Monday, May 30, 2016

When Thoughts Turn to War...

Once again, I am posting an old essay. This one was written in April 2003, soon after the announcement in March of that year that the US was going to war in Iraq. It wasn't widely read then, although my sister sent it to Howard Zinn who responded with, "Thank you for that fine statement." 

There are many reasons why this essay is showing up again today, not the least of which is that it is Memorial Day. So, in memory and gratitude, here are my thoughts.


I am not a patriot.  That’s what I hear on the news anyway, or read in the paper from any number of people who insist that, to be a patriot, I must support a war. I don’t support the war.  I don’t support any war.  It was bad enough to see on the news every night that my principles were being maligned as unpatriotic, but then co-workers began to look at me suspiciously as I joined in conversations at work.  Me – unpatriotic? That had never been called into question in my life, except once after a trip to France in my junior year of high school when I announced I was moving back to Montpelier as soon as possible because I liked it better there and Madame Samuelson almost failed me on the spot for being unpatriotic as well as kind of impetuous.  As it was being called into question by anonymous countrymen and women as well as people who actually know me, I decided it was time to take a look at that which I long thought was intrinsically mine – as an American.  And I found, both to my dismay and surprise that I am, in fact, not a patriot at all.  I am a matriot. 

Don’t look it up – it’s not there.  Patriot is, of course.  The Oxford-English Dictionary defines “patriot” as “one who self-sacrificingly exerts himself to promote the well being of his country; one whose ruling passion is the love of his country; one who maintains and defends his country’s freedom or rights”.  And in fact “matriotism” is in the OED as well.  “Love of one’s mother-land, alma mater” it said.  If patriot is love of fatherland, then I am a matriot - of the mother land.  I represent those softer, nurturing qualities that only a mother can get away with and, in addition, I will defend my country’s freedom and rights. I just won’t do it with a gun. What I will do is mourn every single name on the news each night that tallies another life lost.  I will turn the TV off when I can’t watch the “tank-cam” any longer or one more inch of footage of an actual firefight.  All I want to do is figure out how to bring home the brand new orphans.  My arms literally ache when I see another stretcher bearing wounded.  Because I am anti-war, it does not mean I am not supporting our troops over in Iraq – or wherever they may be sent.  I want them home – all of them. Safe, sound and mowing lawns, preparing tax returns and taking care of their own children.  But since they are there, I will pray for them and I will pray for those who stand in their way as they try and achieve their goals – invasion, destruction, death.  War for me is not a means to an end, an “operation”, a strategic plan with acceptable loss.  It is broken down into hundreds of thousands of individuals, many of them children, who will block bullets with their bodies as heads of state check daily updates from CentCom.  It is a tragic event, no matter how I look at it and I can’t help but be sad, as if every single one of those people were my own child.  There was no definition in the OED for one who cannot send off those to whom she has given birth, literally or metaphorically, to kill or be killed in a war calculated by men who will never set foot in the place.  So I made one up. Matriot – (NOT an antonym to patriot); one who self sacrificingly exerts herself to promote the well-being of her fellow countrypeople; one whose ruling passion is love. 

We live in a bounteous nation with such a wide array of natural resources available to us it is almost shameful.  There is such beauty in our endless landscapes, unbroken coastlines and glorious mountains that it seems impossible that it all exists between two shores and beholding it is literally breathtaking.  The creativity and ingenuity that is nurtured and allowed free reign in this country rockets past conventional boundaries; and our country’s great minds outdo each other in feats of genius and discovery.  No, I love my country.  I am grateful to be in America. I don’t think many of us even get that the freedoms we enjoy as a nation don’t even exist in many countries. I would protect that, definitely.  But I don’t just want to stand up and wave the flag without some substance behind it. And the best substance I can think of is to take care of those who are my responsibility. 

If I could go to Iraq right now and help by comforting, holding or soothing, I would, because I sure couldn’t help anyone by bringing a gun with me. It doesn’t have to be an American soldier – it could be a British soldier or even an Iraqi civilian.  I don’t want to feel that my loyalty to country is called into question because I don’t condone killing.  I simply feel, as a mother, that before – or even at the same time – that Congress approves nearly 80 million dollars for the war in Iraq and its aftermath, that we should make sure that our own house is in order.  That our children are fed.  And that they are clothed and adequately educated.  Could it be a priority that our countrymen and women don’t freeze in the streets because they have no homes or that other countrymen and women are denied anything because of race or gender?  If 80 billion dollars is available through this government to execute a plan to wage war in another country and then rebuild that country, then couldn’t even half of that unimaginable sum of money be available for children right here in the United States? I only pose these questions because I am a mother. I have borne children of my own and I have taught hundreds of others in elementary school.  If there is one thing I believe for sure it is that children need to be looked after. And so do some others who can’t take care of themselves. I believe it is our country’s duty to take care of our own.  I believe that killing is wrong and that, as Dr. King said, “peace is not merely a distant goal we seek, but that it is a means by which we arrive at that goal”.  And I am pretty sure I believe all of this without hesitancy because I am a matriot. 

Cynthia Eastman

April 12, 2003

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Oh, Youth...

It's funny to come across ancient writings and see the folly of youthful ideas and understandings. I'm talking about me, of course, and the essay below. I dug out some old 3.5 floppies a few months back and have been slowly poring through them to see what treasures I could unearth. To my surprise, there are some.

This was an interesting one to come across because I have been musing on "getting old" and I remember the night that it happened. Naturally, I'm writing about it, so stay tuned to this spot and it will show up here eventually. Meanwhile, here's a #TBT for your general amusement!

Cindy Eastman circa 1995 

Zen and the Art of Aging
May 8, 1997

            When did I get so old!?  There was a time when I was the youngest in any given group; work, school, social gatherings.   After I gave birth to my daughter, I was still  the youngest mother at the play group, the kindergarten orientations, the birthday parties.  I remember the day I met the new youngest mom - riding a bumpy school bus accompanying our kindergarten children on a field trip to the high school Vo-Ag building to see cows and pigs.  I don’t remember how the subject of age came up, I certainly didn’t initiate it, but my new friend said her birthday was in September and she would be, like, 12 and there I sat quite familiar with my 30’s.  Fine, no problem, that’s great.  I think I got older after I had my second child.  I began to hang out at new play groups and birthday parties with women whose toddlers my son’s age were their first children.  I already had an elementary school-aged daughter.   Where are all those people who were older than me?  Dead?

            Getting older never really bothered me much.  I enjoyed turning thirty because I felt like a grown up.  My mother told me she always liked age 33 because that’s how old Jesus was when he died - a reference I wasn’t sure how to take.  My (younger) brother set  most of his life goals for age 35 - if he didn’t reach one, he just moved it up a year.  No big deal.  My sister has never  cared one way or the other about age - she is the youngest and my brother and I  are always older.  My family dynamic doesn’t include age-related expectations, so I don’t  feel any pre-ordained failure associated with reaching a particular age.   For me, 34 sounded exciting because I read somewhere that I would at last reach my sexual peak.  Ironically,  34 is the age I decided to get divorced -  unfortunate timing on my part.   All in all, the aging process seemed chronologically suitable and I didn’t give it too much thought.  Until now.

            Here I am, at the brink of 40 and I can’t shake the image of a very precarious cliff at whose edge I am standing, blindfolded.   Since I spent most of my 30’s doing the divorce two-step ( two steps forward, two steps back - it’s absurd) I have arrived at this place feeling as if I should have accomplished bigger things, figured out more answers or at least have had the experience of buying a new car.   There aren’t too many regrets.   I have a couple, like my divorce lawyers, but nothing else I can’t justify given a couple of minutes.  There are a few worries that consume me occasionally, but they are situations that I can’t do anything about, like being a single parent.  Am I doing a good job, providing enough guidance?  Teenagers were meant to have two parents in residence - if only to have someone there to watch your back.  But it’s not like I’m going to remarry just to provide a relief parent, so I cross my fingers and hope my parenting is fair and just.  According to my 16 year old, it almost never is.  

            With all the wandering around my mind does, the only straw I can grasp is to keep heading in the direction I’ve chosen.  And I did choose this path.  Nobody forced me to leave college, get divorced or pass up better jobs so I could stay home with my kids.  I did those things on my own with all the wisdom - or lack thereof - each accumulated year imbued.  I suppose the ensuing life is exactly what  I deserve.  I never have enough money, I haven’t been on a plane in 10 years, I’m losing my memory and the gray keeps coming, despite annual attempts at “enhancing” it.  ( I seem to find myself in the hair color aisle every year around my birthday)  On the plus side, I am raising my kids in person, I’m not stressed out about where to hide my money from the government and if someone runs into my ‘84 Subaru in the parking lot - who cares? 

            Forty will be tough, I already know that.  I should start preparing now, save my pennies for a magnum of champagne and read lots of books on how satisfying it is to meet these milestones head on and alone.  I’m pretty sure I can talk myself into anything, if I can remember to.  

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Books of Life

I wrote a short email to my friend after learning that she and her husband had recently found out he has brain cancer. Her equally brief response held all the confusion and helplessness such a discovery brings. She said: “If you could quickly write a book that explains how a wife is supposed to accept this that would be great.” A grimacing smiley face followed.

I wished I could. This particular situation has not happened to me in my life, but other similarly tragic or unfair things have. Most recently, my ex-husband died suddenly and I am without a manual to tell me how to act. Sad? Nostalgic? I just don’t know. When it happened, I needed a book to tell me when to cry, where to pitch in, when to hang back. I fumbled around the best I could and still have trouble managing my emotions almost three months later.

How, then, does one attend to a tragic turn of events? Some people live a life of faith with a benevolent god and lean heavily on the understanding that some things are “meant to be.” It’s all part of a plan or heavenly will and the strength to deal with it springs from that faith. I have never been able to believe like that, but I am glad for those who can. In fact I marvel at it; for me it’s like watching someone bring beauty to a canvas out of a palette of paints or glide effortlessly across ice on two thin little blades. It’s an admirable gift, but it’s not my gift. Believing that all my grief will be taken care of once I enter heaven doesn’t help me out in the day-to-day dealings with tragedy and sadness.

Everyone deals with terrible and threatening events in their own particular way. After about twenty years together, my husband Angelo and I have reached a place in our relationship that finally looks like it might last. To say we have suffered our ups and downs doesn’t do justice to the earnest effort we’ve exerted in making our marriage work. Due to the tons of baggage that often accompany a second marriage, there were times when I wasn’t sure we would make it. Then, a trip to Italy transformed Angelo's outlook and the last six months have been a startling and surprising difference in the way we manage our relationship.  We always thought we were making it work, making sense of our relationship. But, now it’s different in ways that neither of us even dreamed it could be. We are experiencing our marriage, our relationship, in the way each of us always worked toward. We wonder how in the world we could have spent the last twenty years letting it exist the other way. If we dwell too much on that loss, it could be detrimental, but it can be difficult not to be angry or even resentful of all that lost time.

One of the ways that helped me make sense of it, though, was to remember a quote from the movie Shadowlands, the story of the relationship between CS Lewis (Jack) and Joy Davidman. Towards the end of the movie, after Joy’s diagnosis of cancer, Jack and Joy are talking about how they will deal with her death. She wants to talk about it now; he reassures her he will be able to handle it when the time comes. But she wants more than that; it can be “better than that.” She says, “the pain then is part of the happiness now. That's the deal.” She was looking ahead, to her eventual decline and death--culminating in asking the unanswerable question: why?

There is no answer, really, no reasons to explain terrible things. There is no reason why children get beaten to death, earthquakes ravage towns, families go homeless or husbands get brain cancer.  My own issue seems small compared to what others deal with, the pain others endure, but for me, right now, it’s pain in my life. Because I am lamenting our squandered years (and probably because of my ex-husband’s recent death) I am experiencing a high level of vigilance about Angelo's health and well-being. When he didn’t text me for three hours one afternoon after he set off on his eagerly awaited trip to IKEA, I imagined him lying by the side of the road, victim of a car accident. He was fine...just excited to be at IKEA. I am so afraid that the happiness we are enjoying will be taken away. But if I let fear help me make sense of what our life is like now, it will only be me who is taking away this chance we have.

And so we make meaning of our lives. With all the tools and skills and feelings and understanding that exist in our body and in our being right this minute. Whether or not that includes God or the Universe or another higher power or infinite energy, we decide how our life makes sense. It was silly of me to imagine Angelo dying by the side of the road, absurd and unreasonable. But I let a little of that in for just a minute because, for me, it is like Joy’s quote. She was anticipating the pain to come and acknowledging that pain would allow the happiness they were experiencing now to be meaningful. For me and Angelo, the time we wasted is painful, but it is in the past and it is part of what we are experiencing now. The happiness now is part of the pain then.

I don’t think we are meant to “accept” loss and tragedy. They come into our lives both suddenly and with advance warning. They wreck everything in sight and thrash about without prejudice--loss and tragedy impact everyone, no one is immune or safe from it. It’s unfair. I believe the only protection is love, however that manifests in each individual’s life, and the meaning we give to each of our experiences. How could it ever make sense that we lose someone we love so much? It doesn’t. Humans make sense, arbitrary phenomena does not.

If I could write a book for my friend, I would want to fill it with real things she could do to deal with this unimaginable blow. A recipe for coping, with actual ingredients and steps to follow. Instructions, helpful tips and time-honored strategies that will walk her through every minute of fear, vulnerability and sorrow. But, that book isn’t written by others--it is ours alone to write. How could I tell her what to do? The truth is, she will know what to do. Her fear will turn into courage and her sadness will turn into strength. She already has her book. We all do.