How an afternoon of canvassing gave me hope for the 2022 elections

In the days leading up to this year’s midterms, I was increasingly anxious — like so many other Americans. Already worried about the electoral prospects for 2024, I needed to stay hopeful about 2022.

I decided to sign up as a volunteer through Swing Left. I spent the final Saturday before Election Day canvassing with Warren County Democrats in Pennsylvania. The scenic, two-hour drive across the New York-Pennsylvania border was a welcome change of pace. The bright colors of the fall foliage were a calming contrast to the in-your-face political signs in people’s yards and along the roads.

I arrived in tiny downtown Warren about twenty minutes before the scheduled start time. Following the directions of the most recent text message, I parked in the far end of a small lot right next to the Allegheny River. I walked toward the the side of the store closest to the river, as instructed, but couldn’t find anyone. I was about to turn around when a small car began making its way down the narrow stretch between the building and the river‘s edge. Behind the wheel was Jane, the canvassing manager. She explained that we would be meeting in the second loading bay, thanks to the support of the storeowner. Within minutes, the other volunteers began arriving.

Except for a Black female college student, an elderly white man, and me, the canvassers were all white women in their seventies. They looked like the kind of women who would sweetly help you out if you were shopping in their neighborhood grocery store for the first time.

These women also still remember protesting the Vietnam War and fighting for women’s rights. They’re hardcore when it comes to civic engagement; they recognize what’s at stake. Along with the clipboards and lawn signs was a small box of campaign buttons from past elections, including 1968 and 1992.

Jane requested we all take a seat so we could go through the data sheets. I asked about the app that Swing Left had instructed me to download, and she smiled, “If you can figure it out, feel free to use it. I like pen and paper.” I was relieved to have one fewer app on my overworked phone.

The purpose of the canvassing activity was to visit the homes of people who had been inconsistent over the years about voting for Democrats and to ask them if they planned to vote. Jane stressed that we needn’t spend a lot of time probing for information; this was a straightforward get-out-the-vote effort.

I was paired with Rita, and we were assigned voters in Russell, a rural town in Pine Grove Township. According to the most recent census, its population is 97.5% white, and the median household income is $52,000.

Rita is a 70-something stroke survivor who uses a cane. She can go up steps but needs someone’s arm to hold on to when coming back down. “My brain tricks me into thinking there are more steps.” She proudly told me how her letter to the local newspaper had been published; she’d made the case for why John Fetterman’s stroke should not disqualify him as a candidate for the US Senate. In her mind, he was the better choice.

With Rita at the wheel (yes, she can drive) and me in the passenger seat using my phone’s GPS, we set off on our canvassing adventure. At our first stop, a man became angry and started yelling at us to get off his property. We explained that a female resident’s name was on our list; he said the person had moved away, and he didn’t want to have anything to do with us. We weren’t wearing campaign buttons, so maybe the clipboard gave us away. Once we were back in Rita’s car and about to leave, the man reappeared next to the rolled-down driver’s-side window. He had come to apologize for being rude. Rita thanked him for apologizing, and then we had a cordial but brief conversation. A fervent Trump supporter, the man said he was retired from the Army. I proudly told him my brother had served in the Navy.

Another stop was a house located at the end of a winding driveway near the edge of Conewango Creek. The wife’s name was on our sheet, but she was out. Her husband came to the door. Admittedly, I was worried that we were about to encounter another fan of the former president. Instead, the man, who identified himself as an Independent, said he was fed up and voting blue in the midterms.

At another home, we spoke with a nurse who was furious about Roe v. Wade being overturned and couldn’t wait to vote on Tuesday. Through her work, she’s seen her fair share of complicated pregnancies. As a mother, she’s concerned that her 20-year-old daughter won’t have agency over her own body.

At one point during our canvassing, we spoke with a man in his thirties or forties who had voted for Democrats in the past two general elections but was sitting this one out. Disillusioned, he doesn’t like to talk politics. His view: All politicians let you down, so what’s the point? Rita tried her best to dissuade him from having a defeatist attitude. I offered a point about elected officials being human and therefore flawed — we’re not voting for gods or superheroes. I even invoked writer Rebecca Solnit’s analogy that voting is, in the end, a chess move. But the man remained skeptical. Back in the car, Rita started muttering, “I bet he doesn’t write letters to the editor. I bet he doesn’t even try to contact his local official.”

Disillusioned, he doesn’t like to talk politics. His view: All politicians let you down, so what’s the point?

During our drive along the back roads of Russell, we also saw a huge banner hanging from the side of a barn.
It read: 
Trump 2024 
Save America Again

When the midterm results started rolling in late Tuesday, I felt both elated and anxious. Sometimes my mind even leaped ahead to November 5, 2024, causing me to revisit the shock of November 9, 2016.

In the moments and days since this year’s Election Day, I have thought a lot about Rita, Jane, and the other intrepid volunteers I met in Pennsylvania. I remain amazed, and inspired, by how they have sustained their love of country, commitment to community, and belief in democracy for decades.

Maybe this is who we are, too.

Via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Return to Paradise

In early fall of 2021, my daughter invited me to join her on a trip to Antigua, one of the Leeward Islands. I had never been to the Caribbean before, nor had I ever had the desire, to be frank. Too many memories of bad 1970s TV dramas about luxury cruises, obnoxious tourists, or criminals making arrangements through an offshore bank account. But I told her I was game, and I’m so glad I did.

Our trip last year ended up being so magical and rejuvenating, I suggested we go back someday … soon. This past summer my daughter obliged her dear mom and made arrangements for our second trip to the island. This time we stayed on the western part of Antigua, where the water seemed even clearer and more sublime than what we remembered from our first visit.

Early inhabitants of Antigua, and its neighboring island, Barbuda, were the Arawak and Carib, indigenous peoples who had migrated from the northern parts of South America (modern-day Colombia and Venezuela) several thousand years BC. The Arawak introduced agriculture to Antigua.

In 1493, Christopher Columbus made his second voyage to the New World and sailed close to Antigua. While he didn’t set foot on the island, he had the chutzpah to name it. He chose Antigua, after Santa Maria de la Antigua in Spain. (The Spanish pronunciation of the last syllable is “gwa,” but native Antiguans pronounce it as “ga.”) Actually, I should say he renamed the island, since it was already known as either Waladli or Wadadli among the natives. (I learned that Wadadli is also the brand name of Antigua’s national beer.)

Roughly two centuries after the Spanish “discovered” the island, the British colonized it. In 1684, Christopher Codrington introduced sugar cane production to Antigua. The island soon became part of the lucrative Caribbean sugar industry, and the barbaric slave trade became an important mechanism for sustaining the new economic driver. Today, Antigua’s population is more than 90 percent Black, and these Antiguans are mostly descended from enslaved human beings from West Africa.

Slavery was ostensibly abolished in 1834, but a strict racial hierarchy prevailed as a result of colonialism. Antigua (and Barbuda) gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1981. English is the official language, although it’s common to hear a creole dialect spoken. A staff member at the hotel where we stayed tried to teach me a few words, after I asked about the patois. Although various sources cite percentages as high as 90, according to the US Department of State, more than 60 percent of Antiguans identify as Christian. During the half-hour taxi ride from V.C. Bird International Airport to our hotel, our 70-something cabbie had serenaded us with Christian hymns while driving over rough roads and navigating busy roundabouts. He sang with such gusto, it was like witnessing a one-man revival meeting. “Oh, how I love Jeee-sus!” I couldn’t decide if I should feel comforted or terrified, since he seemed more focused on heavenly salvation than driving.

Our hotel was located in St. Mary’s Parish between two beaches: Valley Church and Jolly. The first staff member to greet us upon our arrival was Louise, a motherly woman with a lilting voice. Anya, a petite young woman with a beautiful smile, checked us in and managed all the logistics throughout our stay. Sankieto, a small, wiry young man, took us up to our cottage in his golf cart. With my daughter in the back next to our luggage and me in front next to Sankieto, the cart whizzed up and around the winding narrow stone path until we reached cottage 24. Sankieto is originally from Jamaica, where his mother still lives. He told us there’s too much crime in his country, and he feels happier to be in Antigua, though he misses his mom.

Each morning I woke up a few minutes before sunrise so I could stand on our porch and gaze out onto the shimmering cobalt and teal water and witness the sky’s metamorphosis. Each sunrise was literally a work-in-progress; the colors moved gracefully across the sky as the sun made its grand entrance. The only time I looked away was when I noticed a tree lizard on the nearby railing. On my last morning, two lizards watched the sunrise with me.

No photo will ever do justice to the daily light show, but that didn’t stop me from taking an excessive amount of pictures with my phone. The sunsets, as you can imagine, were equally hypnotic.

Of the two beaches, we ended up favoring Jolly. At one point, as I was lying back on my beach chair, a buxom woman carrying a big basket came by. With a droll smile, she introduced herself as Angie Baby the Hustler and said she had many fine things that might interest me. She was right: I bought three necklaces. Manny, an enterprising young man with his own jet ski business, took my daughter for a spin around the bay one morning. Seventy US dollars (about 189 East Caribbean dollars) for a half-hour was worth the excitement — not just hers, but mine as I watched them speed away, often flying across the water.

Walking downhill to the outdoor dining room or the beach was so much easier than making our way back to the cottage. I’m sure my quads and calves will remember this trip for a long time to come.

Our hosts at Cocos were kind, generous, and attentive. And with that description, my mind immediately shifts to Jamaica Kincaid’s book, A Small Place. Her deceptively thin work is a harsh critique of colonialism and the tourism industry in her native country, Antigua. For both of my visits, I was keenly aware of my status as an American tourist, though I would like to think — at least I hope — that I tried to reciprocate the graciousness of the people I met. Although I didn’t go this time, during my first visit in 2021, I took a taxi to the capital, St. John’s, so I could walk around and check out the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda. Filled with artifacts and historical insights that put so many things into perspective, the museum is housed in a former courthouse that was built sometime between 1747 and 1750.

At Cocos, whenever someone realized I was traveling with my daughter, they often referred to me as Mama. One of our servers for lunch, a tall young woman named Azika (I believe that was her name), often began by asking, “What are we having today, my loves?”

The food was sumptuous: all kinds of fish, fresh vegetables, and fruit. I even learned a new way to prepare tofu: pan-sear it in olive oil and then pour a light tomato sauce on top. Another frequent server, Loreen, who was older than Azika, asked the chef for the recipe after I raved about the taste. “Just don’t put too much oil in the pan,” she smiled.

One afternoon my daughter and I left the hotel grounds to have lunch at a nearby outdoor restaurant, where a green gecko made its way across the railing next to our table, and later, an adorable mongoose scurried across the wooden floor. The cabbie who took us that day, Cosmo, was calm and drove with a steady hand. (Such a stark contrast to our singing cabbie from the airport.) I asked him what people do when there’s a hurricane — the last big hurricane to hit Antigua was in 1999 — and he explained that you try to find someone who has a cement house farther inland. Otherwise, you hunker down in your boarded-up home and hope for the best.

Throughout our stay, usually after checking the latest news about Hurricane Ian on my phone, I found myself looking up at the small wooden buildings of our hotel, all stacked atop a steep hill right on the coast. I simply couldn’t fathom what it would be like to have it all destroyed.

Now that another trip to Antigua has come to an end, I am profoundly aware of the many privileges I have. I am grateful for the gift of family and travel. Learning a bit about the culture and history of where I am, even for a short while, is the least I can do.

Ending as Beginning

How my mother’s journey is helping me find strength and perspective

Some moments are easier than others. Those are the moments when I’m on top of everything. A loving daughter, a compassionate family member, the most responsible human being on earth. A superhero with organizational prowess and limitless patience.

The other moments, the hard ones, pull me down like a two-ton anchor. I fall into a tailspin of inadequacy, and I am exhausted. Paying the bills, picking up the prescriptions, cleaning the litterbox of her two aging kitties, scheduling the doctor’s appointments, helping her cull the faded family photos we’ve looked at a dozen times before. There are multiple black-and-white images of Dad and her in the early days of their courtship. Snapshots of my older brother as an infant. A picture of me in a stroller on the street where my parents rented part of a two-flat before getting their house. My younger sister’s first recital.

These images both pause and speed up time. For a gentle, fleeting moment, I can recall when my siblings and I were young, and Mom and Dad, the vital, strong adults in our lives. We were loved, and we felt safe. Now when I glance over at my mother, seated next to me on the couch that’s been with her for two decades, I note the stark contrast between who she is in the photos and who she has become.

After my father died, the woman I knew disappeared for a while. And then she slowly reemerged, but as a subdued, less confident version of herself. At times she seemed utterly unmoored. My own marriage having lasted just five years, I didn’t know how to relate to a widow aching from the death of her partner of half a century. In her grief she seemed unrecognizable.

I missed the stern matriarch with whom I used to do battle. The killjoy who nagged me to clean my room, turn off the TV, and practice the piano. Showdowns over music lessons and church had been much easier to navigate than conversations with a woman whose happiness seemed to have died with her husband. In some of my more desperate moments, I wanted to grab her by the shoulders and remind her that not all of us are lucky enough to find a soulmate with whom we can share our lives. Of course I restrained myself.

My mother was drowning and I could barely swim, so I went in search of a life raft that could bring us both to a calmer shore.

I remember a car ride one night about a year after Dad’s death. I was driving, and Mom was in the passenger seat. I was reminiscing about one of his many quirky habits, my eyes welling up with tears. Without missing a beat, she posed a question that almost caused me to miss our turn: “If I had died first, would you have missed me as much?” I was mortified, and reluctant even to ponder an answer.

Dad and I had shared a passion for words, bad puns, poetry, and stories about travel. As a young child, I was also close to Mom. But once I started school, I pulled away. I felt conflicted about my biracial identity, and I blamed her. Distancing myself from the parent who had sat vigil by my bed throughout my serious childhood illnesses would become one of the deepest regrets in my life.

It has been six years since I sold my parents’ home and helped Mom downsize. Today, she lives in an apartment just five minutes from my house. The hands that once sewed many of my grade-school clothes now grasp the handles of a fancy maroon walker and the silver safety bars in the bathroom.

One recent evening after dinner, Mom and I leaned back on the old couch trying to decide what to watch on TV. Self-conscious about her thinning hair, she suddenly exclaimed, “I hope I die before I go bald.” She was more than half-serious. I looked at her in disbelief. “Can you imagine if men thought that way? Then women really would rule the world.” We broke into fits of laughter.

A few months ago I hired a personal care aide to help me with the caregiving and light housekeeping. D visits my mom twice a week, and they adore each other. I am grateful for this life raft, one of many I’ve found in the past several years. And still I hold my breath, wondering what part of the journey may be next.

Fifty may be the new 30, but 90 is still just that — especially in a culture that avoids uncomfortable subjects like loneliness, thinning hair, age spots, infections, incontinence, and DNR orders.

Today I am no longer just my mother’s daughter. I am Power of Attorney, Rep Payee, Health Care Proxy. And after years of fighting and pulling away, I am also, finally, her friend.

My love and determination are unshakable, but the stress of knowing how to care for Mom is real; the burden and privilege are bound together. Helping the woman who fed me during the first hours of my life navigate the bittersweet homestretch of hers — it’s the most complex path I’ve ever known.

Buffalo’s Redheaded Bagpiper

Dressed in her tartan kilt and white shirt and carrying her 7-pound instrument, the 5-foot-5 redheaded bagpiper can strike quite a pose. As she presses the bag and blows, a lugubrious vibrato gradually builds into a haunting skirl. Within minutes, the majestic sounds of the Great Highland pipes dominate the air.

“When I was young, I was extremely shy and wouldn’t say a peep,” Marley Becker explains. She describes how her face turned beet red whenever she was called on in class. “Not until college, really, did I come out of my shell.” It was a passion for woodwinds that liberated her spirit.

Proficient in both the flute and the bassoon, the self-described band nerd joined campus music groups and connected with peers through a shared love of music. In the fall of 2005, three years after graduating from college, she yearned to be part of a group again. She was also eager to tackle a new instrument. Over the years, she had become fascinated with bagpipes. How hard would it be to learn the instrument? How difficult would it be to find a band? She did some research and made a few calls. The pipe band major from the Celtic Spirit Pipe Band invited her to a rehearsal. “He said he would teach me how to play for free, as long as I joined the band.”

For the next several months, Becker learned to play on a practice chanter, a double-reeded woodwind instrument that resembles a recorder. Then on March 17, 2006 — St. Patrick’s Day, fittingly — she picked up her own set of bagpipes from The British Shop on Englewood in Kenmore. Although many varieties of bagpipes can be found throughout Europe and in parts of Asia, in the Celtic world the two main types are Irish (Uilleann) and Scottish. Becker’s Great Highland bagpipes, native to Scotland and arguably the most famous of the Celtic pipes, have four main parts: a blowpipe with a mouthpiece, a bag that fits under the arm, a bass drone and two tenor drones that lean against the shoulder, and a chanter (a melody stick).

When Becker first tried out her new instrument, the best she could manage was a few pitiful sounds from the drones. “This was going to be a lot more difficult than I thought it would be.” It took her a few months to produce some respectable notes, and six more months before she was playing songs. She remembers practicing one afternoon, only to have a neighbor stop by and inquire what the awful noise was. “You know when someone is just starting the violin? The bagpipes are even worse!” she laughs. The key, she was quickly learning, was to balance the sounds from the different pipes.

Fifteen years later, the bagpipes are a natural extension of the musician’s soulful personality. She is drawn to the beauty of the plaintive sounds of an instrument that some historians trace back to ancient Egypt. “Ioften get lost in the music, and during practice, I may even miss my cue to come in.” Becker explains that traditional bagpipe music is highly regimented and played a certain way. Her group puts their own twist on Celtic music, through modern arrangements that combine several other instruments with bagpipes. “We play with our hearts.” The band has performed at numerous festivals and parades, and in 2008, the musicians had the pleasure of leading the Buffalo Sabres National Hockey League team out onto the ice for the Ice Bowl.

Of Becker’s many solo gigs, the most meaningful have often been the memorial services. She played at the funeral of the first female musician of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, an upright bass player who had requested a female bagpiper for her service. This past summer Becker was honored to play at the funeral service for a 95-year-old United States Marine veteran who had fought in World War Two. Other, far less somber solo engagements include a lavish dinner party at a mansion once owned by the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo. And in contrast to the neighbor who complained 15 years ago, back when Becker was first learning the bagpipes, a different neighbor recently left a note at the musician’s door. She wanted to know if Becker could stand in the back yard and play “Happy Birthday” for her husband’s 50th birthday.

The piper smiles broadly when recalling her childhood reticence. “It’s interesting that I picked out the loudest instrument. Was it me finally coming out of my shell and being bold?”

To learn more about Marley Becker and her music, check out her website.

Photo by Mark Mulville for The Buffalo News.

In Praise of Victor Gruen

In the 1970s, family outings often meant going to the local discount department store. Mom and Dad headed for the clearance racks in the clothing and shoe sections. My brother went in search of a new model airplane kit. My sister and I gawked at the Mattel toys we were adding to our Christmas wish list.

And then one day, we all discovered the unique wonders of that 20th-century mecca of American consumerism: the indoor shopping mall.

On a Saturday morning, usually once a month, we piled into the car and headed to the Eastern Hills Mall, located in a nearby suburb about twenty minutes away. We entered through Woolworth’s and proceeded to the main concourse. After walking around together for about ten minutes, we split up. Dad slipped away to Waldenbooks, where he could browse for hours. Mom preferred department stores like J.C. Penney’s. My brother usually wandered off on his own in search of a hobby store, while my sister and I took turns hanging with Mom or Dad. By dinnertime, we all reunited outside Harvest House Cafeteria, a buffet-style restaurant that was part of a chain owned by Woolworth’s.

The buffet line in Harvest House was nothing like the cafeteria line at school. There were no middle-aged ladies in hairnets pushing a plate of wax beans toward me. In fact, I was oblivious to any adults who might be working behind the line. I fixated instead on the fancy glass dishes of red Jello and chocolate pudding, each topped off with glorious ribbons of whipped cream. I was bedazzled by the large metal pans of Salisbury steak, mashed potatoes, and thick brown gravy. The buffet line was also my introduction to what felt like a very adult vegetable dish: salad made with iceberg lettuce, orange tomato wedges, thin round slices of purple onions, and crunchy croutons, all drizzled in Italian dressing.

I inevitably piled too much food onto too many plates. It then took a bit of strength and a lot of concentration to bring the tray over to the table without spilling anything. Setting the tray down and then sliding over the smooth expanse of the fire-engine-red banquette resulted in fart sounds, sending my siblings and me into fits of laughter. Dad greeted me with a bemused smile, leaned over, and whispered reassuringly: “Whatever you can’t eat, I’ll take care of it.” True to his word, he gobbled up the leftovers on my tray after I’d reached my limit. Mom just sighed, though I was never quite sure if it was because my eyes were once again bigger than my stomach, or Dad was putting on a few too many pounds.

Over the next few years, the mall experience changed. Instead of the whole family going together, we might venture out in pairs. I remember helping my brother search for a gift one Christmas Eve, the two of us navigating our way through the crowds of fellow last-minute shoppers. Later, in my mid-twenties, whether it was a consequence of getting older or becoming a bit of a big-city snob after living in Chicago for a few years, I saw my childhood consumer paradise as impersonal and tacky. If hell indeed existed, it must be a gigantic indoor mall with no exits.

In 1956, the first indoor shopping mall, Southdale Center, opened just southwest of Minneapolis in Edina, Minnesota. Designed by Austrian-born architect, Victor Gruen, Southdale was a two-level, climate-controlled structure with a covered, skylit courtyard surrounded by stores. The new shopping center garnered rave reviews and attracted eager consumers. Yet the execution of Gruen’s vision was incomplete.

Distressed by the phenomenon of suburban sprawl in his adopted country, he had conceived of a pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use community reminiscent of his native Europe. In addition to the shopping center, he envisioned apartments, schools, daycare facilities, medical centers, and parks. He wanted spaces that would combat the isolation he associated with American suburbs. Instead, Southdale’s success paved the way for more shopping malls to be built throughout the United States.

Interestingly, the mall of my youth, Eastern Hills, which first opened in 1971, is undergoing a renovation. The current owners plan to transform the 100-acre property into Western New York’s first “town center.” I wonder what Victor Gruen would say.

For more history, check out A Viennese Architect Pioneered the American Shopping Mall. Then He Became Its №1 Critic and The strange, surprisingly radical roots of the shopping mall.

The Southdale Shopping Center, the world’s first indoor mall.
Photo credit: Bobak Ha’Eri — Own work, CC BY 3.0,


“That’s for Pearl Harbor!”

I was hit hard with a thwack, right in the back of my head. I turned around. Next to a snowbank a few feet away, two blonde-haired boys were grinning triumphantly. These were the same boys who had been teasing me during the daily bus ride home over the past several weeks.

I kept walking and turned the corner, expecting them to go the other way. But they stayed right behind me and I quickened my pace. I could hear the clomp, clomp of their boots in the crunchy white snow. My breathing became harder and harder, as I fought off the bitter chill of the December air. I heard the boys shouting and laughing, calling me by my new nickname. “Mini Jap! Mini Jap!” When I finally reached home, I felt brave enough to turn my head. There they were — just a few steps away and flashing a glinty smile. They passed by me and kept walking, and soon all I could see was the back of their heads getting smaller and smaller in the distance. Fresh snowflakes began to float gently down around me, as I wiped my eyes and went toward the door.

Once inside, I gave my mother a full account of what had happened. She gasped as I mentioned the boys’ names. “I’m going to call his mother!” She was referring to M, whose mom she knew from church. I begged her not to. Sitting in the next room, my socks wet from the snow that had leaked through my boots, I listened as she cleared her throat and picked up the phone. I could feel my stomach churning and the familiar anger welling up inside.

That day was just another reminder of how much I hated being hafu. Half white, half yellow — as if that even made sense. I asked my Caucasian father why Asians were described as yellow. He shrugged his shoulders and said it was simply ignorance.

In the early years of elementary school, a few classmates would often ask with a straight face, “Do you speak China?,” to which I would usually reply: “No, just America.” At first I offered the retort rather sheepishly, but with practice my response became snappier. When I was seven, I made the mistake of saying my Japanese middle name in front of the class and telling everyone what it meant. “Tsuyuka, pronounced Tsoo-yoo-kah, means ‘the fragrance of dew.’” Our teacher, Mrs. Golibersuch, proclaimed it a beautiful name, but the last word in the translation provoked only titters among my classmates. I soon grew accustomed to a familiar taunt: “Chinese, Japanese … look at these!” The speaker, almost always a boy, would act out each part of the phrase by stretching the outer corners of his eyes up and then down, and finally pointing to his nipples.

I remember once standing up on the stage in the auditorium with my classmates. We were practicing a few songs for an all-school assembly. One had a refrain that went like this:

What color is God’s skin?
I said, what color is God’s skin?
It is black, brown, yellow,
It is red, it is white.
Everyone’s the same in the good Lord’s sight!

There we were, a motley collection of fidgety kids, elbowing each other in the chest as we lined up under the American flag and belted out those noble words. At one point I felt tears welling up in the corners of my eyes. I opened my mouth to sing, even as I struggled to keep myself from falling off the stage.

On a daily basis, I blamed myself for not having curly hair, for not being born with round blue eyes, for not being taller, and by junior high, for not being as chesty as the girls with the long Italian surnames. I would stand in the second floor bathroom of my parents’ house, comparing the reflection in the mirror with images of what I thought real American girls were supposed to look like. I wanted to be like Farrah, with her wild mane of wavy blonde hair.

One day, when I was in either first or second grade, my mother volunteered as a school lunchroom monitor. I chose a table in the corner farthest from the doorway. My head down, I sat munching on carrot sticks and pretended I hadn’t noticed her arrival. My guilty conscience finally got the better of me; I looked up, only to discover she was surrounded by some kids. To help pass the time, she had started doing origami with paper from home. There she was, folding yellow, green, and orange paper cranes as her circle of admirers grew.

Aware of her audience, she pulled out a white lace handkerchief and asked them if they wanted to play a game. Heads quickly nodded, so she slid the handkerchief back and forth in the space between her thumb and pointer-finger, daring someone to pull it out before she could clamp her thumb down. No one was fast enough — her hands were as nimble as they were elegant. She smiled and urged everyone to keep trying. Suddenly there was laughter and then a round of applause. One of the toughest boys in school — an eighth grader who used to threaten anyone who made fun of his braids — had snatched the handkerchief away after three tries.

Part of me wanted to walk over, reach up and pat him on the back, and say something like, “Well, I guess this makes us pals now.” But my mind fast-forwarded to 3 p.m., when the natural order of things would be restored. As it turned out, he made sure that no one in school ever teased me again, at least not when he was around.

It’s been more than forty years since these events occurred. It still amazes me how childhood experiences can shape our view of the world, and ourselves. Years after the snowball incident, I ended up taking M, no longer a pint-sized nemesis, as my date to a high school dance. I don’t know what happened to the boy who rose to my mother’s handkerchief challenge. Wherever he is, I certainly hope he’s doing well. I’ll always consider him one of my earliest heroes.

Originally published in Medium.

Falling Up

This sermon was first delivered on July 5, 2009, at Westminster Presbyterian Church.

Yesterday we celebrated our two-hundred-thirty-third year of independence. Today, at the end of the service, we will sing a hymn that could easily be mistaken for our national anthem. The words are an unabashed expression of love for a country characterized by “spacious skies,” “purple mountain majesties” and “alabaster cities.” Quite frankly—and with no offense to Francis Scott Key—I prefer it to “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Having traveled and lived abroad for a few years, I hope I’ve developed a relatively mature appreciation of everything our country has to offer, both politically and culturally. And judging from recent world events, we have many reasons to feel proud of, and grateful for, our democratic tradition.

But to tell you the truth, July Fourth has never been one of my favorite holidays. It’s not the holiday itself—yesterday, in fact, I read the Declaration of Independence and listened to Ray Charles’ rendition of “America, the Beautiful.” No, it’s the pomp and circumstance with which we tend to celebrate our birthday. I’ve just never been one for marching bands, boisterous crowds and loud fireworks. My paternal grandfather, on the other hand, loved Independence Day. He delighted in the grand parade that each sultry July would work its way down Temple Avenue in Ocean Park, Maine. A former chaplain from World War II, he sometimes wept at the sight of the American flag, especially when a miniature version was being waved about by his exuberant grandson. Gramps was a lifelong Republican and member of the Kiwanis Club; he had served as a town councilman after his retirement. The summer before he died, he was invited by the town leaders to ride on the fire engine in the annual parade. I’ll never forget how happy he looked that day; his body may have been weakened by a heart attack, but his spirit soared.

I do respect how my grandfather chose to honor July Fourth. I am just less comfortable with very public displays of patriotism, especially if they inspire an unwavering belief that we are somehow the best, and the only, nation that God has blessed. For me, the challenge is to feel grateful and respectful, while maintaining humility and a sense of connection with something larger than our national identity. So during a weekend when we celebrate both our independence as a country and our individualism as Americans, I would also like to affirm our interdependence as human beings.

We each have our own journey in this life, but none of us is truly alone. You and I have each other—when we allow ourselves to be brave enough to give, and vulnerable enough to receive.

When I volunteered to be a lay preacher several months ago, I did so out of a sense of stewardship, excitement, and to be honest, with a degree of hubris. I felt sure of my ability to ascend the pulpit, stand here in front of all of you and fill the sanctuary with elegant, upbeat pronouncements of my faith. After all, I had survived a year of teaching antsy teenagers in confirmation class. How hard could it be to talk to a group of reasonable adults for a few minutes?

But then something happened. On May 28, I became one of the many people contributing to the current 9.5% U.S. unemployment rate. One day, I was the cool copywriter at a local ad agency; the next day, I was just another laid-off American. One day, a confident wage-earner for my family; the next day, just another middle-aged white-collar worker in need of a job.

Now of course, I was still in much better shape than many folks. But an impoverished spirit can cut across socioeconomic lines.

So when it came time to begin thinking about this sermon, instead of feeling the words flow right onto my computer screen, I suffered some of the worst writer’s block I can remember. Not quite as bad as my college days, when I had procrastinating down to an art form, but pretty darn close.

You see, it’s hard to feel God’s presence when you’ve been stripped of your familiar routine, are unsure of the next opportunity and anxious about financial responsibilities.

It’s hard to experience such a huge loss of control. It’s scary, shocking and disorienting. It’s a real ego killer, alright. Not since my divorce more than a decade ago did I feel so exposed and helpless. I told one friend I felt like I was in the midst of a career free fall.

Yet even as my pride was adjusting to the surreal nature of having nowhere to go each morning, I was moved by something more powerful than my own self-consciousness and fear: the compassion and empathy of so many people. Some of these folks—a few of them are here right now—know me quite well and others, not well at all. They inundated me with advice, offers of help and words of comfort. I am still overwhelmed by their generosity of spirit.

There I was, experiencing anew something I had taken great pains to explain to a few dubious kids in the confirmation class: the force and beauty of God’s love, as manifested in the actions of others.

Friends, the Holy Spirit is not just inside us, but around us. Indeed, God’s infinite, immeasurable love works through each of us—and between us. It’s a force so real and expansive, I believe it can flourish between Christian and Christian, Christian and Jew, Jew and Muslim, “believer” and “nonbeliever.” You and me. God’s power and love are felt in our relationships with each other.

So out of this crisis has come clarity. A renewed sense of what really matters, and how much we matter to each other. William Sloane Coffin writes: “Many of us overvalue autonomy, the strength to stand alone, the capacity to act independently. Far too few of us pay attention to the virtues of dependence and interdependence, and especially to the capacity to be vulnerable.”

Today’s New Testament reading is an excerpt from one of Paul’s letters to the church leaders in Corinth. It’s not the familiar passage about faith, hope and love that we all know from 1 Corinthians, but rather, a more abstruse passage from the apostle’s second letter. I had to read it several times to plumb its depths. It’s one of those scriptures that remind me just how much I don’t know, how much I still need to learn.

Let me try to summarize. Paul has been writing to the early Christian leaders, who have called him out for not demonstrating powers suitable for an apostle. Referring to himself in the third person, Paul uses the rhetoric of a “fool’s speech” to highlight just the opposite of what the Corinthians are stressing. His glimpse of paradise represents the most sublime of personal experiences; his mention of the persistent thorn in his flesh denotes the cruelest. Paul gives us a very dramatic description of the highs and lows of our human condition, reassuring us that through God’s grace we find strength.

Now it’s important to consider what boasting of weakness does not mean. By admitting our weakness, we are not abdicating our responsibility to keep trying and to do our best. In fact, it would be all too easy to wallow in our imperfect state, never trying to improve ourselves or change destructive patterns. The trick, I think, is to acknowledge our limitations without losing perspective and succumbing to despair. We can never let the status quo crush the potential for hope, and positive, healthy change. In fact, to do so would be to indulge in spiritual passivity or even laziness.

Remember what Paul is telling the Corinthians: “To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.” The language may be melodramatic, but his message is clear: his suffering is ultimately what saves him.

One Christian scholar puts it this way:

2 Corinthians fills much the same place in the New Testament as does the book of Job in the Old. It is a letter written by one whose heart has been broken by the many intolerable burdens heaped on him… If in Romans and Galatians we see the apostle [Paul] ‘proclaiming’ the cross with might and main, in 2 Corinthians we see him ‘bearing’ the cross, and bearing it triumphantly.

Have you noticed that this sanctuary has no American flag? I think that’s a good thing. The purest symbol for us, as Christians in worship, is the cross. There can be no other. God is not a Republican or a Democrat. God is not an American. God does not belong to usWe, as children of the world, belong to God. And it was through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, his son and our Lord and Savior, that God’s promise of love and salvation was fully revealed.

So there is the cross—the perfect symbol of strength in weakness, the ultimate symbol of God’s love. And in a few moments, we will share in the Lord’s Supper, another poignant reminder of God’s grace.

Are we attentive enough to recognize it? Mature enough to receive it? Humble enough to accept it? Strong enough to live it, each and every day?

I know I don’t always feel so strong. On more days than I care to admit, I falter—especially these days, when I don’t know where I’m going, let alone how I’ll get there. But I do know this: I am not alone. You are not alone. We are not alone.

We have each other, and we have the promise of grace. And even when we try to keep God at arm’s length or shut God out completely, God has us.

So during this time of fireworks and barbecues, celebration and reflection, fear and hope, I would like to reaffirm not just our dependence on each other, but also our ultimate dependence on God.

I am reminded of a childhood friend who died five years ago. Diagnosed with a rare form of cancer at 33, he ended up living several months past his doctor’s expectations. He spent much of that time enjoying his family and reconnecting with friends. In the last email message I got from him before he went to hospice, my friend wrote: “One great thing to come of all this. I’m drawing closer to God and realizing that, in the end, that’s all that really matters.”

In a time of uncertainty, it’s natural to feel lost, angry, sad, out of control, terrified. But even life’s most unsettling free fall can become a gift that brings us closer to God.

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness,” the apostle writes.

What better way to find our faith than to lay ourselves bare, embracing our humanity while allowing God’s grace to flow in and through us?

We will stumble and we will fall in this life. Often. And sometimes the drop will feel endless and almost unbearable. But not impossible. For when we find ourselves in a truly vulnerable position, I think the best way to fall—perhaps the only way—is up.

Based on the New Testament Reading: 2 Corinthians 12:2-10

Requiem for the Boob Tube

I grew up on a steady diet of sitcoms, westerns, and police dramas, with a dash of science fiction for good measure. After-school indulgences included half-hour reruns like Gilligan’s Island, The Munsters, The Rifleman, and The Brady BunchStar Trek came on each weekday at 5.

Mom would usually have dinner ready by the time Dad got home from work — just after 5:30 — so I often missed the last 20 minutes of the episode. It was indeed a rare treat to negotiate a deal with her and watch for the full hour, which meant sharing a tiny table tray in the living room with my brother while the rest of the family enjoyed dinner in the kitchen.

By junior high I was hooked on grown-up sitcoms like M*A*S*H and cop shows like Baretta and Starsky & Hutch. Sunday nights meant sitting on the couch with my parents to watch Kojak or Columbo. My crush on Hawkeye Pierce was just as strong as my admiration for the police lieutenant in the rumpled tan raincoat. To see Columbo suddenly drop his absent-minded-professor routine and ensnare the killer during the final moments of each episode was to understand the word shrewd.

The one constant in all of this TV consumption was the bliss of a shared viewing experience.

Whether sitting next to my siblings and wondering if Captain Kirk would make it back to the Enterprise unscathed, or clutching my dad’s arm during a high-speed, two-car police chase, I felt an intimate human connection. As fellow consumers, we witnessed each other’s spontaneous reactions to the stories being depicted on the TV screen. Sometimes our responses were the same. We might gasp in unison during a cliffhanger ending, or share a raucous laugh after a hilarious one-liner. We might even catch each other crying during an especially poignant program.

All in the Family was the show that really brought us all together. The entire family, including my grandparents and my aunt, would gather around the TV set to giggle over Archie’s malapropisms and cheer on Edith’s sweetness.

These days I do appreciate the convenience of online streaming and apps, and I can relate to the consumer urgency captured in a phrase like “on demand.” After stumbling upon a review of Kim’s Convenience a few months ago, I consumed half a season of the Canadian sitcom in a single weekend, thanks to Netflix. When Anthony Bourdain died, my grieving process included cradling my iPhone and binge-watching several seasons of Parts Unknown.

And yet I mourn the decline of the communal viewing experience. I miss the thought of family and friends huddled around a television to watch a beloved program — even one in grainy black-and-white. I miss the need to plan ahead for a show that comes on once a week at a certain time. There was a bit of magic in knowing that as I fluffed the pillow on the family couch to get ready for my favorite program, countless others across the country might be doing the same thing.

Flat-screen TVs, fancy smartphones, and streaming services are all nice. But when left to our own devices, what might we also be missing?

Originally published in Medium.


I am from strength and salt water
The craggy Maine coast and a cottage called Whispering Hope
The home of my American grandparents
I am from gathered-up seashells and chipped sand dollars
Bright plastic pails of sand and squeaky styrofoam surfboards
The warm smell of slippery suntan oil and the chilly embrace of deep-blue waves

I am from tradition and reverence
The gentle Tamagawa hills and a house on Naramachi
The home of my Japanese obaachan—and the ojiichan I never knew
I am from plentiful bowls of steaming white rice
Hot tea, warm sake, and cool water
The sweet-sour taste of half-moon gyoza dipped in vinegar and soy sauce
I am from unpretentious beauty
My Lake Erie city, a Rust Belt town
Grounded in gritty goodness
Lined with majestic buildings and sturdy homes
Rising once again
And alive with new hopes
I am from every place I have ever wandered off to
Paris, Rome, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Toronto, Chicago
All the airports and roads, street corners and cafes
from there back to here, and
in between

I am from a house filled with music
Chopin, Bach, Mahler, Baez, Cash, and the Beatles
With laughter from the television and around the kitchen table
The whirring of my mother’s sewing machine
Her hands guiding colorful fabric, another new dress for school
And the sound of my father’s voice, calmed by a shot of whiskey
Reading tenderly as we finally fell fast asleep 
Each night our bellies were full, our minds open
Ready to invite in more dreams
More plans for the coming day
I am grateful for having grown up
With all of this, some of that
In love.

I was inspired to write this after hearing the NPR segment, Where I’m From. The original poem, by George Ella Lyon, can be found here.