This journey starts at the opposite pole of the political rhetoric besieging us today. It explores every aspect of today’s middle class without partisanship and with a depth of economic insight and education that has left me giddy. Kiernan looks at the whole scene like a visitor from space might view it, focusing on and exploring interactions that have stretched my vision both nationally and internationally and pulled my focus in many directions. His knowledge sometimes made my brain reel. I could only fully digest a few pages a day. But I could not stop reading and I was compelled to pick up where I had left off on the following day. Occasionally his prose overwhelmed his erudition but, like a challenging college course, I found this book both stimulating and fascinating.
I was recently asked a compelling question about an upcoming feast for family and friends. “Are you going to give us (please do!) some direction about gift-giving at this shindig?”
Ah, the gift dilemma!
The holiday season is here once again. It involves Christmas, birthdays, and the ever-present expectation that everything will be perfect. Here are my thoughts (and my husband asked me to say he shares them).
A little history:
In my family, in my childhood, Christmas involved giving gifts to children. Adults did not exchange gifts. Both my parents were raised from an early age by single widowed mothers. Money was tight but no one thought they were “poor”. It was a gift for them to be able to do something special for their children. Despite their circumstances at least one of my grandmothers, if not both, tithed and gave money to the poor.
My parents grew up during the Great Depression and learned to fend for themselves. My father attended the university by working nights as a janitor at the telephone company and joining the National Guard. My mother had no chance of going to college (nor did any of her three brothers) until two of her high school teachers, single sisters who lived together, paid her way. When my parents married, they immediately started saving so their children could someday attend college and have a good life.
My brother and I grew up having a carefree childhood. We did not want for anything, but learned we could not necessarily have everything we wanted right then and there. We lived in Iowa where there were lakes and ponds that froze over in the winter where people could ice skate. I had a pair of black hockey skates that had come into my life somehow so I could skate with my friends. (I was not a natural.) But I wanted a pair of white figure skates like some of my friends had. My wish was not granted, and I was gently reminded that worldly goods were not the most important thing in life and friends don’t judge friends by the color of their skates. It was a good lesson.
Later I was married in the same town where both my future husband and I had lived most of our lives. Our parents knew many of the people in the town. My hope was to have a small wedding. I planned to make my own dress, a short one I could possibly wear later. This was not to be. So I borrowed a dress from a friend who had married the year before. Many people from the town who I knew only slightly attended. I particularly remember receiving a gift from a woman who I thought of as rich. It was a square cut-glass candy dish with a lid on a pedestal with red glass trim. I am sure it was expensive. I was at a loss with what to do with it as it did not fit my personality or lifestyle at all. I am sure it gave her pleasure to give it to us. It lived on a shelf in my parents’ basement for several years until I found the courage to give it away. For my second wedding, I had a chance to make my own dress.
Fast forward to the present:
I have an abundance of riches, with the perfect amount of food, clothing and shelter. There are many that do not. For me the best gift would be for everyone to have a life with an abundance of riches, whatever that might mean to them. I know that giving gifts is a joy. A gift to others is the best gift for me. So if someone wishes to give me a gift, it can take the form of giving a donation to organizations that help others.
I am not a shopper. My gift to others is a donation to their favorite nonprofit or money that they can use to acquire anything that gives them joy. I do not wish to guess what that is. If I give a donation in their honor, I get a tax deduction; but if I give them the cash with which they can make a donation, they get the tax deduction and it becomes a double gift.
Occasionally I happen on an idea for something that someone would like. I will joyfully buy it as a gift. (Saratoga Chocolates comes to mind.) They are beautiful, delicious, and support a local woman who personally makes them by hand in the village. I am not against gifts, but I personally want them to give joy to both the giver and the receiver.
A long answer to a short question.
This is about freedom–freedom to live without terror when you go to school, or when you go to a theater, or when you run or walk through the streets of a city or town. I am usually willing to keep my personal views to myself without trying to foist them on others. Until now. This is not political.
Who are we that sit and weep quietly by our TV screens when some other person’s child gets gunned down? We who pray that we are not shot for what we do when we leave our houses? We who live in fear of those who are lost and lashing out? It is time for us to do something to help both ourselves and them.
I grew up knowing about guns and what they can do. My father fought in a war. When I was six or seven I found a gun buried in a drawer in our basement. It was wrapped and hidden. I knew I was not supposed to find this and never told anyone about my discovery. I was terrified.
As a young high school teacher in Iowa, I had another encounter with the horror guns can wreak. In a water polo incident at the school where I was teaching, a student felt he had been kneed by another student while in the pool. The next day he brought a gun to school and shot that player while he was taking a shower in the locker room. The victim was paralyzed for life.
When my father reached his 80s and became unable to care of himself, that gun I discovered in my youth, which was from WWII, was found by my husband in my parent’s garage. When he showed it to my father, my father no longer had enough strength to pull the trigger. It was turned over by my mother to the local sheriff. My father discovered this and was agitated. We believe that not only was it a souvenir from his past, but it also was his solace and comfort in being able to take his own life if he needed to.
Guns can destroy lives in many ways.
My husband belonged to a rifle club when he was in high school. For many years, while we have lived in the mountains, we have had a rifle in the closet. It was secured with a trigger lock. Twice it was used with buckshot to shoot rattlesnakes that were close to the house. My husband decided to turn in our rifle to the local police department after the Columbine shooting.
Guns have long been accepted as being part of American life.
The infrequent rattlesnake leaves on its own. My father was no longer able to pull the trigger on his pistol. We are not hunters nor do we live in fear that we needed a gun for protection. Police now feel they must use guns to kill those who in the past could have been subdued by other means.
I can no longer keep silent.
I am not advocating an all or nothing policy, but I do believe the time is long overdue to take a hard look and get real. Enough! Let true freedom ring.
I have always loved looking at the moon and have tried photographing it. I once made a video of it using music written by and performed by a former student who has gone on to be an indie music publisher.
I knew there would be a once-in-a-lifetime eclipse of the super moon tonight. I was prepared and had scoped out the perfect viewing spot in our driveway last night. Armed with a chair and my camera I settled to see if the high clouds would drift away enough to see it. The sky, which had had wispy clouds earlier, had cleared to blue in the west, but the eastern sky still was covered with high fog.
As the light dimmed two cars wound up the dirt drive leading to our house. The first, seeing me camped out, was driven by a woman who said she was sorry and was just looking for a place to watch the eclipse. I invited her to stay. She went to talk to the car behind her, also driven by a woman, and they thanked me and decided to join my watch. Piling out of the cars after them were five children ranging in age from a toddler to a fifth grader. It rapidly became apparent that their English was limited.
The most fluent woman (the other spoke no English) said they were from China and had lived here a year. But we didn’t need much language in common. We all understood why we were here. After establishing that there was little fear of snakes or mountain lions, the group decided to venture a short way up the fire trail to see if there was a better view.
Soon they returned and we struck up a conversation of sorts. Part of the sky was clear enough to see airplanes and stars overhead. I learned the words for them in Cantonese. “Airplane” is something like “fa tze”. It took me several attempts to get the pronunciation good enough for approval by the five-year-old. And “star” is “sing-sing” or something similar. In exchange they learned that the sounds we were hearing came from “insects”. And, particularly hard for them to pronounce, they had brought “binoculars” to look at the moon.
Maybe they will come back again, and we can continue where we left off. This is a once-in-lifetime event after all.
What a trek! I followed the footsteps every bit of the way across territory with familiar names which I was surprised to find I knew little about. Part travelogue, part introspection, part history, the route was sometimes rough both literally and “literately” . I occasionally got lost in a sea of words as Nick got lost in a morass of explanations with words that eluded me. But we kept on together and the trip was more than worth it. Like the walk itself, I took it in small pieces with occasional rest stops, after which I was more than eager to get back on the road.
Where did your ancestors come from? How did you come to live here? My view of the world is not necessarily the same as that of others. I am willing to listen to others. I understand that life is not simple for any of us.
My ancestors came to this country from Europe, primarily from the British Isles. They came to escape a world of poverty and famine. My mother’s family, Scotch-Irish settlers fleeing the potato famine, settled first in Kentucky before some of them moved to Iowa to homestead. My father’s mother came from Ayrshire and his father came from Wales as a teenager to escape working in the coal mines.
I grew up knowing the poem by Emma Lazarus engraved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
The influx of my ancestors into this country was not gentle. Native Americans were both slaughtered and displaced by it. We could have done better. We were all humans who desired a better life.
And so it continues. We could do better. The words on the Statue of Liberty no longer are echoed throughout the land. Instead we seek to build walls to keep out others who seek a better life.
It is a challenge to be both human and humane as hundreds of thousands seek a better life for themselves and their children in all parts of the world. How can we do this? Maybe we could start by using our rhetoric and wealth to address the problem without using it to building walls and reviling humans who seek the life that we have been lucky enough to have found.
Do we really want to extinguish the torch that led us here? Is it possible to rekindle it?