11 September 2012

From A Distance

January 1974. A friend and I were on a train headed from Rome to Germany. So what if the new semester was starting? We had places to go and friends to visit. We were at Loyola University's Rome Center for the school year, along with about 300 other American juniors. 

It was a strange year to be away from home. Spiro Agnew resigned that year. (Remember him?) Streaking became a craze. (One of the guys from Chicago who went home after first semester made it into the Daily American sports pages, streaking the Cubs game that spring). Later in the spring, about twenty of us would make a trip to Moscow, Leningrad, Krakow, and Prague. A trip to the Middle East, including Israel, was cancelled due to war. Students went traveling everywhere and often.

Rome was a fun place to be that year. Every now and then, there were bus strikes--but only one way in the morning and the other way in the afternoon. We learned that the Italian mail was notoriously unreliable so we set up our own post office and took turns riding the #64 bus down to the Vatican to drop off mail and pick up stamps. My day was Thursday, which meant I could also pick up the latest TIME Magazine and read it before handing it off to other homesick people. Paul VI had been pope since 1963, the Second Vatican Council wasn't quite ten years finished, and some of our teachers had the greatest knack for turning history into weird news about the neighbors. (Do you know the names of the coffee bars inside St. Peter's during the council? No Starbucks in those days! One was Bar-Rabbas, the other Bar-Jonas.)

J. Paul Getty III was released by his kidnappers that December. He was younger than we were, just 17. He made it home finally after losing an ear. The Red Brigade was active throughout Italy, credited with a number of bombings and killings.

By the time we all got home in the spring of 1974, the Watergate hearings were in full swing and Nixon resigned. It was surreal to witness the news filtered through European eyes. Italians were used to political scandals. We weren't. At least not then.

But back to that train. A few hours out of Rome, we were in Bologna. I looked out the window. It should have looked like this. But it didn't.

There had been a bombing at this train station a week or two earlier. When I looked out the window, I found a pile of bricks, rubble, a part of the building that had been targeted. I wish I'd taken a picture, but I didn't. In the end, I didn't need a photograph. The image has stayed with me almost forty years. A pile of bricks and some caution tape, but the trains were running. It was the closest I got that year to terrorism.

We were at the station maybe thirty minutes. We didn't get off the train. We talked with some of the other travelers about the incident, and then we went on. By the next day, we were in Germany. My friend and I split up. I went on to Berlin to visit a teacher-friend. (I managed to go to East Berlin, by mistake. I think the guys with grey greatcoats and machine guns should have tipped me off, but I was trying to match "Berlin Station" to the name of a stop in Berlin. Who knew I was supposed to be looking for "Zoological Gardens"?)

The week in Berlin included some time at Checkpoint Charlie and no pictures at the Wall. We spent a day in East Berlin, running in and out of museums looking for Rembrandt's "The Man in the Golden Helmet." (Years later, my teacher-friend sent me a page from TIME. It wasn't Rembrandt at all. But I still like that painting.)


I was 20. All those experiences were exhilarating, challenging, life-shaping. I have never been able to see the world from only America. I have been to other places. I have seen other perspectives. So why this trip down Memory Lane?

It is September 11th, 2012. Eleven years ago, I was headed to a chaplains' meeting three hours away from home. The two of us traveling together were busy talking and radio reception can be iffy over the Cascades anyway. When we got to the meeting, someone told us the news. The chaplains prayed together for a bit, then the Department of Corrections Headquarters asked us all to return to the prisons. We were needed there. We got in our cars and left. Another three hour drive--punctuated by signs near the ski areas that the airport was closed--and I was at the prison. It was on lock-down, barely any movement from one place to the next. The chaplains spent a lot of time going from one unit to another, talking, praying, just being with staff and offenders.

The Catholic priest who came in on Tuesdays showed up. We gathered those we could and met in the chapel. We prayed for peace, for reconciliation, for hope.

Over the next few days, I'd work with a couple of men who had parents who worked at the World Trade Center. We'd try to contact them. We'd be asked to defuse anger aimed at some of the Muslim offenders. We'd listen to officers who wanted desperately to be home with their families, but public policy demanded that they be at the prison.

A month or so later, we'd be dealing with rumors of a "martial plan" that called for prison inmates to be executed and officers be sent to fight the war. It was crazy and crazy-making and you had to be half-crazy to survive. But we did.

In all of that, I couldn't forget what I thought about on that three-hour drive to the prison. I remembered that pile of rubble at the train station in Bologna and my first thought was, "Now the violence has come to our doorstep. Now we will know what others have been enduring for so long."

If our American experience can give us a bit of insight and compassion for the suffering of others, maybe peace is possible.


05 September 2012

The Circles We Draw




“He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic , rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him In !"

From the poem " Outwitted”
― Edwin Markham



            Their faces are weary, reflecting hours of worry, interrupted sleep, hyper-awareness. They haven’t talked with their kids for days, weeks, they don’t want to say how long it has been. The helpful sister thinks it would be damaging to the seven-year-old to talk to her mother on the phone and certainly a visit to the county jail is out of the question. “Why would you put your kids through that?”

            The woman at the table imagines yards of yellow crime scene tape wrapping the block that holds the jail. Or maybe a bright red stripe on the street, marking this a toxic waste zone. No matter the angle, the view isn’t pretty. There’s always a line, drawn by someone else, a line that shouts, “You don’t belong here!”

            This time, the line isn’t on a map, chalking the boundary between countries. It is drawn in a courtroom or on the eleven o’clock news. It is born of anger, fear, helplessness. It is carved by talk radio and amped by slash and burn tactics. It is cemented into attitudes, made concrete by repetition. It is ugly. “You don’t belong here!”

            And where is “here”? I want to know. Here? Among the living? Among the whole? Among those left untouched? Here? With those who’ve never done anything wrong? Ever. Really?

            Is “here” only with those who look like me and speak with no accent? Is it the land of those with similar education and political ideas? Is it those who don’t challenge my ideas, my imaginings, my ways of doing things? Where is “here”?

            I have drawn the circles rather firmly in my life, made sure I knew who was in and who was out. Kept myself safe, I thought. But then again.





             I remember a dining room with steel tables bolted to the floor and gang members eyeing each other warily during a church service. Listen. Watch for any nuance, any hint of trouble. And yet, it is time to exchange a sign of peace. Nortenos and Suerenos lined up to shake hands, to reach across the invisible lines. For a few moments, they were brothers in one prison, united by something more than hate. They have all known loss, grief, separation, maybe even joy. Each of them is more than the face in this room. They have families and histories and many more escapades to plan.

            The mother afraid her child will forget her, the man undone because his father has died without a final word, the almost-brave teenager who cannot begin to make sense of this craziness, they all live within a circle--some of their own making, some fashioned by others. For a while, they are cut off, separate, unconnected. Until someone says, “It doesn’t have to be this way.”