“And You Know These Bad Men by Sight?”

Harrison Ford’s Witness is one of my all time favorite films. The Wiki entry includes these lines:

Witness was generally well received by critics and earned eight Academy Award nominations (including Weir’s first and Ford’s sole nomination to date).

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times rated the film four out of four stars, calling it “first of all, an electrifying and poignant love story. Then it is a movie about the choices we make in life and the choices that other people make for us. Only then is it a thriller—one that Alfred Hitchcock would have been proud to make.” He concluded, “We have lately been getting so many pallid, bloodless little movies—mostly recycled teenage exploitation films made by ambitious young stylists without a thought in their heads—that Witness arrives like a fresh new day. It is a movie about adults, whose lives have dignity and whose choices matter to them. And it is also one hell of a thriller.”

I’ve never been able to shake some scenes, and the clip above is one particular sticky example. It replays in my mind often, and lately every day.

Some critics dismiss Witness as “just another cop movie.” Others praise it for being “devoid of easy moralizing.”

This Sunday morning I am asking myself, what does my country want to be? Is the 21st Century U.S.A.  just another cop movie? Or will we be willing to go deeper?

Wishing you a day of peace and reflection.

The President and the Children: Don’t Think First, Just Feel. Then Think.

There are pictures, and then there are photographs. And then photographs evolve to portraits, and portraits speak to identity and soul in ways that are irrefutable and powerful.

With every President of the United States, there emerges a portrait that speaks to the American people.  That portrait, that eternal visual of identity and soul, enters our collective consciousness and stays there.  It tells us who our President is, but also who we want and need him to be.

Marvin Eugene Smith recently shared this photograph of President Barack Obama on Faceboook, and added these personal thoughts:

See? We need more interaction like this between youth and their “stars.” Simple little gestures like this last a lifetime. Back in the day it was quite common. I’ve seen pics of Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Sugar Ray Robinson, Sammy Davis, the Temptations, Count Basie and many others doing the same exact thing. No need for bodyguards to brush the young people aside who genuinely love you.

Mr. Smith is an African American man living in Chicago, and the series of social media connections that brought the President’s photo to his attention and then to a friend and then to me was made up of other African American men.  Some of you reading this immediately will jump on the defensive and say it doesn’t matter that black men see a portrait here, but you would be wrong.  Yes, anyone can identify with this image (I do), but the fact that it resonates and brings to mind other African American men and women who became children’s role models and heroes is critically important.

Look at those children.  Look at that man. Let yourself feel what it means, what it can mean, that magic moment of connection that clearly flows both ways across the fence.  He understands what they don’t yet, that who they dream they can become and how fiercely they believe in that vision is the lifeblood of this nation.  They just touched a man who leads the free world and who, figuratively, could be their father, their uncle, their brother, themselves.

As a mother and a child advocate, I now call this my portrait of Barack Obama.

(We do not all share the same portrait as “The One” that explained things to us about who the person was or is, and how his individual identity becomes part of our national identity. But we all know “our” image when we see it.  Following are some of my favorites, what are some of yours, and why?)

This is my top Kennedy portrait (I like this one because of the youthful energy and optimism, as well as the Jackie element in the bottom corner): 

This is my top Lincoln portrait, or others showing him literally in the battlefields of the Civil War (though frankly, any great photograph of that awesome craggy face works, too):

The pain here in President Johnson speaks to me about the agony of Vietnam, and the grief of a man who wanted to lead domestic policy and found himself drawn into an entirely other world.

Waking Up with a Stranger

John Henry Fuseli The Nightmare

Immediate disclaimer:  I’ve never literally woken up with a stranger.  Not my style.

But I am pretty sure I know what it would feel like, which again goes to why I’ve never allowed it to happen.  This week I had the bizarre feeling it had happened, but not in any way I saw coming.

Perusing a social media site, I found a comment by an acquaintance about the Occupy Wall Street protesters.  Her comment boiled down to, “Get a life, get a job, and stop irritating those of us who are trying to spend our hard-earned money on vacation.”  Discovering this comment was like opening a door into a lot of similar feelings expressed by people who I assume are decent human beings.  Some people who see the protesters this way are even my friends and family members.  It was like rolling over all warm and sleepy and realizing that head on the pillow was not any one I recognized.

This is bigger for me than individuals.  Everyone has a bad day, or says a dumb thing, or just needs to blow off steam sometimes.  If we all isolated ourselves from everyone who makes a frustrated comment we don’t agree with on Facebook or Twitter, we wouldn’t have much of a network.

The Stranger, it turns out, is the social mood, priorities, and values of my own country.

I have a three-year-old child, and am only just now emerging from what a friend calls, “The Baby Tunnel.”  The tunnel is  a place you enter about the time you realize you are pregnant, and you only go deeper, darker, and quieter for about 4 years after that.  Eventually, you see the light and begin to re-emerge, but the world and the people in it have changed while you were away.  I was born in 1968, and when I was in college I relentlessly quizzed my mother about Vietnam, JFK, Martin Luther King, Jr., and The Beatles.  “What was it like?  Did you love them?  Did you march?  Who said what?  Did you go?  Were you scared?”

For years her answer was the same:  “Sigh.  Honey, I don’t know.  You had just been born.  I wasn’t paying attention to anything else.”

How is this possible?

Well, now I know.  And a deep description of The Baby Tunnel is more the purview of a true mommy blogger, so I’ll not go there.  But it is a real place, The Tunnel, and it can distance you from important cultural shifts.

Somewhere in the past 4 years, we lost a core shared vision as a nation.  Clearly, the roots of the loss go back much further than 4 years, but my experience indicates that the cement on this really started hardening between 2007-2011.

There seems to be an honest-to-God belief system that having a job is a reflection of a moral or ethical state.  Being employed is now a character trait.  But it’s weirder than that, it’s not enough to be employed.  It’s not even enough to have more than one job.  If that job or jobs does not pay enough to feed your family, then YOU are a failure.  YOU are at fault.  And if you feel differently, then YOU do not have the right to express those thoughts and beliefs because, well, YOU are the problem.  The problem is not allowed to speak.

Get a life, get a job, get out of my way.

No one wants to be on the outside.  It’s cold out there, and the kids are hungry.  It is not a complicated mystery that more and more people are growing anxious about how close they are to the edge.

But what is mysterious to me is the glaring refusal to acknowledge that the crumbling social architecture is not the fault of those most at-risk.  The closest thing I can piece together as logic is that if you are a guilty party — if you are part of the industry or power structure that has benefited from that which has hurt so many — you are pretty anxious yourself.  I keep seeing the prison warden in The Shawshank Redemption when he reads his own cross-stitched wall hanging:  “His judgement cometh, and that right soon.”

Those on the edge want an assured place inside.  If you want to be inside, you listen to those who already are.  They are the ones who, allegedly, allow you to stay safe.  If you are guilty, you want as many on your side as you can get.  You tell those who are trying to stay inside that those outside are wrong, evil, The Problem.  Don’t listen to those people, they just want to drag you down.  We want to keep you safe.  THEY are why everything is a mess.

I don’t feel good about waking up with whoever this is.  He needs to get his pants on and get the hell out of my house.  No pancakes, no coffee, no early movie.  Get gone.

Now, those faces in Occupy, for better or worse, they are familiar.  You folks, come on in.  I’ve got a pull out couch.

In Defense of Silence, or Not Saying Much About Recent Muchness

I just returned from a writers’ conference where I participated in my first-ever group critique.  In this exercise, other writers who have read your work provide oral (and later written) criticism of your writing.  Depending on how the reviewers feel, one may hear high praise, serious complaints against style and content, or some middle ground feedback.  Though it is customary for the writer whose work is being reviewed not to be permitted to speak, I was allowed to speak but with these strict instructions:

You may not defend your work.  You may answer questions, but if I hear you defending your work you will be asked to stop speaking.”

It was a tremendously valuable exercise, and both easier and more difficult than I anticipated.  I received some important responses to my fiction, but the most mind-shifting element was simply to listen and process what other writers told me about my writing.  I learned, for example, that my knowing that a character was dead did nothing to change the fact that readers who did not know she was dead felt I was writing her as “disconnected.”  Well, yes, because she’s dead…..but that’s a defense.  The reader doesn’t know that, he or she just knows a character is not working for them and they are losing interest.  I will be maintaining the existing plot but also developing an entirely new approach to the narrator.

Why am I telling you this?

Going through this experience a couple of days before the U.S. military found and terminated Osama Bin Laden and listening to the national chatter afterward has me thinking about “defending.”

September 11 made us a nation of defensive people, and it’s child’s play to understand why.

At the same time, it seems ironic that the defensiveness is turned inward for some reason.  There appears to be more concrete animosity between groups of American citizens than between Americans and anyone else.  It worries me that without an external enemy we somehow have become so hyped up on fear and anger that we create fights at home to expel rage we have been unable to purge for a decade onto the most culpable source of our grief.

I wonder what life would be like if we all took a couple of weeks to practice not defending, no matter what anyone says to us or implies.  We might hear something we need to hear.

“If our life is poured out in useless words, we will never hear anything because we have said everything before we ever had anything to say.”

— Thomas Merton from Thoughts on Solitude

Image credit: Into Great Silence

The Imagined Tiger

Sometimes I simply wonder, does everything have to mean something?

The shootings in Arizona scream out for commentary, and there is plenty of it already.  I think David Gergen’s piece, “No Time for Finger Pointing,” does an excellent job of acknowledging some possible contributing factors to the horrible event, but also of asking for a time-out on blame casting and causality theories.

When bad things happen, we need to find cause and fix blame.  It must comfort us in some way to think that hindsight will surely demonstrate some kind of rational explanation that will stop the violence.

I’ve reached a point in my life where I no longer go through this process, because the process has failed me too many times.  There will always be random and unforeseen destructive impulses that lurch forth, striking down members of the human family who never saw it coming.

I liked what a local journalist in West Virginia had to say on Twitter: @RyRivard What is almost no one talking about re: shooting? Mental health services in U.S. Why? Probably not sexy enough/too complicated.

Everything there makes sense to me.  Sarah Palin and people of her rhetorical technique aren’t helping anything, but I hardly think it’s rational to suggest they are responsible for what a deranged individual did.  It would be comforting to think if we were all just nicer and more civil to one another in public discourse, unhinged and unstable young men wouldn’t pick up firearms and take out their rage at the world in bloody displays of false courage.  Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work like that.

How does it work?  Obviously, no one knows.  My small contribution to the conversation is this: Sometimes, as hard as it is to swallow, there is no answer.  This has happened before in human history, and it will keep happening, no matter what we do or don’t do.  None of us are so powerful as to legislate or meditate a 180 degree change in human nature across the board.

Get serious about mental health services and yes, gun control laws especially where mental health is at issue.  Don’t get sucked into phony debates about whether the right or the left is to blame for this sad and terrible event.  Be a little less likely to rant and rave, but be willing to disagree and to talk.  And realize, perhaps, that sometimes there is no deep meaning to or clear cause of tragedy.  Someone’s death may be senseless, but that does not mean his or her life was.  Focusing on life is my biggest comfort right now.

As my friend Rick summed up so well in his post Causes and Reasons, we are wired to keep trying to find the patterns, and perhaps that is not such a terrible thing after all.

Often we’re wrong in attributing agency to things that just happen, but in evolutionary terms the consequences of a false positive are not as bad as that of a false negative. Being mistaken in trying to escape an imagined tiger isn’t as costly as not trying to escape from a real one.

Image credit: CNT Photo Illustrations

God Bless the Children of the Hollows

It’s a little cold in these parts this week.  We’ve been closing schools less for the ice and snow and more for the single digit temperatures.  I signed up to receive my county closings and delays by e-mail, and received an odd and amusing list of bus route changes yesterday.

Bus shelter built by parents for their children

Note: This list is incomplete, but I picked out a few personal favorites.

##### Bus Route Changes ####

  • Buses 1118 & 1111 will not run Bufflick Hill; buses will turn at Sweeney Hollow
  • Bus 1107 will not run Dodd Hill; will turn at rock quarry
  • Buses 602, 620, 631L, 624 & 401L will not run Dry Branch Hollow; students may catch bus at the mouth of the hollow on Cabin Creek
  • Buses 1014, 1004, & 1015 will not run Happy Hollow
  • Bus 1010 will not go over Mt. Carmel
  • Bus 1003 & 1009 will not go into Tate Hollow
  • Bus 1012 will not run Holmes Hollow – will pick up at mouth of hollow
  • Bus 1003 & 1009 will not cross Buzzard Rock
  • Bus 1002, 1004, 1015 will not run Hughart Hollow

Two things come to mind.  First, I’m not sure many of us truly appreciate how hard it is to get to school, still.  There is a lot of yammering about and criticizing of rural educational attainment rates, parental apathy, and lazy kids.  I don’t know about you, but if I missed breakfast (again) so I could stand in the freezing cold and wait for a bus that’s not coming up my road for the privilege of being picked up at “the mouth of the hollow,” I might stay in bed.  This is assuming I know the bus route has changed.  It is probable my parents don’t have Internet service in my home near Buzzard Rock.

By the way, I’m six years old.

The second thing is that I could have walked to my child’s elementary school yesterday, easily.  Some days when school is delayed or closed I feel myself becoming agitated that children are missing a day of instruction “over nothing,” and then I receive an e-mail like the above and I rethink the situation.

If we all can’t be there, no one gets to be there.

This is the beauty, and the frustration, and the agony, and the glory of the public school system.  If we can’t figure out a way to pick you up and get you there — you, the one child on at the mouth of X Hollow — we will wait for you.  If conditions are so bad that we can’t find a way to get every last young’un to the school house, we will all stay home.

I posted a few of these bus route changes on Facebook and an old friend immediately recounted, “Remember in 1976, when Kenna Elementary lowered ropes down to the foot of the hill to help kids climb up to the school one winter?”  This was not my school, but this was my West Virginia growing up.  School was important, and grown ups did crazy but wonderful things to make sure we arrived there and that we wanted to be there.  It wasn’t perfect, but it was this spirit of we all go together.

We don’t have the system where it should be.  There are more than a few things that are not right in terms of policy and process.  The energy around we all go together, however, is still there; I remind myself that is a good thing in the Big Picture per the values of our country when I start to fume over inefficiency.  We need to keep that spirit, but find a way to not let it keep us at the lowest common denominator of everything all the time.  Upgrading our system to year ’round schooling would be a solid launching pad for getting our priorities as well as our values back in sync.

In the meantime, it’s very cold again this morning.  God bless the children of the hollows.  Amen.

Image credit: I.D. photo show on architecture, lost and found