Stars & stripes


Thoreau with replica house

I’ve been thinking a lot these days about Henry David Thoreau. This isn’t unusual: Thoreau is one of my favorite authors, and I spent a good deal of my doctoral dissertation analyzing his writing. I have a whimsical portrait of Thoreau over my desk because he represents many of the things I personally hold dear: he was a writer and a naturalist, a walker and a rebel. In a world insistent upon choosing sides, Thoreau was both an artist and a scientist, both poetic and political, both active and contemplative. When I try to imagine a well-rounded, grounded, and self-reliant person, Thoreau is who immediately comes to mind.

Spartan

I’ve been thinking more than usual these days about Henry David Thoreau because of “Civil Disobedience,” an essay published in 1849 that inspired both Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, and “Slavery in Massachusetts,” a lesser-known essay that Thoreau first delivered as a lecture in Framingham on July 4, 1854, after escaped slave Anthony Burns was captured in Boston and sent back south. In “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau describes the night he spent in jail after refusing to pay his poll tax as a protest against the Mexican War and its expansion of slavery, and in “Slavery in Massachusetts,” he condemns Northern cooperation with the Fugitive Slave Act. In both essays, Thoreau turns his eye with all its acuity on the social ills of his day, as if politics were no less interesting than natural history. This politically engaged way of looking at the world seems particularly helpful in 2017, exactly two centuries after Thoreau was born.

Stove and two chairs

Although the popular image of Thoreau is that of a quiet misanthrope twiddling his thumbs alongside a peaceful pond, Thoreau was outspoken during the most politically tumultuous time in American history. When Thoreau wrote “Civil Disobedience” and “Slavery in Massachusetts,” the political debate over slavery was ratcheting the nation toward civil war, and Thoreau was deeply engaged in that debate. Thoreau didn’t just sit back and ignore the political issues of his day; although he cherished his solitude, Thoreau wasn’t an escapist. Instead, Thoreau figured out how to balance engagement and renewal, speaking out on political issues as he was able, but also finding time to unplug.

Desk with guestbook

Ever since the election, I’ve been spending a lot of time following news coverage and political commentary on Trump, Trumpism, and the burgeoning resistance to both. There has been a surge on the left of people trying to learn and understand everything from the demographics of the white working class to constitutional law and immigration policy. While folks on the right raced to buy guns when Obama was elected, folks on the left are now racing to read books. Unlike Trump supporters who shield themselves from “fake news” by plugging their ears to any coverage that doesn’t come straight from the President himself, people on the other side of the political divide have been reading widely and deeply, seeking multiple perspectives in an attempt to stay informed.

Thoreau's snowshoes

This attempt to stay informed, however, can get tiring: sometimes I envy the quiet complacency of the right, who can sit back and trust that America will magically become Great now that Trump is in charge. Had Hillary Clinton won the election, I would have presumably done the same, patting myself on the back for doing my civic duty at the ballot box and considering my job as a citizen to be over. Since the election, however, I find myself moonlighting as an activist, keeping a constant eye on breaking news, receiving daily text messages and emails urging me to contact elected officials on the issue du jour, and otherwise staying vigilant, ready to cancel plans and rush off to protest the latest executive order, unsettling tweet, or constitutional crisis.

Thoreau's bed and desk

In the aftermath of 9/11, people quickly learned that you can’t remain on high alert forever, but that doesn’t mean you should let yourself be lulled to sleep. Beth recently wrote about self-care during the resistance: if you plan to be an effective activist in the long run, you have to prioritize and pick your battles. This is, again, where I find Thoreau to be particularly inspiring. Thoreau spoke out against slavery, the Mexican War, and other political outrages of his day, but he also managed to take daily walks, write in his journal, keep a careful chronicle of wild flora and fauna, and tend his garden. Thoreau, in other worlds, figured out a way to simultaneously exist and resist.

Weathered

What Thoreau didn’t do, of course, was stay inside glued to either CNN or his Facebook feed: instead, he was outside and active. A lot of modern-day critics of Thoreau argue (rightfully) that his activism was largely symbolic: the single night in jail Thoreau describes in “Civil Disobedience” didn’t single-handedly bring down slavery. But just because an act of protest is symbolic doesn’t mean it is isn’t powerful, as many of the accoutrements of power are themselves symbolic.

Peace

Donald Trump didn’t magically become a different man when he raised his hand and took the oath of office, but that symbolic action marked a monumental transition of power. Some of the most alarming news items these days stem not from official policy Trump and his administration has enacted, but the tone-setting influence of angry rants and recklessly worded tweets. Words are nothing more than symbols, but that doesn’t mean words don’t matter.

Adirondack Writers' Guild

By writing about his night in jail, Thoreau preserved it for the ages, reminding generation after generation that “under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” The concept of civil disobedience–Thoreau’s insistence that the government is a machine, and private citizens can strip government of its power by intentionally becoming a “counter-friction to stop the machine”–is not new or earth-shattering: had Thoreau not written “Civil Disobedience,” both King and Gandhi would have found inspiration elsewhere.

Henry David Thoreau's grave

But the fact remains that Thoreau did write this essay: he planted a seed. The tree of peaceful protest would have found some other method of germination had Thoreau never tended it, but he was a faithful servant in freedom’s garden. A solitary and sometimes cantankerous man, Thoreau probably never envisioned the communal movements that both King and Gandhi led: what started as one man spending one night in jail has inspired massive collective movements that have changed the world. Even the largest earthquake starts with a tiny tremor.

February

History is neither a marathon or sprint; instead, history is a relay race. Thoreau did nothing more than pick up the baton of justice and pass it on, and we should expect nothing less of ourselves. It’s important to show up–to engage in faithful, regular deeds, even if those deeds are small–as a way of claiming our priorities. It is not necessary to do everything, but do not fail to do something. As you are able, act. If you cannot act, speak up; if you cannot speak up, listen. If you can neither act, speak up, nor listen, by all means pray. Remain faithful in small things, and trust your acts will be echoed by others, achieving a cumulative effect. We’re in this for the long haul, and there is a need for all sorts of acts and activism.

I'm with her

On Saturday, J and I took the T downtown, where we converged on Boston Common with some 175,000 other folks for the Boston Women’s March. I knew tens of thousands of people had registered, but it was clear the turnout would be larger than expected when we arrived at our local T station more than an hour before the march and saw a crowd of pink-hatted women, men, and children waiting for the second of two back-to-back, already-full trolleys.

Love wins

J and I regularly take the T to Red Sox, Bruins, and Celtics games, so we have a lot of experience squeezing into crowded trolleys. Saturday’s crowds, however, were like nothing we’d ever seen. At each of the dozen T stops between the Boston suburbs and the heart of downtown, platforms were packed with throngs of people wearing pink hats and carrying posters. “Grab back,” one man’s sign urged, while another man wore a ballcap with a “Strong men support strong women” pin next to one that said “No f*cking fracking.”

Hear me roar

At each stop, some people on the platforms would shake their heads, determined to wait for the next, presumably less-packed train…but at each stop, a brave handful would squeeze into the train, and the rest of us would jostle closer to our neighbors, making as much room as possible.

Make America love again

At one point, the trolley was so densely packed, my back was solidly pressed into that of a pink-hatted woman behind me, as if we were propping one another up. Whenever the trolley swerved around a curve, we standers and strap-hangers all swayed together, and whenever the trolley screeched to a sudden stop, we leaned deep against our neighbors, keeping one another on our collective feet. After one particularly awkward lurch, I apologized to a seated couple for nearly landing in their laps, then I laughed. “I guess none of us is in danger of falling: we don’t have enough room.”

The future is nasty

That crush of bodies on the T was merely a foretaste of the feast to come. At the March itself, the crowds kept growing. As we approached the Common from the Public Garden, we could see a solid sea of pink hats and signs stretching from Charles Street to the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. Finding a spot where we could, in theory, see the rally stage, we were soon engulfed in a mass of humanity whose signs, shirts, and hats proclaimed all manner of progressive messages: “Be kind,” “Love wins,” “Words matter,” “Climate change is real,” “Diversity is our asset.”

Sad!

I’m not a fan of crowds, which sometimes make me claustrophobic. But the massive swell of pink-hatted protesters on Boston Common on Saturday didn’t feel like a crowd: instead, it felt warm and safe, like a hug or a snug blanket. It was a press of friendly flesh where we all quite literally had one another’s backs as we listened for nearly two hours to speeches by Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, Massachusetts Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, local labor leaders, civil rights activists, clergy, and local schoolchildren.

Liberty & Justice

One of the questions frequently asked of this weekend’s marchers, particularly by Trump supporters, is why are you marching? Why march against a President who has just taken office and hasn’t yet had time to implement any policies: why not wait and give him a chance? I have a very simple answer to this question. Trump, his administration, and the Republican Congress will have a chance to implement their policies whether I like it or not. But even though I didn’t elect the man driving this particular train, I marched on Saturday because I recognize humans are social creatures, and in a democracy we are bound together by a social contract.

Flag hijab

After a campaign where our civil unity was stretched to tatters, I marched on Saturday to affirm one simple truth: regardless of who is in the White House, we citizens here on the ground need to have one another’s backs. As a white woman, I marched to affirm black lives. As a straight woman, I marched to affirm LGBT rights. As a United States citizen, I marched to affirm the rights of immigrants and their families. As a Christian, I marched to affirm the civil liberties of Muslims, Jews, and other targets of post-election hate crimes. And as a woman, I marched to affirm that women’s rights are human rights, every person deserves affordable health care, and every woman has the right to decide what happens to her own body.

Pussy Riot

The biggest irony of Saturday’s march, however, is that J and I never actually marched. Because the crowd on Boston Common was so enormous, after the rally ended, we spent nearly an hour inching toward Charles Street, where the march began. After chatting with an older woman whose hat was covered with faded pins from decades of past marches, J and I decided to make an early exit, gently pushing and squeezing our way through the crowd toward Park Street, where we boarded a trolley for home. (Thank goodness for a tall man with a “Give a Hoot / Don’t Pollute” jacket, who sliced through the crowd ahead of us: we literally followed his coattails to open ground.)

No 2nd class Americans

But even though J and I didn’t actually march at Saturday’s March, it was enough to have been there. It was awesome to be subsumed by a crowd of peaceful protestors. It was inspiring to surge on a sea of positive energy even though we were collectively protesting an election that was an affront to our shared values. And it was encouraging to affirm what we believe is the bedrock of our American democracy: rights and dignity for all, and promises based on facts, evidence, and reality.

Truth matters

Instead of moving our feet, J and I took a stand, and I’m immensely glad we did. Watching news coverage of marches in DC and around the world makes me realize the awesome power of millions of people who’ve got one another’s backs.

Expect resistance

Click here for more photos from Saturday’s Boston Women’s March. Enjoy!

Wake up and do good

At first I wept, sobbing myself to sleep last Tuesday night when it became clear that hate would triumph over hope. Last Wednesday was gray and drizzly, and I spent the day at home half-heartedly grading papers while cycling between despair and rage. I wasn’t upset because my candidate lost, but because my country and fellow citizens had.

Together we are an ocean

While driving to campus last Thursday morning, I struggled with what to say to my students. It felt like an entirely different world since I had seen them on Election Day, when we had hoped to make history. My grief and anger were still raw: if we couldn’t shatter the glass ceiling, I told myself, then we’d just have to smash the whole goddamn patriarchy. But anger isn’t a plan, and my job is to teach, not sputter with inarticulate rage.

Unity

At some point between parking my car and walking into my morning class, I decided what I wanted. Instead of breaking things, I wanted to build things. Instead of letting my fears and anger turn into divisiveness–the very thing that swept our President-Elect into power–I’d turn my rage into awareness, my disappointment into determination, my fear into ferocity. I didn’t ask to be on the front line of a resistance, but in the aftermath of an election where a demagogue deceived the most vulnerable with hateful slogans and empty promises, teaching critical thinking is a revolutionary act.

Love trumps hate

Regardless of who’s in the Oval Office, I told my students, we’re the ones on the ground doing the real work of democracy. Now that the ballots have been counted, we’ll get down to business of protesting, letter-writing, and loving our neighbors. While others use rhetoric to divide, we’ll speak words of encouragement. And when we see hatred or bigotry, we will refuse to be idle bystanders. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and we’ll fight like hell to protect them. Regardless of who is in the Oval Office, we are the ones who will look hatred in the eye and say “Not on my watch.”

Don't despair, don't hate

Today’s photos come from a student-led Unity Walk and Hope-in-Action Rally at Framingham State. You can read more about the event here, and you can view additional pictures here.

Newton City Hall, right near Newton City Hall

When Massachusetts announced it would allow early voting this year, I wasn’t sure I wanted to take advantage of it. I like the annual ritual of walking to our local polling place after work on Election Day to vote alongside our neighbors, and I was afraid early voting would feel as impersonal as mailing in an absentee ballot.

Civic duty done.

I shouldn’t have worried. Today after lunch J and I walked to Newton City Hall to cast our early ballots, and along the way we saw a half dozen strangers sporting “I voted” stickers. One be-stickered man said hello as he and his partner passed, and his friendliness reminded me of the annual melting of New England resolve that happens on Marathon Monday. There’s something about doing your civic duty that makes even the most reticent New Englander a bit more cheery, whether that civic duty involves casting a ballot or cheering on passing runners.

He's with her.

At City Hall, a handful of volunteers stood outside with signs reminding us to vote yes to protect farm animals. Inside, a police officer sat quietly in a corner while a pair of election volunteers steered J and me to a check-in table where workers tapped our names into tablets, verified our address, and handed us a double-sided ballot and early-voting envelope.

There wasn’t a line to check in, but the dozen or more ballot booths lined along a nearby hallway were full. “At this rate,” an election worker told J as she applied a precinct sticker to his ballot envelope, “there won’t be anyone who hasn’t voted by election day.” Indeed, as of yesterday more than a tenth of all Newton voters had already cast their ballots, and who knows how many more voters will turnout before early voting ends on November 4th.

Newton City Hall, right near Newton City Hall

After I’d filled out my ballot and sealed it in its envelope, I had to wait at the ballot box while two adolescent girls in soccer uniforms politely asked the election volunteer if they could have a voting sticker even though they were clearly too young to register. The worker gave each of them two stickers: “One for this outfit, and one for your next.” Maybe in four years, these girls will be old enough to cast their own ballots, emboldened by the realization that they too can be President.

In reverent memory

Some stories grab you by the throat, give you a shake, and knock the breath right out of you. I recently re-read Tim O’Brien’s “How to tell a true war story,” an oft-anthologized chapter from O’Brien’s emotionally eviscerating novel, The Things They Carried. People call The Things They Carried a novel because it’s book-length and loosely fictionalized, an account of the Vietnam War that seems to overlap with O’Brien’s own experience but which he never outright claims as autobiography. Sometimes the truest stories, O’Brien suggests, didn’t actually happen: sometimes you have to change the names, places, and other details–the facts of mere biography–to express a larger truth.

Decorated

In my first-year writing classes at Framingham State, we’re discussing David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers, this year’s common reading. Finkel’s book is “true” in a way that O’Brien’s book never claims to be. Finkel is a journalist who spent eight months embedded in an Army unit stationed in Iraq during the 2007 Surge: the exact point of American occupation when everyone had pretty much given up on the war. Finkel’s account of the 2-16 and their leader, Ralph Kauzlarich, is based on fact, as journalism is supposed to be. The names of the men in the 2-16 are real, as are the appendix photos of the 14 soldiers who were killed during their deployment. Finkel traveled with the 2-16 to Iraq–he lived with them at FOB Rustamiyah, a part of Iraq most Americans never see–and he made additional fact-finding trips to places like Fort Riley and the Brooke Army Medical Center to follow-up with the men he wrote about. Finkel, in other words, takes great pains to get his facts straight, as journalists are expected to do.

Flowers and flag

These facts matter, but they aren’t the part of the book that sticks with you. This is what O’Brien, for one, understood. Finkel gets his fact straight because history is built on facts, and it’s important to honor the legacy of those who fought and those who died. But when you walk away from a book like Finkel’s, those detailed facts are the first thing you forget.

At our first class session, I asked my students a seemingly simple question. Thinking back on The Good Soldiers, regardless of how far you got into the book, what do you remember? I didn’t quiz my students on names, dates, or other details (as they had feared) since I’m notoriously forgetful about those things, too. Walking away from a book like Finkel’s, I don’t remember the names or the dates: that’s why the names are listed in the appendix and why the date is listed at the start of every chapter. These details are important, but they aren’t what you remember.

Rose offering

What you remember after reading a book like Finkel’s is the same as what you remember after reading a book like O’Brien’s. You remember the stories and the scenes that moved you, viscerally. In Finkel’s book, my students remembered the same scenes I did: the part where a soldier shoots a man in the head, only to realize a terrified Iraqi girl witnessed the killing. The part where the soldiers’ Iraqi translator brings his daughter to the U.S. military base for medical treatment. The part where Finkel visits a young soldier who is hospitalized after losing multiple limbs and sustaining severe brain damage. The part where the soldiers try to figure out how to retrieve an Iraqi corpse floating in a sewage tank. My students and I remember these scenes not because we remember all the specifics: we forget the names of the people to whom these things happened, and we forget other factual details. What we remember, though, is an emotional response: a vivid, imagined sense of how we might feel if we were in a similar situation.

World War veteran

My students have been painstakingly schooled in a particular way of reading. According to this training, their job when they read is to find and memorize minute textual details, for these are the things teachers ask on tests and quizzes. What was the first name of the leader of the 2-16? What was the name of the first soldier to die? On what date did General David Petraeus visit FOB Rustamiyah, and on what date did the battalion finally go home? These are important details, and I’m glad David Finkel took great pains to get them right, because they’re in the book whenever I need to look them up. But when I walk away from The Good Soldiers, those details aren’t what stay in my head, because those details aren’t what matter to my heart.

Patriotic goose

What matters in my heart is that both Finkel and O’Brien, in their own, different ways, give me a viscerally vivid sense of something I have never witnessed myself. Reading either book, I learn that I don’t want to experience the things these men experience, and I don’t want anyone else to have to experience these things, either. Both Finkel and O’Brien describe events that are literally unimaginable: what does the rest of your life look like if you’re a young veteran who has lost multiple limbs and sustained severe brain damage, or what is it like to come home from war with your head full of nightmares? What remains after I’ve finished both Finkel’s nonfiction narrative and O’Brien’s novel is a clear, unassailable sense that war is entirely unlike all the pious platitudes we use to describe it. If you haven’t experienced war, you can’t really “get” it, but at the same time, it’s of vital, utmost importance that these stories be told, not so the tellers can “move on,” but so the stories themselves be remembered, emblazoned in our collective memory. It’s imperative that you know this is what happened, even if you can’t fully understand it.

Decorated graves

So, how do you read a true war story? You let go of your desire to remember all the dates and names. This isn’t a history class; these things will not be on the quiz. Instead, you read with an open heart and an inquisitive mind, allowing thorny, troubling questions to take full root in your consciousness. Why exactly did we fight this war? Why exactly do we fight any war? How are soldiers, civilians, and people who literally get caught in the crossfire changed by the experience? How can you tell the “good guys” from the “bad guys” in a scenario where everything seems hopelessly complicated and confused? How can we honor the sacrifice of soldiers who serve, and how can we provide them with the support they need when they come home, forever changed by experiences we can’t possibly imagine?

Offering

One of the scenes I remember from The Good Soldiers, for instance, involves a soldier who finally opens up to his wife about what he has seen, prefacing his remarks with “How much do you want to know?” In another scene, a soldier tries to describe to his family the kind of place Rustamiyah is–a place where people literally live in shit, the ground being covered with trash and raw sewage–and his grandmother walks away, unable to stomach his descriptions. Neither The Good Soldiers nor The Things They Carried is an easy, enjoyable book: given the choice to turn away and ignore the stories they tell, you might decide you don’t want to know any of this. But one of the morals behind both books, I think, is that these are stories that need to be told. How can you claim to be informed about the world we live in–how can you claim to be an informed American citizen–if you have no idea what has been done in our name across the world, both to our presumed enemies and to our own troops?

Twin flags

One of the points that O’Brien makes in “How to Tell a True War Story” is that a war story is seldom what it seems. The chapter tells a pair of horrific stories: in one, a soldier named Lemon steps on a booby trap that shreds his body and leaves pieces of his flesh hanging in a nearby tree, and in the other, a soldier named Rat–Lemon’s best friend–repeatedly shoots a baby water buffalo just to watch it suffer. O’Brien describes how audiences of well-intentioned readers invariably misinterpret these stories, fixating on the pain inflicted on the baby water buffalo–an innocent creature–and in the process missing the story’s real point. This isn’t a war story, O’Brien explains; it’s a love story. The moral isn’t that war causes people to do horrifying things, but that love does. If Rat didn’t love Lemon, there would be no need to shoot the water buffalo. The tragedy of war isn’t simply that it is violent and deadly, but that it is also the setting for profoundly life-changing relationships. War, O’Brien suggests, is both hell and heaven, filled with an inexplicable mix of pain and poignancy.

Two rows

One of the challenges in reading The Good Soldiers is advertised in the title itself: what exactly is a “good” soldier? If you’re fixated on memorizing the names and dates, you’ll miss that question: you’ll miss, in fact, the whole point of Finkel’s narrative. On the first day of class, I raised a question my students and I will continue to grapple with in coming weeks: why did Finkel write this book, and what does he want readers to get from it? This isn’t an easy question; the answer isn’t something you can locate in the text and then memorize. The people Finkel describes are a mix of good and bad, so it’s difficult to tell exactly who the “good guys” are. Opening each chapter with a quote from President George W. Bush that gives the politically-correct version of what happened during a given week in Iraq, Finkel then juxtaposes that scrubbed and sanitary account with what actually happened to the 2-16 at that same time. Given multiple versions of the truth, which one is “truly true”? Is Bush a bad president for giving the American people an optimistic and upbeat version of a deeply troubling war, or is Bush a good leader for trying to bolster military moral however he can, even if that means claiming victory when all the facts seem to suggest otherwise?

Wilted

Ralph Kauzlarich deeply cares for the men of the 2-16 but seems over-optimistic, naïve, or even offensively insensitive when he intones his favorite saying, “It’s all good,” even in the face of tragedy. Seeking to strengthen ties with his Iraqi allies, Kauzlarich befriends the leader of an Iraqi police battalion who fears retaliation from neighbors who resent his involvement with Americans. Whenever one of Kauzlarich’s men is killed by a roadside bomb, his loyalty toward his Iraqi allies is tested. Kauzlarich wants to help the Iraqi people, but he also finds himself occasionally hating the very people he is trying to help. If you desperately want to believe your involvement in the war is “all good” because you are making a difference in the Iraqi people’s lives, you’re going to struggle with existential doubt and despair every time you realize how intractable the problems you face truly are. Winning over the Iraqi people isn’t as easy as handing out soccer balls to local children; when you can’t accurately assess who is your friend and who is your foe, you’re going to respond to even the most innocuous encounters with suspicion, dread, and fear.

Memorial wreaths

I suspect my students think they were assigned to read The Good Soldiers so they could be better informed about the war in Iraq, and presumably that is part of the common reading’s purpose. But a good book, like a true war story, does so much more than merely inform. Given the pictures that both Finkel and O’Brien paint of war, what does either writer want us to “do” with that information? Once you get a vivid taste of what war was like for a particular group of soldiers at a particular time, how does that awareness change you as a reader and a citizen?

Many flags

A good book, like a true war story, can help you become better informed, but it also can (and perhaps should) make you a more earnest asker of questions. Forget about what happened in Vietnam or Iraq; instead, raise the question of why it happened. If there is a lesson to be learned in any war (or in any war story), what are those lessons, and have we learned them? Getting the facts straight is difficult enough; grappling with the trickier question of why is infinitely more difficult. The Good Soldiers is sure about its facts but not nearly as sure about its conclusions. Given a true war story, how to you make sense of it, and what do you do with that information once you’ve received it?

Click here for more photos from Newton Cemetery, shot this past Memorial Day.

If you’re looking for an eye-opening, nuanced account of the 2007 Iraq War surge from an embedded perspective, I’d strongly recommend David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers. If you’re looking for a novel about the Vietnam War that will break your heart time and again, I’d strongly recommend Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

Fallen Firefighters' Memorial

Today is Labor Day, the bookend to Memorial Day, which marks the traditional start of summer. In this election year, we’ve become even more deeply divided between the right-leaning folks who commemorate the war dead on Memorial Day and the left-leaning folks who applaud common workers on Labor Day, as if one holiday were in direct opposition to the other. Labor Day celebrates the rise of unions, which have been under attack from the right this past year, and Labor Day honors the common workers who build the infrastructure upon which our day-to-day society rests. How can servicemen protect our freedoms overseas if there were not workers maintaining the structure of society here at home?

Fallen Firefighters' Memorial

This year, the right is rallying behind the cry of “I built this,” a shorthand slogan pointing to the importance of individual initiative and industry. Labor Day is a holiday to acknowledge the workers whose collective effort make our individual accomplishments possible: I am able to build this because they worked so hard to build that. When you drive to work every day, who built that road? When you negotiate orderly, crime-free streets, who protects your safety? When you go to the grocery story to spend your hard-earned paycheck, who stocked those shelves?

Fallen Firefighters' Memorial

Whenever I’m grocery shopping and see a delivery man stocking shelves, I smile because my Dad did that, driving a bread route for years. If there was bread on the shelf when you went grocery shopping this week, it was because some hard-working Teamster like my dad drove a truck to deliver it: it didn’t just appear there by accident or chance.

Given the goodies in your grocery cart, you can “build” all kinds of things, limited only by your own culinary initiative and skill. But don’t pretend that because you combined those ingredients into something tasty, you created those ingredients themselves. Somewhere, a laborer grew that produce, raised that livestock, or ground that grain into flour. If you’re able to read a cookbook, some teacher taught you how, and if your kitchen catches fire while you’re cooking, some firefighter will rush in to save you.

Fallen Firefighters' Memorial

Focusing on one’s own accomplishments while ignoring the assistance one has received is arrogance, and thanking those who gave their lives in war while not acknowledging the living laborers who work for the common good is folly. Both kinds of service are essential, and both kinds of service demand their own kind of sacrifice. Honoring one without honoring the other is like cutting off your left hand to honor your right. The beauty of bookends is that they work together, this one supporting the other in a perfect metaphor of collective teamwork.

I snapped these shots of the Fallen Firefighters’ Memorial last summer, when J and I vacationed in Seattle.

Next Page »