Disappointment and Heartbreak

Sill dark when I wake this morning, haunted by a vivid dream.

I walk outside my cabin to see my breath for the first time, steaming the sharp, August air and know fall has arrived. Golden leaves already drip down the Birch, Aspen, and Cottonwood. Wildflowers of summer, yellowed, leaning closer to the ground, before dropping their seed, freezing, and melting into spring mud eight months from now.

This jagged air reminds me of chilly mornings on the farm when my father and I would also wake before dawn, share breakfast and coffee, pull our work clothes on, and walk out across those darkened fields toward the tractor. The earth, thawing from last night’s frost, and steaming upward all around us.

We’ve always been different, me and him, yet exactly the same. We’ve argued politics, lifestyle choices, the decisions I’ve made. Or been afraid to make. So difficult, the relationship between fathers and sons. The expectations. The disappointment and heartbreak. The times I failed to rise up and be the man he wanted me to be. The man I knew I should’ve been.

But that all went away when we used to farm together. Worked the land as a team. In synch and harmony. He’d tell stories about the old days. The grandparents I never knew. The life we both wanted to return to.

Now he’s in in his eighties, finally retired from farming, and I’ve moved to Alaska, chasing my own version of his dream. He has cancer now, my dad. We just found out. And recently took a bad fall. It’s heartbreaking for me to see it all unfold this way. As I knew it would, but somehow refused to believe.

No doubt we share the same blood. Him rebuilding the family farm and me homesteading in Alaska. The independence. The challenge of it all. The dream of autonomy. And a simple, direct life of hard work. My need to make him proud the way he made Grandpa proud. Just like my dream last night, which is how I’ll choose to think of us.

Crazy, but in the dream, for some reason, I watched us from a distance. In the old days. My father the age I am now, a younger version of me walking beside him. A blue smudge to the east but still dark. Just me and him in all that blackness. I saw it from where I stood. So close, but way out of reach. Side by side in that starlight. Heading out to sow seeds in the fields.

I'm still back there now. In that dream. Peering harder and harder as we move further and further into that darkness. The smell of earth rising up. Our conversation turning to murmurs. Whispers. Eventually silence.

Out across those vast, steaming fields. Until our silhouettes fade, melt into the night. And finally disappear.

January

I am waiting for the hateful to unclench the tight fists of their hearts. Waiting for all of us to stop yelling at each other.

And to start listening.

These days both sides, Republican and Democrat, seem to take less pleasure in winning elections than in watching the other side lose. Instead of collaborating toward similar goals, common Americans are at each other’s throats—the way the elite have always preferred it. At a time when slaves started to working together to empower themselves, slave-owners figured out how to keep them in competition. Lighter skinned blacks against darker skinned blacks. Household slaves against field-working slaves. Male verse female. Dividing families was part of the strategy until they were all split into hostile hierarchies rather than rising up in resistance together.

Another strategy was to convince poor whites that they were valued and that they should support the wealthy slave owners’ interests. Over half the beneficiaries of the Affordable Health Care Act are Trump supporters who just voted to eliminate the health care they need and deserve. And I want to ask them why.

I want to listen.

The Democratic Party, which used to be the working-class party, has effectively alienated blue collar America while attracting over-educated academics. Many of them entitled, arrogant, and annoying. The Republicans continue to equate any kind of social programs with Communism by preying on the masculine sensibilities of Middle Americans. I’ve spent half my life farming and ranching and I know that if you’re a Democrat you’re weak. Real men don’t need things like health care or unions. Better to support the elite—who keep empowering corrupt CEO’s with tax breaks—than to admit you can’t take whatever they throw your way.

We all seem more interested in being right than finding the best way forward. More concerned with what we believe than why we believe it. Instead of living in ways that justify our beliefs, we find beliefs that justify the ways in which we live. It’s more convenient that way.

But we can no longer afford convenience.

It’s time to admit our mistakes. Time to open to new ideas and hear what the other side has to say. Maybe it’s time for a new kind of masculinity. One in which a real man values tolerance and understanding over anger and violence. Real men don’t ridicule the disabled, disadvantaged, or the weak. A new kind of masculinity in which a real man honors war heroes and respects women.

We are all voting against our interests, it seems. Voting against each other without realizing most Americans have similar values and needs. We have to stop talking over one another. And start really listening. The only way forward is through understanding. And working together. Which party you support, or don’t support, shouldn’t matter. Instead, maybe we could focus on the things we agree on. And maybe we can start by agreeing that our leaders should actually care about our country? That whoever the president (Republican or Democrat) they should want the best for Americans and want more than to just make themselves richer at the cost of everyone else. Meanwhile maybe the rest of us could be more concerned with reality than reality TV.

It’s now clear that Trump is only interested in his personal gain as evidenced by his cabinet of billionaires who mostly have the same conflicts of interest he has. The proposed travel ban is only for Muslim countries where Trump has no business partners. And, ironically, the Muslim countries he doesn’t want to ban are those whose citizens have actually killed Americans in the last forty years. Like Saudi Arabia. Or Egypt.

Forget the first hundred days in office. How do we feel about the first two weeks? We’re alienating our long-time allies around the world. Banning refugees, which seems uniquely un-American, and pushing to make peaceful protesting a felony. Pipeline construction is resuming on sacred burial grounds while treaties continue to be broken.

Before the vulgarity, misogyny, and racism became so obvious I liked the idea of Trump in the sense that, like Bernie Sanders, it seemed he could not be bought by lobbyists, big business, or corporations. Not because he didn’t have ties. Just that he had so much money. How could he be interested in more? How could that level of greed exist?

Clearly, I underestimated him.

And as my cousin’s six year old daughter said the other day: “Trump never wanted to be president. He just wanted to be in charge.” He doesn’t care about leading a country to greatness (ironically), or taking care of its citizens. He cares about making himself more money. And at garnering himself more attention, positive or negative, like the reality TV star he was born to be.

From Standing Rock to the Million Woman March I’ve seen a lot of anger in the last two months. A lot of tension and misunderstandings. But I’ve also seen a lot of love. And peace. And unity of purpose. Most Americans want other Americans to do well. To prosper. To pursue happiness. To have clean water, protect and care for their dead. To have sovereignty over their own bodies. Civil liberties and equal opportunities. Basic human rights and respect. To keep their jobs in fields and factories. And to keep the government out of our business.

In the last few months I’ve seen women praying on the Backwater Bridge in front of armed guards and tanks. I’ve seen hundreds of thousands of concerned Americans flood the streets of our capitol and I am confident that we will make America great again. Not Trump. As long as we don’t let him, or anyone else, divide us. As long as we stay positive and keep the faith.

And so I’m telling the greedy and the hateful and the intolerant to loosen their death grips on the weak, the under-privileged, and the poor. To uncoil. And recoil. To finally relax the tight fists of their hearts. I am telling us all to stop yelling over each other. To come together.

And to listen.

November

Eid                                                         عيد الفطر

The sharpened tip of the butcher’s knife rested on Isaac’s chest. Its blade would soon split his skin, slice between ribs, and dismantle his heart. As it plunged downward the knife would also puncture Isaac’s left lung and continue tearing through muscle and sinew before exiting the back of the body and grinding to a halt against the same stone slab he was tied to. 

Earlier that day, as he prepared for the sacrifice, Abraham and his wife, Hajar, had been tempted by the Devil, who said he could dissolve the deal Abraham had made with God. If Abraham and Hajar simply submitted to Satan, their only son’s life would be spared.

But they didn’t submit. Instead, Hajar and Isaac had thrown rocks and stones at the Devil until they eventually drove him away.        

The Prophet Abraham and his family came from the land of Canaan where they’d lived happily for many years. One day God had asked Abraham to move his family to the valley of Mecca, an uninhabited wasteland of sand dunes and swirling dust. Abraham would leave them there in Arabia and return to Canaan alone. This, the first of many commandments God would give the prophet. And Abraham, eager to obey, gathered his small family and led them south toward Mecca. 

A week’s journey and as they walked, Abraham tried to imagine how he would explain the second part of God’s commandment: That he leave Isaac and Hajar alone in the middle of Arabia and return to Canaan by himself.

After their arrival in Mecca, Abraham began pacing nervously. His wife asked him what was wrong. 

“I have to leave you here,” he said, turning his gaze to the north.

“Why!?”

“I just have to go.”

Hajar grabbed Abraham’s shoulder and he turned to her. 

“Why are you doing this?” she said.

The prophet sighed and peered down at the ground. He raised his eyes to meet her stare. “Because God told me to.” 

Hajar nodded slowly. “Then God will not forget us,” she said. And after a long pause, “You can go.”

So Abraham said goodbye to Isaac. He hugged Hajar a long time, turned northward, and set out for Canaan, leaving his wife and only son alone in the desert.    

This is how Ali explains the Old Testament story of Abraham and Issac. And it’s pretty much the way I remember it from Sunday school. The only difference is that for Muslims, like Ali, Abraham translates to Ibrahim, Isaac becomes Ismael, and God is called by His Arabic name, Allah

It’s my first Thanksgiving in Lebanon and this year the American holiday falls on the eve of Eid. My neighbor, Cynthia, has prepared a feast tonight. A week earlier she told me to invite any Americans from my department to join her and her Lebanese friends for dinner and a party commemorating both Thanksgiving and Eid. 

Cynthia’s father, a successful engineer, took a job in the U.S. during the Lebanese Civil War, moving his family to Michigan. She spent the next twelve years in the States before returning to Beirut to attend the University of Lebanon and study Finance. Like so many in Beirut she speaks Arabic and English fluently and loves both Lebanese and American culture. Her family celebrates Ramadan, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, the Lebanese Independence Day, and the Fourth of July. When I arrived tonight, Cynthia introduced me to her cousin, Ali—a tall, thin Arab man with wire-rimmed glasses. We struck up a conversation and I’ve been talking to him ever since.

“It’s a little embarrassing,” I tell him. “But I really didn’t know anything about Eid before coming here tonight. And I still know next to nothing. But I grew up Lutheran and I remember learning about Abraham and Isaac during confirmation.”

Ali smiles. “That’s really all Eid is. A celebration of the same story. Ibrihim’s obedience to Allah and Allah’s offering of a sacrificial lamb.”

In Christianity, Islam, the Druze faith, and Judaism this is where the story usually begins: Ismael tied to a stone slab, his father’s knife poised above the boy’s chest. Ibrahim, moments away from plunging the blade into his son’s heart, squeezes his eyes shut one last time, bracing himself for what he’s about to do when Allah speaks to him, telling him he doesn’t have to kill Ismael. Instead, the Lord himself, will sacrifice a lamb.

I realize Eid’s not only similar to Christian tradition, but the celebration of it’s actually a lot like Thanksgiving, which is probably why both holidays can be memorialized together so seamlessly. I talk to Ali a while longer, but I am starting to wonder about my colleagues from the university. This is their first time meeting my Lebanese friends and I realize I’ve been neglecting them, so I say goodbye to Ali and walk across the room where a cluster of my coworkers are talking with some of Cynthia’s friends. But before I can enter the discussion, we hear Cynthia’s voice from the kitchen. “Time to eat!”

In typical Lebanese fashion, it’s almost 10:00 pm as we gather for dinner. Seven years from now I’ll remember this incredible night and blog about it. Donald Trump will have just been elected president after proposing a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. and a registry for those already living in the States.

And I will be home for Thanksgiving.

In North Dakota. About to deliver firewood to the Lakota protestors of Standing Rock who, by that point, will be assaulted day and night with tear gas and firehoses from a militant group of police. Overseas, Isis will be growing more and more violent. More and more widespread. And never in my lifetime (including the first Cold War) will the world seem so close to a nuclear holocaust.

Before sitting down, Cynthia has us stand in a circle, holding hands, heads bowed, each offering our own thanks in turn. 

Mohamed, who is thankful for Obama’s recent election, sees him as one of the most benevolent, intelligent, and tolerant American presidents. One who will not be so quick to make war in the Middle East. Ali is happy his mother has recovered from by-pass surgery. I am thankful for my new friends and Cynthia is glad she could host us tonight. Especially the Americans from the university. Like everyone here, she’s gone out of her way to make us feel welcome.

Later, after dinner, we’ll all countdown to Eid and when the clock strikes midnight Cynthia’s small apartment will swell with shouts and cheers—everyone hugging and raising their glasses.

But for now, we continue giving thanks.

Grateful that today Lebanon is not at war with itself or anyone else. Grateful to be making connections and celebrating new holidays. And yet, in the middle of it, explosions erupt outside and everyone flinches. A shock wave of nerves rippling around our circle, passing from one hand to the next in successive jolts of fear. It sounds like a car bomb followed by machine gun fire.

But, instead, outside Cynthia’s windows, the sky above Beirut opens up with brilliant spiders of red, blue, and purple, leaving temporary imprints on the blackness, then vanishing altogether. Only to be replaced by more fireworks as we run out to the balcony to watch.  

Beirut is beautiful tonight.

The silhouette of high rises glowing orange in the strobe light of fireworks. Shadows dancing. The whole city pulsing and throbbing. The Mediterranean’s dark waters stretching out toward the Atlantic and beyond. To the East Coast of the U.S.

Somewhere out there.

Where the sun is now rising. Sending up its own fireworks of red, orange, and yellow. Sending up its light.

Toward the heavens above.