That Dreadful Courtesy

I am upset.

Lately there is so much to be upset about. Thousands dead, and thousands more fleeing from Syria’s civil war. The Islamic State crucifying and decapitating any and all dissenters in its annexed corners of Syria and Iraq. The worst outbreak of Ebola ever in West Africa with hundreds dead and a 50% fatality rate, only gaining traction with the U.S. news machine now that two Americans have been infected. Tens of thousands of children at the U.S. border, fleeing violence in their Central American home countries, and being met with stern faces and angry voices.

All of these things are heartbreaking in their own way, but right now my heart keeps getting drawn back to be broken in Gaza.

So much rubble. So much destruction. So many dead children.

I’m not entirely ignorant of the troubled recent history of the Middle East. Today’s pictures of black smoke rising above ruined streets are not new, and don’t have much to distinguish them from pictures taken in the same region two years ago, five years ago, fourteen years ago; but this time around I find them much more disturbing.

In years past, I felt that Israel was generally doing the right thing in seeking to protect itself. No nation can tolerate a situation where its citizens are blown up at cafés or buses on a regular basis. The walls and military actions may have been distasteful, but they were necessary for the security of Israel’s citizens. The effect that they had on everyday Palestinians was lost on me at the time.

Things are different now.

Israel is still under siege from Hamas’ rocket attacks and tunnel incursions, and I acknowledge that I, sitting comfortably half the world away in Texas, can never appreciate the psychological burden of living under those conditions. However, in a real sense, the Iron Dome anti-missile system seems to have almost completely neutralized the threat of significant damage from these rockets. The most recent suicide bombing in Israel was in 2008. Being able to effectively keep Hamas at arm’s length should give Israel the luxury of pursuing peace, however slow the process may be.

Instead, the Israeli government cynically used the violent death of three teenagers as a pretext to resume bombing Gaza and crush Hamas once and for all. Never mind that we have now learned (and Israeli intelligence knew along) that Hamas was not responsible for killing those boys. Never mind that Gaza is the most densely populated area on the planet. Never mind that the millions of Palestinian civilians, when warned to evacuate their homes mere seconds before they get summarily demolished from above, literally have no safe place to go.

Justified actions. Proportionate response. Regrettable collateral damage.

These words do such violence to their dictionary meaning that we should call them what they are: lies.

What’s the body count since Operation Protective Edge began on July 8, 2014? As I write this on July 29, more than 1000 Palestinians have lost their lives. At least 70% of these casualties were civilians.

There is no moral justification for these numbers.

What is a proportionate response when an inbound rocket is intercepted by Iron Dome, or raiders attack Israeli soldiers from a hidden tunnel? Israel believes that leveling an entire neighborhood is acceptable. Too bad, so sad if the residents disagree.

There is nothing proportionate about the recent action in Shejaiya.

And about that collateral damage. Israel’s response to the butcher bill it has inflicted on Gaza’s civilians does not even rise to the level of regret. Israeli shells killed four young boys as they played football on an empty beach in front of a hotel full of international journalists. Multiple reports from these journalist witnesses state that they were killed as they were running away from the first shot. When your demonstrated strategy includes deliberately targeting children, you have thrown away any possible claim of occupying the moral high ground.

So many dead children.

Here’s what is different for me this time around: as I see picture after picture of distraught men holding the lifeless husks that used to be their daughters and sons, I picture myself in their shoes, holding one or both of my boys.

I can’t deal with that line of thinking for very long. Palestinians are forced to live with it, day after bloody day, waiting for that dreadful courtesy knock on the roof, wondering if today it will be their turn to gather the pieces of their children from the rubble.

Hamas has plenty of blood on its hands, no doubt about it.

But Israel, acting from a vastly superior position of strength, is exacting its vengeance on the people who have the least culpability while being the most vulnerable. This is immoral, unjust, and will do nothing to improve the long-term prospects for peace.

So I offer my small voice on behalf of the besieged Palestinian civilians. Israel must end its campaign of unrestricted violence and terror. The innocent blood in what’s left of Gaza’s streets cries out for justice. Without justice, there will never be peace.

Throw-Away Freedom, Disposable People

I

If you’ve spent any time traveling through the rural United States, you will likely have seen a pickup truck belching thick clouds of smoke every time the driver guns the accelerator. While unpleasant, I have always written this off as one of the ills of a poorly maintained vehicle. I can relate; keeping cars in tip-top shape is expensive, and as long as your wheels are rolling, it’s easy to find more important things to spend money on than routine maintenance.

My charitable attitude went out the window this week when I found out that there is a sub-culture of diesel pickup drivers who purposefully modify their trucks to blow as much black smoke as possible. They call it “rolling coal.”

This is what freedom looks and sounds like. I’ll leave the smell to your imagination.

This is throw-away freedom: the opportunity to literally burn the excess of my abundant resources for nothing more than self-gratification and let others pick up the tab. Freedom ain’t free, but I came by mine cheaply and to hell with you. What right have you to tell me anything different? Anyone who dares to disagree is a filthy commie, am I right? Global warming is a liberal conspiracy, cancer is something that happens to other people, and I don’t know how to spell “myopic”.

II

This selfish, short-term view of freedom manifests itself in more than a bunch of rednecks attempting to help their rural communities achieve air quality parity with Los Angeles. It is also evident in the attitudes of many people towards the tens of thousands of children who are attempting to escape gang violence in Central America and find refuge in the United States. There is no denying that 53,000 unaccompanied minors arriving at the border presents logistical difficulties for U.S. government officials at the local level, but there is no good reason why they should present political difficulties at the federal level. The response of the good citizens of this country who took it upon themselves to travel to the border and scream at busloads of frightened children is shameful.

It also reveals a cynical, fearful view of human nature.

America used to be known for its optimism. Millions of would-be immigrants who come to these shores each year still believe it, and share that optimism to the extent they think their lives would be better within the United States than without. Then they arrive at the border and encounter the xenophobic locals who greet them with fences, armed patrols, shouted slogans and a deep-seated certainty that if these people – these Others – are allowed in, these great United States will somehow decline and fall. Give me your huddled masses, indeed.

People with a healthy attitude towards freedom do not regard it as a limited commodity or a zero-sum proposition. It need not run short as demand increases. True freedom does not suggest that I ask what’s in it for me, but rather what can we accomplish together?

When a communal desire for freedom for everyone is fractured into an individual desire to take as much as I can and hoard it for myself, I view other people not as fellow members of the human race but as members of competing tribes. Aliens. Others. Those who are not as important as me. Worth less than me. Less human than me.

When I lose sight of other people’s humanity, their welfare is no longer my concern. I care about them only to the extent that I expect my pet politicians to keep them far away from me and my hard-earned and well-deserved luxuries. Why should I worry about their hardships, or pay for their food or healthcare? They have nothing of value to offer in return, so to me they are worthless. Disposable. Let them die.

III

Once we’ve convinced ourselves that it’s kosher to be indifferent to the suffering of Others, we find ourselves on a diabolical highway to a destination where we actively cause the suffering and death of Others. Humanity has been doing this for a long time. Anyone who ever started a war is guilty of this line of thinking. These Others represent a threat to our god, to our race, to our resources, to our very existence. Let us do unto them before they do unto us!

The Middle East has an especially rich history of people doing unto each Other. In the narrative favored by the evangelical Christian West, Israel is the scrappy underdog: a beacon of democracy, surrounded on all sides by neighbors who are hostile to its very existence. Militarily, however, any nation that has enjoyed the support of the United States for the entirety of its history is never the underdog. Whatever the proximate reasons (or excuses) for its current actions in the Gaza Strip, Israel cannot credibly claim to be acting proportionally or morally when the body count after six days of Operation Protective Edge is 167 dead Palestinians, of whom 70% are civilians.

But to the Israelis, and by proxy to their American supporters, the Palestinians are Others. Worthless. Disposable. Let them die.

I have a modification I need to make to my truck.

Confessions of a Lighthouse Keeper

There are few places on God’s earth more desolate than Bedlam Reef. Two hundred miles off the Southeastern finger of Newfoundland, the Reef is the mainland’s last outpost, perched on the very edge of the Atlantic abyss. It is hardly a welcome mat for incoming sailors. Before my grandfather built the lighthouse, many a captain had torn out his keel before he even knew the Reef was there, just below the surface, waiting for him.

Lighthouse keepers are an odd breed to begin with, but offshore men like me make the coastal boys look like regular socialites. The supply boat shows up once a month, except in the winter storm season when it takes a three-month break, but the way I see it you have to travel two hundred miles to find a more happening place than the Bedlam Light. Nobody throws a more exclusive party than me.

The Reef is beautiful, in its own peculiar way. The interaction between the warm Gulf Stream and the cold Labrador currents turns the ocean into a giant mood ring. On calm days, the sea is such a rich blue that the fish are compelled to leap into the air as if they cannot afford the rent. I took a photograph of the lighthouse on such a day and sold it to a postcard company. It’s a best-seller. Other days, the thick Grand Banks mist hangs close to the surface and makes everything gray. Mother Nature lets you know she’s about to throw a tantrum when the water becomes oily green. On days like that, sailors abroad had best look out.

Only a few dozen square yards of rock actually rise above the surface. Folks said my grandfather was crazy to try taming it, but he had survived an encounter with Bedlam and knew that it would be more crazy not to. It took him three attempts to build a foundation that would still be there after the next storm. The Reef claimed two more ships before Grandad turned on the light for the first time. The Bedlam Light was haunted before it even opened for business. Grandad never had a chance.

I was not ten years old when they took him away. He didn’t last long in that lonely white room with no view of the sea. Before that, he took me one day to the very top of the lighthouse where the foghorn was mounted, just me and him, an old man and his grandson. Some day this will all be yours, he said, sweeping his arm expansively from horizon to horizon. One day it was.

My father took over the management of the lighthouse, but he did not have the stomach to live there himself. He hired men to operate the light. Few of them ever lasted more than one good storm. The Bedlam Light was mine for the taking, just as soon as I could finish school. I was a smart kid, I guess, but I didn’t make but a nominal effort. Book learning means nothing offshore. Two hundred miles out, you either have what it takes to keep it together or you don’t.

My first storm was a spectacular Arctic gale. The waves exploded on the Reef and the wind turned the spray into needles which attacked rock, lighthouse and any living creature with equal ferocity; to venture outside was to be instantly stabbed with a thousand knives before being carried away and buried at sea. My Bedlam Light burned brightly and my foghorn added its deep voice to the din. The fishing outfit must have seen me, just as I saw its navigation lights dancing faintly beyond the wall of white water on the reef. When the waves broke the glass in the light room and destroyed my lamp, the crew must have known they were dead, and so they were.

An experience like that would have broken anyone else, but to walk away would have been to give up my inheritance. I figured Grandad had his ghosts, and now I had mine. That fishing crew talked to me while I repaired the light, and I came to know them well. I was alone when I came to Bedlam, but now I have a family.

My family has grown over the years. I suppose restless spirits crave company, and I find myself in a position where I can give it to them. I felt a twinge of guilt the first time I shuttered the Bedlam Light during a storm, but they turned out to be such interesting people! These days, when the sea turns a greasy, envious green, I stand beside my darkened lamp and watch the show. Sailors abroad, beware.


Previously published at Worth1000.com.

Providence Department

Sharon Williams, age 39 plus twin toddlers, was making a fresh start. At 8:24, Freddy was already 250 miles behind them and with any luck there would be at least a hundred more before he sobered up enough to notice they were gone. She was confident he would never think to look for them in Dallas; there was no way he could have found the letter from her old roommate that had offered a glimpse of a different future. If he bothered to look anywhere she figured he would go to their hometown, but she had lost all connection to Little Rock when her parents died. Dallas offered a new life. Who knew if she would get any more chances? Sharon stifled a yawn and drained the last of the convenience store coffee, and with her head tilted back she did not notice that the 18-wheeler ahead of her was rapidly turning its tires into smoke.

=====

“Hold it, Fate! You’re WAY out of line with this one. Are you kidding me? She is TOTALLY on my side of the board. Call off your goon right now, or every alcoholic this side of Vegas will experience such a moment of clarity that they will never even be TEMPTED to drink again!”

Fate sighed, let out a shrill whistle and carelessly waved his hand. Time turned off his treadmill and took a break. Death, who had been hiding inside the trailer, appeared on its roof with a disappointed look on his face. His expression contrasted with the pure terror currently etched into Sharon’s face, frozen in the moment where she saw her imminent doom. Fate smiled. Free Will had intervened just late enough that the outcome was no longer a sure thing, but even he had been caught napping when Fate scared a deer – a deer! – over the fence and onto the highway. A brilliant move if he did say so himself. It would be interesting to see how this one played out.

“Fine, Will. Have it your way. This one’s all yours, but oops! Looks like you’ve got your work cut out for you to get the lady and her kids out of this in one piece.”

Will stormed out of Sharon’s beat-up Chevy and glared at Fate with furious eyes. “Are you out of your mind? I’m going to have to get her Ladyship involved to fix this, and you KNOW how much paperwork that means. For both of us.”

Fate shrugged. “Less hassle if you just leave her to me.” Will’s scowl got even darker in response. “Whatever. Let’s go see Lady Luck, then.”

=====

In person, the Commissioner of Providence was not nearly as glamorous as her public persona. She was only of average height, with dirty blonde hair and a few suggestions of crows’ feet around her pale blue eyes. Her mouth, pursed tightly with disapproval any time Fate was nearby, belied her legendary smile. Frankly, Fate didn’t get her mystique at all, and often wondered what back-room deals she had made to get the job. His life had certainly been easier before she arrived on the scene.

Naturally Lady Luck’s office was in Las Vegas. Fate and Free Will found her drumming her fingers on the felt of a craps table, staring irritably at the dice that were suspended in midair before her.

“You certainly took your time getting here, gentlemen,” she said. “Who has Fate tried to kill now?”

Fate tried on an injured expression. “Why do you always assume it’s me? Just moments ago, Free Willie threatened to make a move on my drunkards!”

“Spare me. Need I remind you that the Providence Department was established because you blatantly and repeatedly made end-runs around Free Will by sending Death after anyone who refused to accept their Fate?”

Fate rolled his eyes. Maybe one day she might add some variation to the lecture.

“You-” Luck turned her attention to Will “-explain.”

When Will concluded with the hopeful turn in Sharon’s story, Luck shook her head. Fate was such a … oh, she could almost scream!

“Okay, you two. Will, have you already filled out a Luck Request Form on behalf of Sharon and her sons? You have? Excellent. Fate, I won’t even both asking. Just have a Censure Acknowledgment Affidavit on my desk by tomorrow. In triplicate.”

“Triplicate? What the-”

“Triplicate. Don’t make me censure you a second time. Now get Time back on his treadmill so I can watch Timmy’s face here when he rolls his third 12 in a row!”

“You know, there’s something …”

“Do it. Now,” said Lady Luck, with a hint of menace in her voice. Fate wasn’t convinced that she had anything to back it up, but then again, he hadn’t been able to prevent her from getting the job. He shrugged and waved his hand again. Time climbed back on the treadmill.

=====

Sharon stood on her brakes, too shocked to scream as the trailer jack-knifed and skidded out of her way. The big truck scraped to a stop against the crash barrier and Sharon cautiously drove past. Out of the corner of her eye, she thought she saw a deer running into the trees, away from danger. Just like me, she thought. I guess Lady Luck just smiled on us both.

“Dallas, here we come!”

=====

Timmy’s face did indeed register a happy expression when the dice landed. He was not so pleased when someone jostled him and he turned around to see Death’s broad grin.


 

Previously published at Worth1000.com. Happy Throwback Thursday!

Throwback Thursday: Room With a View

While I’m working on getting my voice back, I’m going to occasionally share some stuff from my archive. Back in the day, I used to participate frequently at Worth1000. (The link may or may not work; the site has been flaky lately.) I submitted several pieces there that I am still very proud of years later. Here is one of them.


I opened my eyes and found myself seated in a completely dark room. All was silent, and as far as I could tell (inasmuch as I could not see, or hear, or smell anything) I was alone, yet the room seemed to vibrate with a great sense of anticipation, as if somewhere a maestro had just raised his baton, or a soprano was even now licking her lips and inhaling a preparatory breath.

Music rippled through the pregnant stillness, a melody so pure and sweet and insistent that I was compelled to look toward its source. Light was piercing the darkness, terrible light and beautiful, but distant so that all that fell on me was a gentle gray twilight.

Presently the song of the light was joined by a complementary voice which, though it sang softly, had a power that touched the core of my soul. The light around me had taken on a dreamy blue hue, and with the introduction of one color the room around me began to glow with its complements: flowers on a table beside me lit up in an explosion of oranges and yellows, the wall behind me was painted a vivid shade of salmon, and my chair was upholstered in the very creamiest of leather.

The second voice rose up in a powerful crescendo, and every fiber in my body tensed with the expectation of what was to come. With a crash of cymbals a wave rolled in below me and I looked back through the window upon a mighty sea. The waves were a playground of blue shadows, dark trenches and foaming peaks, and the music of the light met the song of the sea with a chord of such magnificent harmony that the world could not contain it. A curtain rolled back to unveil the sky, and the duet of light and water rushed out to fill the infinite space with a concerto of clouds and rainbows that met the sea at the distant horizon.

A new voice joined the chorus, deep and rich, and summoned a palette of new colors. A wall of brown rock rose from the sea, and I realized the baritone voice spoke to the earth. Trees and foliage spread hungrily across the barren rock, like a flame advancing across a sheet of paper, but even as I watched the green fire consume the earth the room in which I stood retreated from that place. The sea and the sky and the land and the music receded, and through the window I saw only a perfect blue globe suspended in space.

Then the entire orchestra roared out the glorious appearance of the sun and its brethren, and the room in which I sat was flooded with pure light of such brilliance that I could not bear the sight, yet neither could I look away. Before me lay the primal glory of a thousand thousand stars, and as those engines of creation danced to the music I watched the pristine cosmos unfold and rush out to meet the farthest heavens.

The music swelled around me once more, playing with ever-increasing insistence, sounding a call that must be answered. A bird feathered with all the colors of the rainbow burst into song from its perch across the room, and a huge dog came bounding in, barking with delight, jumping up and licking my face. Something stirred inside me and I felt such a longing to embrace the music that my heart almost burst with the sheer joy of being. I found myself standing up and stretching my arms, truly awake for the first time in my life. The memory of the darkness in which I opened my eyes receded like the tide running from the beach, as if everything I saw in front of me had always been there. The music called me again, and I was compelled to reply, singing my part in that first performance of the symphony of creation.

Somewhere, the maestro finally laid down his baton and the last notes of the symphony hung in the air, perfectly sustained and echoed by the things the music had called into being. I looked through the window upon the vast majesty of the universe, and I saw that it was good.

Untested

I am daunted by your stories.

You brave, wonderful, beautiful people with your words of heartache, loss, abuse, survival and recovery. Most of these things I have not endured, and others in only small measure. My losses have been in the order of things; loved ones who grew old, faded, and passed away. I grieved their passing and miss their presence, and regret that I was separated from their last years by oceans and time zones, but Death is not so painful when he arrives at the naturally-appointed time.

What have I to say to you who have lost a child? You who have lost innocence, or health, or a lover, or peace of mind? What worth is my testimony of unearned blessing to a world where so many bear greater burdens and enjoy fewer rewards?

My faith is real, and growing, and informed by the experiences you have shared, but it has not been tested. As time goes by and life becomes ever more comfortable, I am afraid of how hard that test will be when it arrives.

Breaking the writer’s block

Christians sometimes argue about the longevity of salvation. Is there such a thing as a former Christian? Did people who lost their faith ever have much of a grip on it in the first place?

I was a writer, once, but then I misplaced my voice. I set it down somewhere and got distracted by other things, and now it is lost.

Once a writer, always a writer? Or are writers known by their fruit and judged by their continued output?

For the lapsed Christian, I believe grace is a breath away. For the lapsed writer, I believe it is time to end the excuses and wrestle with words until I find my voice again.

I still have stories to tell.