Sunday, October 8, 2017

That is who we are, isn't it?

“So, you were on the stage when the shooting started? Can you describe for us what happened?” 

As he listened to the news anchor’s question, the young man’s gaze was averted.   He was seeing something else, something off-camera, something that left him pale and haunted.  In his blue flannel shirt and jeans, this kid had just spent the evening at a country western festival… and been sprayed with gunshots from a window on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Hotel.  The silence seemed long… painful… between the anchor’s question and the boy’s ability to find his voice.  He glanced into the camera and quickly away.

“I was with my sister,” he began, and immediately, I worried about his sister. “We heard this popping noise.  Pop, pop, pop.  At first we thought it was, like, firecrackers or something, you know? But then, this guy next to us was shot…” The boy angled his head and placed a finger where his neck met his jaw, “here.  In the head.”

He went on, his voice flat, his gaze still fixed elsewhere, back in time.  “The shooting stopped, then started again.  There were three volleys.  Each time, my sister threw her body over mine and told me she loved me.”

With tears running down my face, I imagined being there.  Out on a glorious night, enjoying the music and festivity, and then, the fatal shift wrought by that popping sound. Those desperately whispered, possibly last, loving words as Dave leapt to cover me, or as I leapt to protect my children. The futility of flesh as a shield when hatred has access to an automatic weapon. 

Who would continue to allow that access after the deaths of 20 first graders and six of their teachers in Sandy Hook?  Who would allow that after the deaths of theater-goers watching a movie in Aurora?  Who would allow that after the deaths of young people dancing at a club in Orlando?  Who would continue to do nothing as guns in the hands of the mentally ill or hate-consumed continue to kill Americans gathered peacefully together?

Statistics vary depending on the source and definition of a mass shooting. Gun Violence Archive counts 1500 mass shootings since Sandy Hook.  These include incidents where four or more people were shot, not necessarily killed, and not including the shooter.  So if three people were shot and killed, they’d not be counted in that statistic.  In terms of individual gun deaths, the average is 12,000 homicides a year.  If suicide by gun is included, the number skyrockets, as if 12,000 weren’t skyrocket enough.        

So, how is Congress responding to these tragedies? What steps are they taking to keep guns out of the wrong hands?  Oh, wait.  No. Their response, no doubt prodded by the NRA and gun manufacturers, is to pursue ways to make it easier.  In Connecticut, we are blessed by Senators Murphy and Blumenthal, and Representative Jim Himes who are seeking to close loopholes in existing legislation. But a few months ago, enough members of Congress voted “aye” to pass a law that allows those with mental illness easier access to guns.  Not only that, there are bills currently under consideration to legalize silencers and give concealed-carry permits validity even in states that don’t allow them.

WHAT? Why is the agony and outrage most Americans feel not reflected in the votes and actions of Congress?

“The second amendment demands we protect gun ownership!” might be the response.  But it’s lunacy or willful ignorance to think the founding fathers envisioned automatic weapons, or would wish to protect the right to spray death on innocent citizens with a weapon designed to kill many in a short time.

Over the past year, my husband and I saw Zac Brown in concert at Citifield and James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt at Fenway Park.  The stands were packed to capacity at both venues, with roughly 35,000 eager fans in attendance at each.  Despite the happy crowds and great vibe, it crossed my mind, just a quiet flitter, that a shooter with an automatic weapon could do a lot of damage if that were the goal.

Instead, people danced, just as the concert-goers in Las Vegas did.  Everyone smiled, and some linked arms, as 35,000 people sang along with James Taylor to “You’ve got a Friend.”

That is who we are, isn’t it?

In the names of those dead by gun violence, and to prevent adding the names of our loved ones to that list, I pray that Congress, those entrusted with the well-being of the nation and its people, will be moved by these deaths to enact common sense gun control and start, at the very least, with re-instating the ban on semi-automatic weapons.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Home Is...

It was the first time our children, Tucker and Casey, had seen the house Dave and I were close to buying.  At ages ten and seven, our kids had lived their lives on a school campus, eating most meals in a cafeteria with other kids and their families, having the run of a gym, playground, and athletic fields, even tubing downstream when the creek became a rushing river during Hurricane Gloria.  Life was good. 

Still, this house was pretty cool.  

We’d toured the interior, and the kids had scoped out the rooms that would be theirs.  We’d stood, all four of us, in the vast fireplace that had been the heart of this home in the eighteenth century.  And then, we’d headed outside to explore the woods-encircled yard.

Dave and I studied the roof, which we knew we’d have to replace.  An unwelcome expense, but then we’d be set for the next twenty-five years.  A lifetime!  The kids raced around, checking out the barn, playhouse, old well, and the shed built around a gnarled apple tree.  

When Tuck spotted a low-hanging dogwood branch, he leapt up and grabbed it to swing.  With a startling snap, the branch split.  Tuck landed on his feet, rattled but unhurt, as Dave and I looked at each other wide-eyed.  We hadn’t bought the place yet and already we were breaking things.

Dave found a strong, straight cedar limb near the edge of the woods.  We propped the sagging branch back into position and sheepishly headed to the car. 

Twenty-seven years later, that cracked branch is still sprouting a few limp leaves come spring.  Twenty-seven years later, and we’ve re-shingled the roof again.  Twenty-seven years later, Tucker is 37, and Casey, 34: both are married, and Tucker has a son.  Both recently purchased their own homes.  It’s not like I wonder where the time has gone: so many stories, milestones, and memories have filled those twenty-seven years… Still...  Yeah.  Where has the time gone?  

The other night, the phone rang around 10:00, late for a phone call.  Luckily, I didn’t glance at the clock or I would have panicked.  An accident?  A death?   No, thank god.  It was Casey, running another load of bins and boxes from her apartment to the new house.   “Mom.  I just had a thought.  You were only a few years older than me when you bought the house in Easton.  And you already had two kids!  That is crazy pants!”

It is crazy pants.  Casey and Tucker are such grown-ups, more than I am it seems sometimes.  But it is amazing to think of all the years, all the living, all the change that has brought me from Casey’s age to 64, that has brought my kids from those scampering little ones to the wonderful adults they have become.

After bringing over four carloads of boxes on Casey and PJ’s second night in their new house, we sat on the rug on the floor (no furniture yet) in the newly painted “NYPD Blue” living room sipping celebratory Proseccos.  It was easy to conjure myself at their age, standing in our foyer when we were moving in 1990, gazing at bare walls... and our future.  My thirty-eight year old self felt an empathetic tug of nostalgia for the former owner as I pictured him standing where I was, giving a sweeping look into the empty rooms before closing the door behind him for the last time.  He had lived in the house with his wife and daughter for forty-five years.

Every so often, I broach the idea of selling our house to move into something smaller, something within walking distance to town and biking distance to a beach.  I’m trying to be practical.  A number of friends have told me, “you want to move out by the time you’re 70, when you still have the energy.”  70!  And yet, incredibly, that’s not so far off. 

I love the idea of a walking, biking life, but I wish I could take this house with me. With its porches, huge fireplace, and decrepit, finally dying, dogwood, it is home.  I don’t want to abandon it. What if someone who doesn’t appreciate its history buys it?  Someone who sees it as old, rather than venerable?  Someone who thinks it would be fine to rip up the wide-plank floors and wrench out the massive beams?  Omigod.  I can't stand to think of it.  This house is more than a building; it’s an embracing friendand we have been its charges as well as its stewards.  Over its 235 years, it has been infused with spirit: ours, those who have gone before us, its own.  Fact is, it actually is home to some spirits, but that’s another story.

 For now, moving is off the table. Last time I mentioned the idea to Dave, he shook his head and said, “Have to tell you, Lea, I can’t see myself leaving this house anytime soon.  I’m only leaving this place in a box.”  Oh.  That’s pretty clear.  Good.  I can settle in, love my house, and for now, not worry about being practical.  This house is perfect for visits from grandchildren, the perfect place for grandchildren to remember

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Finding Art

What might the artist’s message be?  What was he trying to say?  Thumbtacks secured a length of string reaching from the floor to the wall and Carey pondered the installation with concern.  All she could get from it was, well, office supplies.  Was she really that shallow?  Sigh.  The eyeball projected on a glass ball was equally bemusing.  But wait.  What is this?  She spotted a series of ridged gills emanating a stream of air.  Inhalation and exhalation.  Breath!  The sustenance of life!  She glanced about, smiling with satisfaction, eager to share her insight with some other patron.  

Something held her back though, and she studied the oeuvre more closely.  Hmm.  Ah.  Upon closer review she realized the structure was… an air vent.  Oops.

What is art?  Centuries ago, it was defined and regulated by the church.  Artists worked their craft in light and shadow, color, portraiture, movement, and emotion through religious themes. I’ve wandered wearily through the galleries of the Uffizi and Accademia in Florence glazing over at one Annunciation, Nativity, Crucifixion, and Resurrection after another… and don’t get me started on the torments of the saints.  Agony… for everyone involved.

With a little inner remonstrance to pull myself together, I’ve sought to get past the themes and focus on the paintings’ elements: depictions of village life, building interiors, fashion, and drapery; the extraordinary skill in realistic representation; the emotion conveyed with paint on canvas.   While I prefer Hudson River landscapes, I recognize artistic skill and beauty.  Go back a few centuries and the “what is art?” question is unnecessary. 

It’s the use of feces as a medium that really throws me.

But I do understand that art can inform and provoke.  On a recent trip to The Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, FL, Dave and I were transfixed by a series of photographs taken at an African diamond mine. Laden with ponderous sacks, black laborers, so numerous that any identity was obscured, waited in line to scale rickety wooden ladders up a cliff. Startling in his unblemished shirt and arrogant whiteness, an overseer stood with his clipboard amid the sea of sweating, over-burdened workers.

It was a grueling scene and underscored how little I know of exploitation, how supremely fortunate I am in my life.

As Dave and I continued on toward the Monda Gallery, a mother and young daughter emerged.  The child spun, skipped, and bubbled with excitement.  “That was SO much fun!” she said.

“I knew you’d like it!” her mom replied.

Fun? I was still haunted by the diamond mine, and fun sounded good.

We entered a dimly lit, lofty room hung floor to ceiling with ribbons, thousands and thousands of multi-colored ribbons, a sea of swaying stained glass.  Soft classical music and birdsong conveyed a sense of cathedral quiet and deep forest, yet all who entered added their own melody of pure joy and discovery. 

Small children whirled in giddy circles shrieking with laughter.  Teenagers chattered and took pictures with their phones.  Others walked slowly in a moving meditation, the ribbons parting and falling gently into place as they passed through. 

Smiling as ribbons slid over my face and skin like a breeze, I held out my arms to let the ribbons flow from them like waterfalls.  Every movement was novel, a personal creation of sound, color, dance, and joy.

What is art?  It’s still an open question, but I found it in “Pathless Woods.”  

Note: Anne Patterson, the creator of “Pathless Woods,” has synesthesia, a condition that causes sensory perceptions to overlap; when she hears sound, she sees color.  In this installation, the artist helps participants experience that same merge as they create their own path through 8472 ribbons - the equivalent of 25.6 miles – cut into 16’ lengths.  If it comes to a museum near you, GO!  

Friday, June 30, 2017

Expressway to Revolution

Perhaps it’s the popularity of the Broadway show “Hamilton,” or whispers from the spirits slipping unseen through our 1780’s house. Or… maybe it’s my despair at the frailty of the Constitution’s checks and balances in fending off the maelstrom of policies of an administration of aging white men unconcerned about the morale of the country or the health of the planet.  Yeah.  That might be it.  Whatever the causes, lately I have fled to history and the refuge of events resolved. Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Lincoln have been my between-the-pages companions.

So, when I learned that a Museum of the American Revolution had opened in Philadelphia, I was eager to visit.  While home with my mother, I asked if she’d be willing to check it out with me.  Trudging brightly lighted galleries flanked with glass cases can tire anyone, and I know Mom’s not a fan of lengthy excursions, but she must have detected the plea in my voice, and trooper that she is, she agreed.

She held her concerns about hiking those halls to herself, and I kept quiet about my own worry:  city driving.  My experiences behind the wheel in big cities are limited, and have occurred only under duress.  The first, 24 years ago, was when my friend Carey was in the hospital in NYC for an emergency operation.  I was navigating those New York streets pretty well, feeling a little cocky, in fact, as I maneuvered my car, flinching only slightly at honking horns and aggressive drivers.  When I neared the hospital, I thought I had it nailed.  Confidently, I took a left turn… onto a one–way street.  OMG!!!  Cars were coming straight at me!  There was no place to go but the sidewalk!  Yes!  The sidewalk!  And that’s what I did!  Like some crazy cabbie told “Follow that car!” I cut the wheel and did a U-Turn… onto the sidewalk!  Good lord.  You understand my current reluctance…

But this was a trade-off:  a morning hike through the museum for my mom, and Lea as chauffeur through the narrow streets of Philadelphia.

Both WAZE and MOM were my guides.  We wanted to beat the tourist crowds at the museum and so, headed in just after rush hour.  The Schuylkill Expressway is a beautiful route along the river, but traffic-wise, it is no treat no matter the time.  I programmed the GPS to help us once we needed it, but we took back roads for as long as possible.  Unaware of our plan, the WAZE lady with her calm, authoritative British voice tried to convince us to take the Expressway… and Mom contradicted her every direction.

“Go left,” said the WAZE lady.

“Not yet,” said Mom.  “Go straight.”

“Go left,” said the WAZE lady.

“No,” said Mom.  “I think you’ll want the second light up ahead.”

“This one?”

“No.  Not yet.”

“Go left,” urged the WAZE lady.

I felt like an eager, over-anxious schoolgirl perched well forward in my seat, both hands gripping the wheel, posture erect, hoping to please everyone, but given those competing commands, unable to.

Once we reached “town,” as my parents call Philadelphia, we gave WAZE lady the lead. I thought I discerned a smug satisfaction in her tone as she led us unerringly to a parking lot a block from the museum.  “You have reached your destination!” she announced.

With the help of my two guides, I safely delivered us to the heart of early America, so my burden was lifted.  Mom’s museum march still lay ahead. 

We walked down a lane flanked by centuries-old brick buildings.  I noted an inviting tavern and filed it away as a future possibility. Several blocks ahead, I spied Independence Hall and, having not crossed its threshold since a field trip in fifth grade, felt a tug of yearning.  That stop, and the tavern, would have to wait. 

Acquiring our entrance tickets had been another minor challenge.  For years, I had taken pride in being one of the last people on the planet to carry a flip phone and gave in only when my grandson was born.  With its text, phone, GPS, and photo components, my iPhone has opened a new world.  I had no need for its other fancy capabilities, thank you very much, until it was suggested that museum tickets be purchased in advance. The day before our visit, therefore, I called Dave in Connecticut and he talked me through the process using Safari and Google. Neophyte that I was, I was wary, and as it turned out, rightly so. 

While the Viator ticket site assured me, “Your booking is paid for and confirmed,” no voucher appeared when I tapped “View Voucher,” nor when I checked my emails. After several convivial chats with Ella at the museum, Tamara at Visa, and Sarah at Viator, I was assured two tickets would be waiting for us at the will-call desk.  And Alleluia, they were.  Another potential problem overcome.

Tickets clutched tight, we turned to see a stately, but formidable, twisting staircase to the second floor galleries.  “There has to be an elevator, Mom.  There are people in wheelchairs waiting in line.”

“I know, but this will be fine.”  At 85, few things daunt my silver-haired mother, and when they do, she’s determined to best the circumstances.  She took hold of the bannister and, resolute, climbed right up. 

I loved the museum.  Open only a month, the exhibits were a mix of traditional glass cases, three-dimensional vignettes, and interactive digital screens. I could imagine the excited volley of ideas in the brainstorming sessions that led to an entire room dominated by a full-size privateer ship, available for bow to stern clambering; a movie immersion in the Battle of Brandywine where smoke and the smell of sulfur filtered into the room as we “charged” through tall grasses with a battalion; wall-sized time-lines on which the touch of a finger to an event or document generated a blow-up and history of that item; and two real stuffed horses, mounted by British dragoons, frozen in their race.  Dramatic as it was, several visitors wondered aloud how those horses died.  A nice lady assured us that the horses lived a full life on a lovely farm and died a natural death.  Mom and I would have liked to know their names.

Slavery, the “peculiar institution” that Lincoln abolished and that troubled our Founding Fathers’ consciences (clearly, not enough) was highlighted throughout, more than I expected given the usual coverage of the Revolutionary period. The historians who planned this museum wished visitors to contemplate the enigma of those who fought for their own equality and unalienable rights while holding others’ enslaved.

One of the interactive screens provided images of a number of historic people and events and asked viewers to consider “What would you do?”  In one case, Eve, a slave for the wealthy Randolph family of Williamsburg, feared her son George would be sold, so mother and son fled to the British lines in search of the freedom they promised. They arrived to find the British camp infested with smallpox.  Eve was confronted with a terrible choice: stay and chance disease, or return to the Randolphs where punishment, enslavement, and the possible sale of her boy awaited. 

What would you do?

I stood before the lighted panel and pondered.  I‘d learned about Eve when Dave and I visited Williamsburg two years ago.  I tried to conjure this flesh-and-blood woman whose life was unpredictable and beyond her control.  I thought about being owned… owned by a master who could sell my son.  Eve was so respected in the Randolph household that she carried the keys to almost every lock in the house, but she could be sold like a bureau or table if the master wished. I pushed the button marked “Stay in the British camp.”

In a flash, the screen told me my choice matched Eve’s.  But the British lost the Battle of Yorktown… and Eve was returned to slavery.

Several years ago, the Fairfield Museum hosted a traveling exhibit about Abraham Lincoln.  A pen used by the Great Emancipator to sign the document that freed the slaves was in a lighted glass case, low to the ground.  In awe, I sank tearfully to my knees – again, the case was low, but still, the actual pen once held by that extraordinary man and employed to such purpose?  Praise God and thank you, Mr. Lincoln. I respect General Washington, and enjoyed seeing his blue sash, leather duffle, and war tent, but Lincoln holds my heart. 

In 1776, Thomas Jefferson wrote of equality, rights, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness while owning his fellow humans.  Just shy of 100 years later, Lincoln took a step toward upholding those assertions.  To this day, we falter in living them.  The Revolution is behind us, its principles touted and enshrined, but abroad and at home, Americans continue to fight.  Peace, respect, tolerance, and compassion are sacrificed because of distrust… oh, and for oil, money, and power. I ache at our willingness to kill and be killed for such things.

Mom had marched ahead of me, her hike complete, and was waiting on a bench in the hall. As I exited the final gallery to meet her, I passed through a wall of mirrors with a sweeping sign in large gold letters:  MEET THE FUTURE OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION.  The founders wrote often of their responsibility to posterity; we must give more thought to the generations ahead whose well-being depends so fully on what we do now.

Or, what will they have to say of us?