A Perfect Union: Hang Together—or Separately?

IMG_5233“It is a common observation here that our cause is the cause of all mankind, and that we are fighting for their liberty in defending our own.” —Benjamin Franklin, 1777

It was indeed a high ideal, worthy of striving for: a country where all men were considered created equal. But, as many point out, even those who dreamed it up didn’t really understand what it entailed.

Yet still, America won her independence from Great Britain and set off on her quest. To welcome the immigrants, whether they be poor or wealthy, hungry or replete. To truly endeavor to deliver liberty and justice for all.

There was a learning curve, of course. There had to be for a nation that enslaved people of color, that treated women as property, that ignored or even condemned those with a different nature (read “with a different sexual preference”). Our nation was nearly a century old when we fought each other over the right to own humans of a different color. And women were not given the right to vote for another fifty to sixty years. A steep learning curve we still climb.

And still we strive. Our Constitution guides us. We want to answer its charge and form a perfect Union of our states. But as the number of states has grown, as more and more immigrants have made their homes here, we have faced a growing quandary. Who is right and who is wrong when so many want such different things? How can we expect a farmer of Hispanic descent to want the same things as a lawyer of white European descent or a businessman whose grandparents moved here from the Middle East?

The very nature of our union of states makes our unified mission ever more difficult. What is easy for the cosmopolitan to accept goes against the very grain of the rural. Add in religious beliefs and splits deepen to crevasses.

And still, until recently, I thought we might someday achieve our perfect union. Until the day our president issued a disturbing statement that women of color who had been duly elected to represent their constituents should “go back to where they came from.”

In that moment, we went from George Washington chopping down a cherry tree to Donald Trump taking an axe to the founding principles of our country. It’s a deep crevasse to fall into, and now we stand divided on either side, teetering on the decision of whether to follow him in or not.

Meanwhile, the enemies of the long-lasting American experiment watch for the opportunity to push us all in. A divided America is much easier to defeat than a “perfect Union”. I like to think that Benjamin Franklin foresaw these circumstances from the beginning. Certainly, when he looked at his fellow signers and co-conspirators and said, “We must all hang together or assuredly we shall all hang separately,” he voiced the fear they all felt. But those words may apply now, too. If our nation proves divisible after all, we will all be left hanging—by our fingertips on the edge of a chasm.

Mo Willems might be my hero.

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A children’s book can give you a glimpse into your deepest soul. Photo by Michelle Garren Flye.

I remember the first time my son brought home Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems from the school library. I loved reading to my kids, but I really never connected with Pigeon. Why he was so popular with my kids, I never really knew. I loved the Frances books, anything by Rosemary Wells, and when they started bringing home little beginning readers like Henry and Mudge, I was in seventh heaven!

But the Pigeon? Every time one of my kids brought one of those home, I just rolled my eyes.

Turns out I missed the point. Pigeon is much deeper and much more shallow at the same time. He’s a philosopher and a spoiled child wrapped into one, which is kind of how I see myself. Maybe I just didn’t like seeing myself on the pages of a children’s book?

How do I know all this about Pigeon? I read an interview with his creator. Check it out here: Mo Willems Interview. (My thanks to my friend Liz for referring me to this article!)

Mo Willems’s admittedly incredible ability to look into my soul and pull a pigeon out of it notwithstanding, he says some very insightful things about the nature of art and creativity and writing. “Books are sculptures” is indeed one of them. What took me most by surprise, though, was the revelation that he’s not just writing to inspire kids. He’s writing to inspire the parents to do and say and live the way they want their kids to do and say and live.

Consider this: “[W}e constantly hear, ‘Our children are the future,’ but we seldom say, ‘Hey we’re the present and it’s incumbent on us to be present.’ So there’s this silliness, but there’s also a, ‘You can do it, too.'”

Thank you, Mo Willems!

I’m 49 years old. I’ve just published my first children’s book (Jessica Entirely by Shelley Gee). I also privately published my first collection of poetry Times and Ties. I’m taking singing lessons and auditioning for plays. I’m inspired by my kids, and my only regret right now is that I’ve never done any of these things before. I didn’t model my life by living my dreams. If anything, they’ve modeled for me by bringing home books for me to read that I wouldn’t normally have read, and introducing me to movies and television and a slew of pets I never would have chosen to bring into my life.

So I’ll presume to add a little to Mr. Willems’s statements. Be inspiring to your children, but don’t be afraid to be inspired by them, too. A family circle is beneficial to all.

Something I wrote:

Jessica smiled in spite of her worries about her friends. They all had friends in town and friends who evacuated and friends who might have lost their homes in the storm. But she had her family right there with her and the idea of helping made her feel much better about things in general. She took a deep breath and followed her family to the kitchen, happier than she ever had been at the prospect of spending an hour or two with them at the table.

Happy 4th: Losing focus and the American flag

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It’s a quandary for me right now. I love the American flag. I want to feel proud of my country and celebrate what is wonderful about it. But everything is out of focus. I can’t fix on any one thing that makes us special. We’ve drifted so far from what our founding fathers wanted us to be, but I think it’s all a result of a series of mistakes.

Maybe the first mistake was in ever thinking that the wounds a civil war inflicts upon a nation can ever be fixed. Or maybe it was in believing that such a huge expanse of such varied terrain—which, by nature, requires differences in the people who seek to live there—could ever be united in one cause. But I believe the mistake came when white men first set foot on this land, which already belonged to someone else.

You can’t own what’s not for sale. You can steal it, but you’ll never really be the owner.

Think about that the next time you’re feeling particularly possessive of all your survey, whether it’s the view from a penthouse, the beachfront, or just your neatly mown front lawn. It’s all stolen. Or maybe just borrowed.

It’s easy to lose focus. It’s easy to forget and whitewash and remember only what we wish. The big picture is made up of many small pictures, after all. But every so often, it’s useful to study those small pictures and remember, divided as we might all be, we are all, at best, borrowers—at worst, thieves.

And when we pledge allegiance to our flag, we’re promising to continue the tradition.

Poem: Teetering

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There’s no guardrail here.

A few days ago, I visited the Grand Canyon. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to go, even if it was on my bucket list. The Grand Canyon is a bit of a challenge for someone with even a mild fear of heights, and I definitely have at least that. But I found once I got there that the paths were wide and I could walk on the side away from the canyon and enjoy the view.

My kids were another story entirely. It seemed they were intent on walking as close to the edge as I would allow. I was constantly calling or motioning them back from what seemed like a precipitous edge down which they were sure to fall. My oldest finally looked at me with exasperation and said, “You bring me to a big hole in the ground and tell me to stay away from the big hole in the ground!”

I laughed, but it’s true. I told him to stay away from the hole in the ground because I want to protect him. I don’t want him to fall.

Of course, while we were looking at the big hole in the ground, the United States teetered on the brink of far worse. We put our toes over the very edge of a very dark, deep hole waiting to drown us in war (and don’t fool yourself that it won’t be nuclear). We’re still balancing on the edge of that black pit, but it’s full of our sins just waiting to pull us in. Sins like helpless children held prisoner without decent beds or meals. Environmental regulations rolled back every day in favor of money. A clueless leader who has lost the respect of every nation on earth except those hoping to profit from his ignorance. And our blind eyes turned to all of it.

Remember the feeling of standing on the edge of a pool waiting to plunge in but not quite ready for the cold water to envelop your steaming skin? Remember the feel of the rough concrete beneath your feet as you leaned forward just a little more, spreading your arms for balance so you didn’t fall too soon but you might fall any minute?

Remember the moment your toes finally lost their grip and you plunged in before you were ready and the hopelessness of knowing the icy water would shock your skin and pull you down?

We’re teetering on the edge of something far worse now.

 

Teetering

By Michelle Garren Flye

 

Toe slides…

Over the edge…

Arms spread…

Balanced,

But mindful.

 

Lean a little more—how far can we go?

How far before…

The balance

Slips?

And we

Fall?

 

Wobbling,

Swaying,

Sliding,

It may be

Fate,

But—

 

Who will see the plunge and watch us flatten the world?

Can anyone stop it?

Please?

THAT Text—will you get it next?

Yesterday I got that text. The one parents all over the United States have been getting. It’s never expected or wanted. It’s not welcome at all. But as of now we’ve done absolutely nothing to stop it.

At 5:51 p.m. my son texted me, “Crap there’s a shooter on campus.”

For the next several hours we texted and called back and forth. I’m lucky. My son was safe in his dorm. His friends were scattered across campus, one in the library that was fired on, another in the student union. Others hunkered down in classrooms and halls. Slowly word got out that the shooter was caught. Buildings were cleared and students were allowed to leave.

At 11:28 p.m. I texted my son again to make sure all was well and he said it was. His roommates were back, having been released from where they’d sheltered. He was going to bed, hungry because the dining hall was closed and he had no food in his room. Hungry but alive and safe. I got to tell him I love him again.

That text is coming for every parent out there. Until our Congress implements sensible gun control measures, we are all in danger of getting it. Until the NRA’s power over us is cast off, every parent sends their kid off to school knowing that it might be their child sending them that text next.

The shooting at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte barely caused a blip on the radar of most politicians and news organizations. By the numbers, the shooting wasn’t that bad, right? Only two people died. Only four people were injured. Only two families had to be notified that their students wouldn’t come home. Only four had to wait in anguish for word that their loved ones were out of surgery.

Can we really judge it by the numbers, though? Because the only number that matters, really, is one. One more school shooting. One more time that lives were ended when common sense gun control could have stopped it. One more time kids texted their parents.

So, if you’re happy with waiting for that text from your kid, go ahead, sit back, relax. This was just one shooting. But it only took one shooting to end the lives of two college students yesterday.

You’ll get that text eventually unless we stop this now.

Facebook storytelling: I’m fine, and you?

I’ve been seeing posts on Facebook about how nobody believes your Facebook posts about your perfect family, so why don’t you just tell the truth?

LOL.

Truth is not really what Facebook is for. It never has been. Facebook started out being a sort of public bragbook for friends you never see. Remember those things? I made them after all my kids’ births to carry around in my purse and show to my friends—see how cute my kids are? Of course, that was before the camera phone. Now I can whip out my phone and show you my last vacation, my new puppy, my car, my son’s graduation, a video of my daughter singing, my other son’s last basketball game—you get the picture.

My point is, Facebook is the equivalent of saying “just fine and you” when someone asks how you are. I mean, if I answered that question honestly every day, I’d get some pretty peculiar looks. A couple of times I’ve gotten some glimpses into acquaintances real lives on Facebook. Every single time, someone closer than me to that person starts begging them to stop putting family stuff on Facebook.

In our hearts, we know everyone we know doesn’t have a perfect life and family. Marriages are in trouble, kids have problems, people make mistakes they can’t take back. Friends and family pass away, we fail each other, we fail ourselves, we neglect the world around us. Life sucks sometimes and all we can do is survive.

I’m fine. How are you?

Hallelujahs and the creative process (with a poem)

By this point everyone probably thinks they know Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah”. It’s been in movies and television. Even Kate McKinnon had a go at it on Saturday Night Live. So even if, like many, you’re confused about the meaning of the song, you probably think you have heard it from beginning to end.

Possibly think again.

For my own reasons I’ve been doing some research on this song. It was supposed to be a simple Google search, but I found a rabbit hole and plunged right in. I found that there are more than 300 recorded versions. Not surprising considering Cohen wrote more than 80 draft verses for the song. Maybe that’s why he also recorded two versions himself.

According to legend, he spent one writing session in a motel room writing verse after verse while sitting on the floor in his underwear.

That’s quite a creative process.

In spite of all he went through to create his masterpiece, Cohen never expressed disappointment that other versions came to exist when others recorded his song. (Recording artists have rearranged verses, changed words and omitted lines.) In fact, he said himself that he believed that many hallelujahs exist. To me, this explains why he let the act of creating this work of art to consume him so. And I think he’s right. If we let ourselves, we find our own hallelujah.

By the way, I listened to many, many versions of this song while I wrote this. My favorite? Cohen’s live performance in London in 2009.

Many Hallelujahs (for LC)

By Michelle Garren Flye

A mother approaches a borderline.

Safety awaits her on the other side.

Baby in her arms, clutched against her breast—

She crosses the line and whispers, “Hallelujah.”

A black man sits alone in his car.

Flashing blue lights his rear view mirror.

He knows his fate is not his own,

So when he is told to go, he says, “Hallelujah.”

A woman awaits her weekly call

From desert sands so far away.

This world has so many dangers for her heart—

The phone rings and she cries, “Hallelujah.”

The activist lays it on the line every day,

To make a difference, he argues and persuades.

He won’t stop until he’s made it right.

Then someone listens at last and he shouts, “Hallelujah!”

The writer ponders the meaning of one word

And writes and writes, thinks it will never be his.

He bangs his head—and then it’s in his grasp.

His tired hand shakes as he declares, “Hallelujah.”