Blog

News from the border: First, care for the children

My husband Steve, friend Kathleen and I arrived in El Paso on Saturday to volunteer at a refuge for immigrants for two weeks. Yesterday, as Kathleen and I cleaned rooms in the vast converted warehouse and outfitted refugee families with used clothing, I thought how little is required to make children happy: Clean clothes, full bellies, a chance to play, a warm bed, the love and security of their family. All the things we lavish on our own grandchildren – skating lessons and gaming systems, LOL dolls and LEGO blocks – are wanted and delighted in. But they are not required.

And yet we have as a nation repeatedly denied these most basic needs to immigrant children who crossed the border with their families over the past three years. Seven hundred families have been separated; seven children have died while in government custody. Last summer in Clint, Texas, less than 30 miles from El Paso, immigrant children taken from their families were held in conditions that Elora Mukherjee, a professor at Columbia Law School, described asappalling”:  “In 12 years representing immigrant children in detention, I have never seen such degradation and inhumanity. Children were dirty, they were scared, and they were hungry.”

All this has been done in the name of deterrence. In other words, if we can make coming to America more horrible than the violence and poverty that drive people to leave Guatemala, Venezuela and Mexico, we’ll stop what President Trump likes to call the “invasion” at our southern border.

No surprise there: The first step to hardening the heart is always to dehumanize the other, to make the weary father from Morales and smiling baby from Cuba alien and dangerous, part of an invading horde that will displace our workers and overwhelm our resources. Hardening the heart can lead to far more dangerous acts. Last August, a young white supremacist targeting Latino immigrants drove 600 miles from Dallas to El Paso, entered a Walmart, killed 22 people and injured 24 injured more. Because of that, our refuge has security cameras and no exterior signage. The tall fence is topped with razor wire.

As regular readers of this blog know, I support neither walls nor open borders. This year, I want to explore the vast territory in between. What principles should guide us? What policies can best implement those principles? Coming to El Paso and serving immigrants through Annunciation House, which has been doing this work for more than 40 years, is a place to begin.

At the Annunciation House shelter, the process of welcoming families newly released from ICE custody follows a routine. An ICE bus pulls up to a back gate of the warehouse and exhausted families step off. They are welcomed warmly, then interviewed and asked to call family or friends in the U.S. who will buy their bus or air tickets. A day or two later, families leave us and travel to Houston or Chicago, Miami or Boston. There they will wait for a chance to make their case for asylum before an immigration judge.

At the shelter, after the interview and phone call, there is a simple routine: Collect bedding and toiletries, choose a set of used clothes and take a shower, often their first in days.

Yesterday afternoon, the job of finding clothes fell to Kathleen and me. First, we brushed up on vocabulary: Socks are calcetines, underwear ropa interior. One by one, the families arrived: The tiny 19-year-old Guatemalan woman – exhausted, pregnant and dressed in grey ICE sweatpants. Her husband was turned back to wait in Mexico; her face looked as shattered as her spirit must be. The best we could do was find pants that fit, a pretty blouse, a warm wool jacket and soft, pretty scarf that coaxed a small smile. In a day or two, she will leave on her lonely trip to New York.

I think too of the seven-year-old boy, bound for Chicago, who came with his exhausted parents and six-month-old brother. He delighted in finding himself a forest green jacket, lime green gloves and kelly green hat and a hooded Christmas outfit for his baby brother.

The small kindness of clean clothing is made possible by the people who donated it, Sr. Edith and others who spent months giving it order and the volunteers who come daily to help guests find something fit for their journey, maybe even a little stylish.

The shelter’s numbers are down significantly because of President Trump’s remain-in-Mexico policy. It opened last year with room for 500 people. Last night there were fewer than 30. One mother, traveling from Guatemala with three boys, spent three months waiting in Juarez before being allowed to cross into the U.S. Yesterday, freshly showered and dressed, the boys wore their new gloves as they careened down a ramp riding a toy car.

Regardless of what happens in Iowa next week or at the polls next November, the issue of immigration will remain: Who will we allow to come? How will we welcome them? And do we have the collective will to make good on the pledge we learned as children – to be “one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all”?

A New Year’s invitation: Join me for a deeper look at immigration

With 10 months to go before we elect a President, I’m frustrated by the political debate over immigration. It’s as stubborn and narrow as a schoolyard quarrel. On one side, President Trump shouts Build a wall and Send her back. On the other, Democratic candidates condemn his bigotry and focus on the easy parts of immigration policy. They oppose separating immigrant families at the border and support DACA, the Obama-era program that allows young adults brought to the U.S. as children to work, get drivers’ licenses and go to college.

But immigration is much bigger and more complex than this. How many immigrants and refugees should be admitted each year? Do the country’s economic needs or humanitarian concerns matter more? How important is family reunification? Should climate change or poverty in one’s home country be sufficient reason to be admitted to the U.S.? What is our political, social and economic capacity to absorb such vast need? And how should we treat 11 million undocumented immigrants who’ve worked hard, built families and contributed to this country, often for decades? How can paths to legal status be built for them?

I’m overwhelmed by the complexity of those questions, which have moral, political and economic dimensions. So is Congress, which has thrown up its hands over the broken immigration system for decades under Republican and Democratic presidents alike. But our political stalemate carries an enormous cost. It consigns millions of undocumented workers and their families to lives of fear and uncertainty. It requires a huge, costly, often cruel system of enforcement and punishment. It feeds the scapegoating and backlash that President Trump exploits. It diminishes us as people and a nation.

Addressing the question of immigration with depth and compassion requires head and heart, openness to listen and willingness to learn. This year, I want to do some of that work and share it with you via regular blogs.

Who am I, a retired white journalist with no title or special knowledge to tackle this? Because I’m a citizen, a journalist and a person of faith who knows that people like me need to better understand the issues and pressure public officials to address them with greater candor and courage.

Here’s where I’m coming from. For 30 years, I was a newspaper reporter and editor in the Minnesota, focused on economic issues and then politics, including welfare policy. For 12 years, I ran a journalism program that trained teens, particularly those from low-income, minority and immigrant communities, to ask questions, think critically, ask questions and tell stories.

Since retiring, I’ve gotten involved in immigration issues through my church, a Catholic church in south Minneapolis that’s been invigorated and enriched by the growth of Latino membership. Last year, I volunteered for 10 days at a hospitality center for asylum-seekers in El Paso, Texas. In a few weeks, I’ll return there with my husband and two friends.

Immigration has touched my life in other ways. Each Monday, I volunteer at a neighborhood ESL class. For four months, we shared our home with a new immigrant from Senegal. My daughter-in-law is from Singapore, and my grandchildren – Tamil on their mother’s side, German and Irish on their father’s – are part of an increasingly diverse country.  I don’t remember a single kid of color in my 1950’s Catholic grade school in suburban Kansas City. At their public grade school in suburban Eden Prairie, white kids are a minority.

Immigrants are some of the most hopeful and hard-working people I know. At a time when many of us are cynical about democracy and the American Dream, my immigrant friends remain determined to build better lives for their children through work and education. The forces of hate and bigotry are out in force, but they remain convinced that they can be part of this nation’s future.

Ok, Boomer. It’s fashionable to see us Baby Boomers as tired, out of touch, desperate to keep our arthritic hands on the controls when we should be shuffling onto an ice floe and pushed out to sea. That’s just desserts for a generation that once pledged to trust no one older than 30. But we’re still here. And I’d like to think we have something to contribute.

 

An invitation to a American family reunion

So much of the news this August is about what tears our country apart – race, religion, politics, guns. But quietly, in backyards and public parks, cabins and resorts, people gather to celebrate and strengthen the simple fact of being part of the same family.

Fresh off a week of such celebrations – four generations converged in Minneapolis to celebrate my mom’s 95th birthday — it occurs to me that our country needs a reunion.

Or rather 10,000 reunions with guest lists drawn not by surname or bloodline but by more essential denominators – love of children, belief in equality, hard work and decency as guiding life principles, and a fierce desire to overcome the hate and division that lower our flags to half-mast and fill our hearts with fear and shame.

The family reunion can serve as a model. Separated by time zones and generation, we don’t always know each other well. Hugs help move past the awkwardness. So do silly games.

We don’t always agree, and in this winner-take-all age, our skill at navigating differences is pretty rusty. Listening, teasing and biting one’s tongue can help.

Sometimes avoidance is the best option. When one relative – a Trump supporter – visited this spring, we agreed not to talk politics or religion. That allowed us to see beyond the caricatures we’ve drawn of each other and talk about the rest of our lives. We finished the evening holding hands.

Sometimes we don’t even like each other all that well. There’s often a mean gossip, a bratty child, a cousin who drinks too much, a know-it-all sister. A stubborn few of us stay trapped in the slights and offenses from decades past.

Yet, we search for commonalities – bunioned feet, a love of gardening, the baby who looks like his great-uncle did at that age. We give tokens — old photos, favorite recipes, silver cufflinks – whose value comes from the act of giving.

Tattooed hipster and white-haired granny, atheist and believer, teetotaler and barfly, city slicker and small-town kid, we come together in the heat and fullness of the dwindling summer to eat too much, tell old stories, snap photos, remember our grandmother’s glorious pies. Together we conjure up the past and see into the future.

Of course, this is harder to do with strangers. Our foods, games and memories are different. Our languages may be as well. But it’s possible. At reunions, there’s always a new baby, new boyfriend and some relative who’s stayed away far too long. Generally, they’re welcomed into the fold because, well, we’re family.

One of Aesop’s fables describes a father who teaches his quarreling sons the importance of unity by handing them a bunch of sticks. One stick snaps easily. A bundle is impossible to break.

After 10 days of visitors and celebrations, I am eager to reclaim my life. But I am warmed by the knowledge that we strengthened old connections and built new ones. I feel freshly part of something larger and more enduring than my small self. And I wish this for my countrymen, my American family.

Living a day inside the polar vortex

Popping tires, frozen pipes, closed schools, temperatures so low that the mailman won’t come. Hospitals are treating cases of frostbite. The tarmac equipment at the airport has turned balky. When an old man wrapped in a blanket hobbles across a busy road and waves at cars, drivers stop and give him what they can – money, food, a ride to a shelter.

That’s what it is for us Minnesotans to be trapped inside a polar vortex today. We have a reputation for toughness, but with temperatures nearing 30 below in the Twin Cities, we’re feeling tested. Thirty below is normal for January in the Arctic. We have to reach back more than a century — to 1887 – to find a record low today’s won’t beat.

Those of us with working furnaces and no place to go can find a kind of pleasure in the forced indolence. There is hot tea, a hot bath, messages of sympathy from distant friends. There are recipes for pot roast and macaroni and cheese – the homemade kind made with whole milk and three kinds of cheese. We have books to read, photos to organize and a clear view of a sun-shot world glittering with frost and chimneys chugging out wisps of steam.

Tomorrow the temperature will rise to 2 below and climb to 44 above by Sunday. Pipes will be thawed, machinery humming. And this rare, flash-frozen stasis in our lives will be gone.

An army of solidarity in El Paso

alexstmarks
Chef Alex St. Marks making breakfast for Casa Nazareth guests

Yesterday morning was my last in El Paso. With a noon flight, I didn’t sign up for a shift at Casa Nazareth, the refuge for immigrant families where I’d volunteered the previous eight days. I stayed away from the kitchen, where I spent a lot of time helping prepare meals for an ever-changing population of guests.

The need was still there. The previous night’s 65 guests had to be fed and sent on their way to relatives across the country. New families – fresh from ICE detention – had to be prepared for. But other volunteers would do that.   A trio of grey-haired nuns had just arrived from Ohio. A retired couple from California were in the office, arranging for volunteers to drive guests the bus station and airport. The out-of-work chef who volunteers to make breakfast every Wednesday was busy peeling potatoes and chopping ham in the kitchen with three other volunteers.

It was time, as they say, for me to let go and let God. God and what a long-time volunteer calls “the army of solidarity” that serves immigrants at Casa Nazareth and other sites operated by its parent, Annunciation House.

Of all the lessons I carry home from my experience at this border refuge, the combined power of faith and solidarity is the greatest.  Day after day, volunteers with willing hands and open hearts feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give rest and comfort to the weary and fearful.  Retired couples, college students and religious sisters well past retirement age stream to Casa Nazareth from across the country. New college grads dedicate themselves to serving poor immigrants for a year without pay.

 

A vast team of El Paso residents are the frame that holds up the enterprise, though. Local churches bring many meals. Local volunteers run the daily operation as shift supervisors. People who see a bargain at the grocery store buy extra for the shelter. As a Minnesotan living far from the southern border, I feel enormous gratitude and humility for their commitment and generosity.

We out-of-towners provide important relief and support. In return, we draw closer to the real face of our nation’s immigration crisis and can help change the story that’s being told.  I also got to live and work with a remarkable group of women – funny, smart, energetic nuns in their 70s and 80s who have served the children of God for decades. I’ll write about that another day, including their example of  how much we elders have left to give.

Thanks to the work of so many, small miracles seem to happen daily. On Tuesday, a team of students from the University of St. Thomas gave the kitchen a much-needed deep cleaning. Days earlier, a woman arrived with a huge pot of homemade chicken stew just before another ICE bus packed with hungry families arrived.

There are limits to this model of loaves and fishes. Volunteers fall sick and burn out. Cleanliness and order are transitory. With no easy way to wash dishes or recycle containers, we threw away bags full of Styrofoam cups and plates, plastic spoons and forks and other waste after every meal.  With fluctuating numbers and volunteer cooks, food is inevitably wasted.

And while Annunciation House relieves the suffering of immigrant families who cross the southern border, it cannot address the violence and poverty in their home countries that cause them to flee. Nor can it budge the political impasse that keeps Congress from undertaking humane, practical and serious immigration reform. That’s up to the rest of us.

 

 

 

On the day President Trump saw an invasion, I saw a different crisis

Let me describe last Thursday at Casa Nazareth in El Paso, the same day President Trump visited McAllen, another Texas border town.

Start with the basics: Casa Nazareth is a nursing home turned immigrant shelter just across the alley from a former convent that now houses nonprofits’ offices and visiting volunteers.  It is one site of Annunciation House, a volunteer-powered charity that has provided refuge to the homeless of this border town for 40 years.

Casa Nazareth is also a small village with a constantly churning population.  There are 27 bedrooms, enough beds and cots to hold 110 people, a light-filled dining room with mismatched chairs and a large play room for children. Small rooms along its corridor are stuffed with clean bedding, toiletries and donated clothes. Other rooms hold cleaning supplies and over-the-counter medicines for the illnesses that afflict poor people who have traveled far in hope of finding a better life.

Beyond the basics, there is the routine. It begins with breakfast. At 7 a.m. this day, the El Paso couple who prepare breakfast every Thursday is chattering in Spanish while chopping hotdogs, beating eggs, boiling potatoes, and warming tortillas and beans to create a meal for about 35 guests who stayed the night.  Before they eat, the cooks lead the guests in giving thanks to God for the journey, the food, the people who help them. After the meal the guests mop the floors and wipe the tables.

Most of the people eating breakfast are fathers or mothers with one child, maybe two, fleeing poverty, violence, a life without hope. Most come from Guatemala and Honduras, a few from as far away as Brazil and Cuba. Many wear thick black ankle bracelets that allow ICE to track them. Most will leave Casa Nazareth today, the day after they arrived, taking buses or airplanes to join family in small towns and big cities across the country.

Volunteers use a U.S. map posted outside the office to show guests them how far it is to Mississippi, Maryland, Florida, New Hampshire. They do not say how uncertain the immigrants’ future will be once they arrive. On the trip, travelers will carry peanut butter sandwiches, water bottles and a strip of paper that says: “I don’t speak English. Please help me find my airplane or bus.”

Soon after last night’s guests line up for rides to flights and buses, a long, white bus from Immigration and Customs detention pulls up to the door.  Out lumber 40 parents and children, their worldly possessions clutched in a plastic bag, their faces blank with weariness and uncertainty.

Most are hungry, so they eat if lunch is ready or have water and fruit if it is not. Thursday’s lunch is brought by women from a Presbyterian church – rice, chicken casserole, tangerines, cookies. After lunch, the new arrivals are registered – names, ages, country of origin and phone numbers for family or friends in the U.S.

Spanish-speaking volunteers — college students, homemakers, retired nuns from across the country – call the contacts and arrange for the families to buy bus or airline tickets. The process is not always easy. Sponsor families must gather money or learn to use credit cards. They must agree to give the new arrivals a home and support until immigration judges decide whether they can stay in the U.S.

After the calls, the new guests are guided to their rooms, which are small, scuffed and clean.  Sheets, blankets, pillows, towels, soap, toiletries are gathered, and clean clothes found among the racks stuffed with donated clothes. For the first time in days, sometimes weeks, the guests enjoy the luxury of showers, fresh clothes, beds with sheets, doors they can close.

Dinner is chicken and rice prepared by another church group. Instead of the lunchtime hush, dinner is full of talk and the perfume of clean hair and bodies.  A small boy skips to make his new sneakers light up, and his mother softly smiles. A father quietly asks if he can take a second piece of bread and another orange. A dark-haired girl who arrived alone and spent months in ICE shelters has been released because she turned 18. She clutches a stuffed animal and weeps when the crowd celebrates her birthday with a song: ”We wish you congratulations with jasmine flowers.”

This is the invasion President Trump speaks of, his reason for closing the federal government over his demand for a wall.  But there is no invasion. In 2017, border-crossing apprehensions were at their lowest point since 1971, while undetected crossings have fallen even more, the New York Times and Department of Homeland Security report.

The crisis is real, but it not the one the President talked about in his Oval Office speech on Tuesday and visit to McAllen on Thursday. It is the crisis of more than 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the country, some for decades, working, raising families, building communities, with no way to become legal residents or citizens. It is the crisis of an overworked, erratic, often punitive immigration system. It is the crisis of politics driven by racism and appeals to base voters rather than labor market needs and compassion.

By tomorrow or the day after, today’s guests at Casa Nazareth will be gone. By the middle of next week, I will be gone as well. But their need for help and for hope will continue.  The hospitality will continue. Unfortunately, so will the crisis.

 

Dismantling Tornillo

 I’ve joined my friend Sr. Margaret in El Paso, Texas, to work for 10 days with immigrant families newly released by ICE. During my time here, I’ll share my experiences via this blog. Thanks for sharing this journey with us.

Only last June, the white and beige tents of Tornillo rose in the scrubby desert of southwestern Texas. Set among pecan groves and cotton fields, snugged up against the tall fence of steel mesh that separates U.S. territory from the Rio Grande, Tornillo was built to house more than 3,000 immigrant teens who made the dangerous journey from Central America alone. The Texas Monthly estimates that the expanse of tents, fences, soccer fields, porta-potties and small army of guards, teachers, nurses, cooks and barbers cost taxpayers about $1 million a day to operate.

Yesterday, my first day in El Paso, I witnessed some of its dismantling.

Tornillo was part of the Trump administration’s strategy to deter immigration across the southern border by making weary, hungry, frightened people still more miserable. Until public outcry stopped it, small, sobbing children were separated from their parents. Even now, families are held in jail-like conditions, in icy cells, with scant, poor quality food and only thin foil blankets for warmth.

For the teens in Tornillo, most of whom have family in the U.S., there was another strategy: Require fingerprints from their sponsors and everyone in their households and share those fingerprints with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. There are an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., many of whom have lived and worked here for decades. Fingerprints meant putting everyone in a household at risk of criminal prosecution and deportation. Previously, only parents or guardians seeking to sponsor a child were required to submit fingerprints and only if background checks indicated a possible threat to the child.

Predictably, under the new policy, the number of teens detained and the wait for sponsors grew from an average of 30 days at the end of the Obama administration to 75 days.

But last week, under public pressure, the Trump Administration policy changed – now only parents or potential sponsors will be required to submit fingerprints. National Public Radio reports that camp staffers are driving 100 kids a day to the El Paso airport to join sponsors and that the population at Tornillo has fallen from 3,000 to less than 1,500. Not all have found a home, though. Some will be moved to other facilities.

When I arrived in El Paso yesterday to join my friend Sr. Margaret McGuirk to work with immigrant families released by ICE, she proposed that we go to see Tornillo. So we made the 40-minute drive on I-10 and into the desert with Sisters Mary, Kay and Katherine. All of them are religious sisters in their 70s who have served Spanish-speaking communities for decades.

I was happy to see the camp with these dedicated women and grateful to meet some of front-line activists who’ve camped outside the camp to protest the detention and document what’s happening there.

Musician and activist Martin Bates drove us around the camp’s perimeter, where we watched workers taking apart the vast dining camp and tossing metal bed frames into dumpsters. As we watched, a soccer ball came flying over the fence. Plastic sheeting blocked our view into the soccer field. But Martin retrieved the ball, and one by one, we grey-haired women with arthritic fingers wrote blessings and messages of hope in Spanish.  And with a great hurl, gentle Martin tossed it back over the fence.

 

Answering history’s knock on the door,

Lynda McDonnell

Sometimes, when history comes knocking, it’s like a difficult relative, uncomfortable, unexpected, even unwelcome. Ironically, that’s often when we most need to open the door.

And so it was this Memorial Day, when my husband and I drove to Lake Mille Lacs in  central Minnesota, drawn by a powwow and nostalgia. His grandparents once owned a small farm a few miles away, and he spent countless weekends rustling through fall leaves with his grandfather and eating his grandmother’s rhubarb. Those memories are a big reason we have a cabin on 40 acres and a vegetable garden big enough to provision a platoon.

Luckily for us, the powwow was on the grounds of the Mille Lacs Indian Museum and Trading Post, which allowed us to toggle between living Ojibwe culture and its proud, often painful history.

Outside on the green lawn, it was a postcard holiday – bright sky, blue lake, attentive guests, welcoming hosts. The rich mash-up of contemporary Ojibwe culture was on full display — t-shirts and jingle dresses, drumming and Diet Coke, eagle-feather fans and beaded crowns, including one with a Hello Kitty design for a five-year-old princess.

Inside, museum displays detailed the history of broken treaties and forced relocations. Native Americans were not recognized as U.S. citizens until 1924. In the 1990s, a protracted legal battle was needed to enforce the band’s hunting and fishing rights. Even today, resort owners and fishermen complain about the band’s rights to take walleye from the big lake.

Dioramas illustrated how Ojibwe families lived before the land developers and farmers arrived. Small groups survived by moving each season within an 8-mile range — tapping maples, fishing the big lake, collecting wild rice in marshes, hunting game.

That’s history the way we like it: Resourceful, revered, passé. But as we roamed through the museum, one sign painfully connected those families and my own: “In 1911, 284 Band members remain in villages near Lake Mille Lacs. Chief Wadena’s village is burned by a sheriff’s posse, and its residents are forcibly removed so that their land can be claimed by a developer.”

Three years later, in 1914, my husband’s grandfather bought 40 acres in that area. It was mediocre farmland. In time, he moved to St. Paul. But he kept the land, and when he retired there, its bounty of spruce and maple, bittersweet vines and wild cranberries fed my husband’s spirit. Before us, we now know, it fed some Ojibwe family. When forced to leave, they undoubtedly received little to nothing for their loss.

There’s much effort these day to get America to confront our history of racism and white supremacy. Loudest are the arguments over statues – Robert E. Lee in New Orleans, Christopher Columbus outside the Minnesota Capitol. It’s fairly easy to remove a statue. Far harder is examining how that shameful history still affects us. Harder still is deciding how to respond to our heightened awareness.

That’s the ambition behind the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the monument that opened this spring in Montgomery, Alabama, to commemorate 4,400 black Americans murdered by white mobs between 1877 and 1950. Some 800 weathered steel columns hang from a roof like bodies, each engraved with the name of the county where the lynching occurred and the names of the victims. The farthest north is St. Louis County, where three black circus workers were lynched in Duluth on June 15, 1920.

In interviews, Bryan Stevenson, the lawyer and activist behind the memorial, argues that America’s failure to face our history of enslavement, lynching and segregation leaves us vulnerable to repeating it. He wants America to do what Berlin, South Africa and Rwanda have done – embrace a sense of shame over the Holocaust, apartheid and genocide against Tutsi, examine how those legacies continue to affect us and work to build a better future.

“There is redemption waiting. There is recovery waiting. There is reconciliation waiting,” Stevenson recently told Brooke Gladstone, host of the radio show On the Media. “There is something more like justice than we have experienced in America…But we can’t get there through silence, by pretending the history doesn’t exist. We’ve got to own up to it.”

As I travel around Minnesota this summer, I’ll look for lakes and lighthouses. I’ll also look for the history that makes me uneasy and determined to do better for my grandkids.

That day at Mille Lacs, I felt the discomfort that comes with recognizing that my gain stands partly on someone else’s loss. I also felt grateful for the welcome and resilience of my hosts. What to do?

Powwow etiquette is quite specific: Enter the dance arbor only during inter-tribal dances. During one of the final dances, I approached an elderly Ojibwe woman who’d been dancing all afternoon. She nodded when I asked if I could join her.

The drumming started and we moved slowly forward, me in my camping shorts and floppy hat, her in a jingle dress inherited from an aunt and a hat dotted with Native Vote buttons. Around and around the circle, we went, not hopping and skipping like the young dancers but gliding and talking in that quiet way of grandmothers. At the end of the dance, we gave each other thanks.

 

The Inca Trail: You’ll never walk alone

IMG_6106The day before I left for Peru, a good friend emailed: “They have trains to Machu Picchu, you know.” I smiled, interpreting her droll message as a poke and a warning. For my husband and I had arranged to get to the so-called Lost City of the Incas (in fact, the Peruvians never lost it) the hard way: Hiking over rough stone paths built centuries ago through the Andes. We would climb from the Urubamba River at 8,000 feet above sea level to Dead Woman’s Pass at nearly 14,000, descend to 11,000, then up to 12,600, creeping up and down mountains for four days to arrive on foot via the Sun Gate and see stone ruins and steep terraces spread out below us.

Five hundred people start the trail each day, so we had plenty of company and ample support. Our group of six had an excellent guide and 14 porters to carry our gear, set up our tents, and make our meals. We were responsible only for our bodies. Unless we were hurt so badly that porters had to cinch together packs and haul us out, our legs and lungs would have to do the job.

No one worried about my husband. He recently celebrated 40 years as a runner with a chili party and trivia questions about his ultra-marathons. They worried about me – healthy and determined but 67 years old with one titanium hip. I am devoted to hiking and regular exercise, but stair-step machines and forest walks hardly compare to treks through mountains. And nothing prepared me for the mental focus required to hike hour after hour up and down mountains on uneven stones.

Why not take the train? Hiking is like slow food. Both force you to wait and savor. There’s something humble, even reverent, about arriving at an ancient place the same way travelers did centuries ago, on foot, weary and grateful.

The first day, our guide Nick – a engaging 26-year-old with a deep knowledge of history, brilliant smile and healthy inventory of American slang – assured me that age was no barrier. He’d guided visitors as young as 4, as old as 95. On one trip, an 85-year-old woman from New York outpaced everyone. My ego kicked in: Game on.

The first day was a 7-mile hike along the Urubamba River with little elevation gain. In Nick’s words “easy-peasy.” We passed through mountain hamlets, greeted a grandmother walking with her grandson, saw our first set of Incan ruins, snapped pictures of flowering cacti and gates hung on hinges made of old rubber sandals. We camped that night in a field above Chamana, a small village where local children and free-ranging chickens greeted us. I brought school supplies – pencils, crayons, notebooks – and Nick lined up the children to receive them. I crawled into my sleeping bag content. Easy-peasy indeed.

The second day was harder, only 5.5 miles but all a steep, uphill climb from 8,500 feet to 12,600. Out in front were my husband and two congenial brothers from Canada, both in their 60s and well-trained for mountain hiking. I lagged behind with two friends from Minneapolis, who were younger and in fine shape but slow on the ascent, like me.

Coca tea and a diuretic prevented the nausea, dizziness and headaches that often come with altitude, but my sessions on the stair-step machine had not prepared me for hours of climbing. Soon I was counting steps – 10, 15, 20 – between pauses for extra breaths. A young, pale man passed us going downhill, led by a grim-faced porter. “He’s been sick,” Nick murmured. “See how he looks around the mouth.”

On the flight from Miami, a gastroenterologist explained that people who grow up in the Andes develop 18 percent more red blood cells than we flat-landers – cells that carry more oxygen to fuel their brains and bodies. As women carrying long pieces of rebar and porters with 40-pound packs sped past us on the trail, I was sure he was right.

Slowness has its rewards, though. I paused to admire plants confined to pots at home — geraniums, fuschia, coleus – grown to the size of bushes. I asked an old man we met why he wore two hats. “Dos cabezas. Dos mujeres. Dos mandos,” he joked. Two heads. Two women. Two bosses.

For one sole – about 30 cents – I used a toilet behind a woman’s chicken coop with plumbing that ran god knows where. Outside several houses hung red bags on long poles, the sign that a batch of chicha – beer made of corn – was ready for customers. The small village of Huayllabamba had a restaurant. At 9,700 feet, we could have stayed for happy hour.

Instead we pressed on to Llulluchapampa Camp, 12,600 feet high, to sleep on a terrace that faced a slope where llamas grazed. At dinner, we told stories, laughed, celebrated. At bedtime, clouds tucked in around us like blankets.

The third day was the longest, 8.7 miles, and Nick got us onto the trail by 6 a.m. with a plan to finish by 4 p.m. First we climbed to Dead Woman’s Pass, the trail’s highest point at 13,800 feet. In photos, I smile with thumbs up beside my husband. Then came a steep descent and first sign of trouble. Porters flew past while I picked my way carefully over stones damp with seepage from springs. By 11, when we ate ham sandwiches before another ascent, I was an hour behind schedule. Go on, I urged my husband. I’ll be fine.

At one point, I asked Nick what an early exit would look like. He pointed down the steep path we’d just climbed, then down another steep green valley. “At the bottom, there’s a train station.” Not after all that work, I thought. He offered to carry my daypack, but I declined. I would pull my own weight.

By 2 p.m., I was lagging further behind, without energy to make a short side trip to Runkurakay, a stone building where Incan messengers stopped for food and rest. By 3 p.m., when I reached the tent set up for our lunch, I was two hours behind and too weary to eat. I refilled my water bottles, envious of tents set up for travelers who would spend the night there. But our tent was two hours ahead, and the others had gone ahead. With Nick carrying my daypack, I trudged back onto the trail.

Later, when we returned home and I reread the materials the travel agency had sent, this sentence stood out: “It is important to go into the trek prepared to be challenged not only physically but mentally as well.”

How does one prepare for exhaustion? When the sky dims and your camp waits on a distant hill, when your stomach heaves in protest and you vomit up all you’ve eaten that day, too weary even for embarrassment?

“Basura organico,” I said, organic trash. Lame, but I wanted to assure Nick that at least my humor was intact.

I followed him down a narrow cleft through huge boulders where Incas carved steps and up a gentle incline. We met no one. I hardly spoke. Throughout that long afternoon, Nick stayed close by, joking, telling stories, encouraging, concerned. By 5 p.m., it was dark and getting colder. He pulled his jacket tighter and radioed ahead. I could not walk any faster.

I remember that part of the journey like childbirth: Late in labor, when every muscle is exhausted, you ache to stop, rest, reverse course. But there is only forward.

Two porters came back with flashlights to take our packs. At 6 p.m., 12 hours after we began, I dragged into camp. The others were eating in the bright dining tent. “You must tease your husband,” Nick urged. I must have been convincing: They all looked aghast after my mock display of conjugal fury. After a few sips of chamomile tea, I crawled into my sleeping bag. That night of retching and restlessness, I won even the porters’ respect. Nick reported their review: “Even when she is puking, you could see she was determined to make it.”

Somehow, I got up and walked the next morning. My stomach was still on strike, so I walked the final five miles dreaming of ginger ale. At lunch, Nick gave me the bottle of Coca Cola he’d hauled through the mountains. Never has sugary, carbonated water tasted so grand.

There’s a set of steep steps shortly before the final approach to Machu Picchu, “gringo killers,” they’re called. I climbed them like a ladder – using my hands.

Then at last, we made our way through the Sun Gate, the main entrance to Machu Picchu centuries before buses began hauling tourists up a road of hairpin turns. The rising sun shines through that gate on the summer solstice. It’s the place to snap the famous portrait of Machu Picchu – ancient green terraces and grey stone buildings spread out below, the cone of Huayna Picchu rising up behind them. In our selfie, my husband’s smile is chin up and proud. Mine is a survivor’s, weary, windblown, grateful to be done.

As one not drawn to extreme anything, it was good to discover what my husband calls “your gear beyond exhaustion,” a buried cache of physical strength and mental determination. But the biggest lesson of those high and lonely mountains was how greatly I relied on others – the porters, my husband and friends, and Nick – to carry on.

Songs from musicals were the soundtrack of my dreamy adolescence. Sometimes at night, when all the family was in bed, I would stretch out beside the stereo in the living room and softly play LPs of Rogers and Hammerstein musicals. Climb every mountain, I sang from Sound of Music. Now another line, this from Carousel, slips in alongside it: You’ll never walk alone.

 

 

 

Old statues and history lessons

Suddenly, President Trump is concerned about preserving history, specifically keeping stiff-backed statues of Confederate generals standing in parks and public squares. As he tweeted last week: “can’t change history, but you can learn from it…who’s next? Washington, Jefferson? So foolish.”

I agree that we can learn from history. In fact, I’d argue that we all could use history lessons, specifically in how the legacy of slavery persists far beyond Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Books and documentaries are good, but in my experience, it’s far more effective to make the history personal.

I was in my 40s and researching a piece of family history when my lessons began. Specifically, I wanted to understand how my immigrant ancestors climbed out of poverty within a generation or two of their arrival. Meanwhile, other families I covered as a journalist – many of them African-American — passed poverty from generation to generation like flat feet.

Was it as conservatives claimed, a moral failure: Mothers didn’t finish school, didn’t marry, had babies too soon and relied on welfare instead of work. Had my family prospered because welfare was rarely available in their time? Because they’d finished school, gotten married and generally shown the virtues we extol in ancestral stories – hard work, education, self-sacrifice? Or was it something harder for me to see?

The up-from-the-ashes nature of my maternal grandmother’s story especially intrigued me. Daisy Mallott was born in 1889 in Kansas City, Mo., to an itinerant gambler and a poor farm girl. When money was tight, my grandmother spent time in an orphanage. There she met a nun who nominated her for a scholarship to an elite Catholic girls’ high school. A decade later, she had changed her name to Margaret and married the college-educated brother of a wealthier classmate. Marriage catapulted her into the middle class. By the late 1920s, she had a fur-trimmed coat and her own car.

Discretion or perhaps shame kept her from talking about the hard times, and she had died by the time I sought details. I was left to piece together a story from the stories relatives knew and whatever records I could find.

Thumbing through old city photos at the public library one day, I came across several black and white photographs of the hillside just below Quality Hill, where my grandmother went to school. They were taken during the same time she was walking through ornate iron gates to study needlework and biology at St. Teresa’s Academy.

The first photo was shot from a distance, and encompassed the whole scene — the grimy tangle of railroads at the bottom, the fine brick houses on top, and the steep, crowded hill in between.

Other photos were close-ups of that hillside – a shantytown of underbrush, unpainted shacks, footpaths and ragamuffin children. All its residents were black.

That’s not unusual. Slums of immigrants from Eastern Europe and southern states larded American cities at the turn of the 20th century. But the proximity in time and space to my grandmother’s big break drew me especially to that crowded hillside. What if she had been one of those barefoot black girls hanging from porches instead of a slender white girl in a stiff, black dress, shyly walking through those hilltop gates, pretending that she belonged?

I’ve learned much in the years since I saw those photographs. From journalists like Isabel Wilkerson  and Douglas Blackmon, I’ve learned about the poverty, servitude, lynchings and suppression of hope that led black immigrants to flee the South.

From Michelle Alexander, I’ve learned about racial bigotry in the criminal justice system. From Douglas Massey, Nancy Denton and others, I’ve learned about the deliberate creation of race-based slums.

I’ve learned that during my childhood, eight Kansas City high schools were all-white and one was all-black. Brown v. Topeka Board of Education notwithstanding, the school district redrew school boundaries, sometimes block by block, to maintain that segregation. I’ve learned that until I was in first grade, black children weren’t allowed to swim in the pool at Swope Park, where my grandparents took me to the zoo and Starlight Theater.

I’ve learned that the Kansas City suburbs where I grew up were all-white because the federal loan programs that helped white families buy those homes weren’t available to black families. Deeds on some homes prohibited people “of Negro blood” unless they were domestic servants. Others prohibited sales to people who were more than a quarter Jewish or to “Turks, Persians, Syrians and Arabians.”

President Trump and the angry men chanting “Our streets, our streets” aren’t interested in learning that history. They’re interested in reclaiming a world where white men ruled, women knew their place and no matter how low their social and economic standing, white men could always count on someone being lower.

When I asked my parents about these things, they would answer, “We didn’t know.” I can’t take refuge in ignorance. The question now is, what will I do to change the history we’re making today?