Goodbye to St. Anne

“Sancte Michael, Ora pro nobis. Sancte Gabriel, Ora pro nobis. Sancte Raphael, Ora pro nobis…”

The stories of the saints were as much a part of my childhood as the tales of Nancy Drew. I felt that I knew Bernadette.  Francis of Assisi. Dominic Savio. My patron saint, St. Anne, was the mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary, so I considered my personal saint lineage extra holy.  I was related by name to Catholic royalty.

For All Saints Day in the second grade, my teacher, Sister Cecily, encouraged us to come dressed as our patron saint.  This was almost as exciting as dressing for Halloween the night before.  My seamstress wizard of a mother was pressed into service.  Mom dyed some old sheets and whipped up a suitable St. Anne costume.  On November 1st, I paraded my way down Central Avenue to school in a saintly toga and veil.

To be Catholic in those days was something special, although at least 85 percent of my hometown claimed that affiliation. In my town, you were known by your Catholic geography − less by your address or neighborhood than by your parish. My parish was Holy Ghost. My father was baptized there in 1913, attended the same grade school that I did forty years later, and remained a congregant for 86 years, through to his funeral Mass.

Catholic traditions permeated every aspect of our family life. We went to 9:30 Mass every Sunday and knelt together as a family in the living room to pray the rosary every night in October, a month dedicated to the Holy Rosary.  The opening strains of Dies irae, the Gregorian chant that the 7th and 8th graders sang at parish funerals, are indelible in my memory. During Lent, I kept a shoe box of candies and bubble gum that I had “given up” for the season, only to be relished come Easter Sunday. Friday nights brought a revolving menu of 101 meatless recipes.  To this day, I still love tomato bisque soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.

In Dubuque, one was either Catholic or “non-Catholic.”  My German Lutheran grandmother Minnie fell into the latter category, a source of much dismay to me as a child.  Every night when I said my prayers before I climbed into bed, I’d throw in a hopeful “Please make Grandma ‘come a Catholic.”  I wanted her to be waiting for me in Heaven when I arrived some day.

But she was as staunch in her own belief as the rest of my family was in ours, in fact, so unwilling to change that she refused to be buried next to my grandfather at Mt. Calvary cemetery, something we joke about to this day. Grandma wouldn’t be caught dead in the Catholic cemetery. She refused to vote for Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election because she feared the Pope would direct him from the Vatican, a heated topic of discussion around our dinner table. How dare she cancel out my dad’s Kennedy vote by voting for Nixon!  Not only was Kennedy a Catholic, but we’d get a twofer − he was Irish too.  She obviously did not understand that ours was the one true Church, the one dating back to its founding by St. Peter himself.  Not by some Johnny-come-lately like Martin Luther.

Catholicism was my tribe. I felt safe, protected, and nurtured by the nuns who taught us. They were early mentors who affirmed my intelligence and stressed that I could grow up to be whatever I set my mind to – perhaps the first woman President.  But of course not a priest.  That was never even questioned.  Priests were respected and admired at a distance. Throughout my eight years of Catholic grade school, my classmates and I dutifully attended morning Mass before the start of our school day five days a week. Sunday mornings I attended Mass with my family. I made my confession to one of our parish priests at least once a month, even those months when my sins were so lame as to forget to immediately mail a birthday card – and then lying to my mother that I had.

Beyond the rituals and the traditions of my Catholic faith, I absorbed an ethical code from my teachers and my parents. That code remains with me still. Treat others as you would like to be treated. Tell the truth.  Do the right thing whether or not someone else is looking. Don’t cheat. Leave the world better than you found it. Be kind.

I emerged from my Catholic chrysalis in my early twenties and discovered that there were many ways of being in the world.  Partly that was coming of age in the time of much societal, particularly student, turbulence, driven by events that questioned all authority. I entered college just a year after the massacre of innocent students at Kent State. Institutions and authorities that I had once accepted as truth were now fallible to me. The real world did not so neatly divide into the Catholics and the “non-Catholics.”  The ethics that I always associated with my Catholic faith were not all that different from those of the Protestant and Jewish friends whom I met at college. Or those of the Unitarian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, agnostic, or atheist friends I later met as an adult. Catholicism itself no longer granted a cloak of moral authority that I had always taken for granted.

Through my adult eye, I began to question many of the structures and rules that I had always accepted, from the fact that women cannot be priests to the Church’s teachings on contraception, abortion, and homosexuality. Divorced Catholics were forbidden from participating in the Sacraments, which struck me as unnecessarily cruel and exclusive. These views did not agree with my own.  The Mass in which I had once found comfort now seemed only formulaic. I chafed under rules for rules’ sake. Catholicism eventually lost its grip on me.

For two decades, I had no formal spiritual home.  Mostly this did not bother me, yet through my hospice work, I often found myself ministering in some way to people at the end of life. I was still interested in the big questions of life and meaning.  A part of me still searched.

A minister friend who is Quaker asked me about this apparent vacuum of a spiritual home during a soul-searching lunch conversation. I told him that as a child I had always believed in the concept of grace, but that grace had apparently left me. I no longer had a faith community to which I belonged. He challenged me – that I still clung to a child’s view of God, suggesting that it was perfectly acceptable to explore other faith traditions and practices that might prove to be a better fit with my adult self.  He recommended that I check out a Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregation in my community, one that is especially well-known for its home in a landmark Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building.

From my very first experience there, I knew that I had found kindred spirits. Unitarian Universalism strongly focuses on living one’s values in the world through a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Social justice activities and personal spiritual journeys are emphasized − rather than dogma, sins, and commandments.  It pleased me that esteemed figures such as Thoreau, Emerson, Clara Barton, and Pete Seeger had all been either Unitarian or Universalist. Soon I had claimed a new tribe.

But Catholicism will always be a helix in my spiritual DNA.  Even though I identify myself as Unitarian, when asked, my first inclination is to say that I grew up Catholic – not in a mocking way, but with a respect for my tradition as well as the realization that my own spiritual path diverged. However, when I’ve read about the recently publicized horrors inflicted on vulnerable and trusting children by predator priests, it has shocked me to my core. Not only did these abuses continue over decades, sometimes by priests who were shuffled from parish to parish, unleashed on unsuspecting parishioners – but the Church as an institution knew about it, actively sought to conceal it, and silenced its victims.

Recently I read with outrage the Grand Jury report of child sexual abuse that occurred over seventy years in Pennsylvania. Over one thousand victims were identified. Many more were suspected. Over three hundred predator priests.  Suicides were noted in the report as tragic outcomes – of both victims and their perpetrators. Church officials followed a “playbook for concealing the truth,” the Grand Jury said, minimizing the abuse by using words such as “inappropriate contact” instead of rape. Priests untrained in sexual abuse cases were assigned to investigate their colleagues. Communities were not informed of the real reasons behind removing an accused priest.

One case cited in the Grand Jury report involved a priest who raped a seven-year old girl while visiting her in the hospital after she had her tonsils removed. Another priest forced a nine-year-old boy to give him oral sex, then rinsed out the boy’s mouth with holy water to purify him. One victim was tied up and whipped with leather straps by a priest. Another priest was allowed to remain in the ministry after impregnating a young girl and arranging for her to have an abortion. I was so horrified that I could not continue on, even though there were hundreds of pages in the report left to read.

The Pennsylvania cases stretched back to the 1940s, with some victims still alive and able to finally speak openly about the abuse they endured.  Many of the cases occurred in the 1950s and ’60s, during the same time that I was proudly walking to school as St. Anne. To my knowledge, I’ve never personally come into contact with an abusive priest. However, a national database of clergy accused of sexual abuse includes a priest who served at Holy Ghost parish during the time my older brothers attended school there. Even Dubuque was not immune.

These were not the actions of just a few bad apples who managed to slip through. It has been a systemic culture of patriarchy, abuse of power, secrecy, and cover-up. The price has been enormous, both individually and collectively. Thousands of suffering victims, reported and unreported.  Lawsuits by abuse victims have so far forced dioceses and religious orders in the United States to pay settlements totaling more than $3 billion. Nineteen dioceses and religious orders have filed for bankruptcy protection due to the financial burden of settlements.  About 27 percent of former Catholics who no longer identify with a religion cite clergy sexual abuse scandals as a reason for leaving the Church, according to Pew Research in 2015.

The affection and warmth with which I’ve looked back on my Catholic childhood now seems increasingly distant. I remain torn between a desire to still claim those parts that I’ve always appreciated – my ethics, my education, my teachers – and my rage at the horrendous dark side that was permitted to fester like a hidden abscess for generations. But perhaps some part of me still wants to cling to a kernel of good that exists in the Church –  like some children search for elusive love from an abusive parent, a parent who violated others but not them.

I have dear friends and extended family that still practice the Catholic faith with devotion. I do not question their sincerity. I say only that for myself, I no longer make excuses for the Church’s legacy of complicity, destroying the trust of thousands of innocent children. I want a divorce.

St. Anne has finally handed back her toga and veil.

Please, God Bless America

“It’s a long way to Tipperary, it’s a long way to go….”

Summer, 2002. The world was still reeling from the terrorist attacks on 9/11.  The organization where I worked as an executive hosted an intensive five-day training program on improving hospital quality and safety.  Fifty guests from around the world traveled to Chicago to attend this program.

On the evening before our last day of training, our team hosted a private dinner. More than twenty-five countries were represented, as diverse as Trinidad, Ireland, Saudi Arabia, and China.  During the course of the week, new friendships had formed.  Spirits were high at our farewell dinner.

Over dessert and coffee, a gregarious fellow from Galway suggested that individuals or national groups stand and sing a folk or otherwise special song from their country. He and his Irish colleagues started us off with great vigor: “It’s a long way to Tipperary, it’s a long way to go.….”

Seated next to the Irish group, a Trinidadian man with dreadlocks simulated steel drums on the table and beat out an island rhythm with two knives. The Chinese delegation sang a song of two lovers parting when the man leaves to fight a war.  The singers waved white dinner napkins, symbolizing the woman tearfully saying goodbye to her soldier.

Each attendee was eager to share something unique and precious from their home country. After every song, the entire group clapped and cheered. Most attendees were on their feet and moving around the room to surround the table whose turn it was to sing. No country was missed.

Finally we were down to the host country, the United States. My team huddled in the center of the room, conferring on what song could serve as our “national folk song.”

No consensus. “Well, we really don’t have a national folk song per se…” we told the group.

“What about God Bless America?” yelled out a gentleman from Jordan.

He began to sing. “God bless America, land that I love/ Stand beside her and guide her/ Through the night with the light from above….”

Soon the entire group encircled my team and sang it with us. They all seemed to know it.  My own throat was thick. I had difficulty releasing the words.  By the time we reached the ending line of “God bless America, my home sweet home,” I was only mouthing them. My cheeks were streaked with tears.

In 2002, my tears reflected the pride I held for my country.  Pride and gratitude that all these attendees – some from totalitarian regimes – would be so eager to travel to America to learn how to improve the quality of health care in their countries.  Our guests so clearly admired America – our freedom of speech, our freedom of the press, our freedom of religion. They admired our government, with its openness and a Constitution respected the world over.  They admired our free and fair elections.  Our respect for the rule of law.  I’ve been often amazed that my international friends and colleagues knew as much, and sometimes even more, about American politics as most Americans did.

Especially admired was our long legacy of warmly welcoming immigrants and refugees, a sentiment enshrined on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty as “Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free….”  These guests were horrified by the 9/11 attacks, as every American had been. They wanted to show their solidarity and support by singing a song that reflected deep admiration and respect.

A great deal has changed in sixteen years.

July 4, 2018.  I join in singing God Bless America during the Capital Fourth celebration on public television.

Again I weep.

Now my tears are for what I fear we are losing every day – a respect for each other, for the truth, for a free press, for an independent judiciary. I no longer feel so blessed. Instead, I feel angry and ashamed.

I had just read parts of a New York Times article to my husband about the centennial of the writing of God Bless America by Russian refugee Irving Berlin. I shared the memory of the poignant 2002 experience of international visitors singing it to me.

“I wonder. Would every one of those attendees from 2002 stand and sing this anthem in 2018?  Some of them could not even get into the country.”

Rich replies, “But why would they even want to attend now?”

No longer is this the country those foreign guests admired − even loved − in 2002.  A recent Resolute Reads email message sent by the White House notes, “The Trump administration beat the president’s goal of trimming new refugee admissions from the 100,000 brought in by former President Obama, slashing the population by 66 percent. In fact, for the first time, the U.S. resettled fewer refugees than the rest of the world.”

A shameful boast.

The country whose greatness was built by generations of immigrants now slams the door in their faces, even in those faces of desperate refugees fleeing persecution and death. We separate families.  We cage toddlers and expect them to represent themselves in court hearings.

America was never perfect.  Our flawed legacy includes many shameful periods of discrimination: slavery, Jim Crow, the genocide of Native Americans, the rejection of Jewish refugees before and after World II, Japanese internment camps, the disgraceful exploitation of migrant farm workers, and more.

Still, I am aghast that the country that once stood as a global exemplar on human rights now withdraws from the United Nations’ Human Rights Council.  We launch inexplicable trade wars and turn our back on our closest allies of the last seventy years, threatening to abandon NATO.  Much of the free world contemplates in horror the possibility that the United States may be sliding into fascism.

There is a new urgency to the beloved anthem that Berlin wrote a century ago. God, please bless America. Please save us from ourselves.

Nothing Prepares You for This

There are never enough beds.

Seventy women lie side by side on the floor of a hospital ward intended for thirty patients.  Some sleep on torn brown blankets on the cement floor. Those lucky enough to have a bed have neither sheets nor a pillow, only a wafer thin blue striped mattress on which to spend their final days.  The stench of bodily fluids, along with groans, chokes the air.  Sunken glazed eyes follow our team as we move through.

Two exhausted nurses care for this entire ward. Medications are scarce. Staff report limited availability of soap and clean water. I am astonished to learn that the monthly health care budget for an entire district of 100,000 people is the equivalent of just a hundred dollars. Little more than a penny per person per year for health care.

This hospital is in the Copper Belt region of Zambia, near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo and close to the Equator.  I’m here on a project to improve the quality of hospital standards throughout the country. Today we are pilot-testing the most basic standards – hand-washing, medication safety, waste disposal − in order to see if Zambian hospitals can possibly meet them.

The petite head doctor, an Irish nun, seems to have seen it all in her twenty-five years as a missionary here. She notes with a rueful shake of her head, “You never get used to it.”  She explains that most of these patients likely have AIDS as well as other diseases such as tuberculosis or malaria.  But because the hospital cannot afford the lab tests, no one really knows.  

Perhaps that is for the best.  AIDS carries a huge stigma, especially out here in the rural areas.  Another doctor tells me “A lady with AIDS was murdered in a nearby village.  They came at night with a machete. No one wants the curse.”

The hospital has essentially become one giant hospice.

I’ve worked for fifteen years in the hospice field in the U.S., but nothing has prepared me for this. This is not health care.

I recall the standards development workshop that our team held a few months before with the staff of the Ministry of Health.  What were we thinking – that we could suggest what seemed like even simple ways to improve the quality and safety of hospital care?  Under these circumstances?  What could possibly make a difference?

That evening, back at my hotel, I spray the flea-infested blanket on my bed with the insecticide I carry in my suitcase.  Despite the heat, I climb into bed wearing sweat pants, gloves, and a hooded sweatshirt with the string tied tightly under my chin to ward off the insects, leaving just enough of an opening to see and breathe.

I remember my first experience of Africa a few years before.  I was on a consulting assignment assessing the quality of medical care and health facilities protecting Peace Corps volunteers in both Chad and Gabon.  Before the trip, I thought I’d seen poverty up close. As a nurse, I’d visited homes with dirt floors in rural Mississippi, dilapidated farmhouses in Appalachia, and housing projects in the Bronx. I was ready.

My physician colleague had chuckled and shook his head.

“Anne, Anne. You think you know.  But nothing will prepare you for what you will see in Africa. Nothing.”

He was right. Even after a decade of working in Africa, I never completely got over my initial shock − or my sense of injustice.  Injustice about the homegrown dictators who plunder their countries, leaving hundreds of millions of citizens shackled to extreme poverty. The pillage from European colonialists who profited from the vast reserves of diamonds and copper, while justifying their foreign occupation as “civilizing the savages.”  Injustice – outrage – about the slave trade, which for centuries destroyed the fabric of many African families.

During my time in Zambia in the late ‘90s, I learned that there were one million AIDS orphans in a population of just nine million people. Twenty years later, little has changed. Children as young as five lived on the streets and on their own, begging for food. Simple wooden caskets were available everywhere along the roads, because the demand was so great. One village’s crops were completely ruined by drought. Villagers ate rats for protein.

Back home in Chicago, I thought about this for a long while, every time I shopped at our local supermarket and saw dozens of different varieties of cereal lining the shelves. Freezer cases filled with fifty varieties of ice cream.  Every cut of meat imaginable, glistening in shiny plastic wrap. I was as overwhelmed by this as I was with my first glimpses of the rural farm stands in Zambia − a few potatoes and vegetables on a wooden table, two scrawny chickens in a cage nearby.

The poverty and despair I witnessed throughout my journeys in Africa often overwhelmed me. I found it difficult to absorb at times, yet did not want to ever numb myself to the experience of the people who live it every day.  At the very least, I wanted to be a caring observer who told others back home what she had seen. This was life as I had never known it before.

I often wondered how people kept going, day after day, somehow not paralyzed by unrelenting misery. Yet in spite of all the challenges, I also witnessed surprising pockets of generosity, courage, and humanity.

In Chad, a village woman brought our team a large pot of stewed okra for lunch and then beamed at our expressions of gratitude.  In South Africa, I met David, a young hospital administrator from Rwanda who had taught himself English in just six months.  Then with passion and urgency, he set about improving the quality and cleanliness of the Zulu district hospital he directed. The staff of a Zambian mission hospital, near where the famous Scottish missionary Dr. Livingstone had once lived, served me a morning break of tea and biscuits. Before returning to the routine of their day, they prayed together that wisdom from my visit would inspire them to provide better care for their patients.

For millions of African women, life is defined not just by poverty, but by centuries of gender inequality.  When I first visited Chad more than twenty years ago, a girl growing up there received on average just two months of formal education in her lifetime.  While some progress has been made in the years since, more recent data shows that the attendance levels of girls in lower secondary (middle) school hovers at just 12%. On the list of the worst rates of maternal mortality in the world, the top twenty five countries are all in Africa.  I saw women in labor who traveled for hours on the back of an ox cart in order to deliver a baby at a small district hospital or clinic. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 200 million women across the world, many of them in Africa, have been brutalized by the practice of Female Genital Mutilation, causing lifelong psychological and physical trauma. Many girls cannot attend school because of persistent bleeding, infection, and incontinence.

In the fifteen years since I have last been there, Africa has never left me. Yes, I remember the splendor of Victoria Falls and the magnificence of lions and hippos in the wild. The thrill of my first flight over the Sahara Desert on a cloudless summer day.  Meeting the elderly Zulu village chief, the day I delivered “A Message from America” on the Zulu radio station.  A faded photo shows me oceanside in Gabon, standing next to a sign that reads “Equator.”  All of these memories are indelible.

But what mostly remains from my experiences in Africa is a sense of profound injustice. As a child, I never had to wonder if there would be a next meal, or whether I would go to school, ride a bicycle, wear shoes. Here, children wonder if they will survive to the next week. What orphaned five year-old child should have to live and beg on the street? Walk past kiosks selling caskets every day? Or instead of snacking on cheese sticks and granola bars, eat rats to survive?

Nothing in my life prepared me for Africa. She changed me. Yet, from the safety and distance of my life in Chicago, what help can I offer now that will make even a dent?  Organizations such as Oxfam, Women for Women International, Doctors Without Borders and here at home in Chicago,  RefugeeOne, make a difference in the lives of real people – those who remain, as well as those who escape these desperate conditions to seek a better life elsewhere. I can support those refugees to establish new lives, hopefully of freedom and prosperity, in America. I can add my voice to protest travel bans against people who simply aspire to the kind of lives and opportunities that most Americans, including myself, take for granted.

Critical funding support to African countries also comes from international development agencies such as the United Nations, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and the World Bank.  Even more so during an administration that threatens deep cuts to foreign aid, we must demand that our government continues to fund essential humanitarian initiatives supported by these agencies, in critical areas such as eradication of AIDS and malaria, child survival, family planning, and access to primary care. Among industrialized countries, the U.S. lags greatly, ranking twentieth in the world in per capita assistance (as percentage of Gross National Income) to developing countries. Sweden outpaces us by a factor of ten; even tiny Ireland’s per capita assistance is double that given by the United States. That is shameful.

I realize that any resources I can offer will always be infinitesimal in the whole scheme of things. It will never be enough. But “never enough” is not an excuse to do nothing.

 

Standing on the Side of Love

Standing on the Side of Love

A Facebook animated meme from an unrecognized group called Patriot-something depicts a small cartoonish photo of President Obama’s face in the bottom corner of the image.  He’s wearing the red and white checkered head scarf known in Arab nations as a ghutra.  His instantly recognizable voice projects from a moving orifice, something like a pair of lips, except hairy and much darker.  He is talking about Muslims.

What in the world?  What is this?  I scrutinize the image at least three times before I am able to make it out.  There are several “ha ha” emojis and one comment from a woman: “LOL.  Gorilla asshole.  Good one!”

Little shocks me these days.  This does.  Lava bursts of outrage erupt in my gut.  I discovered it on the Facebook page of an acquaintance, posted there by someone I don’t know.

Who are these people?

It’s easy enough to click through to the home page of the unknown man who posted this, a mid-40s white male from an affluent Chicago suburb near where I live.  He looks to be a college graduate and business owner. His Facebook cover page is a smiling photo of him with his lovely wife and two school-aged children on a beach vacation.  I scroll down his home page and read an entry about the First Communion of one of his children.  This man could be my neighbor.  Perhaps the guy behind me in the check-out line at Costco.  I don’t know him.  Or do I?

I stare at the meme for at least ten minutes before I decide to respond. The vileness of the post hints of barely restrained violence.  It’s obviously intended to feed the hate, to shock and provoke.  I don’t want to be trolled by this man, yet I cannot let this go without a response of some kind.  I comment only “I have no words to adequately describe my reaction to this post.”

Yet I want to find the words.  Words that reflect my horror in the knowledge that anyone I personally know could find this despicable image in any way acceptable or funny. Words that assert that race is a totally invented concept, one that has everything to do with maintaining power and privilege.  Words that describe my shame that in 21st century America, racism remains as pernicious and intractable as Lady Macbeth’s damned spot.  Words that will move me and others to action.

The Southern Poverty Law Center publishes Hatewatch, which reveals that 917 organized hate groups are currently at work in the U.S., an estimated thirty-two in Illinois alone.  The headquarters for one hate group called America First Committee is just seven miles from where I live. I realize that I drove past it last month when I returned home from Christmas shopping at the mall.

Resistance Records and Crew 38 produce a genre of music referred to as hate-rock, which promotes white power and skinhead ideology.  Some have nondescript names that disguise their loathsome missions:  the Creativity Movement (neo-Nazi), Sons and Daughters of Liberty (white nationalists), World Congress of Families (anti-LGBT).  They have Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, music CDs, flags, t-shirts, a video game called “Ethnic Cleansing.”  They live among us.

I have beloved family and friends who are African American, Jewish, Muslim, Hispanic, gay and lesbian.  I respect, admire, and celebrate our diversity of experience.  Yet I am also the product of a society that has woven ugly threads of isms throughout the 400 year-old tapestry of our nation.

We each have our journey.  Growing up as I did, in a working-class, mostly Catholic, Midwestern city with few Jewish families or those of color, my values about a just and egalitarian society that embraced all were never really tested.  I honestly didn’t think about it much.  I didn’t need to.

I had a two-parent household and a good school just a mile away.  Access to health care was never in question.  I swam in the public swimming pools in summer and skated on the Park District ice rinks in winter.  I assumed that if I studied hard and got good grades, I’d be awarded a scholarship to college and eventually have a professional career.  No one clicked down the locks to their car doors when I walked past.  No one crossed to the other side of the street when they saw me walking to school or standing at the bus stop. No department store clerks eyed my teen-aged self with suspicion as I tried on clothes.  Even though I did not understand the concept back then, that was my experience of white privilege.

As I matured into adulthood, my personal values gradually grew into sharper focus.  I branched out in my spiritual and political philosophies. Two decades ago I became a Unitarian, a liberal religious practice that is grounded in social justice and an abiding belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

After attending just one Unitarian service, I felt as though I had discovered a community with which my values would both resonate and expand.  With other activists, my husband Rich and I helped to organize several community Teach-ins focused on issues of social justice, including one to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Mississippi Freedom Summer.  We wanted to educate our broader community about the importance of voting rights, particularly about the deliberate and strategic vote suppression efforts that have been underway in our country since the election of President Obama in 2008.

As we prepared for our Freedom Summer Teach-in, Rich and I immersed ourselves in books, articles, and films about the period.  We watched every episode of Eyes on the Prize, the acclaimed documentary series on civil rights.  I deepened my knowledge about the painful struggle for African American voting rights throughout much of the first half of the 20th century, culminating in the iconic Selma-to-Montgomery March and eventual passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  I knew that now, fifty years later, the enormous strides for which activists risked their lives back then are once more threatened.  Vote suppression continues to rear its ugly head, marketed to the American populace as somehow “necessary” voter ID laws and strategies that ultimately limit access to the polls.  I felt a need to demonstrate solidarity and an understanding that struggle remains.

For this reason, in 2015 Rich and I traveled to Alabama to attend the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Selma-to-Montgomery March, along with a Unitarian “Living Legacy” conference in nearby Birmingham.  We wanted to pay homage to the thousands of heroes who in the 1960s had protested an unjust system that created barriers for African Americans to exercise their right to vote under the 15th Amendment, passed almost a hundred years before.

What I did not know when I signed up was that Selma would change me forever.  In a Living Legacy session on understanding white privilege, the workshop leader, a black Unitarian minister and seminary professor, asked the diverse audience to stand if we thought about race at least once a month.  The entire audience stood up.  Then he said “Stay standing if you think about race at least once a week.”  Half the people sat down.  He proceeded to break down the frequencies – at least three times a week, at least daily, at least three times a day, at least hourly, at least every fifteen minutes.  Every fifteen minutes?  By the last four increments of time, it was only African Americans who remained standing.

“The point,” he continued, “is that when you’re white, you never have to think about race. THAT is what we call white privilege.”

He asked the ones who remained standing what went through their minds when they thought about race.  “My hair.”  “How I talk.”  “Does my boss question if I am competent to do my job?”  They shared the hurt they feel when even well-meaning white people make remarks intended as compliments, such as “You’re really well-spoken!” – with barely hidden surprise.  My eyes were opened even more.

In Selma on the day of the 50th anniversary, we marched through a neighborhood of run-down homes with sway-backed front porches and peeling paint.  An older African American man in faded overalls stood along the route and thrust his hand out to shake mine. “Thank you for coming here and for remembering.”  I told him it was my honor, that I was here to pay tribute to those who had fought and marched decades before. As deeply touched as I was by his expression of appreciation, a part of me knew that there is a lot that I don’t remember – not because of my aging brain synapses, but because I never had to learn it in the first place.

Selma taught me that it is never too late to become educated.  I don’t want to view the world solely from within my bubble of often unconscious white privilege.  There are so many opportunities for learning, engagement, and gaining deeper understanding – from films and books to interpersonal relationships and social justice activities.  I want to be part of the solution.  It begins with awareness and a willingness to call out bigotry wherever it exists. Even a deplorable post from a Facebook troll – a troll who looks a lot like many people I know − offers a germ of a lesson: to never become complacent or assume that America has entered a “post-racial” era.  It hasn’t.

Last fall I visited family in Charlottesville, just three weeks after the appalling “Unite the Right” protest invaded this bucolic college town.  Images of a Tiki torch parade eerily reminiscent of a Hitler Youth rally were still fresh, as were the chants of “White Lives Matter” and “Jews will not replace us!”, screamed by young white men wearing polo shirts and khaki pants.  The city, indeed the entire country, was still reeling from the murder of young counter-protester Heather Heyer by an alt-right marcher who chose to weaponize his car and run it through a peaceful crowd.  We passed the flower memorial to her on the downtown mall and paused for a moment of reflection.

Eradicating racism can seem overwhelming.  Hate is a very powerful and often irrational emotion.  This is really tough work.  As a white person, I struggle with feelings of inadequacy.  Is it possible for me to ever understand even a fraction of the problem, let alone contribute to solutions?  In his seminal article “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic, acclaimed journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates writes with power and clarity: “And so we must imagine a new country.” 

But how do we imagine that new day of equity and justice?  How do we get there?  On the Charlottesville mall, a white metal sculpture spells out a clue in just one word:  L-O-V-E.

Love alone may not be enough, though surely it’s a start.  I remember Dr. King’s words, first spoken as a young preacher in 1957: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

As part of my own journey of heightened awareness and activism, I can start from a principle of love and then amplify that through the kind of actions by which permanent change is possible:  Learn.  Engage with others.  Organize.  Resist.  Vote.  Collective action is powerful.  Eventually, we shall overcome.

LOVE

Moonglow

Skogsoy_moonlight

This ICU Family Waiting Room has all the charm of a 1970 Greyhound station.  Doesn’t the hospital realize that distraught families might appreciate a few creature comforts?  Not scattered mismatched furniture and a few random magazines looking like they’re from that same era.  It’s only 8:30 in the morning.  I still need my first cup of coffee.  A quick scan around the waiting room reveals that I am out of luck.

Fox & Friends bleats from a television hung from the ceiling about the upcoming Congressional testimony of fired FBI Director Jim Comey.  No remote control to be found. No control at all.

Shit.

I sit here.  Waiting.

On the other side of the big double doors to the intensive care unit, the doctor is giving my husband intravenous medication to sedate him.  Only fifteen minutes ago, Rich and I had agreed to an urgent medical procedure to insert a breathing tube into his throat. Once the tube is in place, Rich will be connected to a mechanical ventilator that will breathe for him − at least for the next few days, the doctor says.  The mystery inflammation that has swept his lungs like a forest fire is sucking all the oxygen from him.  His heart and lungs are nearing exhaustion and desperately need a break, while massive doses of steroids can eventually heal him.

I’ve stepped inside this scene before, at the bedsides of countless patients whose vital organs had failed them.  I was the young but trusted Head Nurse, called to coolly assess a patient whose vital signs were suddenly tanking.  Perhaps a patient had vomited bright red blood and was now himself as blanched as his pillow case.  Or maybe a patient who struggled just to breathe.  Now Rich is that patient.

Rich and I are here in Northern California, winding down on a lovely vacation along the idyllic Central Coast with my brother Terry and sister-in-law DiAnn.  Wine tasting.  Fresh oysters at an ocean-side fish shack.  Games and pizza nights with other family who had joined us for a long Memorial Day weekend.

Then two days ago, Rich’s alarming sleepiness and increasing shortness of breath prompted us to postpone our return flight to Chicago.  DiAnn and I took him to the Emergency Department of the local hospital, where he was admitted to a medical and cardiac unit.  Once on oxygen and antibiotics, he seemed to turn a corner and improve.  At first.

Yesterday his breathing had become more labored, despite being on high flow oxygen delivered through a face mask.  The hospital doctor suggested a transfer to intensive care so that his medical situation could be closely monitored for a day or two.  To my relief, last evening he was comfortable enough to sit up in bed and enjoy the Tony Award ceremony on television with me.

Okay, it seems as though we’ll be headed home to Chicago soon.

But this morning promises no Broadway extravaganza.  No Bette Midler.  No song and dance.

My iPhone jangles in my hand while I skim the day’s headlines in the New York Times.  I see it’s the area code for Roseville, the suburb near Sacramento where Rich is now in the hospital.

“Hello, this is Anne Rooney.”

“Good morning.  This is Dr. Bellucci from Sutter Roseville ICU, calling about your husband, Richard.”

I jump to high alert.

The doctor continues.  “Right now, he’s working too hard to breathe, even on 100% oxygen.  It’s not sustainable.  I’d like to intubate him, but he insists that you be here to give the okay.  We can wait 30-45 minutes.”

Intubate?!  I know what this means – that without having a ventilator to breathe for him, Rich might stop breathing.

“I understand.  I’ll be there in 20.”

I run down the hallway to Terry and DiAnn’s bedroom and pound on the door.

“Hey guys, wake up!  The ICU doc just called.  He wants to intubate Rich.  I need to get there right away – can you drive me?”

Five minutes later, DiAnn (also a nurse) and I are in the car, heading to the hospital ten miles away.  My brain whirrs, thinking of whom I should call.  My sister Mimi and I had already talked briefly.  My step-daughter Annika is next.  I know how serious this development is.  It doesn’t seem right to wait to see how it all turns out before I let loved ones know.  He may not even realize it, but at this moment, Rich is fighting for his life.

From the car on the way to the hospital, I reach Annika, back home in Oak Park.  I keep my voice calm and measured.  “Hi, sweetie.  I just wanted to let you know that Dad’s breathing is somewhat worse this morning.  The ICU doctor wants to put in a breathing tube to rest his lungs for awhile.  I think it’s the right thing to do.”

“Is this normal? Is Dad going to be okay?”

“Well, it happens like this sometimes, but the doctors are trying to keep it from getting worse.   They just need to relieve the work of breathing for a few days.  It’s putting too much stress on his heart,” I said.

“It sounds serious, but I think I understand.  But what about you?  Are you doing okay?”

“Not really.”  My voice trembles. “This is really serious, but I also think they can turn things around.”

“Should I come out?”

“Not yet.  Let’s see how things go in the next 24 hours.  I’ll keep you posted.”

“Love you.”

“Love you, too.  Will you let the rest of the family know?”

When I arrive to the ICU, I hurry to the nurse’s station to speak with Dr. Bellucci, a 30-something critical care specialist who is Rich’s doctor today.  His candor, calm demeanor, and personal warmth immediately impress me.

“We need to rest Richard’s lungs, in order to let high dose steroids kick in and reduce the inflammation.  We may never know what caused this kind of pneumonia.  It could have been a toxin or something else that triggered it.  It doesn’t seem infectious.”

I tell him right away that I’m a nurse, counting on that for him to give me the full picture. It works.  We talk a few minutes about Rich’s underlying diagnosis and planned treatment.  He explains the meaning of the unusual “ground glass” appearance to his lungs that showed on last night’s CT scan.  Not good.

“I’m thinking three or four days of mechanical ventilation, then we’ll begin to wean him off.  This condition is a rare one, but the odds are good that he’ll make a full recovery.”

“Thank God.  I agree with your plan, but give me a few minutes to talk to Rich.”

I collect my thoughts outside the door to his glass room.  As I have done before in stressful situations, I float a mental prayer to my late parents:  Okay you guys, I really need you.  Help me find the strength to handle this, to be here for him.

I remember Mombo’s reassuring voice when I woke up from a difficult abdominal surgery in my 20s, when my doctors suspected (as it turned out, incorrectly) that I had a malignant tumor: “Honey, everything is all right.”

That comforting blanket of a love that I have known my whole life envelops me now.  I can do this.

Rich sits upright in bed, his nose and mouth completely covered by a high-flow oxygen mask.  His face is flushed and glistening with beads of sweat.  I lean in to kiss his forehead and hold his hand in mine.

“Good morning, Bunny Love.  I just talked to Dr. Bellucci and he explained why he thinks you need extra help breathing for awhile.”

Rich looks at me intently and croaks through his mask.  “Isn’t that different from what the other doctor told us last night?”

“Yes, but things can change hour by hour.  Right now you’re working too hard to keep the right level of oxygen in your blood.  We just need to send your lungs on sabbatical for a few days.”

I squeeze his hand tightly.

“Okay then.” Rich’s voice is muffled but firm. “Let’s do it.”

“You’ll be in a very deep sleep while the ventilator breathes for you and the medicine heals your lungs.”

I kiss his moist forehead again.  “I love you, sweetheart.  I’ll be right here keeping tabs on everything.  I’ll be holding your hand when you wake up.  Who knows − if we’re lucky, maybe while you’re asleep the Articles of Impeachment will be filed.”

Rich chuckles from inside his face mask.  “I love you, Blondie Girl,” he wheezes.

DiAnn arrives to his room after parking the car and explains to Rich that as a former surgical nurse, she has assisted with thousands of successful intubations.  “This is what they do right before you go to surgery – first they’ll give you a sedative medication through your IV and then the doctor will tip back your head and insert the tube into your throat.  You won’t remember a thing.”  DiAnn’s calm explanation reassures us both. Rich nods in understanding.

Dr. Bellucci and the team appear, and one of the nurses ushers DiAnn and me to the Greyhound-style family room next door.  While I wait, DiAnn fetches coffee for us.

After about 45 minutes, the ICU charge nurse appears at the door.   “You can come back in and see him now.”

For the first time in days, Rich’s breathing is peaceful.  He is in a deep sleep.  I squeeze his hand, but this time he doesn’t squeeze back.

He looks so vulnerable.  He is completely dependent on this machine next to him.  His life is in the hands of this doctor that I just met an hour ago, these nurses, this hospital.  We must depend on them now – just as once my patients depended on me.   

When DiAnn returns, she also comments on how peaceful he looks.  We agree that it is a relief to see him so comfortable, not fighting for breath.

That night I fall asleep in one of his soft white undershirts, but tussle in the sheets from a restless anxiety.  I dream of our vacation in Kauai, standing knee high in the waters off the NaPali coast while Rich lazes in the sun on the sandy beach.  A strong wave crashes to shore and knocks me over when it retreats.  I struggle to regain my balance and keep from being pulled out to sea.  The waves keep coming.

This can’t be when and where our story ends.  We’re on vacation.  I can’t go home without him.  I’m not ready.

Every day that week, I arrive at the ICU before 10 o’clock so that I can join the daily medical briefing with his team of doctors, nurses, pharmacists, therapists, and students – a team I quickly assess as both highly skilled and compassionate.  I feel safe in their expert hands.  Although I now understand Rich’s clinical condition, it still startles me to hear the doctor begin the morning update with his diagnosis: “Respiratory Failure.”

Failure. 

Even though Dr. Bellucci says the odds for a full recovery are good, failure has a scent of permanence.  The levees in Hurricane Katrina.  Lehman Brothers.  The O-rings on Challenger.

By Day 5, his clinical medical team grows more concerned.  Anytime they try to give Rich what is euphemistically called a “sedation holiday,” he tenses up, shakes his head side to side, and tries to dislodge the breathing tube in his throat.  He still cannot breathe on his own.

If he does not show significant improvement in the next 3 days, Dr. Bellucci says he will call in a thoracic surgeon.  A tracheostomy – a surgical hole in his throat – may be necessary, so they can reduce the sedation to avoid long-term neurological or muscular damage.   The breathing tube in his throat will be removed and the ventilator hooked up to the tracheostomy.

I think back more than 40 years, to my Senior Nursing rotation on the Head and Neck ward at the University of Iowa, where I cared for  patients with tracheostomies.  Many were elderly farmers who had smoked or chewed tobacco − and then developed cancer. In order to speak, they needed to put a plug in the hole or to hold a mechanical voice box up to their neck.  Some used an Etch-a-Sketch at the bedside.

But Rich is a trial lawyer.  He needs his voice.  I love that deep voice.  

This is what it must feel like to be sailing in a squall, tossed around in an ocean with no horizon.  Keep calm.  Focus on getting us safely to port.  Don’t be pulled to a dark place.  Rich needs my strength at the helm.

Each night when I get home from the hospital, Terry and DiAnn wrap me in a soothing cocoon of support and normalcy.  Before I fall asleep, I write an email update to family and friends and post the day’s news on Facebook.  I am immediately buoyed by messages of love and support.  Mimi serves as my Optimist-in-Chief and affirms any small progress made that day.  My friend Connie in Ireland sends a beautiful poem by the late poet and priest John O’Donohue.  I cling to its images:

….When the canvas frays

 In the currach of thought

 And a stain of ocean

 Blackens beneath you,

 May there come across the waters

 A path of yellow moonlight

 To bring you safely home.

Every night, I wear Rich’s t-shirt to bed and fall asleep to comforting memories of our life together.  In Huey P. Newton, our black panther of a convertible, on our Route 66 road trip.  Summer Sunday afternoons reading the New York Times and listening to jazz on our front porch.  Waking in our little stone inn in northern Italy, the time Rich told me to close my eyes as he opened the shutters to the sunrise over Lake Como.  Swimming off the raft in Eagle Lake.   In Selma together for the 50th anniversary of the original march for voting rights for African-Americans.

I want this life − this adventure − to go on.

The night of Day 5, I decide to stay overnight at his bedside.  His previous night had been restless and difficult − every time the nurses lessen his intravenous sedation, Rich bears down on his abdominal and respiratory muscles so strongly that his lungs have no room to expand.  Any progress now seems stalled.  I hope that my voice and touch will calm him during the night.

“I’m right here with you, my love,” I whisper in Rich’s ear.  “I’m going to play Benny Goodman’s “Moonglow” for you.  I want you to breathe deep and slow, just like Benny did.  Try not to fight the machine.”

I stroke his forehead and the top of his swollen hand, held in place with a soft restraint so that he won’t pull out his breathing tube.

C’mon, Bunny Love.  We’ve gotta turn this around.

In the recliner next to his bed, I doze off and on and hold his hand throughout the night.  His night nurse Suzy sneaks in with a flashlight for hourly rounds.  His sleep is peaceful. No restlessness. No fighting the ventilator.  At 5 am, I decide to go home to sleep in a real bed.

As I drive north on I-65, the faint streaks of pink daylight emerge over the Sierra Nevadas to the east.  In the sky to the west, an enormous full moon glows.

Can this be my path of yellow moonlight?

Exhausted, I crawl into bed and savor a memory of the time Rich and I slow-danced to Benny Goodman in the moonlight streaming into our cottage in the Wisconsin woods.

Six hours later when I awake, surprised to have slept so long, I immediately call the nurse’s station to check on Rich.

“You’re not going to believe it,” the nurse replies.  “He woke up about an hour ago and is now nodding and following commands.”

“What?!  You’re kidding!  That’s fantastic!”

“You’ll be very happy when you see him.”

When I arrive to the ICU nurse’s station a half hour later, his nurse tells me that they had found the right combination of ventilator settings and sedation level so that at least some of Rich’s breaths are now on his own.  The steroids are also kicking in and decreasing the inflammation.  I rush to his bedside.  His eyes are open.  He is groggy but alert.

“Hi sweetheart, I’m here now.  I’m so happy that you’re awake!  Do you know how much I love you?”

Rich nods his head.  More than once.

“Can you squeeze my hand?”

Even with the hand restraint, his swollen fingers give mine a palpable squeeze.  He wiggles his toes when I ask him to.

“You need less oxygen, which is a good thing, but you still need to keep the breathing tube until you can breathe completely on your own.  Try not to push it out or shake your head.  It won’t be much longer.”

We listen to jazz and to his all-time favorite singer, Bonnie Koloc.  He raises his eyebrows to show me that he loves the music.  I update him on the Jim Comey testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee.  No Articles of Impeachment to report.  I hold the phone up to his ear so that he can hear the support and love from family back in Chicago.

We read messages and cards from friends and family.  “You’ll love this − Cory says that the Patriarch of Oak Park Cinema needs to get back to his place at the head of the table. Ha!”

Rich smiles with his eyes.

That night Terry, DiAnn, and I go out for tandoori chicken and toast Rich with a Kingfisher beer.  I sleep for 12 hours.

So does Rich.  The sea is finally calm.  The storm has passed.  The tube comes out.

After another grueling month of rehabilitation in the hospital, Rich is finally cleared for travel home − with oxygen and by train back to Chicago.  Exactly four weeks after my pre-dawn drive up I-65, another full moon silhouettes the Nevada desert landscape out the window of our sleeping car on the California Zephyr.

Our path of yellow moonlight is finally leading us home.

Indelible Lake Delhi

Freddy's Beach 1957

Freddy’s Beach at Lake Delhi, Iowa; August 1957

Oh, this is the joy of the rose: / That it blows, / And goes

                                                                         ~  Willa Cather

My skin is toasted a faint caramel color, not unlike the marshmallows I squeeze between Hershey’s chocolate and graham cracker squares for a perfect childhood dessert.  Hot August days spent floating atop a giant inner tube on Lake Delhi can create that kind of caramel tan.

The day stretches long and languid.

I feel the sun’s warmth on my face.  Off in the distance, motor boats buzz.  Water skiers zip back and forth like dragon flies.  My brothers and sister splash around in a lively game of water volleyball with other guests at ClairView Acres resort.  Mombo – my mother – is back at our cottage, playing bridge at the picnic table with friends who drove the fifty miles from Dubuque for the day.  Dad lounges in a green-and-white nylon web lawn chair on Freddy’s Beach, immersed in a favorite Zane Grey adventure.

“Daddy!  Daddy!  Look at me!  I can dive off the raft now!”

He waves back from the beach in encouragement.  Soon he too is in the lake.  The water barely ripples in his path.  My chest puffs with pride at what a good swimmer he is.  It’s not the result of any country club membership.  He’s just had many years of practice, swimming in the Mississippi River.  We love hearing his stories of swimming downstream and across the river when he was just twelve years old.

“Okay, Elvis.  Let’s see how you do.  Remember − left arm out of the water,” he instructs.  I want to please him.  I also want to swim like he does.  I’ve already achieved the Minnow Badge during my lessons at the “Y,” but still have a long way to go.  I stretch my left arm as far from my shoulder as it can possibly go.

Swimming is one thing for which I can count on his patience. “Nice ‘n easy.  Up and over.  That’s it!”

Practice complete for now, we swim over to the raft so that I can demonstrate my new diving skills, punctuated with just an occasional belly flop.  By late afternoon, we are ready to savor orange creamsicle push-ups from the snack shack at the beach.  I slip into the hand-made terrycloth beach jacket that matches Mombo’s.  A lively ping pong match rounds out the afternoon’s schedule.

After dinner of grilled hamburgers at the cottage, our family walks the dusty path back over to Freddy’s Beach.  A rousing game of euchre in the shack engages my card-loving parents.  My brothers Dennis and Terry knock around a wiffle ball in the ball field nearby until it gets too dark to see the white plastic orb with holes like Swiss cheese.  My sister Mimi and I tune into “Gunsmoke” on the black and white television nestled in the crotch of the tree outside the snack shack.

Finally, with the Milky Way shining above, a big railroad flashlight leads us back down the path to our cottage.  A chorus of crickets serenades us home.  We crawl into our lumpy beds to rest up for another bucolic day at the lake.

Dad knew Freddy, the owner of the ClairView Acres resort, through their respective jobs on the railroad.  Freddy and his wife Dorothy, then only in their mid-20s, had bought the lakefront property in 1950.  Freddy eventually built rustic beach cottages, by hand and on weekends and evenings.  Spanning generation to generation, Freddy and Dorothy created a collective memory shared by hundreds of families.  ClairView Acres, and its iconic Freddy’s Beach, became a well-known summer destination throughout Eastern Iowa.

By the time of my toasted caramel summer, we’d been coming to the lake for two weeks each summer for five years.  My inauguration to Lake Delhi had been in August 1957, when I was just four years old.  It was my first delicious introduction to “vacation,” a luxury that I have loved and annually claimed ever since.

I hadn’t even reached kindergarten that first summer, still small enough that my bed was a clunky metal-barred toddler crib with a blue and white ticked mattress.  After some reassurances from Mombo my first night, I slept in the tiny girls’ room next to nine-year old Mimi.  Dad would sometimes take us out for an early morning jaunt in the small fishing boat that magically spun spider webs overnight, after which we would return to the cottage for breakfast. The combination of crispy bacon, scrambled eggs, and “Hi C” orange drink in little Dixie cups was a gourmet feast.

Our cottage became a gathering spot to welcome other friends and relatives for a day at the beach:  my uncles and their families, Aunt Sallie, a neighborhood friend from Dubuque, Mombo’s bridge club, the square dance club.  I loved that our cottage could entertain others, as well as our family.

Cottage on Lake Delhi. late 50's - early 60's

     Our rented cottage on Lake Delhi in the late 1950s

Each year on the Saturday in the middle of our two-week stay at the lake, we’d host the Tri-State Twirlers, the square dance club that Dad and Mombo co-founded with another dance couple.  After a cook-out at our cottage, the Twirlers retreated to the beach for a barefoot square dance at dusk.  With his little portable record player blasting musical accompaniment, their favorite caller shouted dance directions.

Bow to your partner.”  “Circle left.”  “Allemande right.”

Skirts of sparkling blue, green, and coral − and their bouncing net petticoats − swirled around the beach.  Other cottagers looked on and occasionally were pulled into the square to give it a try.

I beamed like a celebrity.

After the first few summers, my now-teenaged brothers had summer jobs at the railroad yard or working on a farm, so were seen only on weekends.  Eventually the lake became crowded with more cottages – and too many people for our tastes.  Our annual vacations shifted to road and train trips around the Midwest.  My last visit to Freddy’s Beach was a day trip with my best girlfriends in July 1971, before we all departed for college.

In 2010, a ferocious summer thunderstorm caused the 80-year old river dam that had created Lake Delhi to fail.  Deflating like a burst balloon, the lake spilled millions of gallons into the Maquoketa River, flooding the lake properties as well as communities downstream.  Within hours Lake Delhi became a crater.  Lonely boat piers resembled the skeletons of dinosaurs.  Six years later, a new dam has been erected through the tireless efforts of hundreds of volunteers, some of whom had been at the lake for decades and across multiple generations.  Although still a shadow of its former glory, Lake Delhi promises to return.

Freddy’s Beach and the snack shack are no more.  No television is nested in the branches of the tree by the beach.  Freddy himself is gone.  So are Dad and Mombo, my aunts and uncles, the bridge club, the original Tri-State Twirlers.

Yet the memories of those idyllic summer days at Lake Delhi remain.  The metal crib.  Square dancers on the sand.  Dad’s swim coaching.  Belly flops off the raft.  Mombo’s beach jackets.  Picnic table meals.  Indelible.

Anne about age 4-5 by picnic table

Me at age 4, by one of my ever-favorite picnic tables 

Nice, France

Chagall Yellow painting (Nice)

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

         ~ From “September 1, 1939” by W.H. Auden

Berries at Nice Market Sept 2015I will always remember Nice for its explosion of colors that celebrate life. A Chagall masterpiece shimmering with saffron, emerald, and ruby.  Strawberries and blueberries bursting with ripeness at the daily market.  Pastel gems of macarons glittering in the gold display case at Maison Auer.  Matisse’s giant cutout blooming with orange and fuchsia flowers. The boy playing with the red ball on the beach.  The azure Mediterranean.

I wish I could forget the white truck. The image of the woman with the blood-soaked top. The green metallic body bag covering a child. The pink doll in the street.

As I watch the news reports, I know the places that the cameras scan.  I know the park, the hotel, the beaches.  I have strolled the Promenade des Anglais.  On Bastille Day it reverberated to the hum of happy beach-goers celebrating liberté, égalité, fraternité.  Carnage does not belong here.

It might be easy to feel helpless and hardened after this latest assault. Some voices call out for loyalty tests and bans on whole groups of innocents. Even torture. I reject these cries of despair and division, but not out of naiveté.  I understand that the well of hatred runs deep in our world.  But I refuse to join this darkness. Instead, please add my light to the chorus of affirming flames.

Beahc in Nice with small boy and red ball