I Wimped Out….But I Won’t Next Time

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Yesterday I went to get my hair cut and colored. COVID has receded enough to allow hair salons in my county to open again, but with strict restrictions. One client at a time, physical distancing, masks and temperature checks and disinfection protocols between each customer.

So, my stylist was in the last stage of applying color to my roots when a tall, older man with a goatee walked in. She mumbled, “What is he doing here? He is two hours early! His appointment is not until 3:30,” the approximate time she would be finished with me. The man hadn’t stopped at the station right by the door where customers are supposed to use hand sanitizer. He sat down in a chair about 8 feet away. He was not wearing a mask.

In moments like this it’s hard to know what to do. We have all seen the videos of entitled white people flying off the handle in response to “no mask, no service” statements. I expected (wanted) my stylist to be assertive–to ask him to come back with a mask, particularly since he was so early. But she seemed hesitant, like she was trying to figure out how to approach him, even though he was apparently a regular customer. She finished my color treatment and set me underneath a dryer, located about five feet behind from her chair. She then went over to talk with the man.

She signed him in, checked his temperature, and asked him about a mask. He said he didn’t have one. Instead of refusing to serve him, she gave him a tissue to hold over his face as he sat down in her chair. My hair stylist pointed the fan in front him towards the floor, so his respiratory droplets would not be blown back into where I was sitting, held captive by the dryer. I watched all of this, my anxiety growing, then hid behind my magazine, the September issue of The Atlantic, with “How Did It Come to This?” glaring from the front cover. From time to time I would look up from the magazine, to catch the man looking at me through the mirror. Each time I looked up, the tissue was barely covering his mouth, his nose uncovered. My anxiety increased, as did my anger.

After the man left and I was done with the dryer, I asked my stylist what the deal was–why she had let him settle for “wearing” a tissue instead of a mask. I told her he had barely kept it in front of his face, and that I was uncomfortable sitting so close to him. She apologized, explaining he was a “Trump follower,” and she had learned from past experiences that customers like him can be pushed only so far. I empathized with her–her business has been severely impacted by the COVID shut-downs. She applied for unemployment in April and still hasn’t received a dime of assistance. It’s hard to turn any customer away under those conditions. There’s also the gender dynamic. It takes courage for women–even assertive ones like me–to stand up to men. We are so used to being subservient, so socialized to being accommodating.

But I could have said something, done something. In hindsight I had so many choices. I could have politely said, “Excuse me. Would you do me a favor? Would you mind wearing a mask for my protection and that of my health-compromised family?” If he resisted, I could have said, “I understand. You don’t know me. Then, would you wear a mask for our stylist? Because if she doesn’t follow the health guidelines, it puts her shop at risk of being shut down, and that wouldn’t be good for any of us. Would you do it for her?”

And if he responded with some babble about his “liberty,” or how COVID is just a hoax, or that herd immunity is what we should all strive for, I could have said, “You know, 187,000 people have died from COVID so far this year, so it can’t be a hoax. And your “liberty” could cost me and my family not only our liberty but also our lives. Scientists have reported that more than 2 million more people will die before “herd immunity,” is achievable. I believe in God, but God doesn’t save us from being stupid. Please put on a mask.”

And if he still refused? I could have gotten up from underneath the dryer and gone to the far reaches of the salon, where his air was less likely to reach me. I could have told my stylist, to rinse out my color and call me when she’s ready to make everyone follow the health guidelines to keep all of us safe. She earns far more for my treatment than she does for a man’s haircut.

My dog teaches me to always reward the behavior we want repeated. My stylist rewarded the man’s risky behavior by cutting his hair and not forcing the issue. I rewarded his behavior by not saying anything. That won’t be happening again. At least not by me.

Watching the Neighbors

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My neighbor carefully paints the edge of her car’s trunk with white out
because the too-small-to-notice scratch interrupts her well-manicured
desire for perfection

Another neighbor tosses water balloons across the spring lawn to her daughter
because the beaches are closed and they yearn to feel the surprise of
water splashing on skin

My elderly neighbor walks her white-haired toy poodle on the usual 4 p.m. route
because it gives them the nostalgia of normal, a small taste of freedom
embraced by fresh air 

Across the alley, a neighbor spins milkweed into monarchs, releasing them as blessings
because she wants to remind the world that with tender love and compassion
life will endure

 

My Constitutional Celebration

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This morning, for the first time in more than a decade, I had to appear for Superior Court jury duty. The last time I was summoned I got to call a juror hotline the day before to see if I was needed, and I wasn’t. This time, there was no call in option–I had to show up.

A lot has changed since I last had to appear in person.  The jury assembly room has been modernized with big-screen TVs, free WiFi with decent bandwidth, and free access to e-books and magazines courtesy of the county library. There are tables and workstations and quiet rooms to allow people to function while waiting to be assigned to a courtroom. There’s even a cafe next door that serves reasonably good coffee.

The last time I was summoned I was working full time and jury duty felt like a major inconvenience. I was distracted by everything happening back at the office. I worried about the work I was not getting done. And I knew that even if I managed to get selected for a jury, I would most likely be excused because my job required me to interact regularly with police officers and as a result, I respect their work.  Plus, my education and analytical thinking skills tended to make defense attorneys nervous about having me in the jury box. I have never served on a municipal or superior court jury, and it would have been easy to see today’s service as yet another waste of time.

But all that changed when I learned what our President did yesterday. Over the last week (and even before the end of his impeachment trial, really), Number 45 has made it abundantly clear he does not respect the rule of law and the institutions of justice created to uphold it. Yesterday he trashed the 5th Amendment to the Bill of Rights when he threw out pardons like cheap Mardi Gras beads to a bunch of felons, all of whom had been convicted by juries of their peers.  Our President does not understand (or care) that juries comprised of ordinary citizens like you and me are what keep our justice system fair and impartial.  As Superior Court Judge James Crandall stated so eloquently in his welcome this morning, “Jury duty is a constitutional celebration.”  

But with yesterday’s actions, our President basically said my jury service today doesn’t matter. Because he can use (abuse) his power to pardon anyone he wants to, any time he wants to. He can do this even if their illegal behavior ruined lives, endangered our country, corrupted our democracy or worse.  Yesterday he thumbed his nose at the scales of justice, because he doesn’t believe they should apply to him or anyone he likes (which apparently only requires a big enough donation to his re-election campaign).  I don’t know about you, but that really pissed me off.

So  I arrived at the courthouse this morning eager to serve. I was ready to willingly change my plans and appointments if I was lucky enough to get in the jury box for a trial. Because being an impartial, thoughtful juror was one way I could help prop up those scales of justice. Because we need those scales of justice to be working properly if we are the ones ever a accused of a crime. Because if I were a defendant, I want someone like me deciding my fate. And because fulfilling my civic duty as a juror was one simple way I could say “F-you!” to the President and his abusive power. 

Late this afternoon I was excused from service. The court cases that might have required jurors simply weren’t ready for us.  I was a little disappointed, even though I got to go home.

Many people around the world live where there is no fair, impartial justice system in place. We ought not take ours for granted, no matter what our idiot President does with his power. Because in our corner of the world, justice and truth still matter. And it’s up to normal, ordinary citizens like us to keep it that way.

So the next time you get called for jury duty, don’t think of it as an inconvenience. Think of it as a way to contribute to the “constitutional celebration” our country desperately needs right now.

 

 

“When Home Is the Mouth of a Shark”

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Now that the White House has announced its plans to cap the number of refugees allowed to enter the United States at 18,000, the lowest number in almost 40 years, we need to stop and reflect on what causes people to become refugees in the first place. Why do they leave everything behind except what they can reasonably carry? Why do they trade the life they know for the uncertainty of life in a place they don’t know at all? Why do they flee, despite the dangers of migration? Why do they keep trying to come even when they know it may lead to imprisonment, family separation, persecution, and hate-filled, dehumanizing rhetoric combined with horrible living conditions? Why isn’t that enough to keep them home?

The answer is found in this beautifully sharp and powerful poem, written by Warsan Shire, a British writer and poet born to Somali parents. Stop what you are doing–take a break right now–and read it for yourself. I promise you’ll never see refugees quite the same way again or wonder why they risk so much to leave their home.

“Home” by Warsan Shire

Then when you’ve finished reading, consider supporting one of the many nonprofit organizations working along our southern border, trying to bring justice to the plight of those refugees. Click here for a list of Charity Navigator’s highest rated charities providing services and resources to individuals and families seeking a better outcome in the United States than they experienced in their home countries.

The Perils of Ignoring “Credible”

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One year ago today I spent the day watching Dr. Christine Blazey Ford testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Her story of being assaulted by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh was compelling, sobering, and for those of us sexual assault victims, triggering.  Immediately following her testimony, even some Republican Senators said she was “credible.” Remember that word? “Credible”? Of course that was before Mr. Kavanaugh gave his own defiant, angry testimony, announcing his affinity for beer, complaining bitterly how his life and his reputation and his family would be “ruined” if he was denied the big, professional prize, that Supreme Court seat.  As we all know now, Dr. Blazey Ford is the one whose life was ultimately ruined. By eleven white men.  I wrote this poem a year ago, but it seems fitting to publish it on the anniversary of her testimony.

11 White Men

Eleven white men sit in silence
afraid of optics
and history repeating

Eleven white men cede their time to a female prosecutor
cede expressions of empathy
until the witness becomes a man

Eleven white men push aside the prosecutor
comfort restored
optics no longer matter

Eleven white men vote in favor of the man
a credible accuser’s words
simply not enough

our divided nation watches
women’s voices be assaulted by
Eleven white men

 

Yesterday we heard that word again–“credible.” This time it was applied to a complaint filed by a courageous federal whistle-blower. “Credible,” said the Inspector General who reviewed the complaint and completed its initial investigation. “Credible,” said the Acting Director of National Intelligence yesterday, as he testified before the House Intelligence Committee.

There are consequences when our leaders ignore “credible” things. September 11th happened because “credible” threats were ignored. A tainted Supreme Court Justice sits on the bench because “credible” allegations were ignored, not only by the eleven white (Republican) men on the Judiciary Committee, but also by the FBI who was asked to dig deeper into Justice Kavanaugh’s behavior while he was drinking all of that beer in college, but ultimately did not contact any corroborating witness.

I realize that “credible” doesn’t automatically mean “true.” But when that word appears in the context of something important to our nation and its future, it is worth taking seriously. This latest “credible” allegation, which not only describes our President pressuring a foreign leader for personal political gain but also its apparent cover up, is no different. We should be paying attention to and supporting those who do take it seriously. And on November 3, 2020 we should pledge not to vote for those who don’t.

The Kindest Rejection

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Several months ago I submitted a handful of poems for the Rattle Poetry Prize. Rattle is a quarterly poetry journal published by the Rattle Foundation, a non-profit whose mission is to “promote the practice of poetry.” I was interested in the contest not only because it offers one of the largest prizes for a single poem in the world ($10,000), but also because the Foundation is local to southern California and has a stellar reputation for publishing poems it likes. In other words, you don’t have to be a highly published, “professional poet” with a lot of collections under your belt to have your work seriously considered.

I knew it was a long shot because the Rattle Poetry Prize attracts submissions from all over the world. This year the Foundation considered more than 14,000 poems among 3,606 entries. But rejections can always sting. Unless of course, they are written from a place of kindness and compassion — like this excerpt from my rejection notice.

One last note, which might go without saying, but just in case: The fact that we didn’t choose to publish any of the poems you submitted should not be considered a ruling on their or your merit. Poetry is always subjective, and our decision reflects nothing more than our honest opinion of which poems we liked most. Whether or not you choose to participate in the contest again, we hope you’ll keep sending us more poems in the form of regular submissions. Poems coming in unsolicited are really our life-blood–and outside of this contest there is never an entry fee. We love poetry, and we’re always happy to read. Don’t hesitate.

The kindness that emanated from this letter, written by Rattle’s Editor, Tim Green, erased most, if not all, of the rejection disappointment I might otherwise have felt. Rather than feel deflated, I feel honored and valued for having participated. Most of all, I feel proud for having the courage to press that “submit” button to begin with. My poem(s) didn’t win, and they won’t be published (yet). But rejection letters like this encourage me to keep trying. Thanks Mr. Green, and thanks to the Rattle Foundation for helping to make poetry matter.

P.S. — A big, hearty congratulations to Matthew Dickman from London, United Kingdom for winning this year’s Rattle Poetry Prize. I can’t wait to read his poem, “Stroke” and the poems of the other 10 finalists who will be featured in this winter’s issue of Rattle (#66).

Reflections on 9/11

Eighteen years ago today commercial airplanes were hijacked and flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. I remember exactly where I was while it was happening and how I ended up spending the rest of that day, which has been seared into into my memory along with the horrible images from it. You probably have the same vivid recollections.

The attack on 9/11 was a turning point for our country, where the trauma of terror (once something thought to happen only “over there”) became a real and present danger here at home. It marked a generation that has never known anything but the presence of terror, first caused by Al-Qaeda that sad September day, and now caused by mass shootings (which school children now drill for), persistent bullying (usually triggered by perpetrators’ deep insecurities), and other anxieties about things like the crisis of climate change. These things were not part of my childhood existence and it breaks my heart to know they are the norm for today’s children.

I know there is no going back to those seemingly innocent times–and in some ways that’s a good thing. Young people today seem much more inclusive of different people, because the importance of inclusion has been drilled into their heads even more than duck and cover. They get it that we are supposed to love and accept everyone, regardless of race or religion or cultural heritage or sexual orientation or gender identity or you name it.  They don’t understand why this concept is so hard for older generations to understand and live by. (Hey–that’s their perception. I’m merely reporting it!) Our youth are almost universally opposed to gun violence and the reckless ways our state and federal laws continue to allow people to own more guns than they need and to allow the purchase of guns and accoutrements designed more for the casualties of combat, than “for sport.” Their advocacy for a better, safer world gives me hope.

In these days of anxiety and chaos it is so hard to find calm or feel peace.  We continue search for it–many of us even pay good money for apps in the hope that the portals of our smart phones will provide it. When in reality, perhaps what we most need is less connection with technology and its impersonality and more connection with the physical voice and presence of another human being.

9/11 brought Americans together in a significant, powerful way that many of us remember as vividly as the terror itself. May we allow that communal connection (and our craving for it) to guide our actions today and in all the days to come.

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Where Have You Been, Activist Poet?

Yes, I know. It’s been months and months since I posted anything. To be honest, I’ve been wrestling with several questions about my writing and where it is headed. Originally, I created this blog to provide a space to push out my poetry. Then I started worrying that posting it here might make it less likely to have it published elsewhere, such as literary journals or magazines, many of which require completely original never-before-published work. Then I started wondering if it was a good idea to make my poetry available for free when it’s possible to be compensated for it. While pondering these questions (and more), I decided to push “pause” on this blog for awhile.

At the end of April I traveled  to Taos, New Mexico to participate in a week-long, intensive women’s writing retreat led by the wonderful and talented Jennifer Louden. My original intention was to make good headway on a poetry collection. And I did write a few poems while I was there.

Taos PuebloBut something happened during my time in Taos. Maybe it was the powerful, spiritual energy that flows through the community, from the Pueblo to the mountains, and into the town itself. Maybe it was the enthusiastic encouragement of 20+ brilliant women writers, who were also extending beyond their creative comfort zones, supported by Jen’s and Lisa Jones‘ gentle coaching. Maybe it was the fantastic food at the Mabel Dodge Luhan home, where our retreat was located. Maybe it was the the vast New Mexican sky, the labyrinth gracing the property, the daily afternoon gentle yoga, or the rabbits and hummingbirds roaming around. Or maybe, just maybe, it was the intentional turning off of my cell phone and the deliberate avoidance of email and news.

Whatever the catalyst (perhaps all of the above?), my focus shifted in Taos. It shifted away from writing poetry and towards a new, creative project (“The Project,” I now call it), so magnetically compelling I can’t stay away from it for very long or else I start feeling unsettled.  The Project is a novel, a work of historical fiction based on the life of my husband’s grandmother, who at the age of 9, became a refugee during the 1915 Armenian genocide in Turkey. The Project requires a lot of my time and energy–the research alone is massively challenging. After years of mostly technical writing, I’m learning that the process of creating good, quality fiction is hard. Really hard.

Oh, I’m still an activist. And I’m still a poet. But my writing is starting to tell me I could be so much more. Stay tuned….

Why Wait?

The extra week between Thanksgiving and Christmas allowed me to settle on goals for the upcoming year a little earlier than usual. And now that I’m committed to them, I kind of want to get started instead of waiting for January 1 (or 5th, the day after my birthday). The motivation and inspiration I’m feeling today, says maybe I should just get going. Do you feel the same eagerness to start working on something new?

Resolution

Why wait

To change calendars before making yearned for change

Why wait

For the crowd seeking new in a new year

Why wait

You can blaze your own trail

Why wait

Deep wells of resolve are ready to burst forth, eager to start

Why wait

The first step is always the hardest

Take it

Be Bold and Speak the Truth

Sometimes another writer’s work is so close to my own thinking, I can’t help but wonder if  they have been secretly hanging out inside my head. This week’s “WRighteous” column by Amy Ferris is one of those pieces. I envy her boldness, her directness, her ability to capture the multiple contradictions so evident in our divided America, speaking truth to power in such a creative, articulate way. I sometimes hesitate to share my more powerful poems, worrying too much about whether people will think they are too strident, or too “political.” But a wise woman once told me, “Change comes when the pain of change is less than the pain of staying the same.” Our country is in so much pain right now. An effective way to ease the pain is to find our voice, find our courage, and be as bold in speaking truth to power as Amy Ferris is. I’ll try to be bolder–and I hope you will try too.

speak-truth