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?

Making history in the nation’s capital

IMG_3806The year was 1973. I was fresh out of college, idealistic and impatient to make my mark on the world. For all the protests back then, even Republicans believed in government and its power to provide liberty and justice for its people. So like countless other young people, I went to Washington to lend a hand, working for a consumer group and sharing a crumbling house with other meagerly paid interns.

Like everyone in town, I was fascinated by the year’s central drama – Watergate. Daily scoops by two young Washington Post reporters – Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein – slowly revealed that a “third-rate” break-in at the offices of the Democratic National Committee was part of a vast system of political dirty tricks. Those disclosures ultimately led to the indictments of 40 administration officials and the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

I went to Washington again last week to visit family and see how the city is dealing with another president under siege. As in 1973, the Washington Post reports daily on the missteps and frustrations of President Trump. Congress is once more distracted from the business of governing and calculating how this young, disruptive presidency will play with voters back home.

But Washington is a city of history, packed with marble monuments, plaques and busloads of middle-schoolers roaming between museums and food courts. Thanks to them, I thought less about the latest tweets and headlines than about the lessons from other troubled times. In the new National Museum of African-American History and Culture, I pictured black college students sitting at lunch counters, being cursed and spat upon for asserting their right to eat hamburgers. I learned about thousands of slaves risking their lives by rushing toward the advancing Union Army and volunteering to fight in an army that paid them less than their white peers. 

At the hilltop cottage where the Lincolns spent summers during his presidency, I imagined President Lincoln, heavy with the death of his boy Willie and the terrible weight of the Civil War, riding his horse each day to the White House. Yet when British visitors stopped by the cottage late one evening, he greeted them with a smile and a question: “What do you think of our great country?” Even in the midst of secession and fratricide, he saw the nation’s greatness.

Looking back, history often looks inevitable, the product of powerful men’s wisdom, greed or foolishness. But lunch counters and slave uprisings reminded me that a million individual choices nudge it this way or that each day. And so for half an hour, I stood across from the White House with my sister holding signs to protest President Trump’s policies. A Japanese tourist snapped a picture. The draperies in the East Room didn’t stir. The men guarding the grounds looking unconcerned. But when the history of this time is written, I and all those who have been stirred to greater activism will be a part of it.

The throne of mercy

This Easter season, I thought a good deal about the nature of Christian faith and the wildly different varieties on display these days.  The persecution of Coptic Christians in Egypt. Pope Francis’s call to mercy. American fundamentalists’ campaigns to expel immigrants, outlaw abortion, expand gun rights, shrink government and tilt the economic system even more in favor of the rich. An alien from another planet would be understandably confused by the message and meaning of that Judean man from 2,000 years ago.

Had I the chance, I would not take that visitor not to the triumphant hallelujahs of Easter. We would go instead to the living stations of the cross mounted on Good Friday by the Latino members of my church, Incarnation/Sagrado Corazon in Minneapolis. Even for me, raised from childhood on the story of Christ’s sacrifice for our salvation, it was a revelation and reminder of one core belief of my faith — mercy.

Let me take you there: It is supper time and overcast. The unlit church – a century old, marble-floored, high-ceiling — is packed with hundreds of young Latino families, mothers, fathers and children, and a handful of Anglos, who sit in attentive silence. A quiet dirge plays in the background as a young man with an expressive face and sturdy build appears at one side of the altar, kneeling in front of a panel painted as a garden.

A single spotlight follows him and other performers around the church, illuminating scene by scene the story of Christ’s painful, lonely end. His plea in the garden – “Take this cup from me” – and acquiescence – “Not my will but your will be done.” His public humiliation, the mocking of his claim to a kingdom, the torture of his body, his anguished cry from the cross: “Why have you abandoned me?”

After studying Spanish for two years, I understood maybe a quarter of the words. No matter, I know the story well. But this year, I understood more profoundly its meaning. Around me sat hundreds of immigrants, many undocumented, many afraid to drive, shop or answer the door for fear ICE agents will separate them from their children and cast them out of a country where they’ve built their lives for decades. Sitting with them, I felt afresh Christ’s pain when his disciples abandoned him.

I felt too the power of sharing another’s pain. When a woman stepped forward to wipe Christ’s bloody face – Veronica, tradition tells us – I felt the power of that small comfort and the call to do the same.

Most of the time, we work hard to distance ourselves from pain. Our opiate crisis is a self-destructive sprint away from our own pain.  Our politics has become a series of appeals to narrow identities and interests, a stubborn refusal to feel the pain of others.

After the actor was taken from the cross, the lights went on and our pastor pointed to the empty cross – “trona de misericordia,” the throne of mercy. Misericordia blends two Latin words – those for suffering and heart. The combination produces mercy — “kindness in excess of what might be expected or demanded by fairness.”

I carry with me now that image – the cross as Christ’s throne, the throne of mercy. The generosity of God’s mercy for us, God’s call for us to show mercy to one another.

Living in our own dirt


Now begins the latest chapter in our new President’s dissembling.

Before cheering crowds in Florida last weekend, President Trump declared his resolve to deport “gang members – bad, bad people.” But in the crowded basement of my church in Minneapolis on Sunday, tearful women worried that their children will return to empty apartments, effectively orphaned by our president’s pledge to deport anyone who is in the U.S. without the proper papers except those brought here as children.

No matter that many of those children’s parents have been here for 10-20-30 years, working hard, buying cars and houses, paying taxes without receiving benefits, and contributing in countless ways to our churches, schools, businesses and neighborhoods. Under the Executive Orders on Protecting the Homeland released Tuesday, no one is exempt.  Anyone in the country illegally is declared a “removable alien.”

These “removable aliens” – language that makes people sound both rubbishy and extraterrestrial — are not the people I know. I know cleaning women and roofers, car mechanics and cooks who were born in Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala. Some were drawn to the U.S. by the promise of jobs or hopes of going to college. Some fled here out of fear or desperation, because gangs threatened their children or because they could not feed them.

If there had been any possibility of becoming U.S. citizens, they’d have grabbed it. But it’s been 30 years since Congress last created a pathway for undocumented workers to become citizens.  That fix hasn’t stopped the flow – the number of undocumented workers has more than doubled since 1986 – because of patchy enforcement and higher-than-expected employer demand for immigrant labor.  But rounding up  millions of people and deporting them without giving them a chance to see a lawyer or call their children is neither practical nor humane.

Consider these facts: An estimated 11 million people are in this country illegally, a number staggering in size and heartbreaking in its potential for broken lives. Some 8 million of them are working, threatening massive disruptions in many workplaces.

In 2012, illegal immigrants were 3.5 percent of the U.S. population (1.8 percent in Minnesota) and 5.1 percent of the nation’s labor force (2.5 percent in Minnesota). Immigrant men are more likely to be in labor force than native-born men (91 to 76 percent). Undocumented immigrant women more likely to have young children at home, 22 percent compared to 7 percent of native-born Americans. Most of Trump’s “removable aliens” are workers and mothers, not “bad, bad men.”

Last week, while driving back from New Mexico with my husband and friends, I spent a night in Garden City, Kansas. Most of west central Kansas is a lonely expanse of corn and wheat fields, so we were surprised to find a vigorous community of 27,000, bright with new motels and restaurants and fragrant with the smell of feedlots and packing houses.

A few days later, a report on National Public Radio explained the reason: The town – now half Hispanic – has welcomed immigrants and refugees who are willing to do the hard, dirty work of turning cattle into steaks and hamburger for Tyson Foods and other meat producers.

“I think our community would be a dying community without the immigrants that have come to fill in the gaps and to grow businesses,” Finney County Sheriff Kevin Bascue told the NPR reporter. The biggest  crime in Garden City in recent months was a foiled plan by three white supremacists to bomb an apartment building where Somali immigrants live. Now Bascue will be called on to deport the very people who have made his community thrive.

The number of illegal immigrants has been falling since the recession of 2007, but they remain a significant portion of the labor force in many tough, low-wage jobs.  Nearly a quarter of workers in landscaping and private household employment are undocumented. In apparel, manufacturing, crop production, laundries and building maintenance, roughly 1 in 5 workers are undocumented.

These are not the jobs the Michigan factory workers or West Virginia coal miners want. If they did, there would be no demand for undocumented immigrants.

I am learning much about the anger and frustration that led many Americans to vote for Trump. I understand their anxiety about the security of their jobs and families in a world that is changing with dizzying speed. I recognize that no country can accept all comers without overwhelming its systems and provoking a backlash like we now see.

In a perfect world, our leaders would be busy discussing how to better share the spoils of technology and globalization, how to prepare our kids for the changing world and how to keep the nation secure while integrating immigrants who have lived, worked and honored our country for years.

But this is an age of scapegoats, not solutions. So immigrants are demonized as criminals rather than the women who clean our hotel rooms and serve our Big Macs, the men who roof our houses and butcher our meat.

Promising to Make America Great Again by attacking cleaning women and meat cutters is dishonest and cruel.  We may be surprised by the results. A Mexican friend with the thankless task of cleaning toilets and wiping down sweaty machines at a health club says acidly: “Americans will have to live in their own dirt.”


Preparing for the long haul


How happy I was to march in St. Paul last Saturday with my husband, daughter-in-law and an estimated 90,000 other Minnesotans with signs, chants and pink pussy hats. We stood together to support a range of causes – from contraception to Obamacare, immigrant rights to public education. We were even more united by our opposition to much of what our new president stands for –ignorance and isolationism, bluster and contempt for evidence, resentment of immigrants and minorities and salacious disdain for women.

But now, four days later, I awake to the anxious reality of a Trump administration. This morning’s headlines tell of jump-starting construction of a wall with Mexico, muzzling scientists at the EPA, and restarting construction of the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines. Today there will be more provocative tweets from the potus account and tomorrow more headlines…

Meanwhile, in Congress, a kind of cross-your-fingers game is being played in confirmation hearings on Trump’s cabinet choices. The nominee for budget director promises to educate his boss about the dangers of deficits while the Man Himself promises not to touch Medicare or Social Security but spend $1 trillion more on infrastructure. Sigh.

And so Trump’s authoritarian style and agenda of resentment bound forward. How do those of us who marched last Saturday prepare for the long fight of advancing different values and different policies?

Here are a few guidelines I’ll use:

  • Base resistance on core values. For me, foundational values come from my Christian faith and my conviction that “liberty and justice for all” includes every American and that our nation is vastly stronger thanks to its diversity and openness to the world.
  • Decide which nets to drop. Last Sunday’s gospel told of Jesus calling his disciples. “‘Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ At once they left their nets and followed him.”  It’s easier for me to pick up new nets than drop old ones, but the result is often exhaustion and a sense that I’m doing nothing well. If I’m to make resistance as regular a part of my life as exercise or writing, what will I give up to make room?
  • Pick your issues. Because of family and community connections, I have personal stakes in health care, immigration policy and treatment of poor families. I’ll focus my political energy there for now.
  • Take at least one action daily. A young friend listed on Facebook all she’s done since the election – ranging from diversifying her media consumption to making monthly donations to favorite causes. Abortion opponents have been marching on the Supreme Court every January since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973. Liberals must cultivate the same staying power.
  • Share hope. Right now, this feels like a long, lonely battle. There must be joy in the effort. Support those who are marching with you.
  • Build bridges. Krista Tippett, host of the Public Radio show ‘On Being,’ puts it this way: “Coming out of this election year, I think what we absolutely have to find a way and a place and a vocabulary to talk about is moral imagination: the human effects of policies and the question of how we create common life and who we are to one another.”   I was saddened to read that abortion opponents were discouraged from joining Saturday’s march and that some who did were heckled. For more than 40 years, there’s been a standoff between those who believe abortion is murder of innocents, pure and simple, and those who believe it’s an essential right for women. When our interests intersect, as last Saturday, we should rejoice at the chance to explore our shared values and seize the chance to build on them.  In our personal lives, we need to do the same.

Hook-ups, football players and the question of morality

tcf-stadiumI got 13 pages into the University of Minnesota’s report on football players’ sexual assault of a young woman last September before I had to stop for a time. Reading the account of football players piling onto a young woman in a teammate’s bedroom was like witnessing a deer brought down by one wolf and other pack members rushing in to tear off a piece of flesh. The young men jostled for position, asserted rights to “my turn” and assaulted her two or three at a time while she clutched a blanket to cover her naked body. Even wolves wouldn’t Instant message videos inviting others to the scene.

The events of September 2 encompass enough themes to supply a TV series material for a full season. The young woman downed 4-5 shots of 100 proof vodka before going out with girlfriends at 12:30 a.m. looking for parties. The young men, a high school recruit and several first-year members of the Gophers, exchanged Instant messages bragging about hoes and bitches. They were so bonded that one player expressed more regret about trashing a teammate’s room than about the young woman they’d assaulted there.

Binge drinking, the demigod status of young athletes, the objectification and insecurity of young women – it’s all there.

Let’s be clear: The events of that night had nothing to do with consent, something to do with hook-up culture and a lot to do with a society that has so degraded sexual intercourse that a man who brags about grabbing women’s genitals is elected President.

To quote Michelle Obama, “This has shaken me to my core.”

Because the players were black and the young woman presumably white, some may want to view this episode through the ugly, old, racist lens that casts black men as sexual predators. Others will blame the sexual revolution that decoupled sex from marriage and the power of young women to control their fertility with contraceptives and abortion. I disagree.

I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, when the sexual lives of women were bracketed by the Pill and Roe v. Wade. Getting pregnant in high school could still get you expelled, but there were no more shotgun weddings or forced adoptions. We were too young and lusty to be persuaded by the lines from 1 Corinthians: “The body is not for sexual immorality…Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit.” But the question of morality was still part of how we decided whether to have sex.
“Is your relationship moral or immoral?” my mother challenged when I came back from one date with my blouse buttoned wrong.

“It depends how you define immorality,” I challenged back.

My norms were these: Good girls had sex, but we  didn’t go all the way outside a committed relationship.

What’s normative today is drastically different. A 2013 survey of research studies on hook-ups estimates that between 60 and 80 percent of U.S. college students have had some sort of brief, uncommitted sexual experience. Researchers cite two main reasons. First, the widening period between the onset of puberty and the time one settles down to create a family. Second, pervasive media messages that uncommitted sexual relationships are prevalent and a turn-on physically and emotionally.

The reality is more complex. Asked how they felt the morning after a hook-up, most of the young people surveyed were positive, although men far more than women: 82 percent to 57 percent in one study. But long-term reactions are more complex. In a Web-based survey of nearly 1,500 undergraduates, 27 percent reporting feeling embarrassed, 24.7 percent reported emotional difficulties, 20.8 percent experienced loss of respect, and 10 percent reported difficulties with a steady partner.

One-night stands are a particular source of regret. One researcher found that men had stronger feelings of being “sorry because they felt they used another person,” whereas women had stronger feelings of “regret because they felt used.” And women were more likely to hope that a one-night stand would be a prelude to a deeper relationship.

I was at that football game last September, when the Gophers won the first game of the season against Oregon State. Classes had begun a few days earlier, and the stadium held the bright promise of a new semester and a new season.

Long after my husband and I were home and fast asleep, that young woman and those young men were downing shots and heading in the warm fall night, looking for parties, people, pleasure. Their actions that night will cost them dearly. But they acted within a context that is equally disturbing and also to blame.

Show up, ask questions, listen

I joined a protest march on Saturday for the first time in more than a decade. It wasn’t particularly satisfying. My feet froze, and the potluck of battered signs (anti-war, pro-Gaza, Black Lives Matter) made our purpose unclear even to me. When I gently chided a younger protestor for spray-painting FDT (f… Donald Trump) on lamp posts in an already battered neighborhood, he turned on his heels, surely dismissing me as a fussy old white lady who cares more about property than shaking a fist at the system.

I wish he’d stayed to talk. In what Toni Morrison aptly calls these “days of dread,” when our president-elect mocks information and opinions that challenge his own bristling complacency, I crave open, searching conversations with people who see the world differently than I do. Not the bloviators and demagogues, mind you, but the people who have more to fear from his victory than I do and those who propelled his win with their fears of a changing America and their pain at feeling socially and economically left behind. For if we’re ever to overcome the terrible divide that produced this strange and bitter election, we’ve got to talk.

My model is “Strangers in Their Own Land,” Arlie Russell Hochschild’s deeply insightful book about Tea Party members in the small towns and bayous of southern Louisiana. Propelled by a paradox – that the very people who could benefit from effective government programs fervently oppose them – the noted Berkeley sociologist spent five years talking to people in their homes, churches and political gatherings, probing their “deep story.”

There are many parts to that story. Anger that urban elites mock their intelligence, religious faith and allegiance to traditional gender roles. Resentment that they’ve waited for decades for real wages to rise but believe that women, minorities and immigrants have bumped in line in front of them, in part because of affirmative action and immigration policies. Grief, especially over severe environmental damage to their beloved bayous caused by petrochemical companies. Resignation because they’ve been trained to believe that environmental destruction is the cost of having high-paying jobs in the oil industry.

Lest we urban elites deny our own bigotry, I quote a column about Trump voters (the “Sheeple”) that appeared recently in my neighborhood newspaper: “Now they can sit back in their La-Z-Boys and go full-on Wall-E and watch the stupidfest.”

My inspiration these days are people who foster conversations across our great divides. A friend works for a trucking company whose owner distributed Truckers for Trump caps around his office. My friend stopped him in the hall and suggested that perhaps this wasn’t the best idea. Why? the owner asked. After all, Trump is likely to favor deregulation and lower taxes. Yes, my friend answered. But many of the firm’s drivers are Muslim, and the hats might make them believe the company shares Mr. Trump’s extremist views. It could make it harder to retain Muslim drivers or to attract more. To his credit, the owner acknowledged that perhaps he’d been thinking too narrowly about what was good for business.

Talking across divides is slow, uncertain work, requiring equal measures of persistence, courage and gentleness. Not everyone has the stomach for it these days. As an African American friend told me: “I’m not interested in learning about people who aren’t interested in learning about me.”

There’s another march on my schedule – the Women’s March Minnesota on Jan. 21 in St. Paul.  As I search for ways to stand up against hatred, work for the values I hold dear and build bridges across the lies, prejudices and fears that produced this awful election, I can do this: Show up, ask questions and listen.


What life expects of us: Finding hope in a time of Trump

In these weeks since the election, as President-elect Trump names plutocrats to high office and makes reckless, unsubstantiated claims about millions of illegal votes, I struggle with a mild sort of despair. Perhaps that’s one reason I spent yesterday in bed with a head cold, blowing my nose and reading people who can help confront this age of division and manipulation with a measure of courage and clarity.

Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist who spent more than three years laboring in Nazi concentration camps, was there beside the Kleenex and throat-coat tea. So was Arlie Russell Hochschild, the Berkeley sociologist who spent five years talking with Tea Party members from rural Louisiana to probe the “deep story” of anger and mourning that informs their fervent anti-government views.

Hochschild explores the deep divisions that produced this election. Frankl describes the effort and courage required to carry on when the world around you seems hopeless. Their work highlights the hard, patient work needed to understand the experience and views so different from mine, and the faith and determination required to live and work daily for my values.

First to Hochschild. In Strangers In Their Own Land, Anger and Mourning on the American Right, she probes what she calls The Great Paradox: that people struggling with economic decline and environmental devastation caused by petrochemical companies are drawn to politicians who want to slash environmental protection and further increase the political and economic power of multinational corporations.

Over countless cups of coffee and visits to homes, churches and political meetings, she found among the older, white residents of Cajun bayous and small towns a tremendous pride in family, religious faith, hard work and community. She found also confusion and grief that many of the things they most value – secure jobs that will support a family, strong communities, marriages that endure, clean water and stately trees of their beloved bayous – have disappeared during their lifetimes.

They find consolation in the healing touch and heavenward focus of their churches. They do not blame state officials who cut public education and health funding in order to subsidize multinational corporations. Neither do they blame the state for failing to hold petrochemical companies accountable for their environmental destruction. They accept that giving corporations unfettered freedom is necessary to produce good jobs, even when automation and outsourcing means that few jobs materialize.

Instead, fed by a steady diet of the alarmist spin of Fox News and talk radio, they blame the federal government, affirmative action, immigrants, Muslims and big-city liberals who dismiss them as ignorant rednecks.

The people in southern Louisiana feel grief, anger and confusion, as I do. The challenge is bridging our vast differences to find common cause. That’s the work of political parties. It’s also the work of individual writers, teachers, religious leaders, citizens to find the words, actions and means for fresh perspectives and common ground.

It seems grandiose to compare disappointment in an election to despair in a concentration camp. But there are lessons, especially the need to seize opportunities for “right action.”

Frankl says it best: “It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”

This means, in part, the acceptance of suffering and attentiveness to small actions we can take to sustain hope. For Frankl, it was a camp official who slipped him a crust of bread, the chance to bolster the hope of fellow prisoners, the power to imagine life after imprisonment

“The right example was more effective than words could ever be,” he writes.

Today along with thousands of others, I will mail a postcard to Mr. Trump, asking him to remove Steven Bannon from his future White House staff. The night before Thanksgiving, I helped gather pies so that Anglo and Latino members of my church could eat and talk and support one another after a bilingual Mass. In Boston, a friend hosts a fundraiser for the resource-strapped marching band at her local high school. In a thousand small ways, we attend to what life asks of us.