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Be Not Afraid

The merchants of fear are busy on social media in the wake of the Paris tragedy. ISIL has cast suspicion on every innocent refugee trying to flee its cruel regime. People are assuming that every one of them is a potential agent of terror. I feel sickened and saddened  – not only by the carnage in the City of Light, but also by the vicious campaign being waged against innocent people in a humanitarian crisis of unimaginable impact. Are there any quick solutions to this situation? No. It is a logistical minefield. However, the response to catastrophe should not include intolerance toward those caught up in it. Anti-refugee bigotry is being promoted all over social media. It touches people I know; it strikes locally and it strikes internationally.

We have opened the gates of our hearts – to let out compassion; to let in hate. And thus the terrorists win. Hatred is their currency. It is cheap to mint and readily-accepted by far too many of us. But the faces stamped on these coins are quite often our own.

A number of these refugees – Syrians, at any rate – are professionals in various fields. Contrary to popular belief, there IS an education system in Syria. These folks read, write, study, have hopes of a better life. They’re not warriors of any sort. They lack access to arms – unlike the forces to whom certain more powerful nations are quite willing to sell weapons. Since 2011, as of this past September, American munitions makers have sold $7.7 BILLION dollars’ worth of arms to Syrian forces! Sadly, the US has accepted only 1434 refugees from that country. Canada has provided $718 million worth of weaponry. We’ve accepted 2300 refugees. So-called “military aid” doesn’t always fall into the hands of freedom fighters. And a considerable stockpile of US-made weapons constitutes a legacy of the Iraq war. “Many of these same countries fueling the slaughter have also been some of the least willing to grant amnesty to Syria’s refugees.” (US Uncut, Sept. 4, 2015)

I read a poignant interview a couple days ago by a pharmacist who wanted to come to Canada. He’s not unusual. He just wants to be safe, with his family, and work toward a decent future. The majority of Syrian refugees are women and children of both genders, despite what some would have us believe. 50% are under the age of 17! Not even old enough to graduate from our Canadian high schools. 24% are women aged 18-39, and 22% are men in that age range. So to those who try to spread the disinformation that most refugees are males of “fighting age” – you are WRONG. Refer to the UN Refugee Agency. Updated statistics are always available. Here’s the link to their figures. Don’t take my word for this; check for yourselves. http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/regional.php

These refugees, contrary to popular misconception, are mainly families – and they’re powerless to stand against the kind of weaponry that ISIL has at its disposal (often provided by Western countries, as noted above). They cannot simply rise up and fight back. They would be slaughtered – creating a nation of widows and orphans, worse than it is now. There’s bravery and there’s futility. Big difference. Yet I keep reading posts that the men ought to “go back home and fight.” With WHAT? Sticks? They’d be facing assault rifles and explosives and whatever else ISIL has managed to acquire. Purchased, captured or stolen, these weapons can easily fall into merciless hands.

“Ah,” you might say, “But ISIL has infiltrated the refugee camps and planted their agents among these people.” Probably true – as far as it goes. However, those agents would most likely constitute a small percentage. One Syrian passport found near a suicide bomber’s corpse does not equal four million terrorists. Two, or five, or a dozen passports still don’t signify that most refugees mean to do harm. But people bent on inflicting devastation are very good at disguising their intentions. They learn to blend in. Otherwise, it would be too easy to spot their presence. They surround themselves with innocents, knowing full well that when they do act, those innocents will be instantly burdened with their wrongdoings. Suspicion is terror’s constant – and in some ways, far more insidious – companion.

I did some fact-checking and discovered that right here in Canada, 10% of us have criminal records. While some of those crimes may have been minor, I’d guess that maybe 3 out of 10 – at least – were not. Canada is the home of Clifford Olsen, Robert Pickton, Paul Bernardo, Marc Lepine, Alan Legere and a whole collection of other brutes. We’ve spawned the FLQ. We failed to prevent Babbar Khalsa from planting a bomb on Air India Flight 182 out of Toronto/Montreal and killing 329 people – 268 of whom were Canadian citizens.

Our collective Canadian hands are NOT clean! If we believe otherwise, we are lying to ourselves. And for every hateful word or deed, for every hopeful human being denied a chance to realize that hope, the stains spread and darken. We cannot distance ourselves from the bleeding. We cannot close our borders and turn away the victims of brutality and repression. This isn’t who we are as Canadians … is it?

We – together with the US and Cuba – denied SS St Louis entry to a safe port in 1939. We sent hundreds of Jewish passengers back to Europe, where many of them died in Auschwitz and Sobibor. Surely we’ve grown more civilized since that terrible time? Surely we have …

Reading Facebook this weekend, I’m no longer convinced of our Canadian cohesion in the face of fear. But I can’t generalize. That would be unfair. I’d be guilty of the same narrow-mindedness as those who try to generalize about Syrian refugees. I think most of us are still kind, altruistic, reasonable, humane. I just wish those of us who lack these qualities weren’t quite so loud about it. But in the end, we must inevitably reveal our true character, for good or ill. May the good assume the upper hand. And may we not be afraid, because this is what terror networks aim to do – make us afraid. And then will come other emotions. Fear makes us turn on each other. It fractures our unified stance against a common enemy. No wonder ISIL is pressuring us to do this. “Divide and conquer” is an approach as old as humanity.

But division can never bring peace. That has to start from within. We can’t let go of each other. We can’t break our own civil society into fragments. There will always be someone waiting to take advantage, poised and ready to hide in the spaces between. We must not allow this. Not ever.

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Noel? No … Hell!

The holiday season is well underway now – concerts, gatherings, staff parties at many establishments. Excited children, dancing lights, Santa at the local mall. Stores with groaning shelves, carolers in red velvet, cheerful music wafting through all available airspace. Trees glowing in corners; menorahs gleaming on tables or in windows.

Indeed, a festive and celebratory month.

Except when it’s not. Some folks view this time of year with dread and even despair. They may be battling illness, whether or not it is obvious to the casual observer. They may be reeling from the impact of a recent loss within their circle of loved ones. They may be financially pushed to that cold stone wall which offers no doorway out. They might be struggling to sustain a relationship, or mourning a breakup they may not have wanted. Every balm for their wounds will turn to salt, and the salt to tears.

They could be estranged from family members, unemployed and unable to find work, recently-moved into an unfamiliar place. There might not even be a home they can claim, other than a doorstep, a bench, a temporary shelter. This is the season when the homeless feel the cold. This is the season when fires – meant for heating houses – end up destroying those houses instead. And this is the season when children go without the gifts their classmates enjoy, because these gifts cannot be provided.

And so the people who stand outside endless, glittering windows must confront the joyous displays, the songs, the endless “Ho Ho Ho” messages, with a certain bitterness at the brutality of fate. These are people within whom no candles are lighted. Broken people, burdened people – voiceless, isolated. People with little hope of relief and little expectation of the simple kindnesses many of us take for granted. Afraid to ask anyone for support; reluctant to seek help for themselves, although they may do it for their children. Too proud to come forward and search for a loving face in the crowd. Terrified of being judged, and knowing full well that, indeed, judgment is being passed upon them.

No shared Facebook meme will make a difference to those who most need comfort. No “post on your wall for an hour” will help them. No “I say Merry Christmas” preaching will breach their sadness. Many won’t even have computer access. Others will be craving a personal communication that never comes. Some might even retreat from the internet – or at least from social media – until this whole glitzy, glorious, glaring time is over and the bells have rung its death. Then they’ll return, quietly and without explanation. For them, the Christmas weeks are their signal to disappear.

Joy to the World … but the world can shrink to a bubble for some. It can blow away, carrying with it all the rainbow swirls that shine so brightly. Then the night becomes silent, indeed.

Do Unto Others (or not …)

It is puzzling to watch how, in various social media (and in a wider sense as well), some Christians reach out to other Christians and interact with them as a closed circle, yet fail to extend their friendship quite so generously with those who might either be struggling with their faith, or simply not Christian at all. I suppose it’s natural to do this. Like seeks like. But when it becomes self-focused, then it also becomes less than inclusive. At least, that has been my personal observation just lately.

I wonder if this is what Jesus would have intended. The Christian Church is shrinking in membership. Is this sense of exclusivity a part of the reason? A retreat behind the barricades of faith, so to speak? A feeling that “our church” is better than “your church” because WE do it right and YOU don’t? I have heard this sentiment explicitly expressed from the pulpit. It disturbed me so much (coupled with the anti-scientific mindset I encountered) that I stopped attending services anywhere. My gardens are my sacred places these days. God – genderless and remote but still present – glimmers above my head and dances in the leaf shadows. I suspect I have become something of an animist. I detect that holy but unfathomable presence in almost everything, from the stones and water to the air and light. It doesn’t wear the skin of either a man or a woman. My fundamental Christian acquaintances will no doubt be concerned for my soul and consider me damned for eternity. I have done many things worthy of damnation, after all. But is this one of them?

I’ve belonged to a “traditional” church but now live at some distance from it and am no longer a participant – although I hasten to note that these are fine people with beautiful hearts. So it’s not their fault; I’m just standing outside the circle. My home congregation from childhood is in another region entirely. I have been exploring the Jewish roots of my father’s Levy lineage, with considerable and increased attention. That is the surname I’ve carried from infancy and its history is undeniable.

And then there’s Yeshua, Jesus, the Jew at the foundations of Christianity. He never once claimed to be anything else but Jewish. I think too many Christians have forgotten that over the years. Western society harbours a groundswell of anti-Semitism that I find frightening. The situation in the Middle East has some bearing on this, but it’s not the whole story. There’s this knee-jerk reactionism that gets directed at a much broader spectrum. So I quietly research my name and its ancient antecedents and wonder if we will ever truly be comfortable with our own identities, any of us, regardless of beliefs or cultures or places of residence. I doubt it. Contention is inherent in humanity. We do not play well with others. If we believe otherwise, we are lying to ourselves. No one ought to get too smug about our capacity for committing acts of goodness.

Meanwhile, my family’s home in Yarmouth will become increasingly our “prison” owing to my husband’s physical deterioration, thanks to ALS. Its address is not far from several mainstream churches. People from these congregations know us and many also know what we are dealing with. Yet David has received nary a visitor from any church, except Mormon – and they were total strangers to him until then. He appreciated their attention. Otherwise – nada. Nary a card. Nary a knock on the door. Nothing. He is confronted with mortality and it will be a terrible conclusion to a life bravely lived. His atheism is, I suspect, more along the lines of agnosticism. He has a keen intellect and his mind closes no doors entirely. It doesn’t need to. The religious community closes them for him. We have been the recipients of generosity from many sources but all of them were secular. I do find this curious.

Still … he can hardly hike out to the nearest place of worship these days. And he’s probably not alone. Well, yes, he IS alone in that terrible sense. On his hospital admission forms, he always writes “Anglican”. He was born in England although he deems himself 100% Canadian but that one tie remains. I believe the last time he saw any clergy member one-on-one was in a hospital setting. And for a religion that originally emphasized outreach and conversion, this strikes me as rather sad.

corberrie church IMG_3731

 

The former Catholic Church in Corberrie, NS – now unused and no longer consecrated.

I took this photo on a recent drive around the area. I have never attended this church, however. 

For All the Broken Butterflies

Image

For All the Broken Butterflies

The last, the very last,
So richly, brightly, dazzlingly yellow. – Pavel Friedman, “The Butterfly”, June 4 1942

You are old now, torn by air and the too-sharp petals of every false flower                                
in the world. Nothing about you will stay any longer than your paths                                       
through the wet grass. Hopeful to the final probe, you prickle your tongue                                    
with sweet beads. Cobalt and ochre dust sifts through the morning’s thorns.

God writes your kind on parchment – haiku of a single hour. Early sun
burns through your dénouement. Foils turn to deltas of dry rivers.
Yet you fear no evil in the vacuum beyond this last garden.
Since you cannot hold memories, I would offer a few for each
of your journeys, my friend.

A woman grips her own innocence – round fruit on an open palm. Raised
hands,  juice between fingers, sticky lure you must never try to drink.
Shake free: clouds and walls, slam of a gate below you.

Taste now Ishmael’s wrist. Lick the salt desert from his skin.
Feel Hagar’s laugh, its bubble like water rising. Her son opens a spring
with his heel, bends toward the wet stones. Tremble your heart
against his pulse, then blow away.

Settle as a leopard on Khadija’s robe, companion to the slow
sandglass of her breath. Your veins are stitching gold and shadow.
Habibti, she murmurs – My own beloved. But you have such a tiny voice,
not made for love. Eyes on your wings open to watch her leave.
Their bruised edges she has chosen not to see.

Rest on a Roman’s plume, bring a kiss from his daughter. He cannot kill
you this time – evader of flags, hooves, spears, fire. You, the stroke
of light beyond an old man’s window. First visitor at a rolled tomb,
even before the women.

Wisp caught on a barb at Terezin. A small boy points and cries,
Mameh … look! He calls you angel, pinned on unforgiving wire.
Not even the bravest of all malachim will fly to this place,
his mother answers.

When death arrives at last, it always belongs to someone else.
So it is best not to remember everything I tell you.

Brenda Levy Tate (c) 2013
~ posted in an exhibit at Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Western Branch ~

*The community of Terezin was the location of the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where 12,000 children were kept prisoner during the Holocaust. 90% did not survive. Pavel Friedman, from whose poem I quote at the beginning, was one of those children. He later died at Auschwitz.