When tragedy has a name

The Milky Way stretched across the clear night sky. Over the vast expanse thousands of individual stars were discernible. To my right, Polaris. Vega, almost straight overhead. From the multitude above me I could identify only a few. Astronomers, though, know many others by name. Knowing a star by its name makes a difference in how you look at the night sky, I’ve decided.

Recently I had the privilege to lead a concurrent session at the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society Conference. About 250 (I’m estimating) amateur genealogists gathered to learn more about how to trace their ancestry. By “amateur” I’m not implying these are beginners. No, they’re quite sophisticated in searching data-bases, locating cemeteries, and combing all kinds of records. Over and over I witnessed the satisfaction, delight too, of attendees who have identified slave ancestors. In many cases family oral histories have led genealogists to search manumission papers, ownership records of slaveholders whose surnames slaves took upon emancipation, military records of the United States Colored Troops, and Social Security Applications.

A name. Sally, female slave on XTZ Plantation, mother of Mr. G.’s grandfather. Willy, male slave on UVW Plantation, father of Mrs. L.’s great grandmother. Not simply a slave, but a real person, a woman or man who breathed and labored and loved. That, I think, must be the reward of searching for ancestors, finding a name. So that slavery becomes not just a historical event, where millions suffered and died, but central to a personal narrative.

A name. Malala Yousafzai. We Americans have shaken our heads in sympathy for Muslim girls denied an education by the Taliban. Along comes the story of a sixteen-year-old Pakistani girl shot because she spoke out on behalf of girls wanting to attend school. Not a faceless girl but a real one.

The photos of children in Sudan and Ethiopia, in Sao Paulo and Port-au-Prince—like the stars overhead their names are unknown to us. Polar bears and Bengal tigers are disappearing. We know no polar bears or Bengal tigers by name.

When stars or people or animals have names, they matter more. A people captured and enslaved, girls denied an education, children starving, animals facing extinction.

Many in our community lack good medical care. Children go to school hungry. Veterans suffer from PTSD. Women are battered by husbands or boyfriends. The mentally ill sleep under bridges.

What would happen if we learned their names?

Politics—who cares?

I’ve been trying not to care. It just makes me worry, deprives me of sleep, interferes with writing fiction. Reading the newspaper and watching the news on TV make things worse.

In my stop-caring campaign, I remind myself that retirement benefits, while not allowing luxury, do provide my shelter, food, and clothing. So it doesn’t matter to me when funds are cut to food stamps and programs that feed the indigent. My older neighbors who lack basic necessities should go live with their kids. If young enough to work let them get a job like I did. (Forget that my parents sacrificed for my college education so I could earn an adequate income.)

I no longer need a job, so why should I care if minimum wage is $7.25 an hour and a single mother would have to work 15 hours a day/7 days a week to earn $40,000? It’s probably her fault she’s single anyway.

I have health insurance that supplements Medicare. If my back aches I call for a doctor’s appointment. Others in the country have no health insurance at all. Not my problem.

I’m white, registered to vote, and have a drivers license. The older lady down the street—her friend regularly drives her to the library, which does not require a birth certificate for a card. In fact she long ago misplaced hers. What do I care? She’d probably vote for candidates I don’t like anyway.

The planet’s getting warmer, bringing draught to farmlands, flooding to shorelines. By the time things get really bad I’ll be long gone.

So what if a woman at age 45, who already has three young adult children, gets pregnant and isn’t allowed, even upon her doctor’s recommendation, to have an abortion? I’m past child-bearing years. Her crisis has nothing to do with me.

Yes, I’ve been trying not to care about these things.

But in my Bible I read, “Woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall hunger” (Luke 6:24-5).

And my grandchildren say “I love you” as they hug me. I want fresh air and water to be in their future. Adequate shelter, food, clothing. Freedom from debilitating illness and financial ruin. As I want for all children.

I dare not quit caring.

Politics and Clotheslines

Late 19th century advertisement for laundry st...

Late 19th century advertisement for laundry starch manufactured by Gilbert S. Graves in Buffalo, New York, showing two women hanging laundry on a clothesline. 1 print : lithograph, color. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Line-drying your clothes seems to have become a political issue. I’ve concluded this because 1) The Huffington Post, a liberal website, reposted a blog with instructions for using a clothesline; 2) I, a liberal Democrat, hang my laundry outside; and 3) Were she alive, my mother, who was a Republican, would probably refuse to do the same.

So why is The Huffington Post promoting clotheslines? Maybe male liberals are more likely to share household responsibilities, and, being untrained in traditional women’s work, need guidance in maneuvering clothespins. Or, if liberal women are spoiled elitists, as some conservatives claim, a reliance on dryers may have stymied the hand-eye coordination essential for hanging up clothes. I tend to believe liberals take climate change seriously and work toward reducing carbon emissions.

Yet I’ll bet that most conservative women—many of them older, with line-drying experience—would, like me, laugh at the idea of someone needing instruction. For we girls used to have no choice but to learn women’s work. I, for one, resented Mom waking me up early every Saturday to do laundry. It didn’t occur to me that, having a job, she too would have preferred sleeping later.

Out in the garage stood our wringer washer alongside two rinse tubs. A woman could easily get a finger caught in the wringer as she transferred clothes from wash to rinse to second rinse. Three lines stretched across our back yard. A fabric clothespin holder was designed to slide along them. I learned from my mother, as she had learned from hers, to shake clothes out, hang shirts by their tails, ration clothes pins by using one to join two items. On cold days further north, I hear, clothes would be frozen when they were taken off the line.

For good reason Mom came to consider washers and dryers real progress. She never complained about the community she lived in not allowing residents to have clotheslines, a not uncommon rule these days. But how, being opposed to government regulations, could she tolerate such restrictions? Me, I demand the freedom to hang up my clothes.

I don’t fault my mother for having been a Republican. But if she were alive, I’d remind her of how washing machines and fabric have improved and urge her to line-dry her laundry. For the sake of the planet. Nevertheless, for reasons unrelated to politics, she‘d probably say, “Been there, done that.”

 

Henrik Ibsen, fracking, and jobs

English: Portrait of Henrik Ibsen by Henrik Olrik

English: Portrait of Henrik Ibsen by Henrik Olrik (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I went to college before CliffsNotes came on the scene. All those classics young people find boring—I had to actually read them. (Okay, not always carefully.) In the intervening years I’ve never gone back to give any of the assignments a second look. That is, until a few weeks ago, when I downloaded Enemy of the People, a play by Henrik Ibsen, a Norwegian playwright of the nineteenth century.

Here’s the gist of the story: A Norwegian town has gone to a lot of expense to attract tourists to its baths. When Dr. Stockman discovers that run-off from a tannery upriver is contaminating the baths, making tourists sick, he assumes that telling the town’s citizens is in their best interest. But no. The baths promise prosperity, and rectifying the problem would be expensive. In a town meeting the mayor, Dr. Stockman’s brother, moves that the doctor not be allowed to give his report. The townspeople, considering the jobs provided by the baths, don’t want to hear the Truth either and proclaim Dr. Stockman “enemy of the people.” The baths will continue to operate, risking the health of unsuspecting tourists.

It seems that many of today’s moral decisions follow the same pattern. Scientists, don’t bother North Carolinians with facts. The sea level is NOT rising. To say otherwise might harm the economies of beach towns and developers.

If you Google fracking you’ll find that the first site to come up is http://www.energyfromshale.org/.  “Shale natural gas market expansion leads to American jobs,” the site claims. There’s no mention of potential water contamination, earthquakes, and workers’ exposure to dangerous chemicals. Whether we’re talking about the Keystone pipeline, logging in national parks, or mountaintop removal, the arguments in favor usually start with “It promises jobs for the community.”

I’m not saying that these projects should not be considered. I DO suggest, though, that our decisions, when they relate to people’s health and/or the environment, are in fact moral decisions. And doing what is morally right may not promise jobs or prosperity. Through Ibsen’s characters we see how easily the townspeople are manipulated by those in power, the ones who will most profit from the operation of the baths and the tannery. Readers can’t help but denounce the decision to choose economic wellbeing over the Truth.

We must take care not to make the same mistake.

The role of government in environmental issues

Then

Today

Jim and I spent Sunday afternoon hiking on Roan Mountain, part of the Pisgah and Cherokee National Forests, located along the border between North Carolina and Tennessee. The altitude (6000 feet) offers conditions that allow huge clusters of wild Rododendron to grow in open spaces and along sunny edges of the forest. Hiking trails lead through a luxuriant spruce-fir forest. Yesterday a light fog made the forest seem especially dark and mysterious.

It saddens me to think that a century ago little more than tree stumps occupied this beautiful space. During the 1920s and 1930s logging companies cut all of the marketable timber, leaving the land as we see in the photo above. In 1911 the Weeks Act had authorized the Federal Government to purchase forest land in the Eastern United States. In 1941 the government bought much of the land on Roan Mountain and added it to the Pisgah and Cherokee National Forests. Today about 4 percent of North Carolina’s land is National Forest.

These two incidents—deforestation and the establishment of National Forests—represent a current controversy. Is there any reason to believe that capitalism without regulations would not again decimate our natural resources? Already 500 mountain tops have been removed so that mining companies can more cheaply get the coal. Now fracking threatens to poison our ground water and cause earthquakes.

And what should the government spend money on? Had the government not purchased deforested mountain land in the early twentieth century, we wouldn’t have our National Forests.

Personally, I trust corporations far less than I fear Big Government.

The Death of Beauty and the Future of Our Planet

A picture of a mountaintop removal siteWork co...

A picture of a mountaintop removal siteWork copyright released by owner (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I fear the death of Beauty.

The beauty of taste. Who’s looking out for the survival of flavors in a pasta sauce cooked all day? Of seafood caught and eaten right away? Today’s kitchen isn’t designed for those who cook but for those who rely on the microwave or order take-out.

The beauty of sound. Who listens to the songs of birds, trees rustling in the wind? Who’s encouraging children to study piano—any musical instrument for that matter? Not so they will become accomplished musicians, but so they will grow to appreciate a melodic concerto, a gentle rhythm inviting them to dance close.

The beauty of sight. Where are the protectors of natural beauty, adults who take time to show children flowering plants, luminescent insects, a brightly colored bird? Who drives amidst the varied landscapes of this country and points out vistas extending for miles? (On such journeys today’s children watch movies overhead.)

The beauty of touch. Who encourages us to run our fingertips slowly along a piece of tree bark, a velvety flower, a spiked blade of grass? Toys and kitchenware, even furniture, are made of plastic.

Most likely my children will read this, so I must be careful not to sound like I’m criticizing their parenting. My concern reaches beyond my grandchildren, though they are my means of glimpsing into current trends. And I want to avoid sounding like an old lady who’s always harkening back to the good old days.

But in my concern for the future of the planet I’ve come to wonder how it can survive if few people appreciate Beauty. To someone who’s never hiked a mountain range, what will it matter if coal companies blast tops off mountains? To someone who’s never waded in a stream, what will it matter if streams are polluted? Can humans feel empathy for animals or plants if they have not been “up close and personal?”

Yes, I fear the death of Beauty.