Are We Better Than This?

People waving to a train carrying 1500 persons expelled from Los Angeles to Mexico in 1931. (Photo: NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images)

Suddently everyone seemed to be saying it. Often in reference to the current presidency and its supporters. My congressman, Elijah Cummings, said it to Michael Cohen, formerly Donald Trump’s“fixer,” after testifying to the oversight committee that Cummings chairs:

As I sat here and listened to both sides, I felt as if we are better than this. We really are. As a country, we are so much better than this. I don’t know why this is happening for you, but I hope a small part of this is for our country to be better. If I hear you correctly, you are crying out for getting back to normal. Sounds to me like you want to make sure our democracy stays intact.

While Cummings was praised for his remarks, I wondered whether he, like me, recalled watching—both of us barely old enough to vote—John Dean’s televised testimony on the abuse of power by another president, Richard Nixon, who resigned in 1973 under the threat of impeachment. No doubt he had since he referred to Dean in calling for Cohen to appesr. Which meant that he knew as well as I did that there was at least one “watershed moment” in the relatively recent past when we were not much better than than we are today.

Something similar occurred when Senator Kamala Harris kicked off her presidential campaign in California. “America, we are better than this,” she said, citing a slew of current problems. She repeated it in a message aimed at immigrants after Trump threatened mass deportation raids. As an immigrant myself, I wondered whether she knew that we illegally deported 600,000 US citizens in the 1930s because they had Mexican ancestry or simply had Mexican-sounding names. Families were separated and far worse. “In Los Angeles,” Professor Francisco Balderrama states, “they had orderlies who gathered people [in the hospitals] and put them in stretchers on trucks and left them at the border.” Moreover, as an undergraduate who faced the impossible choice of a dangerous, illegal abortion—some five years before the Supreme Court ruled on Roe v Wade—and giving up her newborn for adoption—there was no respectable way to be what we now call a “single mother“—I wondered whether she had ever heard of the Jane Collective, which existed between 1969 and 1973 and taught ordinary women how to perform surgical abortions. An estimated 11,000, mostly for low-income women and women of color And, finally, as someone who lived in Boston during the violence of the school bussing crisis of the Seventies, I wondered whether she was too young to remember what that was like. Turns out, at least for this, she was not. And passionately said so to former Vice President Joe Biden during last week’s first televised Democratic debate.

While I respect Harris, there is also something to be said for a statement made by a less quslified debate participant, author Marianne Willioamson. “He [Trump] didn’t win by having a plan,” she claimed. “He just said, ‘Make America great again.’ ” I am convinced  that coming across as a policy wonk rather than an inspirational leader was a serious obstacle for the previous Democratic candidate, Hilary Clinton. And that this could trip up Senator Elizabeth—”I have a plan for that”—Warrenin the 2020 election. To the extent that congressional incumbents such as Cummings and presidential hopefuls such as Harris use “better than this” in an purely aspirational sense, they could have a winning way to connect with constituents. But it could also sound too much like Trump’s mantra, positing an idealized past that never existed. When I wrote “It wasn’t Always Like This” in response to the Parkland school shooting, I never meant that we were somehow better in the Fifties, simply that the civilian-use semi-automatic AR-15 was not yet for sale. At some point, even inspirational leaders need to produce plans. Addressing those times when we, as a nation, were not one bit better seems like a good place to start.

 

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My Many Names

Ibsen’s  controversial character “Nora,” first seen in the 1879 production of A Doll’s House, remains relevant today.  (Photo: Old Globe Theater)

There was a time when I had two birthdays, one in the winter and another in the summer. The winter one was a Latvian nameday, but that didn’t matter to me since it was celebrated the same way, with presents and a cake. The American kids that I met had never heard of such a thing. Nor had they heard of my name. Originally “Ilze,” it had been changed to “Ilse” by the time that my parents and I became naturalized citizens of the United States. I sort of liked it since it was a variant of “Elizabete,” which was my maternal grandmother’s name. And Oma more or less raised me since my mother worked a lot. What I didn’t like was that my mother was called “Elza,” which she changed to “Elsa.” Americans pronounced my name like her’s and assumed that we had the same name. What I liked even less was having my name pronounced “Elsie.” That belonged to the Borden Dairy Company’s mascot, and my classmates got a kick out of calling me “Elsie the Borden Cow.” Even though I wasn’t the least bit bovine.

Fortunately, my mortifying moniker was dropped well before I took my seat at the cool kids’ table. Still I never lost the feeling that meeting people for the first time involves unpleasantness. Particularly when my name is read, not heard. It doesn’t help that the first two letters–“Il”–look similar. So I try to cut those calling me “Ise” or “Lse” some slack. I even avoid correcting those who haven’t a clue how to pronounce a short “e” at the end of a word. After all, they consistently screw up “Porsche.” But I draw the line at people with no sign of a reading disorder turning dyslexic at the sight of my name. Surely they can see that I don’t resemble a tract of land surrounded by water, which is what “Isle” means. So when those types then ask how my name should be pronounced, I say, “Pretty much how it’s spelled.” And to those who then exclaim, “What an unusual name!” I respond, “Not really.” At last count, “Ilze” was the only given name of some 12,226 females in little Latvia alone. And there are the countless others called “Ilse” in the rest of Europe and beyond. As well as several rivers, an asteroid and a plant. But no islands, as far as I can tell.

Choosing a research career made me more apprehensive. Somehow, I kept coming across data that showed that strange names put people at a disadvantage. As far back as 1948, a Harvard study found that men with unusual names were likely to flunk out or display signs of neurosis. Subsequent studies showed that names could affect nearly every aspect of life. While some conclusions had to be withdrawn due to methodological flaws, findings on name-signalling—what names say about ethnicity, religion, social sphere and socioeconomic status—remained robust. Even when siblings with different names but of the same background were used. Moreover, changing names was found to have beneficial effects. Stockholm University economists, for instance, found that re-named immigrants made an average of 26 per cent more in wages than those who kept their original names. I wondered why I’d only assumed my husband’s Scottish surname when we married and retained it when we divorced when I could’ve easily changed my given name on either occasion.

What stopped me, I suppose, was how my family might react. But even after my grandmother and father died and my mother came to live with me in Maryland and told me that she, too, had never liked her name, I did nothing. Even after I’d started writing and, at least, could have picked a pen name. The basic reason was that no other name felt right. I knew that since I’d systematically considered every imaginable possibility. I had lots of time during my daily commute to and from Washington, DC, where I worked as a NASA and Defense Department consultant. It was 80-some miles and included three of the worst bottlenecks in the nation, I went from “A” to “Z” for several days, dismissing most. “Anna” wouldn’t work since it was reserved for my nascent novel, Anna Noon”“Zelda” was as weird as “Ilze” and too closely associated with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s schizophrenic wife. In the end, only one name remained: “Claire,” a Latin word meaning “clear” in the French feminine form. It described how I saw myself at the time, which was open and transparent. And brought me back to the Sixties, when I devoured New Wave films such as Claire’s Knee.

While I never did anything with “Claire,” the process reminded me how much effort it takes to name a child. And how little was expended on me. I don’t know what I expected since neither my conception nor my parents’ marriage was planned. And my father, at least, assumed that I’d be a boy based on the size of Mom’s baby bump. He’d even started to call me Maks,” meaning “Max,” Which had a rakish ring I liked when learning about it later. But after seeing me ex utero, my father knew that he had to find a female name for the registry. And fast. Fortunately, a friend—a fraternity brother and drinking buddy, no doubt—had recently named his newborn. So, why not call me “Ilze,” as well? I know that we were in the middle of World War II. That the Soviet Army was advancing. That Valmiera, the city where my parents were sent to work and where, by chance, I was born, was about to be burned to the ground. Still, it might’ve been nice if someone had done more than merely name me after some random baby.

It took 60-some years for me to learn that someone had given my name some thought. Shortly after her 90th birthday, my mother casually mentioned that she never intended to name me “Ilze.” That, even in the womb, she’d called me “Nora.” After the iconoclastic character in Henrik Ibsen’s protofeminist play A Doll’s House. Only she’d never said a word to my father. At first, I was furious. Then, I allowed that she, like others living amid political turmoil, had made a habit of keeping her cards close to her chest. Still, I couldn’t help feeling unduly cheated. Having a familiar, pronounceable name like “Nora” would have made life in the States much easier. More than that, it would’ve made me more secure in my identify, even my place in the world. Instead of feeling that I was a disappointment to my family because I struggled against societal constraints every step of the way, I could’ve felt that this was what I was meant to do. I might have even seen my mother’s disinterest in teaching me what I needed to know to be a wife and mother as something more than mere neglect. Of course, I kept these thoughts to myself. Instead, I imagined how my mother might’ve shared her hopes and dreams with me as a one-month-old infant in my first short story, “Making Soup.”

It took a contentious presidential campaign to convince me that I never needed some name change to empower me. In writing my essay “No Big Deal” about Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, I referenced some remarkable women on both sides of my family whose accomplishments dated as far back as the Nineteenth Century. And my native land, which installed the first female president back in 1999. As to the careless way that I was given my name, a big brown beard celebrating both her birthday and her nameday in January took care of that. She just happened to live in a nature preserve in Līgatne, Latvia, which is less than 12 miles from Cēsis, where my father grew up on the family farm. And my father—in fact, most family members that I knew—used the diminutive “Ilzīte” unless I did something to deserve the severe-sounding “Ilze.” And “Ilzīte” just happened to be the bear’s name, and it so perfectly conveyed how lovable bears could be that I almost cried. Then cried for real when I remembered that all of my immediate family members were gone, and no one had called me “Ilzīte” since my cousin in England died five years ago. 

Celebrating a birthday, then a nameday. (Source: Līgatne Nature Trails)

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Season’s Greetings

A crèche in Michigan, where I lived as a child. (Source: Medusa’s Kitchen

My father was born on 17 December 1907 at his family’s farm in Veselava, which is in the Cēsis district of Latvia. There, no doubt, was a stable and the requisite assortment of domesticated animals, but he, unlike Jesus, whose birthday supposedly occurs a week later, came into the world in a well-appointed house, complete with servants. Which is just as well since it’s freezing cold—not to mention snowy—at that time of year and my father might not have made it. So, as an immigrant growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where the weather is similar, I cringed each time that I saw a nativity scene with a nearly naked babe asleep on a bed of straw. My father, who’d studied theology at the University of Latvia in Rīga, cautioned me not to take things in the New Testament too literally since it had been written nearly 20 centuries ago. Still, I felt far better once, decades later, I later learned that even scholars who limit themselves to what’s found in the Bible doubt that the blessed event occurred anytime close to Christmas. Particularly since I learned that neonatal hypothermia can set in anywhere below 77.0 to 82.4° F. As in Bethlehem, where December averages range between 57 and 47.

Separating “Christ” from “Christmas” came easily to me. After all, the Latvian word for “Christmas” is simply “Ziemassvētki,” which merely means “winter celebrations.” As such, it is as much about the winter solstice, the day with the longest night, as it is about a miraculous birth, which was a relatively late add-on. As my mother, a city girl, told me and I later fictionalized in my novel Anna Noon:

Christmas Eve in Rīga started in Dom Square. First with a Lutheran service at the Dom Cathedral, then with a stroll home in softly falling snow, amid carolers lifting their voices in equal measure to Christian and pagan songs and merrymakers cavorting as gypsies, storks and dancing bears. In my fifth-floor flat on Elizabeth Street the tree was bright with white wax candles, not the garish incandescent bulbs used here. My presents opened by starlight, not the glare of the morning sun as is done here.

Moreover, the separation was seen from the start. While solstice celebrations go back at least to neolithic times—10,200 to 8800 BC—the first recorded Christmas celebration occurred in Rome in 336 AD. In fact, some say that Saturnalia, which initially coincided with my father’s birthday and honored Saturn, the Roman god whose reign was seen as a time of peace and prosperity, served as a model for the first Christmas. There are certainly similarities. Saturbalia was celebrated by “a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, continual partying and a carnival atmosphere that overturned social norms: gambling was permitted, and masters provided table service for their slaves.” It, like most winter solstice celebrations, was a festival of lights, with candles symbolizing the quest for knowledge and truth. No wonder the poet Catullus called it “the best of days.” Nevertheless, Christmas turned out to be an off-and-on affair. The Puritans, for instance, banned it in the 17th century, citing drunk and disorderly conduct. Revived in the 19th century with the Oxford Movement in the Anglican Church, it remained disreputable. The family oriented occasion that we have come to know, according to some, is mainly the invention of Charles Dickens and other writers.

But both winter solstice celebrations and Christmas are not only about “the best of days” but also about the worst of days, and therein lies their true meaning. As sung in “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “The hopes and fears of all the years / Are met in thee tonight.” The reason that December celebrations tend to be glutenous and raucous is that the period from January to April was once known as “the famine months.” Animals were slaughtered so they wouldn’t have to be fed, therefore a plentiful supply of fresh meat was available. Moreover, wine and beer had been fermenting since the harvest and were ready for drinking. For those with meager resources, however, the struggle for survival could be brutal. The middle-aged black man who I saw daily after moving to Boston in the Seventies who had set up a tent made of rags in a space on the street by a curb cleared of snow to provide access to a fire hydrant. And the other 554,000 people reported to be homeless in the United States alone on a given night. The mothers and fathers with one-month old infants, the same age that I was when we were forced to flee our native land. And the other 68.5 million people worldwide today who, according to the latest report, have been forcibly displaced in the worst refugee crisis since the one we experienced after World War II. All cold and hungry and far from home. Like my family and I were once. And—if only symbolically—like Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus.

‘Tis the season for all those sorts of things.

Note: Each year around this time I give a gift of winter supplies for refugees through the International Rescue Committee, a global humanitarian aid, relief and development organization founded in 1933 at the request of Albert Einstein. Would be wonderful if you could do so, as well.

 

A family friendly winter solstice celebration hosted by The Ethnographic Open-Air Museum of Latvia, located just outside of the capital city Rīga.

Jingle Bells,” played in 2017 by some children living at the Aida Palestinian refugee camp near Bethlehem and Beit Jala in the central West Bank.

Welcome to America

Five-year-old me photographed for emigration to the United States.

As indignities go, it ranked relatively low. After all, I had been subjected to senseless fumigation. An insult to any girl whose grandmother has taught her to wash her hands after everything and to always carry a clean handkerchief. But, somehow, making me look like a monkey in my first official photograph crossed the line. Some self-important functionary had said that my ears, which stuck out, had to be clearly visible or I would not be allowed to emigrate to the United States. So my mother braided my hair and attached it to the top of my head, and I let everyone know exactly how I felt about that. Or so I was told, at least. I have no actual memory of anything from my first five years, when I was a little displaced person from war-torn Latvia.

Similarly, I have no memory of the turbulent transatlantic crossing in a converted troop carrier, the General S. D. Sturgis, in the middle of a mid-October hurricane, where almost everyone but my father and a cook was too seasick to eat. Or of refusing to be labeled like luggage at Ellis Island, where I not only tore off my tag and drew a picture of a girl on the back but also snatched those identifying other refugee kids. Or of the 730-mile train ride to Michigan. Or of my mother bursting into tears once she disembarked in the Lowell station and saw the bleak surroundings. Or of the meager meal of canned tomato soup and Saltine crackers that our sponsors, a Lutheran minister and his wife, served us before putting my mother to work. Meaning that she was to hand-wash the dirty laundry accumulated since their washing machine had broken down, except that my mother—a clever lady shaking from exhaustion—diagnosed the problem as a short and fixed it with wire strippers and electrical tape and then only had to repeatedly load and unload the machine and carry everything out to the yard to dry. Or of the cramped, unheated space above the garage that they deemed suitable quarters for four people, including an old woman and a small child, during a chilly fall and the following freezing winter. Or of my urbane father being tasked to single-handedly turn their fallow fields into a functioning horse farm. Or of him walking 26 miles in deep snow to Grand Rapids, the closest large town, to secure a factory job. Or of us moving to a nice flat on Ethel Street.

The first thing that I do remember is staring at a large Coca-Cola clock on the cloakroom wall at Sigsbee Elementary School, where I sat for what seemed like an eternity, terrified that no one would come to take me home from kindergarten. Before you conclude that this was the same sort of separation anxiety seen in American kids starting school, let me remind you that Europe had been decimated by World War II and dealing with the devastating aftermath. As a result, my father and mother and maternal grandmother had been the only source of stability that I had ever known. The thought that I had been left to fend for myself was unbearable. Which is why I am appalled when Americans refer to the “zero-tolerance” policy of separating children from parents who cross the Mexican border to seek asylumtheir right under both US and international law—as sending them to “essentially summer camps” or “basically boarding schools.”

As you might expect from the way that my family and I were welcomed to the United States, I was not nearly as shocked as many of my progressive American friends were by the way that a recently empowered segment of our society views foreigners who have been forced to flee their native land. That was always there, if not always so openly expressed. But back then, at least, no one kept me from my family. Despite my worst fears, someone eventually took me back to Ethel Street. Still, the memory of sitting alone in that cloakroom with that ticking clock stays with me to this day. I wonder what traumatic memories and subconscious changes will stay with the 2500 some kids recently separated and sent to shelters in at least 16 states. Some are only a few months old. Hundreds have been apart from their parents for several weeks. And there is no good system for reuniting them, so who knows how many will ever see Mom or Dad.

 

A border patrol agent takes a youngster into custody in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, where at least three facilities are holding “tender age” migrants. (Photo: John Moore / Getty Images)

 

Children are held in a US Customs and Border Protection detention facility at Rio Grande Valley Centralized Processing Center in Texas. (Source: US Customs and Border Protection/Reuters)

 

ILSE MUNRO

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