Harriet Tubman

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The first time I learned about Harriet Tubman I was stunned by her story. She was born a slave as were her mother, father and siblings. Her father eventually earned his freedom but was unable to free his children. Over time he bought his own wife when she had grown old and confused and was of little use to her master but many of his children still languished as property.

Harriet was originally known as Minty. She married a free man but still had to live on the plantation of her owner. Nonetheless she dreamed of freedom and hoped to one day join her husband as a free woman and start a family. She watched helplessly as her sisters were sold and sent to some unknown place. She suffered under the yoke of slavery and finally reached a point of preferring to die rather than remain enslaved. Somehow she managed to travel over a hundred miles all alone to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where she finally lived as a free woman and chose her own name of Harriet.

Most people would have simply enjoyed their good fortune and lived happily ever after without chains and the whims of slave masters but Harriet was not happy knowing that her husband still lived so far away and that the members of her family were suffering. She decided to return to the place of her captivity risking her very life to be reunited with her husband and bring him north with her.

What she found was that he had married again when he thought that she had died. He was unwilling to leave his new wife who was with child. Harriet soon found that her brothers were about to be sold and so she decided to help them escape just as she had. Others joined her in the journey north which was hazardous but ultimately successful.

Over time Harriet worked with the Underground Railroad returning south again and again to free as many as seventy slaves. During the Civil War she served as a spy for the Union Army and even became involved in combat. She is credited with freeing another seven hundred slaves during that conflict.

In spite of risking her own freedom Harriet was passionate about helping others who lived in bondage. She understood what might happen to her if she were caught but she nonetheless felt compelled to fight for others who were still suffering under the chains of slavery.

Harriet Tubman is indeed one of the most courageous women in the history of the world. I cannot even imagine the kind of bravery that it took for her to accomplish as much as she did. She was a fearless warrior for justice and I think she should be honored as much as historical giants like Abraham Lincoln. I seriously can’t think of another woman in the story of our country who compares to her.

Now there is a wonderful movie about this amazing woman. Harriet is a beautifully crafted film that tells her inspiring story with a cast of actors who seem to be passionate about their roles. It is one of those films that I recommend to everyone, young and old alike. It is also one that I will probably watch again and again because its story is one of faith and grit and honesty. I can’t think of when I have been so moved by a movie, and knowing that it is true makes it even more wonderful.

I once visited a landmark in Memphis, Tennessee that had been part of the Underground Railroad. The guide told us how the slaves developed a way of communicating through their songs and with quilts that alerted them to which locations were safe. There was a whole world of intrigue that helped thousands of slaves find the freedom that they so deserved. It both a tragic and touching story of the human spirit and all people’s desire to live free.

The holiday season is upon us and people will be going to movie theaters for the annual round of family entertainment. I know that there will be cute little films reprising the Frozen story and even action and adventure movies, but I can’t think of a better way to spend time with the family than watching Harriet together. It is a story that has been longing to be told and everyone needs to see it.

It Goes On

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I suppose that my Facebook wall is mostly like the idealized version of what Mark Zuckerberg once intended it to be, due to my incredibly insightful and interesting friends and family. Each morning I scan the posts to find lovely photos of children, grandchildren, pets, travels, and good times. In the mix there are invariably yummy recipes, guides to local events, and inspirational thoughts or articles. Now and again there are pleas for prayers from someone who is experiencing difficult times, a health problem or even the death of a loved one. My wall has never really been a respository for attempts to influence my thinking on politics or any other topic save for a random comment now again from one of my more politically minded acquaintances. Instead it is a source of joy and support and a way of keeping in touch with people about whom I truly care.

I check my wall each morning while I sip on my tea and munch on my breakfast. I usually rise earlier than my husband so the house is quiet save for the chatter and laughter of the children waiting to catch the school bus on the corner. I sit in my front room and enjoy a moment of peace and serenity while learning about whatever has happened while I was sleeping. Now and again someone posts something that burrows deeply into my heart. I think about it throughout the day and sometimes long past the moment when I first read about it. Such it was a few days ago when two of my sweet cousins both shared the story of a young poet.

It seems that there was once a young man with a creative and poetic mind who was struggling mightily with the seemingly unrelenting tragedy of his life. His father was an alcoholic who eventually died from complications related to his drinking. He left the family all but penniless and struggling. Both the young man and his mother suffered from bouts of depression which was perfectly understandable given their circumstances. Adding to the young man’s woes was the fact that his attempts to publish the poems that he had worked so hard to produce had been totally unsuccessful. To make matters even worse he had a devastating row with the young girl who had stolen his heart and they had a soul crushing breakup. In a moment of sheer desperation he gave her a copy of his poems and tore up the only remaining one that he had. Then he walked away determined to end his life.

He appeared to wander aimlessly even though he had a plan for ending it all. He went into up in a dark swampy area that seemed to match the sorrow of his mood. Even though he had originally determined to end it all he just kept walking and at some point he changed his mind, found his way out of both the swamp and his sadness, and decided to carry on with the rest of his life.

The man whose journey almost ended before it had truly begun was Robert Frost. He went on to become one of the most beloved American poets in the world, winning multiple Pulitzer Prizes and earning the title of Poet Laureate. On the occasion of the inauguration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy as the President of the United States Robert Frost was honored by being selected to read one of his poems. (Oh, and he even made up with the girl that he so loved and she became his wife.) His life was celebrated by people from around the world as he lived to a prosperous and honored old age. When later asked about his advice for life he remarked, “It goes on.”

This was a message that I needed to hear and one that I know to be so very true. Few of us have an easy time here on this earth. Life is hard work and often filled with disappointments and suffering. There are moments when our burdens become so heavy that we wonder how we might possibly keep fighting the good fight. Sometimes it feels as though nothing is going our way. We walk in the miasma of a dark and dank swamp seeing hopelessness at every turn. It is only in “going on” that we eventually see the light of day once again. We invariably find that while our lives may not have taken the turn that we had hoped, they sometimes become even better than we had hoped.

I think of this often. I recently recalled a time when I was working in a school with people that I dearly loved. I literally believed that I would be like a female Mr. Chips and work there for the duration of my career. Sadly a new principal came and upended everything that I had enjoyed about being there. I realized that I could not bear the authoritarian and contrary nature of her leadership and so I reluctantly left without really knowing where I would ultimately land. I was anxious and melancholy and even angry. It took me weeks to get over the despair that I was experiencing. Then I found a new job that would change the course of my life. It was there that I learned how much strength I really had and it was there that I found some of the very best years of my educational career. It was also there that I truly experienced the realization of how life indeed “goes on.”

I cannot imagine how different I would have be if not for some of the moments when I was challenged to keep going into the darkness or choose a different unknown path that lead to the light. Sometimes it is truly in our most hopeless moments that we find what we really need. Like Robert Frost we learn from our suffering and choose to just go on.

Our Human Dilemmas

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There was a time when most of us who are common folk knew little about what was happening in the world outside of our own little communities. News from other parts came slowly if at all. We humans concentrated on the problems of daily life that affected us directly with little thought of what life was like outside of our narrow sphere of reference. Even as late as the end of the nineteenth century most people lived in relative isolation.

My grandfather often spoke of life on his grandmother’s farm and his lack of knowledge of the happenings outside of the insulated world of his youth. It was not until World War I that the average person began to take notice of the symbiotic nature of world politics. That feeling of being part of something larger than a radius of a few square miles beyond our homes grew even stronger with World War II. By the mid twentieth century we were developing a worldview that even included a foray into the universe.

As we have navigated the political waters of worldwide citizenry we have had to determine what exactly our obligations to people outside of our own borders are. There are few clear guidelines and so we tread a wary line between isolationism and serving as geopolitical saviors of those who are being persecuted across the globe. Sometimes it is difficult to determine who the players are. There are no perfect guidelines for choosing sides, and often we wonder if we should even think of getting involved in the politics of places so far from our own. Moral questions abound in the many decisions that we must make, none of which are without contradictions.

Our human natures prefer clear choices between good and evil and so we often attempt to distill complex issues into very simple ideas. In the process we are bound to make mistakes because very few political questions have easy answers. When we make our issues partisan we run the risk of ignoring realities on either side and making things ultimately worse. Rhetoric and emotion are more likely to result in stop gap measures rather than long tern solutions that will endure the tests of time.

The world is on fire in so many places, few more frightening the Xinjiang region of mainland China. In the north west corner of that nation there live a Muslim minority group known as the Uyghurs ( pronounced “Weegurs”). The Uyghurs speak a Turkic language and have a culture far different from the rest of China. They were incorporated into the country in 1949, but mostly lived in their own way until more recent times. Of late the Chinese government has cracked down on them with tactics that should alarm the entire world, but very little of their plight has been discussed by the world powers.

It is believed that upward of one million Uyghur men have been sent to reeducation camps that were hastily built in the Xinjiang region. Some of them have seemingly disappeared and are thought to be dead. Stories of torture and murder are rampant. While the men are imprisoned Chinese males from other parts of the country are sent to take over the Uyghur homes, often forcing the wives who have been left behind to cohabit. Whispers of rapes and great fear are captured by the thousands of cameras that police the region. At any given moment the people are subjected to random searches and accused of being enemies of the state simply because of the way that they walk or present themselves.

There are countless stories of minority people being threatened, imprisoned, and killed in places across the globe. Our instincts tell us that we should somehow help but caution asks us to wonder if and when it is right to interfere in the workings of countries that are not our own. After all, we argue, we have enough of our own problems right here. There are signs of injustice in our own backyards. Should we clean our own house before we are audacious enough to find fault with others? What is the red line beyond which we can no longer simply sit back and watch horror unfolding? How much of our own human and financial treasure are we willing to invest in problems that don’t appear to directly affect us?

These are the questions that plague us and none of the answers are either obvious or without grave concerns. Doing nothing or doing the wrong thing has consequences, some of which we cannot foresee. Our natures leave us frozen with indecision while ideologues rush in head first  often seizing the day and the power. For the most part the rest of us just quietly go along, allowing the squeaky wheels to get all of the attention until things come to a dangerous head forcing us to act one way or another. In the meantime there is so much suffering in the world that is seemingly unchallenged.

Our own civil war was bound to occur because slavery was indeed wrong and our nation was irreparably divided as to how to uncouple itself from something so horrific. In the end as is too often the case it took outright war and horror to force the issue. Perhaps the fact that the rest of the world chose to simply watch as we fought brother against brother rather than choosing sides whether for humane or financial reasons was the right response. Maybe in the long run each country has to find its own way out of social and political divisions, but what about those instances that aggressively overtake and murder innocents? Are we morally bound to help them in some way?

These are the kind of questions that fill my head and I know enough about history and human nature to understand that the world has been filled with intrigue since its very beginning. Knowing when to intervene on behalf of a person or a group is a tricky thing but something that we should always seriously consider not as a means of gaining our own power but as a way of protecting those unable to protect themselves. Such discussions should not be a matter of partisan preference but honest communication in search of reasonable answers.

Right now it feels almost impossible to achieve such noble goals. I worry about what may have to eventually happen to bring us to our senses, to help us understand that we should not be enemies. History tells me that it may be a very unpleasant learning experience that we must endure before we find our way. I pray that we figure that out before it is too late.

A New Way To Praise

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I once went to a church service with one of my former students. As a cradle Catholic I grew up with a very formalized kind of religion that has often been critiqued and misunderstood so I kept an open mind as I experienced a very different way of connecting with God. After a reading from the Bible and a few words from the minister the people began praying aloud, sending their petitions to God all at one time in a confusing mix of sound. I was not quite sure how to react so I simply attempted to quiet my mind. That’s when I began to hear the profound beauty of their individual prayers and their deep faith that God would somehow comfort them and ease their pain. Before long the sounds of their very personal pleas brought tears to my eyes and a realization that each of us longs for hope and peace in different ways.

My mother was a confirmed Catholic. She believed in its teachings and traditions with all of her heart. Nonetheless she was quite open to other religions and often voiced her philosophy that her main hope was that each person would find a relationship with God in the manner that worked best. To that end she was just fine with the idea of people following their own hearts in deciding which kind of religion worked best for them. She believed that God comes to humans in many forms. She had great respect for the beliefs of others but was always troubled by those who thought that the very idea of a
God of any kind was a human myth. She prayed that each person might find the goodness and power that she felt from a closeness with a personal God.

I watched my mother’s faith and prayer life take her through challenges that might have defeated a lesser person. There was nothing easy about her life and yet she was known far and wide as an optimistic and happy person, someone who gave when she had so little of her own. I witnessed her love of God firsthand and I saw the incredible strength that it gave her. It convinced me that she was not just experiencing some human fairytale. What she felt was unexplainable in the scientific sense but nonetheless quite real.

Religions of all kinds have taken heat in the long course of history. My own Catholic Church is a target for derision these days because of scandals that shake the very foundations of belief. Other sects sometimes appear to be far less kind that they ought to be. The human discussion of all things spiritual is often fraught with anger and hypocrisy and yet at the heart of the matter is the idea that there is a being much bigger than our humanity upon whom we should depend. For some this is the stuff of legend and a source of ridicule, but for people like me and millions of others it is a deeply held conviction.

The most recent class that I have been taking at Rice University School of Continuing Education centers on the Stuart kings, the monarchs who took the throne of England after the death of the childless Elizabeth I, the last of the Tudor rulers. That particular moment in history was marked by sometimes violent religious struggles between the Church of England, more fundamentalist sects like the Puritans, and the Catholic Church. At that point in time the tendency was to attempt to eliminate any group of believers who did not concur with the monarchy and the national church. Strict laws prohibited true freedom of religion and in many ways served to influence later attempts to form fairer democracies, including the one that resulted right here in the United States of America. By law we are supposed to be as tolerant of all faiths as my mother always was.

I bring up all of this because I see so many instances of derision and sometimes even hatred being aimed at various religious groups and individual beliefs. We all too often presume to understand what is in the hearts of people who profess particular philosophies. We judge in places where we have no business to do so.

A perfect example of this is to be found in the person of Kanye West, a brilliant and talented musician and master of words who has by his own admission led a troubled life. Much like my mother he is challenged by the sometimes crippling mood swings of bipolar disorder. He has courageously admitted to having this terrible illness even knowing that it is so misunderstood. We are still in the dark ages when it comes to tolerance and compassion for the mentally ill, and so Kanye has been ridiculed and sometimes even spurned in his journey to find peace of mind. Along the way he has experienced a seemingly dramatic conversion to the Christian faith.

His enthusiasm for Christ has been mocked by those who think that perhaps he is just going through a manic phase. They call him crazy and joke about the strange twists and turns of his life. Others cynically suggest that he has just found a new way to make money. They see his foray into religion as nothing more than a scheme. Thus his new album Jesus Is King has been panned by many of his critics as little more than the mad ravings of a diseased mind.

I have listened to Kanye’s songs that praise the glory of Christ and I hear instead the work of a genius who has found a power that had previously been missing from his life. I applaud his courage in putting his entire career and reputation on the line with such a daring project. He will no doubt be questioned and misunderstood by many but the message in each track tells the story of someone who truly believes. He has taken his God given talents and used them to shout the good news that he has found. Jesus Is King is a gloriously creative gift, not the ravings of a madman and it is impossible and even wrong for any of us to question what truly lies in the heart of Kanye West. Instead we should celebrate the happiness and comfort that he appears to have found in God.

Liturgical music has included the compositions of giants. There have been Gregorian chants and litanies, symphonies and gospel pieces. Now the voice of Kanye West uses rap to tell of the glories of Jesus. It is both brilliant and lovely. His is a new way to praise. We should all celebrate that he has found a way to ease the tempest in his mind by sharing his genius with those of us who believe.

Wait! What?

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In 1997, Britain turned over Hong Kong to China with an agreement to slowly transition the city to a full fledged member of the Chinese nation. The young people born in that year call themselves the “cursed generation.” When they were kindergartners their end of year activities were cancelled due to an outbreak of SARS. Just before entering high school the Swine flu took hold of their group with a vengeance. What really bothers them most is that they believe in their hearts that the freedoms that the people of Hong Kong once had will fade away and be little more than a memory by the time they reach the age of fifty. Their hope is that somehow they can slow or even halt the march of oppression. Sadly they have already watched many of the rights that they once enjoyed being taken from them. Thus they have attempted to bring attention to their plight with demonstrations that have mesmerized the world.

For those of us who enjoy freedom of speech and life in a democracy it is difficult to imagine that the simple act of protesting without violence might lead to five years in jail or even twenty depending on the level of unrest. We are able to openly speak our peace and make demands, something that we often take for granted. The people of Hong Kong are coming to the realization that they may one day find themselves in “reeducation” camps where attempts will be made to eliminate any views contrary to the philosophy of the Chinese government. It is a frightening future in particular for the young who realize that they will most assuredly find most of their rights gone sooner rather than later.

We have watched their brave attempts to shine a light on the injustices of the  Chinese government, and in many cases people have rallied to encourage them. Once such person was Daryl Morey, the General Manager of the Houston Rockets. In what should have been an innocent enough show of support for the people of Hong Kong with a post on Twitter Mr. Morey instead created a dustup with the powers that be of the National Basketball Association. It seems that the game of basketball is quite popular in China and Morey’s comments angered the Chinese government which demanded an apology. In a knee-jerk reaction the NBA initially sided with China and expressed displeasure with Morey. The incident has resulted in attempts to save face for everyone involved and to assuage the diverse feelings of a growing number of people and organizations.

Given that the United States of America began with a revolution of people dissatisfied with British rule there is a great deal of irony that the NBA reacted in the manner that they initially chose. I understand that in the final analysis it was all about money and profits and pleasing customers, but this is supposed to be a country where freedom of speech is not just the law, but also an idea that we all celebrate. Of late, however, even our public officials get bent out of shape when they hear something that they don’t like. Some even go so far as to suggest that ideas with which they disagree should be eradicated.

The very idea of censorship of any kind is abhorrent to me. There are some things that I do not wish to see or hear but I would join a protest to insure that they are allowed. If we ever get to the point of suggesting that some need to be “reeducated” then we will have totally lost our way and the intent of our freedoms.

Our President both annoys and embarrasses me on an almost daily basis with the brutal ugliness of his tweets and comments, but I would not want to censor him or anybody else. My tactic is to walk away, turn off those who confound me. We don’t have to agree or even listen to a person that we don’t like, but we must never suggest that they be shut down.

We take too many of our freedoms for granted rather than protecting them as we should. When I see situations like the present state of Hong Kong I am greatly saddened. I do believe that freedom is something that all people desire but a right that far too many never realize. Our ability to speak our minds without impunity is something for which I am more than willing to fight. It is why I won’t ever end a friendship simply because someone disagrees with me. Instead when I hear the voice of opposition I feel a sense of great joy that I live in a country where such is possible.

I did not even know who Daryl Morey was before the ruckus over his innocent tweet. Now I see him as a hero and someone worthy of my admiration. In fact, I feel that way about anyone willing to go out on a limb in support of any of our freedoms as long as they are not harming someone in the process.

I feel great sorrow for the people of Hong Kong who are slowly watching their once grand city become a place of fear and censorship. I not sure that it would make much of a difference, but I wish that more of us would express support for the cause of the brave protestors who face uncertainty each time they take to the streets. I stand in solidarity with them.  I understand the need to always protect the rights that should be inalienable for all people