WHO DID WE THINK WE WERE?

I just returned from a quick trip to beautiful Naples, Florida, where I visited an old friend of mine. I’ll call her Marie, and at the age of 91 Marie is ill, in the hospital, and quite alone.

Marie has a wonderful daughter (close by) and grandson (not so close by), who don’t have the wherewithal to visit her very much. Her friends for the most part have died and she has had to leave her home for a nursing home. Many things stood out for me (especially how thin and weak she was even as she retained her Grande Dame manner), but what most hit me was her aloneness.

The aloneness built into our culture is what I think of when I read another article about the addictions, illnesses, and early deaths of white blue-collar workers. When so many people in this country are without jobs over decades (there’s now a second generation that can’t find work) and start to rely on disability checks or opioids to get through a day or a lifetime, I start paying attention.

But I remember that nonwhite blue-collar workers have fared no better, in fact they’ve fared worse, only since the rate of their early deaths hasn’t risen people don’t make a big fuss about them. So why is it that it’s the American white workers who die so much earlier than their nonwhite American counterparts, or their counterparts in other countries, like Germany, where many such workers have also lost work?

Researchers speculate about different expectations, different safety nets, different cultures. I am no expert, but what strikes me is our aloneness. I think we Americans, coming out of our culture of rugged individualism, are very alone. We graduate from school and go wherever the jobs or careers are, thinking nothing of leaving everything behind. In America, self-determination {Follow your dreams!] is everything, and sometimes it costs everything, too.

What happens if we lose those jobs, if we lose those dreams? Who and what sustain us? How strong are the bonds of family and community? Who is ready to brake his or her own rise to the top to be there for someone unemployed, someone old, someone ailing? I include myself in this, for I live far, far away from my elderly mother. I often wonder how available I make myself for family and friends, if I’m not too, too busy writing, teaching, and having my incredible life.

Oh Eve, who did we think we were? Marie said to me as she lay in the hospital bed. Her thin face shows fine bones, her skin is still porcelain except where it’s black and blue from fractures she suffered in a fall. We had our dreams, we thought we were so important; who did we think we were?

Those are the words I took back with me from Florida. How important do I think I am, who still, even at the age of 67, wants so much from life? When do I finally let go of at least half those dreams and finally look around me, at people who need time and attention, people who need visits (not just 48 hours), people I should connect with even if it’s not part of my work? What happened to community, humility, to love?

When we rise up and up and up, we leave others behind. And then we’re alone.

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ONE STROKE OF THE PEN

I have deep faith that we’re all one, that we resonate with each other and with stones, trees and sky, and that we are all in the process of awakening to this truth. That is at the core of my general optimism. Even when I feel discouraged by what happens in the world, I keep in mind the caution of the Native Americans that you must think seven generations ahead, or the Dalai Lama’s words, when asked about the effects of this war or that revolution, that it’s too early to tell.

A there are days when opening emails or the newspaper reveals a country in disarray, uncaring towards in citizens, and hellbent on self-destruction. One stroke of the pen and ICE agents knock on families’ doors in the middle of the night. Another stroke, and parents are deported leaving children behind. Another stroke, and a pipeline is authorized to go through sacred grounds of the Lakota. Another stroke to authorize another giant pipeline bringing fracked oil all the way down from Canada. Another stroke, and carbon emissions are permitted to increase. Another stroke, and coal can now be mined again regardless of what’s released into the air. Another stroke, and mining operations can now pollute rivers (including uranium mines). Another stroke, and we’re back to hunting grizzlies and shooting wolves from the air in Alaska.

Who’ll reap the results of all that? Who’ll have to clean all that up? Not the companies, the American taxpayer.

Jobs, jobs jobs, as long as you consume consume consume. Who in his right mind thinks that that’s a sober, realistic response to this complex world?

I’m exaggerating a little bit. Donald Trump can’t do all that with a stroke of his pen, some of that honor goes to our Republican-controlled, Paul Ryan-led Congress. Some of this will be fought over in the courts. But harm is already being done.

And it’s not just Donald Trump by a longshot. Let us speak of the Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, a man whose mild, respectful manner and intelligence I would like to respect, but whose vision for our country seems to include giving more and more benefits to the rich and less and less to the poor, be it medical care or tax reform.

I try hard to understand his vision of limited federal government. Perhaps we do have too many regulations in place that create bureaucracy and discourage small businesses, but is that sufficient reason to introduce a medical care bill that would remove so many from care now and, by limiting Medicaid, make life even more impossible for the poor and elderly in the future?

What country is this where so many members of our government don’t believe in basic medical care for citizens? When friends or family come to visit from abroad, they take out expensive travel medical insurance ahead of time because they know that if they get sick here in the US, they’re in trouble. Many countries much poorer than us take much, much better care of people.

So I look at Donald Trump’s signature, see what a stroke of a pen can do. Examine the many tall lines like Trump Towers, the almost total lack of curves or horizontals, just up-down-up-down, and think of Mary Oliver’s The Morning Paper:

Read one newspaper daily (the morning edition

is the best

for by evening you know that you at least

have lived through another day)

and let the disasters, the unbelievable

yet approved decisions,

soak in.

I don’t need to name the countries,

ours among them.

What keeps us from falling down, our faces

to the ground; ashamed, ashamed?

 

Mary Oliver’s The Morning Paper

 

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WOMAN AS CAREGIVER-2

Photo by Rami Efal

I did a one-day retreat this past weekend, my first since Bernie’s stroke, and we talked about someone being here during the day. I would be gone from 8 in the morning till at least 5 in late afternoon and Bernie said he could be left alone. It would be the first time he’d be alone for most of a day. He could get up on his own, make coffee and hot cereal for breakfast, he could make a simple lunch, sit at his desk, work, watch television. I would be back for dinner and the evening.

But the night before, I got nervous. Are you sure? Maybe I’ll look in on you at lunch. I calculated there were 45 minutes for lunch on the schedule, say 40 to get back on the cushion on time. 15 minutes one way, 15 minutes back, leaving a very quick 10 minutes to fight off Stanley’s eagerness at the door (Walk! Walk! Walk!), pop my head in either the office or the bedroom—Hi how’re you doing? Everything ok? Did you eat?—and off I’d go again. No lunch.

I thought how much I loved this man and didn’t want anything to happen to him. After he fell asleep my imagination went a little wild.

But is love everything? Is it really, like the Beatles claimed, all you need? I woke up early on Saturday, got my things together, and drove to the next hill where we sit, thinking about choices. I love to love, but I also love to sit, study, teach, write, walk in the woods. I am not just a lover. It’s easy to try to emulate other female paradigms who give so much, but that’s not who I am.

I’ve always logically known that for everything I choose to do there’s a cost, namely, what I don’t do. This is more visible now than ever before. I wake up earlier than my body wants to, waiving more sleep to get something written early. We like to talk when Bernie wakes up later, but I tear away because time is passing. I use weekday evenings to catch up on things rather than being more together, otherwise the cracks get too big. I plan to visit a very old and sick friend of mine, probably the last time I’ll see her, in Florida and leave him for two days. He’ll have care, but my heart will be troubled.

I honor the things that pull me, but almost always I am torn. Of course, there’s that small voice inside that says, That’s your conditioning as a woman. I’ve gone over it a million times, how easy it is for the world to expect a woman to put everything else aside and take care of people, expectations a man doesn’t face. Those assumptions are so strong I know I’ve internalized them, no one has to say a word, I’ll say it for them. I even know that had we changed roles and I had the stroke, I doubt very much that Bernie would have done all this for me.

But then there’s love. There was Friday night, thinking of my full-day sitting the next day, watching him at the same time. I didn’t feel guilt, I felt torn, and I think that’s part of loving. Loving isn’t just the clinging or the hugs, it’s also planning and organizing even as cracks appear, it’s trying to cover all bases and failing. It’s not forgetting to put yourself in the equation.

There’s very little of that in the great spiritual books and traditions, where the heroes (almost always men) are ready to live and die for the sake of humanity but not for the sake of one person.

Make yourself happy, Bernie often tells me. When you’re happy, we’re both happy. When you’re not happy, things aren’t so good. Which is his polite way of saying that I’m a terror to be with when I’m not happy..

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GIVING CARE

Ari left us yesterday at 2 pm, some 7 months after he came to help give care to Bernie. Give care, as in just giving freely from one’s heart, not take care. Taking care implies greater dependence by the other person; also included there is caution.

Ari gave Bernie care all this time, primarily exercising with him, learning all about Feldenkreis and Taub’s constraint-induced therapy. He made Bernie’s therapy his own, took our books home to read. He read Moshe Feldenkreis’s book aloud to Bernie, together they looked at Dan Siegel’s Mindsight and discussed possible meeting points with Zen, especially the Three Tenets.

Giving care has something to do with companionship, listening deeply to what the other person loves and needs, entering and inhabiting that landscape rather than the usual one—my own.

Ari has been instrumental in helping Bernie go from stumbling along on his legs to walking upright with a cane and without. He has watched Bernie begin to cut his own food on the plate using his right hand, a very recent development. He has told Bernie I can’t listen to you, you’re talking with your left hand, as we all have, which is what happens when Bernie forgets to use his right hand and begins to gesture and gesticulate with his left.

And Ari has been part of our home. Fill the birdfeeders, take Stanley to his romps with Leeann and other dogs, make a terrific Mediterranean salad. People come and go through the front door; Stanley opens one eye, says Oh, it’s you, and goes back to sleep. Unless they start cooking in the kitchen.

In the weekends there’s no Ari, no Rami, no Jessie (who now works for Rami), just the two of us with the dog. There’s more privacy, and also narrower landscapes, a kind of social poverty. Comes Monday morning, the front door opens downstairs even as I’m already at work in my office upstairs, someone says softly Good morning!, and the week begins.

As it will begin next week, too, but without Ari, who’s also pursuing other lines of education and work. A lovely woman will be with us instead, but I won’t identify her in this blog without her permission.

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COMING BACK HOME

I came to sit on Tuesday night and saw the saffron robes of a monk at the other end of the small room. It was Tan, our American Thai Buddhist monk, hunched up on a cushion. I heard he’d gone away for a few months, but here he was, back again to walk our roads with his bowls in hand, knock on the door, hope he’s not interrupting anything, and come in to say hello. His gentle spirit and simple manner point to something fundamental and unembellished about the essence of human. And that essence is all our birthright, only we have to access it.

I set my eyes on the deathless, the Buddha said, not the things that depend on life conditions and will therefore pass as those conditions pass, but that which isn’t born and doesn’t die. Once you have that in view, your actions will slowly conform to that view. As long as you don’t lose sight of it, then it’s just a matter of (life)time.

Here’s a story I heard of Tan:

He was walking on the road in a town not far from here (in this rural area we don’t have sidewalks). A pick-up truck passed him by, slowed down a ways ahead of him and came to a stop. He kept on walking, gradually closing the gap between himself and the truck, till finally he was alongside. The driver rolled down the passenger side window, Tan approached, and the driver said this to him:

I don’t know who you are or anything about you. Just wanted to tell you that yesterday my wife and I had one hell of a fight. By the end she was so mad she left the house, went into her car and drove away. I wasn’t sure I’d ever see her again. Twenty minutes later she’s back, a whole other person. I asked her what happened, and she said she passed you on the road, saw you in her rearview mirror as you kept on walking, saw your face and how you were just walking on that road. And she said something happened to her. All that anger was suddenly gone. She turned around and came back home.

 

I just wanted to say thanks.

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WHEN IN DOUBT, JUST STANLEY

Photo by Leeann Warner

“Stanley, what makes me human?”

“Fool me.”

“I was at a meeting the other day and we were asked to introduce ourselves, and add our pronouns.”

“What’s that?”

“Whether you want to be referred to as a him, a her, or a they. Do you identify as a man, a woman, both, or undecided.”

“Is it a test?”

“No, Stanley, it’s all about exploring your gender. Once biology was everything. If you had a penis and testicles, you were male, and if you had a vagina you were female. But things are not so clear-cut anymore.”

“What if you have a penis and no testicles? What about if you were a sweet, innocent, trusting puppy and one day you were taken to the House of Horrors and woke up without testicles?”

“Stanley, that had a whole other purpose. And I don’t think you should refer to Dr. Brown as a House of Horrors.”

“Since then I’ve been confused.”

“About whether you’re male or female?”

“No, about our relationship. CAN I TRUST YOU!”

“The point I’m making, Stanley, is that biology doesn’t cut it anymore.”

“Please don’t put it like that.”

“People are now asking themselves whether they feel male or female, whether they feel comfortable in the bodies they were born in. And that raises all kinds of questions about what it means to be a male or a female. Things are now more fluid, less entrenched, more variable.”

“In other words, confused.”.

“At least we know what your pronoun is.”

“What is it?”

“You’re an it. That’s how we refer to all nonhumans.”

It? We’ve been together for 12-1/2 years and you’ve always thought of me as an it I ? I don’t feel like an it.”

“That’s the law of the land, Stan.”

“Does my body look like an it? Is it because I don’t have testicles?”

 

“No, no, Stanley, it’s not that at all.”

“Maybe I’m a him. I talk a lot, don’t I, like all the males you know?”

“That’s true, only nobody knows you talk except for me.”

“I’m different from one day to the next, right? You always say everything changes.”

“That’s true.”

“So my identity is just as fluid as yours. Whatever that means.”

“Okay Stanley, tell me this: What’s your name and what pronoun do you use?”

“Stanley.”

“And what pronoun do you use?”

“Just Stanley.”

“How about if I combine she, he and it?”

“Don’t do that. When in doubt, just Stanley.”

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THIS IS NOT CHARITY

Remember that you are a community volunteer just providing transportation to a person who needs a ride. This is not charity. It is the necessary solidarity work required when some community members enjoy rights and privileges that others are denied.

I went to a meeting on providing rides to illegal immigrants living in our community. Discretion is needed here, otherwise I could say more, describe the place, the spirit of the people who attended and of those who brought us together.

But what held me most was the above guideline, the first in a set of guidelines we were given for this work. This is not charity. In every community there are those who have more material possessions and those that have less; every community—if it’s alive and vibrant—has different members with different customs and traditions, with life arcs that have brought prosperity to some and poverty to others. But if everyone works together to provide some minimum level of wellbeing for all members, the community flourishes. This is not charity, it’s living in community.

Bernie always said that you should try to do something, even if it’s small, for your community and the world. Saying that all your time is occupied with taking care of yourself and your family is like saying that I won’t take care of my lower leg if it’s badly gashed because it’s far from my heart and brain, and therefore not that important, or the ankles on my feet that have twisted terribly, because though that makes it hard for me to walk it’s not life threatening.

What is it saying about us that we have to whisper about such beautiful work, while the headlines are all about less health care for the unrich under the new Ryan plan, the you-owe-us/no-we-don’t seesaw between our government and NATO, and gutting Meals on Wheels? Those who care have to walk softly so as not to attract too much attention; they can’t take photos.

During the meeting someone asked why these services haven’t been offered to all indigent people in our county, we certainly have our share. We live in the country, with almost no public transportation available, so if you don’t own a car you’re in trouble. Or you may have a car but lack the means to keep it up so that it passes inspection, or lack the dollars to buy gas.

Lots of people find themselves in this situation, recent immigrants and families whose ancestors came here on the Mayflower. We have single women with children trying to make it to daycare so that the mother can go to work. We have farms nestled in the woods with houses that look like they’re caving in and wood-burning stoves that run out of wood by March, blizzard or not.

But the illegal immigrant community is now in serious trouble, with parents afraid to take their children to school, to drive to work, to go to food pantries or free meals, to do the most basic things they depend on. They’re afraid of deportations and families split up.

So even as we talked about what needs to be done, we were aware there were no more than 50-60 of us in the room. We need everyone to take care of everyone. So choose something and do it. And don’t forget, it’s not charity, it’s just taking care of the Beloved Community.

I plan to learn some Spanish.

And speaking of generosity, look at all the fruits and vegetables that Stone Soup Café gave away on Saturday, along with breads and cookies and their usual scrumptious prepared lunch.

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HUMMUS IS NO LONGER HUMMUS!

“This is great hummus,” I tell Stanley.

Stanley is hovering over the pan excitedly. “Can I have some?”

“And it’s the real thing, full of tahini, olive oil and garlic, just like I like it.”

“What about me?”

“It’s not the organically correct kind, Stanley. It’s not made of artichokes, red lentils, carrots, or spinach. It’s not bright red, orange, or green. It’s done the way they’ve done it forever in the Middle East: chickpeas, tahini and lots and lots of garlic. It’s that nice beige-yellow color, like it’s been for centuries.”

“It’s okay, I’m color blind.”

“You know what the problem with this country is, Stanley? We’re food imperialists. We take a perfectly wonderful food that has nourished millions of people for millennia, and we make it ORGANIC! We add all kinds of veggies, seeds and tofu, and we ruin it.”

“Know just what you mean. Not keen on vegetables myself.”

“I think it’s part of the political correctness in this country. Nothing is simple anymore. Men are no longer men, women are no longer women.”

“And hummus is no longer hummus.”

“Exactly. We make things complicated, all kinds of variations that are so confusing. The trouble all started with Darwin. He said that we evolve through variations.”

“You mean my pal Darwin who lives down in the farmhouse?”

“That’s Darwin the Yorkie. I mean Darwin who started evolution and all our other problems. Till Darwin everybody was who they were. Amoebas were amoebas, fungi were fungi, crows were crows.”

“Maybe we’re becoming more sensitive,” Stanley opines.

“Even Muslims are becoming politically correct. You know how we got this great hummus? Rami brought it from a Purim party given by a Muslim couple he knows.”

“A Muslim couple gave a Jewish Purim party?”

“Crazy, right? Like the Obamas did Passover Seder every year. And it gets crazier. This couple gave a Purim party for a rabbi who was arrested demonstrating in front of Trump Tower against the ban on Muslims coming into this country. How’s that for political correctness?”

“Terrible.”.

“And of course, they made so much food that they sent an entire pan of hummus, hamentaschen—”

“They sent raspberry hamentaschen, that’s how you know they weren’t Jewish-”

“– and a 5-lb. mousse cake to us here, the Zen Buddhists of Montague.”

“And to me, too. Don’t forget me.”

I look down at him “You? You can’t eat hummus, you’re a dog.”

“Whaddya mean, I’m a dog? That’s your imperialistic specieism talking. Dog is what you homo sapien colonialists call us.”

“If you’re not a dog, what are you?”

“I am biologically diverse, a primate cousin, your evolutionary equal, with superior traits like four legs.”

“That’s the silliest thing I ever heard.”

“And a better communicator than you any day, because I have a tail.”

“Of course you have a tail, you’re a dog. That doesn’t reflect any negative judgment on my part, I love dogs!”

“To call someone a dog in your homo sapien vernacular is no compliment. It’s pathologizing! It’s insulting! It’s a function of how you homo sapiens see us. It doesn’t capture the rich biodiversity that I, Stanley Marko Glassman, represent.”

“So if I can’t call you a dog, what should I call you?”

“A biological triumph. Pass the hummus.”

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A DAY WITH NO WALK IS A DAY WITH NO FUN!

SO WHAT IF IT’S FIVE DEGREES OUT THERE?

 

I’m indebted to Mikko Ijjas, a member of Zen Peacemakers, who posted the item below:

Imagine you’re on a tiny deserted island with a huge lion on it and crocodiles and sharks swimming around it. What do you do? 

You stop imagining.

I laughed, and at the same time felt something stuck in my throat. Stop imagining? I can’t imagine stopping to imagine.

But there’s no doubt that with a huge lion and crocodiles and sharks all around, it’s a real temptation to withdraw, shut off the senses, stay in bed and never get up. After Bernie had his stroke there were lots of days when I’d wake up in the morning, contemplate what was ahead, and just want to go back to sleep.

But the snow is deep outside and somebody has to go out with thick pants and tall boots to fill the birdfeeders because those birds are hungry! And somebody has to go out with the dog who’s been house-ridden for two snowy days, and the cold doesn’t mean much to him even at the age of 13-1/2. Or maybe it does only he knows his days are numbered so he doesn’t care, just wants to go out there and feel the iciness course through his veins, feel something.

Feel something: the icy shock to the body when you go out, the huffing and puffing to make it up the snowy path. Even the toughest apprehensions, deep inside, whisper to me that I’m alive. Maybe I feel like a quivering, newborn chick, but something else is quickening there, and if I can distill it to its essence—as I did last night when I prepared a shallots sauce for chicken—it’ll give me new life.

How to transform fear and anxiety into things that give me life? Listen deeply, not to the monsters in the attic but to what’s behind them. The world, like my home, is always welcoming me in its subtle way, even reminding me that I am loved. The birds swoop in circles outside, checking out the birdfeeders, as if telling me: We, made up of tiny bones and feathers, survived the blizzard, and so can you. COME ON, LET’S EAT!

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WE’RE SIGNING AWAY OUR OWN CHILDREN!

The blizzard began earlier than expected. By 6 am we had a 1-2 inch coating of snow. It’ll snow all day today, with big winds. What am I afraid of? Losing power. In our case, that means no lights, no refrigerator or oven, no water, and worst of all, no heat. So I will fill up the tub with water and bring up the battery-powered lamps from the basement.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how it feels to lose power, or not to have any to begin with. Several days ago I attended a meeting of people who worked at various social agencies and who compared notes about serving the undocumented families and individuals living in our area. Most of the Latinos came here as teenagers from as far down as South America (imagine a trek like that for a teenager!) and have built a life here, but could never obtain legal papers. They got married, had children, and their children are American citizens even as the parents are not. And now the parents are facing deportations while their children remain here.

Is this our American dream? Splitting up families? There was a time when Americans respected people who were ready to escape a life of violence and poverty and make their way, by hook or by crook, to the Golden Land, work hard at whatever jobs they could find, and slowly build a better life for themselves and their children. I believe Bernie’s father came here when he was about 14 or 15, putting Rumania behind, and then managed to bring over his sisters as well, probably saving them from extermination in the Holocaust. We used to look up to people like that, we used to say that that’s the kind of person we want in this country.

Do you know what’s going on now? Undocumented parents are filling out guardianship papers declaring who would serve as guardians for their children in case they’re deported. In the discussion I attended they described a meeting where a lawyer came to tell parents about their legal options.

I told all our parents to come, one woman reported, because I hoped the meeting would give them some sense of control over the future of their children, some sense of power at a time when they feel they have none. But the lawyer unfortunately talked only about a form of guardianship that permanently gave away their parental rights to a guardian. They left in complete despair.

It now turns out now that there are other guardianship papers they can fill out that don’t give away their parental rights permanently, but that particular meeting was a trauma.

They also talked about getting American passports for the children so that if their parents are deported the kids can visit them. When I first heard this I thought I was living in a parallel universe, but Hello America! this is what’s going on. Otherwise, if the family is split up, how will the children travel to see their parents? With what papers? Of course, every passport costs around $120 and you need various documents, so families need help filling out the applications and raising the fees.

And now there’s a new problem. BIG WINDOWS. One woman who hosts mothers and children in her agency, giving bilingual counseling and child care, said that they always were proud of the large window that the agency had looking out at the street, letting sunshine in while people outside could see children playing happily. Now, she said, people look in frowning, and she’s sure that police and probably ICE agents are monitoring them through that window.

Which brought up the topic of which post offices are safe and friendly in connection with the passports, and which are not. In one the person doing the passport applications would take you to the back and away from the front, away from windows.

There is more I could write here, but discretion and care are important so as not to further endanger our own neighbors, our own friends.

HELLO AMERICA, ARE YOU LISTENING? THIS IS OUR COUNTRY WE’RE TALKING ABOUT. The rich country, I might add, that also doesn’t believe that health coverage should be a basic right for all.

In Alabama, visiting the Taub Clinic with Bernie, I met a lovely elderly couple from outside Chicago. He was a veteran of both World War II and Korea, a mechanical engineer, she the daughter of coal miners. They’d voted for Donald Trump and we had a terrific time talking about the why’s and wherefore’s, and they gave me a lot to think about. But when I asked them what they thought of deportations of so many Latinos and the breakup of families, they assured me that only felons and hardboiled criminals were being deported, no one else.

They lived in a gated community. Don’t most of us?

I never took down their contact information, but if I had, this is what I’d tell them: I don’t care what media you follow, whether you read the “New York Times” or “Wall Street Journal”, whether you watch “Fox News” or even listen to Limbaugh. Forget them, do your own work here, bear witness. Find out who works with undocumented workers in your neighborhood and talk to them. Even better, talk to your Latino neighbors, they’re keeping a low profile but they’re around.

You can find out what’s going on, it’s not hard. A few phone calls, a get-together over coffee, a meeting, a few rides for people needing to get to work but afraid of being stopped by State Police. All it takes is getting out of our gated communities, that’s all.

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