. What else did you do to protect your family? What else?
What do we do in the face of this constant threat to our children? We text them, Be safe, Don’t leave the classroom. Or Do leave. Trust your gut. Forget the quiz. Nothing matters. We are scared for our kids. We are tired. At the end of the day, he went back to school for a play rehearsal. I let him. There had been no real threat, after all. Just rumors. What about tomorrow?
The notebook paper is warped and stained with coffee from the mug I knocked over when I pushed my laptop screen away from my “maturing” eyes. An accident, though you may tell me there are no such things.
I blot the paper dry, and the mark it leaves on it does not obscure what is written in my 17-year-old’s hand: “College Possibilities.” His list, unnumbered, stretches more than halfway down the horizontal blue lines, in penmanship neater than years past. He is thinking about his future.
I time-travel backward, and sit at this same table writing a list of names for the baby who is still a part of my body, who at 17 will still be part of my body in a way he will never understand until he is a parent. I try out the sound of each name, closing my eyes to envision what each collection of syllables and histories and meanings might predict for this as-yet unmet soul, how he might live into the sound of them.
Over the next 12 months, he will do much the same with his list, trying on each for fit as best as he can. If time is not linear, the lists sit side by side.
I could find that list of baby names if you gave me an hour, folded into a journal or photo album or baby book. I could place my hands on it, wipe its spine coated with dust, particles of our skin and sweat that have collected these past 17 years.
In the end, none of the names on my list rang true. Days after he was born, it was my sister’s suggestion that wrapped him lightly like a cloud, wide enough to allow any adventure he might choose — artist or clown, athlete or sage — wherever his big heart may lead. I hope his list of possibilities does, too.
A pregnant lady in a bikini stands at the shoreline, her gorgeous tanned belly stretched to capacity, a leash looped around her wrist. The muscled dog at her feet holds himself back, ready to spring toward the waves rolling in and away. She casts her eyes down at the phone held in both hands, its spell cast over her.
I say aloud, to no one but myself, or maybe the pelicans skimming the surface of the water, How sad.
But as soon I say that, I think about what my kids would think of the lady at the beach with her dog and her phone. Not sad at all. Not even a drop of sadness, Mom! Just the way it is.
Last night, thirsty, I pressed a glass against a plastic lever on my refrigerator. Electricity and metal pipes that run under asphalt and concrete filled it with cold water. I did not go to a stream, bend down, cup my hands. On another plane, an ancestor said, how sad.
I have had the unplugged beach, and its restorative power. I want my children to know what it feels like to sit at the shore alone with their thoughts, to get lost in their heads, to share their thoughts only with themselves or the ocean or the birds, not the connected metallic world contained in their hands.
But who am I to judge, a hypocrite who dictates these words into my phone as I sit on the beach watching her, watching the dog, thinking about how I’m going to type it up later and press publish.
“That virtue we appreciate is as much ours as another’s. We see so much only as we possess.”
These words attributed to Henry David Thoreau came to my e-mail inbox this morning from inspiringquotes.com (let us appreciate the irony of technology delivering Walden‘s champion), with an added interpretation: “It makes sense that what we value in others would already be present in us, be it kindness or courage. Thoreau reminds us that we are our own role models: In surrounding ourselves with people we admire, we realize the kind of people we are.”
This sent my mind to a moment from this weekend’s visit with my son in college. It is fair to say we spent the majority of our waking hours watching football. On Saturday, he brought us — grandma, younger brother, and me — to a place he and his friends like to hang out to watch away games. He made sure we got there early so there would be enough room for everyone. He wanted to be sure that all who arrived would be comfortable and happy.
Which is why when that drunk guy sat down on a bench behind me, his eyes focused on our group, it unnerved him. I didn’t notice the guy, not until he tried to join our conversation with rolling sentences about Prefontaine and the Santa Monica Pier. I am used to coddling oddballs, so I tried to be friendly and dismissive at the same time — that balance of “I do not want to agitate you by ignoring you, but you are not part of this.” My balance was off — too friendly.
The guy stood up and walked two paces closer to us. I did not see him approaching, but my son did. He saw the slurring, wobbling man reach his arm toward his mom and set his hand on my shoulder. And, shazam, he was on his feet, body forward, voice warning: Hey, don’t touch my mom! It was the moment I saw my child transform from bear cub to bear, roaring “intruder beware.” His every nerve ending told him to be my protector. (I maintained that I could have flicked the guy over with my pinky.) I had never seen him confront anyone like that. Ever. He said later that he never had.
Thank goodness he was behind the table.
The next day, one of his friends who had been sitting with us texted my kiddo to say he had not known he could respect him more than he already did, but seeing him defend his family won his even higher admiration. He said he hoped he would do the same in that situation.
What a good friend. Who goes out of their way to praise their buddy’s actions after the fact? How many of us have friends who write to tell us they think we rock? How often do we do that for a friend? To his friend, I offer Thoreau: “That virtue we appreciate is as much ours as another’s. We see so much only as we possess.” You would do the same.
It gives me joy to see the kind of friendships my son has cultivated. Like a lot of us, my son suffered his share of jerks in middle and high school. As painful as that can be in the moment, we learn from those experiences what we are willing to accept and what we are not, what caliber of friends we deserve. What I know to be true is that his friend’s generous text reveals the kind of friendship my son offers back, an open-hearted kindness with the confidence to tell another, you are awesome.
As Thoreau would have us do: May we seek out people with virtues we aspire to have. May we surround ourselves with people we admire, and move away from those we do not. May we be our own role models.
At the end of this post, I am going to ask you a favor. But first, let me set the stage.
The family room was a mess. The dogs had tracked dirt and dead grass from the backyard across the floor and sofas. The “crap counter” was living up to its beloved nickname — filled with mail, homework, textbooks, odds and ends, and our pandemic-purchased air fryer that fit nowhere else in the kitchen. My younger son sat at the table doing homework. I was distracted, looking for a broom, when he looked up and surprised me by talking about lunchtime at high school.
“We stand in a circle,” he said. “And sometimes someone will come late and they’ll be standing behind someone, outside of the circle. And I’ll notice, and say ‘Guys, open up, make the circle bigger, let her in.'”
Well. Need I say that this single moment is better and more important than any grade or achievement? I was proud of him both for noticing, and for acting. How many times have I not noticed someone’s exclusion, or noticed but stayed quiet?
It recalled for me a speech by Father Gregory Boyle of Homeboy Industries, eight or nine years ago. I sat with my family listening to his homily. Behind Father Greg sat some of his “homies” — former gang members who joined Homeboy Industries to return to society, employment and moral support. “We draw our family circles too small,” Father Boyle said, quoting Mother Teresa. “Imagine a circle of compassion where no one is outside the circle.” Could that have been the seed planted for my son’s expansive thinking?
We live in small circles. Family, friends, colleagues. The global pandemic (incredible how those words roll off the tongue and keyboard so fluidly now) shrank our circles to the size of our rooms and homes. School was a computer screen. Now he has expanded back to school, its lunch area still riddled with boundaries.
Imagine drawing the circle so big that no one is standing outside it. What would that even look like? How can we start in our own ways?
I am drawing my own circle wider in a small way by expanding who can access my posts. Though I have loyal followers here (some more than others — Hi Mom! Hi Joyce!), other spaces offer a potential to reach many more.
So starting today, I am posting on Medium.com, which brings me to the favor: Please read my post on Medium (“How to Write a Memoir”) and “follow” me there.
(Medium lets everyone read a few articles for free each month. Or, you can become a member for $5 per month and gain unlimited access to all of Medium’s content.)
You have loyally read my words in this space and I am so appreciative of your feedback and this relationship with you. I hope you get something from it, too. Let’s keep it going.
I had a WhatsApp message yesterday from a man whose deportation I failed to stop, to my shame. I had not heard from him in a year, since he wished me Happy Thanksgiving from hiding. He said he had some promising news and wanted my advice.
Backing up. He had come to the U.S. on a student visa, graduated from a prestigious California university, and gotten a good job in tech. But he feared that if he returned home he would be killed because he was gay, so he overstayed his visa. He worked and made friends. He bought nice things and paid taxes (I mention these because “contribute to the economy” is how our policymakers tend to measure worth). A fender bender put him in the police gaze, and that was that. They transferred him to ICE and locked him up indefinitely. Without a lawyer, he sought asylum, claiming fear of being tortured in his home country. It was denied. So were his appeals.
When I met him as part of a “chaplaincy” visit, he had been locked up for three years. I knew nothing about immigration law, but he asked me to help. I could do little but be a friend. Inside a locked room, we spent hours discussing books, our childhoods, our shared views of God despite our different religions. I was watching my son play in a basketball tournament when he called me, terrified, because they were deporting him that night. I did not know what to do. And then he was gone. Once he was back in his home country, he sent me a photo over WhatsApp of his bloodied face after a beating the local police had inflicted.
Since then I began to learn asylum law. I still do not know how I could have stopped his deportation.
This weekend I watched “The Infiltrators” (trailer), a true story by this MacArthur Genius winning couple, in which young “Dreamers” in Broward County, Florida turn themselves in to ICE so they can be detained, in order to help get others released. They use public outcry and political pressure to win release for several “low-priority” immigrants. Their bravery, tenacity, and creativity is breathtaking.
When I got that call that my friend was being deported and was on his way to the airport, I did not think to tell him (as the young activists in Florida did with success) refuse to get on the plane. Tell the pilot you refuse. Nearly three years have passed since then. I hope I have acquired some wisdom and experience that can help him restart his life. We made a plan to speak when he can find good WiFi.
Later, I read Maria Shriver’s Sunday Paper, and messages from the universe aligned as they sometimes do. In her opening essay, she wrote about how the discourse in our country has become so violent, ugly, and cruel.
“We who believe in dignity, decency, kindness, equality, and love have to get louder, braver, and bolder. We have got to come out of the shadows and start using our voices in every forum possible to highlight the need for those values in our public arena. The bottom line is that we would never accept in our homes what we currently accept in our social media feeds or public forums or from certain public officials. We can do better. We must do better. We can’t step back and simply allow those who are raging, screaming, lying, and undermining to own the main stage.”
We do not have to agree on everything, but we must not lose sight of each other’s human dignity in the process of disagreeing.
She concludes: “Each of us is a light. Each of us has tremendous power to highlight the good and to be an example of the good. Each of us can talk openly about the values we uphold and be examples of how to model successful conflict resolution.” Her prayer for the week echoes this: “Dear God, Please help me be an agent of change. Please help me be a light of love. Whenever I’m tempted to be frustrated by the other, remind me that love—not shame—is the key to bringing us closer. Amen.”
Sticks and stones Battle zones A single light bulb On a single thread for the black Sirens wail History fails Rose-colored glass Begins to age and crack While the politicians shadowbox The power ring In an endless split decision Never solve anything From a neighbor’s distant land I heard the strain of the common man
Let it be me (this is not a fighting song) Let it be me (not a wrong for a wrong) Let it be me If the world is night Shine my life like a light
Well the world seems spent And the president Has no good idea Of who the masses are Well I’m one of them And I’m among friends We’re trying to see beyond The fences in our own backyards I’ve seen the kingdoms blow Like ashes in the winds of change But the power of truth Is the fuel for the flame So the darker the ages get There’s a stronger beacon yet
Let it be me (this is not a fighting song) Let it be me (not a wrong for a wrong) Let it be me If the world is night Shine my life like a light
In the kind word you speak In the turn of the cheek When your vision stays clear In the face of your fear Then you see turning out a light switch Is their only power When we stand like spotlights In a mighty tower All for one and one for all Then we sing the common call
Let it be me (this is not a fighting song) Let it be me (not a wrong for a wrong) Let it be me If the world is night Shine my life like a light.