November 05, 2008

Why I'm A Democrat and Born-Again Hope: Thanks, Obama!

Like just about everyone else in America last night, I was glued to the TV, watching the presidential returns roll in. Just before eight p.m., Pacific Standard Time, I got up to brush my teeth. When I came back, what? Barack Obama won???? Sliding out of nowhere came this unexpected nostalgia—Bobby, you didn’t die in vain.

Bobby Kennedy is my personal hero, Martin Luther King Jr. a close second. I don’t know that I’ve ever fully recovered from their double-punch assassinations, so I suppose my nostalgia for Bobby upon announcement of America’s first black president is not so misplaced after all. Bobby would have been proud. Martin Luther King Jr., I think, would have wept—as did Jesse Jackson in stunned disbelief and wonder; as did Oprah Winfrey with unblinking eyes. I myself sat on my sofa almost paralyzed by the enormity of this unprecedented event—a paralysis I knew my children’s generation can never appreciate. Did I need to pinch myself to believe this true? The phone rang.

WARNER showed up in caller ID. “Barbara!” I screamed jubilantly into the phone. A fellow Canadian American, she is in the thick of politics back east.

“WE WON!” she screamed into my ear. “WE WON!” And it was suddenly so real tears bit my eyes. WE WON!

I remember when—and why—I became a Democrat. I was in grade eight at Slauson Junior High in Ann Arbor, Michigan. We lived thirty miles from Detroit, it was the mid-60s, and our school was ruled by the black girls, big girls who’d just as soon throw you up against the lockers as look at you. It was a culture foreign to me, for I’d always lived in white communities. The only “Negro” I knew was a man from Montreal, Quebec, a charming man who sometimes came up to our lodge in St. Agathe, seventy miles north of the city, on the weekends the winter of 1962. By day he took us for breath-taking toboggan rides down the sun-dazzled, snowy white ski hill; by night he told us breath-taking ghost stories in the quivering darkness of black shadows. I can still see the whites of his eyes reflected in the candlelight and hear his slow, storyteller voice drawing me into his spin. He was a man of high humor, incorrigible personality. I adored him. Moving to Ann Arbor, MI, a year later drop-kicked-me-Jesus into culture shock. For at Slauson Junior High the hallways trembled with every aftershock of civil rights violence, and I struggled to understand a divided world that had never been part of my life.

At Slauson I had two close friends. A white girl and someone “yellow.” Sandy’s skin was so white the blacks hated her, yet not nearly white enough to suit the white kids. Sandy Bird and I became friends and there was nothing I liked better than to have a sleepover at her house. It was a crowded house, full of happy sounds and a rhythm of music unlike anything I’d known. The lilt of her family’s voices and the song of their give and take fed me more than her mother’s good cooking; and at night—the two of us spooned together in her narrow cot, my back up against the wall and arms around her, falling asleep listening to the soft snores of her brothers and sisters in the room we shared and hearing the hearty laughter of her father seeping through the walls from the living room beyond—I experienced rare moments of serenity, a floating bliss that took me into deep and untroubled sleep.

Our days at school were not so idyllic, but in looking back they were days perfect for teaching me how to think. In this I was aided and abetted by my civics teacher. I wish I could remember his name. He gave us a book list from which we could choose to read and report on—books like Animal Farm, 1984, To Kill A Mockingbird, Black Like Me. We had to identify the authors’ theses, then provide evidence as to how he or she developed his or her ideas. He would poke holes in our lack of logic or sloppy thinking, and we had to shore ourselves up or start all over. A paper could go back and forth five or six times before he finally wrote, “Well done.”

In October, 1964, in the heat of the political battle between Barry Goldwater and Lyndon B. Johnson, he assigned us the task of choosing a candidate and writing an essay persuading others to our viewpoint. A formidable assignment for a girl from Canada, living less than two years in a divided America.

My father took me down to the Democratic and Republican headquarters in Ann Arbor where we picked up brochures and leaflets. “But they don’t tell me anything,” I complained. “Welcome to politics,” Dad said with a smile. We headed for a library at the University of Michigan where the research began. Buried in the stacks night after night and while Dad studied for his PhD, and in the closing days of the political campaign, I studied the history of the Democratic and Republican parties.

As a Canadian, my only exposure to the issue of race was pride in my country’s status as a safe haven for runaway slaves. I was just six or seven when Mark Twain introduced me to the conditions of slavery and Harriet Beecher Stowe informed me of the Underground Railroad. And so I began my research from this very Canadian corner, leaning inevitably toward the Republican Party because it was Abraham Lincoln who’d freed the slaves. To my surprise, plowing though all the texts Dad helped me find, I learned that the Republican party’s platform had evolved into the antithesis of itself; and that by 1964 it actually stood against everything Lincoln had been killed for. It was the Democratic Party that had taken up the task of declaring “all men are created equal.”

And so I became a Democrat.

Yes, the black girls at Slauson grew bolder when Johnson won and settled more firmly into the White House. Yes, I was still scared of them. But I never blamed them. I even understood why they scape-goated Sandy: They disliked themselves for being black and this, I knew, was America’s real crime—psychologically instilling in the oppressed a sense of inferiority that fed a self-hatred so potent they turned on each other and themselves. Racial prejudice wasn’t just white against black, but black against itself.

The fall of 1967 my family moved to Iowa, a small town, solid Dutch, everyone blue-eyed, blond, and so white and self-absorbed I yearned for the turmoil of Slauson Junior High where things that mattered defined my days and teachers challenged complacency. I followed the country’s politics on my own and chose any assignment that let me write about civil rights. My new heroes were Dick Gregory, Martin Luther King Jr., and Bobby Kennedy, and books about Bobby formed my first library. January 21, 1968, the Viet Nam War became more of an issue that it already was. The fallout from the Tet Offense dominated our attention—and I became solidly entrenched in the Democratic camp. And then on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered.

I’d memorized his “I Have A Dream” speech and the fact that he would never realize his dream crippled me. At school the girls went on twirling their blond, bouncy hair; the boys strutted about as usual with football jackets slung off their shoulders. The teachers, shocking me to my core, said nothing. I suffered King’s death in black silence. Three months later my family was packing the car for our summer trip to Canada’s West Coast when news of Bobby Kennedy’s murder came over the radio. My knees went out from under me. What was wrong with this country I lived in?

Of the trip I remember nothing except lying in the back of the station wagon with dry tears, listening to the various radio stations my father picked up as we wound our way west. Bobby offered the only hope for racial resolution and an end to the war. His death and the loss of hope it symbolized went so deep it stayed my deepest grief. We arrived at my grandparents’ house in time to watch his funeral on TV. I sat on the floor with extended family and silently begged God to raise Bobby from the dead, to resurrect hope. “Battle Hymn of the Republic” boomed in my ears, the words to caught in my throat. As his coffin was carried in ceremonial procession I bent my forehead to the carpet and whispered, “Please, please, bring him back. Please.” But they buried Bobby Kennedy and God ceased trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.

Forty years later, the night dark around me, hope for the first time stirred, catching me completely off guard, so long it had been buried. I’d become an American citizen some time ago, specifically to vote Democrat every chance I could get. Something inside of me simply cannot accept oppression of any kind: be it racial, economic, sexual, or gender. But hope has never surfaced. Not even after Barack Obama published his Audacity of Hope or mounted a campaign short of miraculous. The discrimination against gays, the disparity between rich and poor, the abysmal and unconscionable lack of a heath care system, these and other issues have existed so long I haven’t even been able to smell hope. But then last night, in the dark, words from the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” began to flutter up from Bobby’s cold grave on the warm draft of Obama’s rise to the presidency. By the fourth stanza the words were clear: He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat; He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat: Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet! Our God is marching on. . .

I gave way to sleep then, thinking of that night forty years ago when we buried Bobby Kennedy and I thought God had abandoned America. Thanking him too for bringing back hope, a dream, equality, the reality of what counts. And when I finally slept I found myself in the circle of those beautiful, big, brassy black girls at Slauson Junior High and my old friend Sandy Bird. We were laughing. We were crying and shouting and punching the sky. The color of our skin no longer divided us with all its jealousy, mistrust, hate, and fear. I wept with them and together we cried, WE WON!

Barack Obama did not win because of his skin color; he won because of his calm presence, his insight into complexity, his unwavering commitment to creative change, his audacious vision of hope. And, as he pointed out in his acceptance speech last night, because of us. We have turned a corner where we care more about what binds us than divides us. His skin color was so completely immaterial this is our triumph.

No, Bobbie did not die in vain. Nor did Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, or all those who have in God’s name continued to trample out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.

Because of them a freer world rises this morning, buoyed by the audacity of born-again hope. Thank you Barack Obama. Thank you Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Lyndon B. Johnson, JFK, everyone. God's truth is marching on.

In 1855 William Stelle wrote the original tune to the song we know as the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It was called by various names and quickly became a Negro Spiritual sung around campfires. Five years later and on the eve of the Civil War, Thomas Bishop of the Massachusetts Infantry, penned new words to the tune and used “John Brown’s Body” as a marching song. There has been some contention over the years as to whether or not the song was about John Brown who led the slave rebellion at Harper’s Ferry and triggered the Civil War or John Brown, a Scotsman in the 12th Massachusetts Regiment. Whatever the case, abolitionist writer Julia Ward Howe heard the song at the outbreak of the war and took it upon herself to write yet another set of words in hopes of generating a fighting song for men giving their lives for equality. “Battle Hymn of the Republic" as we know it today was published in February 1862 in the Atlantic Monthly and became the rallying cry for an end to slavery. For those interested, I’ve provided a link to a site where you can see the lyrics and hear the music. When it plays? Know that my canary is singing its head off. He absolutely loves this song!

November 02, 2008

A Thief in the Night, Halloween 2008

Happy Halloween

Halloween. I can’t sleep. I toss and turn, the house making more than its usual noises as it settles down, night deepening. Loud creaks, a crack. I picture chunks of it breaking loose and falling clean off. Ker-chunk. The wind begins to pick up. Fans along the top of the house clank. 12:30 a.m. Now 1:00, and I drift in and out, the house still making noises. 1:45. The wind outside pushes against the walls. The bathroom fans clatter. I’m in for it now, I think, and bury my head under my pillow to stifle the racket. Two a.m. Now I’m thinking of the night’s news, a man with a rap sheet two inches thick, breaking into a Seattle home and raping a woman at knife point while her children slept just down the hall.

What’s that?

I lie stark still, breathing hard, listening. I ease the pillow off my head, ears on high alert.

A sliver of light from the hallway lamp comes slanting under my bedroom door and 2:05 glimmers green from the clock by my bed. No, I finally think, it’s just the house, and I close my eyes. Not for long. This time I bolt straight up into a sitting position, staring at the door, heart pounding my ears so hard I can’t hear a thing. And my lungs don’t know what to do. They shiver and shudder in confusion and it hurts. I have to consciously tell them to take turns with in and out. In. Out. That’s better. Another noise… Someone’s in the house!

I don’t even reach for the phone; it’s sitting by my computer in the other room. So stupid. I’m going to be stabbed to death because I forgot the phone. Another noise and I throw off the cover, feet to the floor. Next thing I know I can’t pivot the doorknob key into lock! And my hands are shaking so badly I fear I’ll rattle the door in its frame. Hey you out there! Come get me! I might as well shout. Which way does the lock turn? Right? Left? Just as it clicks into place I hear footfall on the other side.

I freeze. Just for a moment. Then I’m across the room, grappling the lazy roll-up blind. Too loud. Half-heartedly, the blind at last gives me about eighteen inches. Good enough. I reach under, flip the window lock. Too loud! Every noise I make is going full blast. The window slides open with a trombone sigh. What, what? The screen? How do I get the screen out? I claw at the corner. Too loud too loud!! A loud snap, tooooo loud. The screen falls into the night. Now I’m trying to swing my legs out and over the sill, fighting the blind with more noise than a coop of hens all aflutter. I perch, one butt cheek in, one out, bare legs dangling in the wind. I hesitate. Maybe it’s just my imagination. And if I drop, I can’t get back in. And I’ll look pretty damn silly running around the neighborhood in bare feet and wearing only a short summer nightgown.

The rush and roar of my heart deafens me, pounding harder and faster than it ever has on a treadmill. Who needs a half hour of misery three times a week when all they need is someone to break into their house to give their heart a workout? I smell the sea. The tide’s in, the wind just right…a rare combination. Or maybe it’s just the salt in the sweat of my fear? All this darts through my head in a fraction of a second, whole thoughts, questions raised, curiosity up and sniffing like a chipmunk at its door while I remain dangling in terror half in, half out my window, straining, straining, straining to hear. Oprah of course would tell me to get the heck out of Dodge but I hang there.

I can see the slant of light under my door. If a shadow crosses, I’ll know. But then more noise and I drop, heavy as a brick, and land right on the screen, torking it out of shape. I’ve done this to a screen once before, at the old house. Dad had to fix it for me. There’s no one to fix this one, Dad’s dead, and a rush of loneliness rushes out of nowhere and takes me almost to my knees in sick fear. Dad! Dad! Tell me what to do!

I glance quickly down the narrow aisle of my side yard. I can dart in behind the rhodendrons, ease through the arbor vitae, then vault the floppy fish netting I’ve stapled behind them and land in the field behind the house. But what if I somehow get stuck in the netting, like Peter Rabbit? To say nothing of having to first tiptoe barefoot through the entire neighborhood’s unwanted cat poop! And once in the field? What then? Race over hay-stubble in my bare feet under full light of the moon? And to where? A single glance out a back window will give me away. Whoever’s in my house might--might?--have a gun and blow me to smithereens.

I glance the other direction, up to the front of the house. I dash for the gate. Shivering, trembling so badly I can hardly grasp the latch, I gratefully find it undone. The gate swings away noiselessly, but then collides with the gravel on the other side. Too loud! I give the gate a shove. The gravel grates, everything amplified. I squeeze around. Three steps. My feet find the brick I laid last summer. Just to my right is the garage. Tucked along the wall and beside the garbage can is a stump my dad made for my watering can. If I had my phone I could sit here in the shadow of garage and garbage, and call 9-1-1. But no phone. I have to get to a neighbor’s. Any instant the intruder will break into my bedroom and know I’ve flown the coop.

Do I go Lori’s? My neighbor on the other side of my house? But her porch lights will be on. One look out my kitchen window and the intruder has me in his sites. Who will get to me first? The guy with the knife, or Lori, wondering why someone’s ringing her bell in the middle of the night?

I sure as shooting ain’t going down to the mean Lori’s house. Down the street the opposite direction. Once-upon-a-time my boss, she replaced me in July with a twenty-year-old. I won’t get over the discrimination for a long time. Russell’s? I wonder. Across the cultesac? The scent of the sea is suddenly eclipsed by the garbage and I stagger forward, to the end of the garage and drive. What?

A car sits bold as you please in my driveway. I shrink back quickly and cozy up to the garbage can. Is someone at the wheel? Waiting for the guy inside to make his haul and come flying out for a quick getaway? I ease forward, thinking that the good Lori’s porch light might be bright enough for me to see. Yes, and no one’s in the car. Wait. . . Blake’s car? As in Blake, my twenty-eight-year-old son? Is that his car?

I dart quickly across the drive, past the face of my house and front porch. The accountant lamp on Grandpa’s desk, a warm glow behind the Venetian blinds, suddenly goes out. I plunge around the porch and gain the far side of the house.

The side windows are all over my head. No one inside is going to spot me while I work my way down to the back yard. But to where? Why? I’m losing all sense of rational thinking and I freeze at the back deck, mind paralyzed. Really, I can’t go up and peer through the glass doors to see if it’s Blake! How asinine is that? What if it isn’t? I have to find out if it’s Blake’s car. I have to. How?

I head back up to the front.

I’m passing the living room window when the wooden blinds above my head rattle. I jump a mile. Truly. I look up. Maybe it is Blake! A burglar, a murderer, wouldn’t be rattling the blinds. Would they? Or maybe they know by now I’m out here. My heart goes into overdrive. I cough on the pain in my chest and stumble forward, pause at the porch, car in full sight.

It looks like Blake’s car. Ah! I suddenly remember he’d been vandalized, that his radio has been stolen. I glance at my front window, where the accountant light is out. All is quiet. Very dark. No one is peering through the slats. I race to the car, peek in through the driver’s side. Oh my gosh, a gaping hole in the dashboard!

The relief is so profound and so swift my innards go warm and liquid and I nearly wet myself. True. At the same time I realize my feet are ice, and soaking wet from the grass that needs to be cut one more time before winter sets in. I stumble up the drive, knees so wobbly they’re knocking, stagger up the two cement steps and lean an index finger into the doorbell.

He doesn’t answer.

I use my thumb this time. Twice. Bing bong. Bing bong.

Get up, I say to myself, shivering and shaking and wondering how long I can stand. Then I hear him. He flips on the porch light. I hear him turn the dead bolt. The door swings open three inches. A very puzzled-looking Blake squints through the crack. Suddenly recognition lightens his eyes and, hand to his head and stepping back a bit, he says, “What the…”

“What are doing in my house?” I demand.

“What are you doing out there!”

“Someone broke in and I jumped out the window!”

“You jumped out the window?”

He let me in.

Of course I’m locked out of my bedroom. He has to go out and around and scramble up through the window. I try not to think of the damaged screen.

“How could you do this to me?” I demand when he sheepishly lets me into my own bedroom.

“I e-mailed you! I told you I might be staying over!”

“You didn’t e-mail me!”

“I did!”

I head for the computer, fire up Firefox. He’s laughing in the doorway and says: “When the doorbell rang and I’m wondering who might be calling? I never, ever, in my wildest dreams figured on finding my mother standing out there!”

And there’s his e-mail. i may sleep at your place tonight on the way back from vancouver, so if you hear a noise in the middle of the night don't be alarmed.

Who said better late than never?

I hear him wandering back to the living room and sofa. “This’ll be a funny story in the morning!” he calls over his shoulder. “We can have a lot of fun with this one!”

I kill Firefox. It blinks out. I trail Blake. “It would be a whole lot funnier if I’d had my phone and called the cops on you.”

“It would,” he agrees.

I turn back to my room. Gosh, that would have been funny!

“Someone needs to get you a tazer!” he hollers.

So guess what’s on my Christmas list. Happy Halloween, everyone!