Sleeping with the Enemy

A very personal and political piece posted this week on WritersResist.com, a little out of the ordinary for me, but the times are anything but:

I have been sleeping with the enemy for more than two years. Rob is a Republican. But on the morning after the election, he held me close as I sobbed and promised, “It will be okay.”

He promised. But he doesn’t know. And nothing that has happened since that morning has made either of us feel better....(continue reading)

Rise up. Speak. Resist.

Photo by mheim3011/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by mheim3011/iStock / Getty Images

A good friend of mine fled Nazi-occupied Hungary with her family during World War II. Her parents had gone into hiding and she was placed in a Christian boarding school in Budapest in an effort to shield her. She was forced to wear the yellow star on her clothing, and by sheer luck and her own chutzpah ultimately escaped a death camp sentence.

On the phone the other day, I said: “Well, perhaps this will all work out. Perhaps the president-elect won’t actually turn out to be the despot he appears to be. Maybe he won’t actually go through with all his ill-conceived promises.”

She said: “I have lived through this. Don’t think it isn’t what it seems.”

I am reminded of the adage: When someone shows you who he is, believe him.

As each extreme Cabinet pick is revealed, I grow more anxious. His pick for Health and Human Services is an Obamacare foe and ardent anti-abortionist. The president-elect has chosen the nation’s most vocal climate change denier to head the EPA. This week, he announced an anti-minimum wage, anti-labor fast-food mogul to lead the Department of Labor. Ben Carson—a neurosurgeon, not to mention nutcase—has been tapped for Housing and Urban Development. His Education secretary choice is a staunch anti-public education, pro-voucher advocate who would dismantle much of our educational system.

Trump, who attended—and thrived in—a rigid and harsh military boarding school as a teen, is packing the Cabinet with former generals and other military chest-beaters bent on advancing a pro-conflict stance globally.

These extremists have the potential not only to undo many of the Obama administration’s hard-won policies—policies that have provided rights previously denied to the LGBTQ community and other minorities—but may do lasting damage to our country’s foreign relations and economic policies.

As for “draining the swamp,” he’s nominated people who are anything but outside the establishment, and most are millionaires and billionaires.

They want to return to an America that hasn’t existed in decades: a paternalistic, authoritarian society dominated by white and male dinosaurs. Never mind Trump’s inability to control his emotions, his thin skin pricked by the smallest slight. He has opened the door to a Republican Party whose influence and policies have been roundly rejected by a majority of Americans (2.7 million more than voted for him, and counting).

I am afraid for the homeless, the mentally ill, the arts and education, women, children and all those who are the least among us. The whole country is in danger of losing its soul if we turn our backs on the poor. To counter a popular Republican trope, there is no such thing as the “welfare state.” Since the 1960s, welfare (once known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children) has increasingly been replaced with welfare-to-work programs intended to get welfare recipients into jobs. In 1996, Congress and then-President Clinton approved the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which replaced AFDC with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). For the first time states were required to meet minimum work participation rates to receive federal funding.

Today, virtually no one receives welfare without proving they are working or actively seeking work. Food stamps, renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), provides a stipend for food each month (in debit cards) to the poorest of the poor. The allotment is based on the family’s income. The maximum monthly benefit for one person is $194; a family of four would qualify for up to $649 (again, depending on income). Could you buy groceries for a month on that? It’s a travesty.

Earlier this year, Speaker Paul Ryan, speaking before the Conservative Political Action Conference, repeated what turned out to be a false story about the reduced and free lunch program offered at schools across the country. He told about a little boy who didn’t want a free lunch; he wanted to be able to bring a brown bag lunch to school because that would mean his parents cared about him. It was hogwash, as is the myth that those who receive government assistance are lazy. The fact is most of those kids’ parents do work, often two or three jobs. It’s just that minimum-wage jobs and part-time work often don’t add up to a livable income, especially in the more expensive regions of the country.

Don’t even get me started on Ryan’s dream to privatize Medicare and Social Security.

I am appalled at the fact that most of Trump’s Cabinet picks are driven more by ideology than by facts and knowledge. And his willingness to attack (by Twitter, no less) individuals and corporations, and engage in uninformed conversations with foreign leaders without regard for the consequences, is alarming.

I know there are several efforts at recounts and Electoral College vote switching to try to change the outcome of the presidential election. I applaud them. But I think it is more incumbent upon us—citizens, artists, writers, thought-leaders and educators—to stand up, speak out, and resist these disastrous choices and their beliefs at every turn.

If you can attend one of the many Million Woman Marches being planned around the nation, go, speak, let your voices be heard. Writers Resist is organizing events in January all across the country for writers to express our concern.

Do not remain silent or allow yourself to be lulled into the delusion that this president-elect will not be who he has showed us to be.

In 1963, the white ministers in Alabama urged Martin Luther King Jr. to moderate his rhetoric and tone down his call for peaceful resistance in the civil rights cause. In his thoughtful and stirring letter from the Birmingham jail to those who had criticized him, he wrote:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

King was talking about the fact that rights denied to black Americans were rights indirectly denied to all, and white Americans didn’t have the right to tell blacks to simply wait for the laws to be changed in due course.

We, all of us, are responsible for standing up for those Americans whose lives may be terribly affected by the changes anticipated from a Trump presidency. None of us has the luxury to wait and see what will happen. That’s what good people in Germany did when the Nazis came to power, and Hitler promised to make Germany great again.

Rise up. Write. Speak. Take action. Resist.

New Books to Recommend: RenWomen, Where are Pat and Ernie Now? and Five Sextillion Atoms

As many of you know, I have a new book out—Heart on a Fence, which you can see here. And I have several friends who also have new books out—books I think you would love to have and read.

Dale Griffiths Stamos’ new book is a compilation of the life stories of sixteen “Renaissance women”—modern-day superwomen who have lived lives of purpose and service to humanity. Written with her twin brother, W. Scott Griffiths, RenWomen, What Modern Renaissance Women Have to Teach Us About Living Rich, Fulfilling Lives incorporates a bit of history about past RenWomen, the stories about sixteen modern RenWomen, and how we can encourage young women to follow their own dreams of exploring many different paths.

Simply put, RenWomen are women who excel in many different fields—from arts and literature to math and science to philanthropy and mentoring. I was especially delighted to see that one women profiled in the book is a dear friend of mine—Eva Haller, truly a RenWoman if there ever was one. Eva was born in Hungary and escaped the Nazis at the age of 14, finding her way to Ecuador and ultimately the United States, where she quickly realized she needed an education and work. She found both, and also the first of two great loves of her life. Her third husband, Murray Roman, was an entrepreneur marketer and public relations genius who made a fortune advising presidential candidates in the mid-1960s. Murray and Eva turned to philanthropy and charitable giving, but in 1975, Maury was diagnosed with cancer and died in 1984. Eva was devastated. Three years later, she met Dr. Yoel Haller and the two have been inseparable ever since, traveling the world and continuing the mentoring and philanthropy that Eva and Murray began together.

Eva’s is just one of the many inspiring stories in RenWomen. Pick it up. You won’t be disappointed.

My buddy Ernie Witham’s latest book of humor is Where are Pat and Ernie Now?, a compilation of his many essays on their worldwide travel adventures. I love Ernie’s voice, kind of a combination of self-deprecation, fun and husbandy idiocy. Pat is always the long-suffering spouse in their various escapades, but the last laugh is always on Ernie, and with us. Where are Pat and Ernie Now? is Ernie’s third book. He’s written columns and essays for numerous publications over many years, including several editions of Chicken Soup for the Soul. You don’t want to miss this chronicle of their latest fun-filled explorations of the world.

And last, but certainly not least, my dear friend Jayne Benjulian’s beautiful debut collection of poetry is out. It’s called Five Sextillion Atoms, which is how many atoms are in a drop of water. Her poems are both spare and powerful; she holds back no punches as she explores her past and her childhood, her experiences as a mother, and her relationships with stepsiblings.

I especially love the poems in Part Three, which seem more accessible, perhaps because she herself has finally become more comfortable emotionally with the material. I don’t know. But this I do know: Five Sextillion Atoms will wow you.

On Wonder

My friend Kathleen Barry and I write together every couple of weeks, and yesterday we both wrote about wonder. You can read her take on it here. Here's mine:

I love the concept of wonder. It conjures up the image of a child gazing at a colorful butterfly, or watching a bird's egg open, the tiny feathered creature inside emerging into the light.

I have been in that dreamy state of wonder, whether at some physical world delight, or in contemplating the metaphysical. Lyanda Lynn Haupt says wonder "is contingent on the habit of being that allows it to arise...." In other words, you have to be in a constant state of openness and wonderment for moments of wonder to find you.

How can we bring more wonder into our lives? Can you discover the wonder in an everyday cup of coffee? Or in the choosing of your clothes for the day? Or in washing the dishes after a meal? It's easy to see the wonder in a stunning sunset, less so in the drudgery of vacuuming the house.

If we are called to see the extraordinary in the ordinary (and I believe we are), then we learn over time to recognize the moments in our lives that God (or the Universe) asks us to appreciate, no matter how seemingly insignificant.

Where do you see wonder in your life? I see it in the purple bougainvillea outside the window, in the hummingbirds which flit among its petals, in the distant ocean and the tides that govern its movements.

Life is both fragile and fleeting—wonder is our opportunity to appreciate it in every moment: the touch of a friend's hand, beach sand between your toes, ice melting in your double scotch. Wonder abounds.

Season of Loss, Season of LIfe

A dear friend had a severe stroke over the weekend. She and her husband, who live near Fresno, had been out gardening in their yard early, to beat the heat. When they came in to get breakfast, she collapsed onto the floor. Her husband knew right away it was likely a stroke: the left side of her face sagged and she was paralyzed on her left side. At the hospital, doctors immediately tried a drug called tPA (tissue plasminogen activator), which works by dissolving blood clots. In this case, though, it didn't work, and they rushed her into emergency surgery.

That night, after surgery, doctors told her husband they'd gotten the blockage at the top of her carotid artery, but couldn't get to the one near her frontal lobe. It has been touch and go. Monday she moved her left leg and arm, and she was alert and asking for her phone and glasses Tuesday morning. Yesterday the report wasn't so good. We'll know more about the extent of damage in coming days and weeks, but we are all hopeful. She faces many months—perhaps a year or more—of recovery.

I've known these friends for more than 25 years. They just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, having married as youngsters on the eve of his going off to fight in Vietnam. He became a journalist and, later, a businessman. We met when we worked for the small daily newspaper in Redding, California, along with another friend. As couples, all six of us became close friends and have remained so to this day, though we all ended up in different cities far apart. We watched our kids grow up and vacationed together. We also supported each other when one of us was diagnosed with breast cancer many years ago. Last fall, her cancer returned. Her husband, meanwhile, struggles with rheumatoid arthritis. 

Earlier this year, my younger sister died unexpectedly, and another dear friend succumbed to ovarian cancer last month. Other friends are dealing with the sudden loss of his job; he is in his mid-60s.

This season of life for me has brought many joys—and, increasingly, illnesses, difficulties, sorrows, deaths. It is sometimes hard to remember that life is also death, and struggle. 

As I have gotten older, I find myself more introspective, seeking answers, looking for the reasons behind the events of our lives. I do not have the answers, but this I do know: None of us is immune from heartbreak or sorrow, and the only response to any hardship is trust, and gratitude for what is, and perseverance. And faith. I always come back to Julian of Norwich: "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."

My latest book—Heart on a Fence

I'm delighted to announce my latest book of poetry and photography—Heart on a Fence! The book is named after an original painting by my daughter, Kendall, which graces the cover. I am thrilled to offer this new book to my friends and acquaintances. If you would like to order a copy, please email me. They are $20 a piece. Here are some of the images and poems from the book.