Writers Resist

IMG_2837 (1).JPGNo rhyme can be said where reason has fled.                                                                                                  June Jordan

The Bay Area Writers Resist event last night in Oakland was the most uplifting few hours I’ve spent since November 9. The Starline Social Club was packed to capacity in both bodies and spirit. The place became electrified with one phenomenal poet after another. The readings started with Ishmael Reed and went on with many of our finest poets. I was thrilled to hear the radical voices of Tongo Eisen-Martin and Elena Rose and Javier Zamora and Arisa White and Jane Hirshfield and more. I sat in close and felt illuminated by their words.  The event was a benefit for the Southern Poverty Law Center, the International Institute of the Bay Area and the Transgender Law Center. If you missed the event, you can still donate. These organizations need our support more than ever.

For more Bay Area Writers Resist – there’s another event in San Francisco on January 18. We are fortunate to live in the Bay Area among these great poets. Go early, sit up close and get inspired.

Litquake asks a panel of writers to respond to President-elect Donald TrumpLitquake asks a panel of writers to respond to President-elect Donald Trump. (Photo: Image courtesy of Litquake)

 

Have You Seen Santa?

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It’s that time of year again, and hidden amidst the gazillion catalogs are the holiday cards. I love to get them. I always felt badly about not sending anything in return and envious of mothers who managed to put together the family photo shoot and sign and send. If you’re reading this and wondering why you weren’t on my holiday card list, that’s because there was no list. I just never got it together. The best I could do was an Instagram video of my dog.

Yesterday, I found an old photo that would have made the perfect card. It’s at least twenty-five years old. I didn’t use it then. It’s a good time to use it now. That’s three- year old Ariela sitting on Santa’s lap. The photo was taken at the holiday party at Ariela’s preschool, the early intervention program at UCLA. You can’t see much of Santa’s face, but it’s the same color as his large, dark brown hands. Santa was a UCLA undergrad. I can’t remember his name or what position he played on the Bruins football team. He volunteered at the preschool.

I love this photo, because it reminds me of Ariela’s happy times at UCLA. She especially liked the parties. They were always celebrating something. She loved Santa. All the kids did. He was jolly and fat, but not too fat to have a lap. And he was fun. Every child got a gift. She didn’t care what color his skin was. The colors of her clothes were the only colors that mattered to her. (At the time, pinks and purples were her favorites.) Skin color was irrelevant. Like most preschoolers, she only cared how someone treated her. Were they kind? Patient? Silly? Did they give her presents? I can’t believe any three-year old gives a damn about skin color. Unless, of course, that three-year old is on Twitter.

What you may not realize from the photo is that this Santa is holding her up. Without his caring hands, Ariela would have toppled over. That’s enough to make even this Jewish mother believe in Santa.

Three pictures from El Paso-Juarez

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A week after returning from our Thanksgiving holiday in El Paso, and I continue to be grateful for family harmony. In three days under my brother’s roof, there were no arguments or disagreements about the recent election. We are all in accord about the frightening state our country is in now. We are bound together for reasons beyond shared DNA. We all hate bigotry. Everyone in this two generational picture voted for justice.

On the day before Thanksgiving, our friend Rosy drove my sister and me to an orphanage in Juarez. Eighty-eight children, ages five to twenty-one, live there with little electricity and almost no heat. They share two bathrooms, one for the girls and one for the boys. There’s no refrigeration. They have two meals a day. On the day we were there, they ate macaroni and potatoes. All white. No greens or fruit. We gave them clothes and blankets and books and chocolates. (Yes, I know we should have given them kale and brussel sprouts.) They gave us abrazos. Here’s the picture.hugs

Thousands of people cross back and forth from El Paso to Juarez every day. My brother, a physician, sees patients in both cities. As far as he is concerned, they are one community.

Leaving Juarez, we looked back at the unattractive slabs of cement and fencing planted on the bank of the Rio Grande. Graffiti abounds. If you live thousands of miles from the border, you don’t know what a wall looks like. You don’t see this ugliness. You don’t know what a wall does to your community. I looked at that wall and thought, “Why?” Why spend billions of dollars on a wall when people (little children!) in both countries need food and shelter? Where is justice in this picture?wall

A Sad Day in Our Nation’s History

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Fifty-three years ago today, I sat in my English class in Dallas and doodled spirals on my notebook. The next week would be Thanksgiving, and I was dreaming about my four-day holiday. One year earlier, my family had moved to Dallas from Baltimore, and I thought we had landed in a different universe — in a place where kids of color attended separate schools, in a place where drinking fountains were marked “white” and “colored.” I had never seen those signs before.

A few desks were empty that day. The President of the United States was in town, and my classmates had gone to Dealey Plaza to watch the motorcade. Our teacher, Mrs. Rudd, always followed her lesson plans, but that day was different. She turned on the radio. “Our president and our governor have been shot,” the announcer said. Then he said something about Parkland Hospital. And then, “The President is dead.”

I didn’t hear anything after that. I stared out the window looking for signs of life. The playground was empty. There were no cars on the street. It was as if a bomb had dropped. (I feel much the same way now.)

We weren’t dismissed from school. After English, I went to Latin where Mrs. Vernon insisted on giving us a quiz, and then to Geometry for a test. Some children were crying as they tried to calculate circumferences.

Students burst into the halls between classes. I heard one boy say, “I’m glad he was shot, because he was Catholic.” The intensity of his hatred reverberated against the walls, the venom in his voice palpable. I stood frozen in fear as I watched him and his buddies saunter down the hall.

Over fifty years have passed, and I no longer hear about Catholics as the targets of hate. Now that poison is thrust at Muslims and Latinos and African Americans and Gays and People with Disabilities. Anyone and everyone who is labeled different. Have we moved back to signs on drinking fountains?

I’m still frightened by the bigotry that continues to thrive in our country. I see no guidance from the president-elect or his appointees in reversing this trend. After Kennedy was assassinated, I never thought our country lacked leadership. I question that now.

I don’t want to end this post with a lament. It’s not 1963, and I’m not the petrified kid I was then. You’ve probably read the many ways you and I can take a stand against hateful acts and the people who propagate them. Here are only four of the many organizations involved in this effort.

Southern Poverty Law Center

American Civil Liberties Union

Bend the Arc Jewish Action

Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund

There are many others. Most important is to do something. Be vigilant. Protest. Join. And don’t leave anyone out.

Abandoned

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The five-year old girl sat waiting in her wheelchair. When she tried to speak, all she could say was a mournful “aaah.” She was scrubbed clean. Her pink leggings matched a pink t-shirt matched her pink sneakers and pink socks. Her tight black curls were cut close for easy care. Her head swished back and forth as if she was scanning the room with her deep brown eyes.

Abandoned by her birth mother. Abandoned by her foster parents. She was denied placement in kindergarten, because her constant crying disturbed the other children. No one knew if she had ever received any therapy.

She and her caregivers met with several doctors and therapists at the clinic. The physical therapist said her legs were stiff and contracted, and her spine was curved and would continue to twist as she grew.

The communications specialist at the clinic saw she had something to say. “See how she raises her eyebrows, when she likes something,” the specialist told the caregivers. “See how she frowns when she doesn’t.” The girl’s head swished left and right.

The specialist showed the girl a computer with an eye-gaze communication system. Cartoon pictures lined up on the screen with a preview of three videos. The girl’s head stopped swishing long enough to gaze at each one. She found a video she didn’t like. The specialist showed her the comments page. The girl found the button she wanted. “It’s boring,” she said with a digitized voice. Then, with her eyes, she found a video she liked and smiled.

It was time for the clinic’s dietician to speak with the caregivers. The girl was crying. She had been listening to people talk about her for over three hours. She was bored and tired of being poked and stretched. I rolled her wheelchair outside to the sunlit courtyard. Her head swished, and her arms flailed. I started to sing to her, just like I used to sing to Ariela when she was a little girl. I sang all the songs I could remember, the songs that made Ariela laugh.

“I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.” When the spider wriggles and jiggles inside her, I tickled the girl’s tummy like I tickled Ariela, The little girl didn’t laugh. “Aaaah, aaah” she moaned. Maybe she didn’t like my voice.

“Yellow Submarine.” The girl continued to cry. I wondered if she knew what a submarine was, or if she didn’t like yellow, or pink.

“I Love You a Bushel and a Peck.” Ariela loved the silliness of that song. But I didn’t hug the girl like I hugged Ariela or give her a peck on the cheek with a loud smacking noise.

I looked at the girl and wondered if she had ever heard, “I love you”? How do you know you’re lovable unless someone tells you? Or hugs you? Or gives you a peck? Or says you are the best, most wonderful child in the whole wide world?

As I sang, the girl’s crying lessened. She looked up at my face, her eyes burrowing into me. Then she stopped crying, and my off-key singing wafted into the courtyard.

Saying What She Wanted

Ariela.Dynavox

The Huffington Post recently ran this blog post: “Man With ALS Tells His Wife ‘I Love You’ Out Loud For First Time In 15 Years.”

I thought, how sweet. His first words were his expression of love for his wife (and primary caregiver). I had hoped for similar sentiments from Ariela. Maybe she would say something like, “I love you, mom.”

She was around twenty, when she received a new communication device, a system that came with hundreds of short phrases, as well as an alphabet with word prediction software. She needed to select the first few letters and a choice of words would appear on the computer screen. A small speaker by her ear gave her the cues, and at that time, she used a switch on her forehead to choose the word she wanted. She was quick to use the phrases, experimented with the alphabet, but had yet to spell a word.

Not long after getting the device, some of her friends came for dinner. One friend brought a boyfriend, a good-looking guy with a goatee. He sat down across the table from Ariela and smiled at her.

Ariela looked directly at him and said with her synthesized voice, “K” and “I” and then “Kiss.”

Now for all of you who participated in the Ice Bucket Challenge:  Like Ariela, people with ALS rely heavily on assistive technology to communicate.  Ariela was fortunate to have had private insurance pay for her communication device, commonly called Speech Generating Devices (SGDs). The man with ALS might have had coverage for his SGD through Medicare and/or Medicaid. However, changes in the last year are threatening this coverage. You can help. Contact your U.S. representative and ask for support for H.R. 628. Here are the details.

Saving the Planet

crissy field Gabriela & Benji

Last week, President Obama vetoed legislation to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, a major move to protect our environment by curtailing production of fossil fuels.

Ariela was a tree-hugger and a member of the Sierra Club.

Her passion for the environment began after she heard Julia Butterfly Hill. Ariela was about twelve years old at the time. She sat in the front row and stared up at the guest speaker. Butterfly Hill was a young woman who didn’t lean on platitudes. She told her story with religious zeal, and she spoke directly to Ariela. Saying “Save the Redwoods” wasn’t enough. Butterfly Hill had lived in the upper branches of a thousand year-old redwood for over two years.

Ariela was inspired. She read both of Butterfly Hill’s books, The Legacy of Luna and One Makes the Difference: Inspiring Actions that Change our World. That’s when she joined the Sierra Club. Like Butterfly Hill, Ariela wasn’t one to rest on slogans. When she finished high school, she became a volunteer trail docent at Crissy Field, part of Golden Gate National Park. She patrolled once a week for eight years. Her dog, Benji, dutifully came along until he no longer could. Her painting on the banner of this website is her impression of the trees she passed on the trail. Ariela was very proud to be a steward of the park and of our natural resources. She knew that to save our planet we would need to change our behavior. She would have approved of Obama’s stance against the pipeline.

The kings of the forest, the noblest of noble race, rightly belong to the world, but as they are in California, we cannot escape the responsibility as their guardians.   – John Muir