Monday, February 26, 2018

Esther, Vashti and #metoo in Shushan

Book of Esther

That blush on my cheek?
It's paint,
And I have glittered my eyes
And robed myself in the finery
of silk and gossamer,
lapis and gold--
And whored myself for your salvation.

You asked for no thoughts.
You merely offered my body
to the king--
My life forfeit
If my beauty failed.

You asked for no ideas
And I gave you none,
Though I had a thousand,
And ten thousand more.

Diplomacy was played on the field of my body,
The battle won in the curve of my hip
And the satin of my skin,
Fevered dreams of lust
And redemption.

That blush on my cheeks?
It is the stain of victory
And of my shame.


For Vashti, who danced

I remember when he crooned,
Come, dance for me!
And I would,
just for him.

And Oh! It was
glorious, all silk and
heat and lithesome.
I moved like fire
I moved like water

And later, he moved
with me,  a different kind
of heat, and he called me
his queen.

When did crooning
turn to calling,
and calling to demand?

Dance, he says,
Dance for me, and move
your hips,
and wet your lips
and come - as if I were
his pet, a bitch to lap up
praise from her master,
kept on a collar and leash.

But I am queen.

I am fire,
and water,
and lithe.

I will not dance
when you call.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Upon the Use of "Thoughts and Prayers" as an effective defense against guns

This was a post I wrote on Facebook, back in June of last year:

Dear God! We are a nation under siege. When is enough enough? How many more people must die or be maimed by gun violence?!

The answer is NOT to put more guns on the streets! Don't quote the 2nd amendment to me - it calls for a well-regulated militia. These terrorists - the white men who believe they are acting for God or race or political bent - who carry semi-automatic rifles that can strafe a plaza - or a baseball field or a church or a business or (pick a place, any place) - and mow down human beings to show their might and power and hatred - these terrorists can pick up their guns and bullets without a care! It is more difficult to get a driver's license than a gun license.

Dear God - when will enough be enough?

Someone I don't know commented on it - "The criminals will get their guns one way or another," implying this was a good reason why gun control won't work and shouldn't be pursued.

Here's the thing - of course criminals will always get their guns! I'M NOT WORRIED ABOUT THE FUCKING CRIMINALS!

- I'm worried about the white supremacist skinhead who can legally buy a gun.
- I'm worried about the nice parents down the block who buy a gun to protect their family whose child ends up dead because said child found the gun - or MY child getting killed by their gun because he was over playing at their house and someone found the gun
- I'm worried about the mentally ill person who can readily buy a gun.
- I'm worried about the guy who’s pissed off at his wife or his girlfriend or boss or co-worker or the world who decides to do something about it

Of course the criminals will get their guns. We have law enforcement to deal with that; it's by no means perfect or even relatively effective. But gun control laws were never meant to deal with that issue!

Good God people! We created this battlefield all by ourselves. This blood is on our hands. Somehow, we deified the NRA and the 2nd amendment, and we build altars to their godhood daily. And you know - it's all of us. We are all culpable in this nloody passion play.

We wring our hands and offer thoughts and prayers as if that were enough. We shake our heads in sorrow, in anger, in bewilderment - and then we go on with our lives, until the next time, and the next time, and the time after that. Because there will always be a next time. And we will be just as culpable and just as sad and bewildered and angry.

Here are some cold hard facts, gleaned from the Center for Disease Control
  • On an average day93 Americans will be killed with guns
  • Those 93 deaths daily? Seven of them will be kids or teens.
  • Nearly 12,000 people will die. victims of gun homicide, annually
  • For every one person killed by a gun, two more will be injured
  • Every month, 50 women will be shot by their intimate partner
  • When a gun is present in a situation of domestic violence, the risk of the woman being killed increases fivefold
  • The American gun homicide rate is 25 times higher, on average, than other high income countries. The US makes up 42% of the population of that group, but accounts for 82% of the gun deaths.
What will it take?

We thought Columbine would do it, didn’t we? I could have sworn we did. So I went searching, to find out how many mass shootings there had been since that deadly, horrifying kick-you-in-the-gut-and-take-your-breath-away massacre at Columbine High School in April, 1999. Funny thing - my research took me back to 1984 (a prescient year, to be sure; I could have gone further - I chose to stop there). That was the year a man walked into a McDonald's in San Ysidro, California and opened fire, killing 21 and wounding 19.

Between San Ysidro (1984) and Columbine (1999), there were nine other mass shootings - a total of 11 shootings in all at that time. The total number of dead numbered 112. One hundred twelve lives snuffed out, and one hundred fifty-nine wounded - physically. God only knows the countless others whose wounds are not visible to the eye. Angry men. Hurt and damaged boys. Empty people who wanted to punish, who wanted to hurt, who wanted to kill. Who wanted to die. They grabbed a gun - a rifle, a shotgun, a handgun, a semiautomatic rifle - and sprayed bullets and pain and death all around them.

Columbine hit us like a wave of frigid water. It shocked us all. It sickened us all. We wept with all of the families whose worlds were destroyed that day in April. And we swore it would never happen again. Didn't we? Of course we did! We had to have. I mean, this wasn't some gangland war on the mean streets of some city. This wasn't some pissed off guy with a chip on his shoulder who shot up his girlfriend's office in an effort to show her just how much he loved her and what lengths he'd go to make her stay.

This wasn't supposed to happen - not here! This was middle class suburbia, mostly white America. This was a couple of kids! White kids, who, seemingly out of nowhere, walked into their school and opened fire on classmates and teachers alike. It wasn't until later that we found out they had an arsenal of guns at their fingertips, all legally owned by their parents. It wasn't until later that we learned they were Outsiders, bullied and marginalized and unstable.

So we learned. We learned from the harshest teacher, this most brutal lesson. We learned, and so we declared it wouldn't happen again.

Until it did. Three months later, in Atlanta. Two months after that, in Fort Hood. And two more months. And then the next month. Again and again. Over and over. The killings never stopped. People who'd been fired, or passed over, or left - they took it out on the people they worked with or loved or hated or feared. Who the fuck knows?

From Columbine to Virginia Tech - the next of the "big" ones, the shootings that really shook us up. that seem to have a more permanent status in our heads (except, of course, if your world was rocked by one of the "minor" shootings, the ones that faded more quickly from public view) - from April, 1999 - April 2007: 13 mass shootings. Ninety-seven dead, seventy-four walking wounded.

We learned. We learned how to use social media to notify students and faculty that there was a potential madman on the loose. It would have been nice to learn how to keep guns out of the hands of the madmen. Almost a year later (with only one other mass shooting and eight dead along the way), Northern Illinois University was hit by its own disgruntled student. Again, we activated the notification system, keeping those kids not in the lecture hall on lockdown and safe. We lost only five souls that day. It could have been so much worse.

But we learned. And it won't happen again. We won't let it happen again.

Binghamton, NY: April 2009, 13 dead, 4 wounded
Fort Hood, TX: November 2009, 13 dead, 32 wounded
Huntsville, AL: February 2010, 3 dead, 3 wounded
Manchester, CT: August 2010, 8 dead, 2 wounded
Tucson, AZ: August 2011, 6 dead, 11 wounded
Seal Beach, CA: October 2011, 8 dead, 1 wounded
Oakland, CA: April 2012, 7 dead, 3 wounded

Aurora, CO: July 2012 - another one of the "big names" in mass killings. This was the madman who shot up the midnight showing of a Batman movie, killing 12 and wounding 58.

Oak Creak, WI: 6 killed, 3 wounded in a Sikh temple where people were at worship
Minneapolis, MN: September 2012, 6 killed, 2 wounded
Brookfield, WI: October 2012, 3 killed, 4 wounded

Newton, CT: December 2012, Sandy Hook Elementary School. This brought a nation to its knees. Stories of courage beyond what anyone could have imagined. The faces of those sweet, sweet kids, getting ready for the holidays. The teachers and administrators who did all that they could, and then did more. The parents whose children died. In all, 27 people - adults and kids - died. Were murdered.

And we declared we had had enough. We declared that this madness would end. We shouted "never again!" to anyone who would listen, and to many who wouldn't. We were done learning these lessons. We got it. Surely Congress would listen now! Surely Congress would no longer bow to the pressure of the NRA and other pro-gun lobbyists, not with all we had been through. Right?

Between Sandy Hook and the Charleston Church shooting almost exactly three years later, there were five gun mass murders, a mere 36 deaths. I mean, really - they should barely count, right?

Except they do count. As do the 13 other mass shootings that happened between then and yesterday, June 14, 2017. On that day, we saw two mass shootings, a continent apart. One in Virginia in, in the shadow of the capitol -where thank God no one was killed! - and San Francisco, where three were killed and two wounded.

In all, from what I thought would be five or six notorious cases of brutality and murder (because who can keep all of that death front and center? Life refuses to stop, or even slow down long enough to process these atrocities in their moments, and after a while, they seem to melt and fuse into one another, because how different are they, when it comes right down to it?) turned into 56 separate incidents of some guy (ok; there were two women who made it on the list; still...), some guy, some kid, some bruised and battered and broken person took out a gun and opened fire to assuage some inner demon.

From 1984 - 2017, 404 people have been killed in a mass shooting. I can't even start on those who've been killed individually. In Chicago alone, there were 762 homicides in 2016; 90% were a result of gun violence. Overall, there were 4,368 shootings here last year. When I wrote this last June, we were almost at 1,000 murders, and we hadn't even hit summer yet, when the temperature and the assault rates rise almost exponentially.

Let me remind you where all of this started: I don't give a flying fuck about criminals and their gins. In almost every single case of these mass shootings, the guns these mass murderers used were purchased legally, owned legally. Could very well have been concealed legally. In the blink of an eye, these sick individuals to their guns and ended the lives of so many.

The blink of an eye.

Do you really think that arming everybody would have stopped these murders? Even in those cases where the Authorities (whomever They may be) had an inkling that something might not be quite right in the head with these murderers, everyone was caught off guard. And no, I don't want to debate how many may have been saved in the seconds that someone on the battlefield may have had a gun, may have had the presence of mind to whip it out in the next blink of an eye, may have known how to use said gun, may have hit their target (the gunman) and not some other innocent who happened to be standing in the way (or close enough to it).

Arming everyone to the teeth is a recipe for disaster. 

We here in America seem to be the jumpy, hair-trigger gun-toting murder capital o the world. Remember that statistic, way up there? The American gun homicide rate is 25 times higher than other high income nations. Last year, the rate of death by gun violence in the US (per 100,000) was 10.2; in the UK, it was .2, 1.1 in Germany, 2.3 in Canada, 2.8 in France (according to a CBS news story).

It's the guns. It's the ease of access to the guns. It's the people who can get the guns, in all their angry, crazy, messed up lives. It's the inconsistencies from state to state. It's the loopholes and work-arounds that make what little control we have immaterial. It's the fucking NRA and their chokehold on Congress. It's the lobbyists and spineless politicians who put money before constituents. It's greed. It's short-sightedness and expediency. It's poverty and lack of education and gangs and ignorance and stupidity and arrogance.

It's death. Ugly, painful, nasty, brutish murder by bullet, and it knows no race, no socio-economic bracket, no gender, no religion, no political party. WE have created this battlefield. WE have condoned this culture. OUR hands are bloody. We cannot point a finger if we do not include ourselves, because we wring our hands and weep and keep these nameless, faceless victims and their families in our thoughts and prayers, and then we go on and live our lives, shifting a bit uncomfortably when we listen to the news, and we shake our heads when we hear about the latest atrocity, and we raise our voices, demanding change.

And nothing really seems to have changed.

I thought we might be finished, when I wrote this essay last year. Not really; I knew there would be more. And there have been. This, gleaned from a Mother Jones article:

·       The massacre in Las Vegas in October – 58 dead, 546 wounded
·       Edgewood  Business Park, MD, 17 days after Las Vegas – 3 dead, 3 wounded
·       A Walmart in suburban Denver, November – 3 dead
·       The massacre at the Texas First Baptist Church, on a beautiful Sunday morning in November, about a month before Christmas – 26 dead, 20 wounded.
·       Rancho Tehama, CA also November – 5 dead, 10 wounded
·       The Pennsylvania Car Wash, January this year (I guess we took a little holiday break from the mass killings) – 4 dead, 1 wounded
·       Stoneman Douglas High School, a Valentine’s Day massacre – 17 dead, 14+ wounded

Since writing last August, we add another 116 murders to the earlier number of 404, which took us through August 2017. Five hundred and twenty – 520 - murders. I’m sure I missed some. Their blood soaks into the ground that rises up in horror. Have we had enough yet? There is a religious tradition – not mine, but the sentiment works here – that the children shall lead us. And they are. Thank God they are! They are organizing and speaking out and demanding that this blood bath end. Now.

Have we had enough, yet> Are we willing to follow our children’s lead, and march with them, organize with them, raise our voices with them? Are we willing to demand that this end now, once and for all?

The Talmud tells us that to take a life is to kill the world entire (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5 in Sanhedrin 37a. The Quran echoes the sentiment in verse 32 of the fifth Sura: whoever kills a person… it is as though he had killed all men. A few centuries later, John Donne, an Anglican cleric in the 16th Centuury wrote Any man's death diminishes me.

I fear I have almost disappeared under the weight of all this death.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Eshet Chayil - A Woman of Valor (for the 21st century)

She doesn't feel brave,
except sometimes, when she does.
She feels the weight of rubies
and gold twist on her fingers;
she prefers a crown of flowers
in her hair to cold metal
and the straight-edged lines
of rocks.

She doesn't feel brave,
except when she does
in her heart -
   the heart of a wife
   and daughter
   mother, perhaps
   Or not - childless,
      by choice or
      unseen circumstance.
Weaver of tales, spinner of
fine linen that snags
sometimes, and she smooths it
with supple fingers -
slim fingers -
crooked and thick-with-age fingers.
She pulls the threads
that pulls the cloth. 
There is beauty in its folds.

She doesn't feel brave,
but she laughs,
and it sounds like water
and light; and she knows goodness
and sometimes pain, 
and the law of kindness
is on her tongue.

She doesn't feel strong,
but she rises when she falls,
because there are bills to pay
and dinner to fix
and papers to grade
and sometimes write.
There are knees to bandage
and meetings to endure
and the clock just keeps ticking.
And there are friends to love,
and family to love,
and self to love -
yes: self to love,

She rises, exhausted.
She rises, in joy.
She rises, trembling.
She rises, fearless.
She rises, bruised.
She rises, alone.
She rises, lonely.
She rises.

She knows nothing of valor
or the value of rubies.
She rises, and does not feel strong,
but sometimes she knows blessings
and a stumbling bit of grace.

Based on Proverbs 31:10-31, which is

also known as "Eshet Chayil" - A Woman of Valor

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Home on a Distant Shore

My family drifted rather than fled from the stelts of Europe. I think. I'm not exactly sure; none of them really liked to talk about it, so I got a patchwork quilt of family history. Sadly, now most of that generation has died, leaving me with some yellowed pictures that get passed around the cousins with questions – “Who is that, standing next to Irving?” or “Was that Yankl’s anniversary party, or Adel’s?”

I know my zayde on my father's side left his village of some Unpronounceable Name - that was sometimes in Poland, and sometimes in Russia, depending upon which brand of Cossack was more successful at pogroms that day - he left and made the journey to Palestine, where (I'd like to believe) he helped to drain the swamps and make the desert bloom. And then he left, and came to America. But I don't know why. I don't know what drove him to Palestine any more than I know what drove him to the States. All I know is that he and his thirteen brothers and sisters settled in Chicago sometime in the 1920s.

The view from my mother's side of the Diaspora is even murkier. I heard there might have been a false-bottomed cart in which my zayde hid on the way to the harbor of some country-or-other, where he then boarded a ship that took him to Chicago by way of Ellis Island and Nashville and Indianapolis. There's an Uncle who stayed behind, who later became a fighter in the Resistance of the French Underground during the War, and I wish I knew his story - how he got to France, how he became a warrior, how he survived - but he settled in Florida after the war (whenever it was that he made the journey here), and we didn't know him all that well and I was young and didn't know enough to ask him before he died.

There are a couple of other Uncles who never made it to the States, though a post card came not long after the War, making its way through a small tear in the Iron Curtain, so that we knew they had at least survived, but that was about it. That was all we knew, for decades. We found them again - or they found us - about 20 years ago, and we brought them – sponsored them, and their families to come to the States and live here, with us. With family.

They settled, all of them, in each generation of drifting and flight, with their broken and heavily accented English, and their unfamiliarity with American customs, and they got married, had babies who grew and settled and got married and had babies who grew and settled and got married and had babies.

And now, because of all their wandering, there is me, and my beloved son, who is growing, who will settle, who may have babies, or not. He will work and live and play and vote and sometimes not. He will not always agree with the popular opinion, and if now is to give us any indication, he will not agree loudly. He will work tirelessly to prove that hope, and humanity, are stronger than hate. He will stand in indignation when this land - our land, forged in the fires of justice and cooled by the waters of freedom, and our people - all of us once strangers in a strange land - gives in to the fear of The Other, of the Stranger.

My family managed to slip through the gates to get to this place, and I am forever grateful for that. There was a time in our history, not too long ago (as history gets counted), that those very same gates were barred for so many of our people at a time of desperate need. Sadly, most paid the ultimate price and perished in ugly ways. We remember them. And today, oh, today! That gate, that glorious gate of hope and freedom and possibility – I fear that gate is shutting, its rusted iron hinges groaning with the weight of Dreamers denied – those who are here now, and those who still yearn to breathe free, to enter that gate and live their lives.

We cannot let them close! We must not allow that to happen. We cannot allow hate to swallow hope. We cannot stand idly by the blood and tears and hopes of others who, like our ancestors, fled the stetls and oppression and threats of death and poverty, finally landing on these shores, this “goldeneh medinah” where the streets were paved with, if not gold, then at least opportunity.

My son knows this patchwork history of our family, these precious bits and pieces that are all I have of them: how we started so very far from here, and suffered, and were afraid, and packed up and left, because their hope was stronger than their fear. And my son will stand on the shoulders of these beloved unknown giants, and he will make the desert of hatred and fear bloom. He will lift the lamp and open the gates wide, just as they were opened for us: tired, poor, yearning to breathe free, homeless and tempest-tossed.

My son, like his great grandfather before him, will surely make the desert bloom.