Monday, September 21, 2015

When The Syrians Came to Dinner . . .

They came bearing a gigantic bouquet, so gorgeous it could have graced an altar in a church wedding. They came bearing chocolates and they came bearing wine. And they came bearing stories: the Arab Spring hadn't been great for Syrian Catholics--about 2.6 percent of the total population. Assad was a dictator, but he left them alone, apart from protecting them. Before the protests started, the different religious groups all got along, and Syria was a rich country. 
"We lost everything," said one woman matter-of-factly, counting herself lucky: she and her husband had been able to apply for a visa as soon as they landed at a major German airport, a possibility no longer open to the tidal wave of immigrants coming in. Our city has published no list of when the next group is coming--about 400 are already here and many hundreds more expected--possibly to protect them. At our local tram stop there's a new anti-Nazi sticker on the Plexiglass shelter, and yesterday at the main train station I saw policemen in riot gear surrounding a large group of angry young men in T-shirts with Gothic script. Neither I nor the native speakers standing beside me could understand what the men were shouting, but we heard the rage, distinguished the word "München" (Munich) and assumed the worst--namely that the protesters were letting it be known that they didn't want refugees here in our town the way they were taking over Munich. Things were ugly enough so that I was very glad to be standing on a different platform.
Our Syrian guest and her husband have now been in Germany nearly three years, and in that time she has achieved a level of competence in German that will soon make her employable. Another guest, here for a year, finds German too difficult. He will not be employable anytime soon, although he is willing and able to work, and like many an immigrant, will probably find work using his hands rather than the degree in political science he had nearly finished when he had to flee. I'm lucky, in the sense that I need not have more than passing competence in the language--I can talk to the butcher, the baker, and the pediatrician, but I get to work in English and speak it at home. We had a lovely dinner. To the question of my student who wondered whether we could "take an entire nation into Germany," I'd answer: Listen to Mutti Merkel: Yes, you can. Wir Schaffen das!

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Brothers, Normally Grim

But they weren't!
I knocked on the sixteen-year-old's door, and the thirteen-year-old was in there. In a rowdy voice, the older one said, "Mom! He's being nice to me!"
The younger one: "I promise never to do it again, Mom!" They smiled at one another in a conspiratorial fashion.
Wouldn't it be great if things were like that all the time? 
How well I recall a conversation between a young colleague and our then-glum four-year-old about my older son, who was already in first grade and lording his superior knowledge over the younger one. We were in a café, and the colleague sat with us, turned to our little one, said, "You know, I had brothers too."
"You did?" 
"And the older ones tricked me and hit me all the time."
"You had brothers?" Brothers, at the time, must have seemed to our younger son alien beings who appeared capriciously at inopportune moments to torment him.
Smiling, our young colleague detailed the heinous crimes of his three older brothers ("I had three, remember that! You only have to deal with one!")  but explained that now his brothers have become good friends. "When we all grew up, we became friends."
Our younger son gave him the fishy eye.
But now maybe my sons really will be friends. How nice that would be. 

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The 800,000 versus the 10,000

There's really something to be said for German efficiency in a millennial refugee crisis. Obama says he can only let in 10,000 and gee, isn't he generous. Those Germans are out there with welcome signs in English and Syrian, handing out apples, water, home-baked yummies, and medical care to the 800,000 who are here or on the way, including 40,000 children. Future Lehramt (teaching) students, this is great for you! You'll all get jobs. When the Neo-Nazis tried to horn in at the Dortmund main station, the good guys drowned them out with smiles and balloons and slogans and friendly remarks. At the Munich main station, a big banner flew: No Place for Neo-Nazis. The bad guys are in a minority here in Germany--Idaho has more Aryan Nation types than Germany--but Germany is trying so hard to live down its dark days that it will use its natural efficiency to the good. Not to ship people to their deaths but to build housing and get them medical care. Germany still carries the burden of its enormous guilt.
"But can we take a whole nation into Germany?" asked one of my students.
"Oh, why not? Ever since masses of people walked across the Bering Strait eons ago, migration has been happening. Nations are so temporary. Each private home can help."
"Yes, I see," said my student, who seemed dazed, and did not wish to disagree with the teacher. I'd rather she not question my assertions or use the critical thinking skills I've been insisting on because in this particular instance she, like most Germans, is anxious. Anxious Germans look to a leader. Let's go for a good one: "Let 'em all in! Help them! They need friendly moments, good food, medical and emotional care, and a laugh--and some music." All of which I hope to offer to the five or six Syrians who will grace our dinner table next weekend. Stay tuned.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Kim Davis and God

So the gal who has been married four times and answers only to God goes to jail. As a martyr or a heroine? Oh, we do want to avoid seating her on either of those thrones, but some have already done so, handing her a few extra cushions. As an apostolic Christian? Who are they anyway? Google around and you'll find explanations like "We use the King James Bible." 
So do I, folks! I really enjoy reading it even though I'm an atheist who occasionally prays, usually to geographically appropriate deities. When we were in Delos last summer, I sent a few entreaties to Apollo, whose hometown and place of birth that island is. The King James Bible contains the most beautiful poetry in the English language (better than Shakespeare! Okay, well . . . probably yes) and is conveniently, for the very religious, breathtakingly inconsistent and, in parts, unutterably vague. You can pull out just about anything to prove what you feel like proving that day. If you want to know what the bible "really" says, in English, your local pastor or priest or goddess will tell you to consult a host of modern translations, The New American, the New Revised Standard.  If you're going for the poetry as opposed to the rules, these translations are not worth reading.
If you're going for the religion, they're not all that hot, either. Not if you want "definitive." Not if you want to know whether you've got a chance at heaven or might be headed straight to the other place. If you're in a sexy mood, read the Song of Solomon in the King James version (Kim Davis's face suggests to me that she--as we used to say back in the seventies--needs to get laid real bad.) If you're going for a guide to punishments, Leviticus'll get you there, but trust me, you don't want to go for that eye-for-eye cut-and-slice school of decapitation and mutilation. Christians are not ISIS, right? I hope not. 
Maybe the question is not whether we're dealing with some legitimate form of Christianity but whether we're dealing with a sane person. Or just a sad, desperate woman who can't think of any way to control her fears or her actions except by taking a frantic stab at controlling other people.
Alternatively, are we dealing not with one sad sack of a county clerk, but with something like the end of miscegenation law, which, sadly, only ended fifteen years ago in Alabama? Many a commentator has compared the case of the Lovings--the interracial couple whose marriage was validated by the Supreme Court in 1967--to the current crisis of gay marriage.  Mrs. Loving had to be talked into supporting gay marriage, folks, but eventually she did. As I recall, she had to overcome what she thought of as her Christian scruples. She did support gay marriage in the end. 
Does Kim Davis need a doctor or a pastor? Or just a good lay?  I'm praying that--before I see one more poster-waving protester calling her a heroine for defending God's will--that Ms. Davis gets one of the above. And that she learns to live and let live. Hey, send in Anita Bryant! She sure changed her tune! Remember the sixties babe who promoted Florida oranges and said that God wanted "Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve?" She was just going through a bad marriage. She's said that.  It would be Christian of her to visit Ms. Davis,  homemade cookies and sympathy in hand, and bring Ms. Davis to her senses.

P.S. Rachel Held Evans, please weigh in.  
P.P.S. Hey, Rachel Held Evans DID weigh in, and Daily Kos reprinted her tweet, and I'm copying it here:  "No one's being jailed for practicing her religion. Someone's being jailed for using the government to force others to practice her religion." Thank you, God! I should say Thank you, Rachel! (What's the difference, right? Wordsworth and Emerson would see no difference.) God's the voice inside of you telling you to do no harm and take care of people. Which reminds me, on another subject, President Obama, when are you going to take care of refugees the way we in Germany are taking care of them?

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Critical Mom and The Refugees

At the Munich main train station, there's more than enough food to go around. Crates of apples. A wall of plastic packs of pampers. Gallons of water. The police had to tell residents not to bring down any more supplies! The refugees had more than twice as much stuff as they needed. The apples are rotting; nobody can drink that much water. I wish all those supplies could be beamed down to the Budapest main train station.
Until this morning, thousands of refugees--estimates of the number of displaced persons hover around 10,000--were stuck in front of the main train station in Budapest. Police prevented them from entering and--since last Tuesday--let children, mothers, sick people languish without food. Many held tickets and wished to depart for Germany. Austria's willing to help, as is Iceland. Why is Hungary building fences and letting people sleep on cement outdoors? Why do the Hungarian guys on the street say, when the BBC reporter sticks a microphone in their faces, "Let them go back where they came from?" 
Hungary's last thousand years saw invasions by Tatars, Turks, Habsburgs, and Soviets--before that there were the Huns and a few other violent tribes from the steppes of central Asia and elsewhere. Hungary feels like they just got themselves together, demographically, ethnically, religiously. And now they're supposed to feed another invasion of poor people? When their "Hungarian" population is on the decline? Yes, my friends, yes indeed. We've always been ethnically diverse, ever since Lucy's ancestors ambled, some sixty or seventy million years ago, from Africa to Europe and Asia. The idea of nationhood has always been a way of insisting on a stability of life and population that has never existed at any time in the history of the human race. Nations are so temporary. In my favorite unofficial nation, Manhattan, population 1,636,268, could an influx of 10,000 refugees be managed? Only around every day. Approximately 2.87 million folks in the city of my dreams are fairly recent refugees.
My German neighborhood, in a city of about 700,000, will see an influx of about 400 refugees in the next few weeks. Mayoral elections are coming, and some candidates are running on tickets promising to "end" asylum. But the desperate will always come, and in the paradise of Manhattan, diversity means vitality. Let's make that true here in my city of residence, and elsewhere in Europe. Yes, diversity means misunderstanding, means trouble, means need, too--but fences do not make good neighbors in a refugee crisis.