Sense of Decency

Listening to others, seeing things through their eyes.

A mother holds her son close as the wind picks up and snow falls at the Palanca border crossing, a jointly operated division between the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine, March 8, 2022. More than 85,000 Ukrainians have passed through Moldova, fleeing Russian attacks. Photo © Maranie Staab. Follow her on Instagram @maranierae or on Twitter @MaranieRae.

By JIM McKEEVER

We are heartbroken.

News reports, photos and video of the suffering in Ukraine, images of innocent families dead on the ground, have infuriated us, sparked us to act.

We send money, food, supplies, weapons. We attend rallies to show solidarity with Ukraine and speak out against Vladimir Putin’s cruel war.

America’s empathy and compassion are on full display.

And yet …

Refugees from other parts of the world aren’t afforded the same empathy, and receive far different treatment by the United States. To name a few:

Haiti. Mexico. Afghanistan. Central and South America. Cameroon.

What’s the difference?

Melanin. 

In other words, most people fleeing Ukraine have white skin.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an overt act of war being played out on social media for all of America to see, unlike the following: Cartel violence (rape, kidnapping, extortion, murders of journalists and others) in Mexico; “ethnic cleansing” in Myanmar; gang violence in Haiti; terrorism in Cameroon against English-speakers. Etcetera.

Al Otro Lado, a legal aid organization based in Tijuana that aids those seeking refuge, posed this question recently on Instagram:

“What’s the difference between someone fleeing violence in Ukraine and someone fleeing violence in Cameroon? The world’s explicit bias is on display (and) the message is clear, if you’re Black or brown, you don’t deserve protection. Humanitarianism must be extended to ALL people.” 

Immigration attorneys, scholars and activists also point out that the U.S. often expels asylum seekers of color back into danger that America has created or enabled.

President Joe Biden’s continuation of his predecessor’s Title 42 policy to expel migrants under the guise of public health has been decried as a scam. At last count, 20,000 Haitians have been expelled under Biden, more than 1.2 million people in all.

We don’t know how many people turned away at our southern border have been killed. Because we don’t see them. We don’t hear about them. We don’t talk about them.

Americans don’t post the equivalent of sunflower photos or change their social media profile photos in solidarity. No one flies the flag of Cameroon or wears the colors of Haiti.

This is not just an American problem.

Since Putin began his war, there have been reports of students and others of African descent in Ukraine who have been denied transport out of the country.

“Videos show Black people being pushed off trains and Black drivers being reprimanded and stalled by Ukrainians as they try to flee,” the Brookings Institution reports. “There are even reports of animals being allowed on trains before Africans.” 

Groups of Nepalese, Indian and Somalian men told TIME magazine how they were kicked and beaten with batons by Ukrainian guards who later begrudgingly allowed them to cross into Poland — on foot. A 24-year-old Black woman said she encountered hostility from the Ukrainian military, who were dividing people into two groups — those who were white, and those who were not. 

Some journalists and European officials have made remarks that are insensitive at best.

“Now the unthinkable has happened to them,” an ITV journalist said of Ukrainians. “And this is not a developing, third world nation. This is Europe!”

Apparently “the unthinkable” should only happen in what Biden’s predecessor called “s***hole countries.”

Please don’t misunderstand.

Refugees from Ukraine deserve our solidarity and our empathy, as well as political and economic intervention to stop the suffering and death at the hands of one evil man — a man who is admired by an uncomfortable number of Americans. Even now.

Ukraine’s much smaller neighbors like Moldova and Slovakia are taking in tens of thousands of Ukrainians. From 2015 to 2019, Germany took in more than 1.5 million refugees, many of them fleeing Syria’s civil war.

Why don’t refugees from Haiti, Cameroon, El Salvador and Guatemala deserve the same open arms and hearts in America as people from Ukraine?

Why do our hearts not break for them?

Refugees, no matter where they come from, are human beings. Men, women, children.

Some of them just happen to look a little different than we’re comfortable with.

Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. He volunteers with several humanitarian and legal aid organizations at the U.S.-Mexico border.


Historian Ty Seidule will speak Friday, March 4 at 7 p.m. at the Catherine Cummings Theater, 16 Lincklaen St., Cazenovia, NY. The Cazenovia Forum presentation is free and open to the public and will be followed by a reception at the Lincklaen House, where copies of Seidule’s books will be available. Masks are required at the presentation. NANCY L. FORD PHOTOGRAPHY.

By DENNIS HARROD

Ty Seidule never thought of himself as a white supremacist. He didn’t think about white supremacy at all.  Growing up in the South, first in Virginia and then in Georgia, he had one dream: become a southern gentleman, like his idol, Robert E. Lee. He accepted without question the narrative of the Confederacy as a glorious lost cause, a defeat of right by might. 

“I mainlined Gone with the Wind and overdosed on the Lost Cause,” he writes in his 2021 memoir, “Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause.”

But during a lifetime of studying history Seidule realized that he had grown up accepting a myth and that all he had been told and taught, all he had experienced as a white person, was part of a system dedicated to the perpetuation of white supremacy.

Now, he’s on a mission to correct the narrative of the glorious and virtuous cause of the Confederacy and especially the idolization of its heroes, starting with Lee. After spending a career as a soldier in the United States Army, Seidule does not look kindly on those who killed men like him and so refuses to honor the Confederate dead. The Confederacy went to war against the United States and before it was over, more than 350,000 United States soldiers were dead. Only in World War II were more U.S. soldiers killed. (If one counts the Confederate dead, the Civil War killed more American soldiers than any other war.)

Seidule says to make no mistake: The Civil War was first and foremost about the perpetuation of slavery. Many will argue the war was about states’ rights. Seidule agrees. “Sure, they fought for states’ rights,” he says. The states’ rights to perpetuate the enslavement of human beings.

He cites South Carolina’s given reason for seceding: “the hostility … to the institution of slavery.” Mississippi argued that it was seceding because “our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest in the world.” And he cites the speech given in March 1861 by Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy. Stephens said that the Confederacy’s “cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man … that slavery is his normal and natural condition.”

Seidule’s book follows his youth in Virginia and Georgia and then his 36-year career in the United States Army retiring as a brigadier general. As he studies history and begins to tear away at the fabric of the myth of the Lost Cause, he comes across innumerable atrocities committed against Black people for which there was no official memory. Statues and memorials to Confederate soldiers abound across the south (and the north) but there was little or no mention of the thousands of Black people who were murdered under a reign of terror that lasted well into the 20th century (some would say it continues to this day).

In the years following the war, the Confederacy was anathema to the United States. But toward the end of the 19th century, the myth of the lost cause began to take hold and a spirit of reconciliation and national unity fueled a new narrative. Seidule notes that this spirit of reconciliation extended only to white people and that the repression, terror and murder in the South continued unabated. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. Army, which had lost so many soldiers to the South’s rebellion, began to honor many of those who fought for the Confederacy by naming forts after them. Forts Bragg and Benning are two of the better-known forts named for “unrepentant white supremacists,” Seidule writes. He takes special exception to John Brown Gordon, for whom Fort Gordon in Georgia is named. Gordon never served in the U.S. Army, but rose through the ranks of the Confederate army. After the war, he helped lead the Ku Klux Klan, calling it a “brotherhood of … peaceable, law-abiding citizens.” Much like those “ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse,” of whom the Republican National Committee recently spoke.

Other forts include one named for George Pickett of Gettysburg fame. Pickett, who executed 22 captured U.S. soldiers, was a war criminal, Seidule says. 

And then there is Fort Lee, home of army logistics. At Fort Lee, “our most racially diverse post,” Seidule writes, “the army honors a man who wore army blue for three decades and then refused to stay when his nation needed him most. Instead, he fought so well and so hard to ensure African Americans stayed enslaved.”

But over the course of the 20th century, Lee had gone from traitor to hero. Even Franklin Delano Roosevelt praised Lee as “one of our greatest American Christians and one of our greatest American gentlemen.” As Seidule writes, “The South had lost the war but won the narrative.”

Having grown up worshipping Lee, Seidule is now unsparing in his contempt for the man. A great general, yes, Seidule says, but that makes Lee even more guilty for taking up arms against his country. “Because he fought so well for so long, hundreds of thousands of soldiers died. No other enemy officer in American history was responsible for the deaths of more U.S. Army solders than Robert E. Lee.”

In spite of his catalog of horrors, Seidule remains optimistic. He writes “never underestimate the ability of Americans to do the right thing – eventually.” He cites the gradual, grudging acknowledgement of the white supremacist legacy of the United States and the movement toward a reckoning of all of our history.

And he finds hope in stories like that of Ted DeLaney, who grew up attending segregated black schools in Virginia. He was offered a scholarship to attend Morehouse College, but was hesitant to move farther south and instead took a custodial job Washington and Lee University (Seidule’s alma mater). DeLaney’s intelligence got him promoted to a lab assistant job. In 1979 he began taking classes and graduated with a history degree in 1983 at the age of 40. From there he went on to a PhD in history and returned to Washington and Lee as a professor. He retired in 2019, 56 years after he started as a custodian, and died in 2020. “Ted DeLaney represents the America I love,” Seidule writes.

Seidule admits his passion for setting the record straight “can verge into righteousness,” but he is determined to keep on talking, teaching and writing in the hope that not only will we stop honoring traitors and white supremacists, but that we will begin honoring the stories of countless Black people whose stories remain untold and unknown. “The only way to prevent a racist future,” he writes, “is to first understand our racist past.” 

Dennis Harrod is a co-founder of Sense of Decency, and in the spirit of full disclosure, he is a member of the board of the Cazenovia Forum. For more information on Seidule’s March 4 presentation, go to Cazenovia Forum.

A house in Earlville, NY, has had this sign on the lawn for many months. Photo © Dennis Harrod

By DENNIS HARROD

“The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.” 

— Isaiah, 11:16

We should be ashamed.

Amanda Gorman wrote in the New York Times Jan. 20, 2022, that she almost did not recite her poem at Joe Biden’s 2021 inauguration because she feared for her life. 

“I was terrified,” she wrote. “… at the inauguration I was going to become highly visible — which is a very dangerous thing to be in America, especially if you’re Black and outspoken and have no Secret Service.”

Friends “not so jokingly” told her to buy a bulletproof vest. Her mother was terrified as well. “My mom had us crouch in our living room so that she could practice shielding my body from bullets.”

In the end, Gorman did put herself in front of the multitude and recited her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” and gave a gift of hope to a nervous nation.

“… what I found waiting beyond my fear was all those who searched beyond their own fears to find space for hope in their lives, who welcomed the impact of a poem into protests, hospitals, classrooms, conversations, living rooms, offices, art and all manner of moments.”

Is this where we are? A 22-year-old poet, not even five and a half feet tall, is fearful of reading her poem in public. She’s afraid because much of America is afraid of her. Afraid of her and her words. Words that, God forbid, might make us think.

We should be ashamed, all of us, and not just those bad guys on the other side of the political divide. It’s all of us, hating and fearing “the other” and refusing to stop and consider that someone whose views are anathema to us may have more than one dimension, may have something to say. It’s too easy to hate and be done with it. And as we’ve seen with so many of our “leaders,” hate pays. Hate’s easy. Far easier than trying to see the other side as anything but a one-dimensional villain. And you don’t have to think.

Part of the problem is that we mistake the loudmouths and bullies who make their living spouting division and hate for the people they are talking to. Maybe the people they are talking to are listening because they don’t think anyone listens to them. Maybe if we listened for a minute, we’d hear something more than what we’d expected from the caricature we have created based on one aspect of their lives.

It can be done. It has been done. Daryl Davis, a Black blues musician, has for more than 30 years befriended members of the Ku Klux Klan. And in those 30 years, more than 200 of the Klansmen have recognized the irrationality of their hatred and have turned their robes over to Davis. And all because he sat down and talked to them, knowing who and what they were.

Back in the middle of the last century, Jesús Colón wrote a short piece examining how society’s prejudice affects us all and makes us less than human. Finding himself, a Black, Puerto Rican man, alone on a subway platform late at night with a white woman who was struggling with packages and three small children, Colón wondered if he should offer to help her. Helping others was second nature to him. 

“Courtesy is a characteristic of the Puerto Rican,” he wrote. “And here I was—a Puerto Rican hours past midnight, a valise, two white children and a white lady with a baby on her arm [badly] needing somebody to help her, at least until she descended the long concrete stairs.”

But he hesitated as he wondered what she would think if a Black man with an accent approached her in a lonely, all but empty station late at night. Would she accept his gracious offer without a second thought? Or would she succumb to the prejudice of the age (and now) and be afraid and scream? 

“Here was I, way past midnight, face to face with a situation that could very well explode into an outburst of prejudices and chauvinistic conditioning of the “divide and rule” policy of present-day society,” he wrote.

In the end, he walked quickly by the struggling woman. 

“I passed on by her as if I saw nothing. As if I was insensitive to her need. Like a rude animal walking on two legs, I just moved on, half running by the long subway platform, leaving the children and the valise and her with the baby on her arm.”

 And he never knew what might have happened. 

“This is what racism and prejudice and chauvinism and official artificial divisions can do to people and to a nation!” he wrote. And he resolved that, if ever confronted with such a situation again, he would take his chances and be true to his nature and offer to help, whatever the consequences.

And Amanda Gorman decided to recite her poem. She stood before a nation because, she wrote: “What stood out most of all was the worry that I’d spend the rest of my life wondering what this poem could have achieved. There was only one way to find out.”

Now it’s up to the rest of us. Do we have the courage to lie down with the lions and the leopards and with those we fear? Do we have the courage to hear what they have to say and see if we can find common humanity? Do we dare climb that hill of which Amanda Gorman spoke?

“… to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside,” she wrote in her inaugural poem. 

Can we?

Dennis Harrod is a co-founder of Sense of Decency.

An inviting path into the woods was made ugly by racist graffiti at a trailhead last year. Photo © Dennis Harrod.

By DENNIS HARROD

At a trailhead leading to a path through woods and fields

flush with late summer’s abundance of gold and green,

where the wind rustled leaves and shook a few loose,

and a scent of fall hinted at what was to come, someone 

had scrawled a message of despair meant to harm any who read it,

or perhaps it was meant to please those filled with equal hate or fear

of people whose color or sex or beliefs were different.

And despair spread in stomach-turning waves, especially 

in all of those targeted by the message, who had come to spend

time in the woods, and in the fields, hoping to freely breathe the forest air.

A woman lately arrived in the community came to the trail  

with sunny ideas of a long slow walk and found herself instead a target

and turned away, nature’s open offering turned to cruelty that was 

anything but indifferent.

Dennis Harrod is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. On a nature trail in Central New York last year, he (and others) saw that someone had scrawled racist graffiti on the sign at the trailhead.

Buffalo Federal Detention Facility in Batavia, NY. Photo © Michelle Gabel.

By JIM McKEEVER

I won’t give you their names, but names shouldn’t matter anyway. 

They are voices at the other end of a phone call, faceless men ages 18 to 48, who tell me their stories in 60, 90 minutes. We say good-bye, I wish them luck and I have no idea what happens to them after that.

These men tell me horrific stories of threats, beatings, guns, machetes, death, lost friends and loved ones. Sometimes they cry, these men often stereotyped as macho Latinos or “bad hombres.” 

Who are these men? 

Sons, brothers, fathers who break down when talking about the 7-year-old child they left behind, their mothers and sisters back home hiding from gangs, the newborn son they have yet to see, the family farm they had to flee when men killed all their animals and said, “You’re next.”

These traumatized men call me — actually, their captors call me and put the men on the phone — from detention centers in the U.S., because the captors who make a living this way are bound by law to allow phone calls for legal assistance. 

The captors comply (most of the time). Is it out of the goodness of their hearts, their humanity?

Or is it because it keeps the watchdog advocates and prying journalists at bay, doesn’t jeopardize the revenue stream to the detention centers, the private corporations and stockholders raking in millions from government-sanctioned human trafficking?

I listen to the men’s stories. I try to visualize their faces as they tell me of pressure to join gangs, of participating in street protests against corrupt governments and police, of getting robbed in one Central American country or another en route to Mexico and to the locked-and-loaded southern border of the United States of America.

For the most part I focus on getting as many details as I can, facts that can help them in their asylum applications, crucial information I add to the forms I send to lawyers who work pro bono to uphold international and U.S. law, who value human rights more than billable hours.

As much as I try to visualize the faces of these migrants, I can’t. Maybe it’s self-preservation. These calls take a toll; their stories haunt me, as do the inhumane conditions they are forced to endure in detention.

The recurring image I have is of a faceless, brown-skinned man sitting at a bare table in a cold room under harsh fluorescent lights, wearing an orange or blue demeaning outfit they are forced to wear. 

These men are incredibly polite, never show impatience with me despite the difficulty I often have understanding their Spanish and accents, which vary depending on their country of origin.

These men are desperate, and they hope I can connect them with dedicated lawyers who may take their case and, with luck, reunite them with their family or a sponsor in the land of the free. For most of these men, this literally is a matter of life and death. 

Can you visualize these men? 

Whatever your political leanings, can you stop for a moment and consider that there are tens of thousands of men and women behind concertina wire in American detention centers? And thousands of other men, women and children trying to survive in shelters and on the streets at our doorstep just over the border in Mexico?

Can you see them? If not their faces, can you at least picture human beings — not “aliens,” as our government calls them — breaking down in tears as they relive trauma they are trying to escape and forget?

If you cannot, you’ll never know that these men even exist.

And if you don’t know or don’t care that they exist, it’s not just their loss. It’s yours.

Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. If anyone is curious about volunteering for the legal assistance volunteer program described above, please e-mail the author at contactdecency@gmail.com.

 

Photo © Michelle Gabel 2008.

By JIM McKEEVER

Ten years ago, during the welcoming ceremony for incoming students at my youngest son’s college, a speaker read a poem that ends with a question.

Many of you will recognize it, perhaps have claimed it as a mantra.

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Since that day I have been a fan of Mary Oliver, buying and borrowing books to visit and revisit her poems — “Wild Geese,” “The Summer Day,” “The Journey” and many others.

How does one reply to Oliver’s question? (Or is it a challenge, a dare?)

Long before I had heard of Oliver, my answer was taking shape.

In 2003, I took three months of Family Leave to help my mother move into a nursing home. She would remain there for the next  3 1/2 years — existing, her emotions mostly flatlined by medication but mercifully no longer angry at the world, until she died peacefully sitting in her wheelchair. 

I remember wheeling her in the first day and thinking, “Is this all there is?”

One of my siblings asked me then if our mother, in the throes of early dementia, knew that the nursing home was “her last stop.” 

During my three-month leave of absence, I visited the nursing home 88 days, give or take. I say this not to boast or to seek praise, but to say that it was a privilege to be there for her and to see that world up close.

A memory seared into my brain on Day One. A 19-year-old, underpaid and overworked Certified Nurse Assistant, a tattooed young man not much older than my sons, wheeled my mother into the bathroom after she had soiled herself.

The religious among us would say CNAs do the Lord’s work, and I would not disagree.

My mom was well cared for there, although the food often looked gray. It’s all relative, of course, for there are plenty of horror stories at such warehouses of our elderly.

The $9,000 a month (2003-2006) drained all but maybe $20,000 of her life’s savings and that of her physician brother, a frugal bachelor who had bequeathed his estate to his sisters. My mother taught first grade, and my father, who died in 2000, was a postal clerk who took the bus to work every day.

During my three months of near daily visits, I sat with my mother and other residents at mealtimes, observing activities like bingo and beach ball toss, and enjoying performances by local musicians and singers. On nice days, I would take my mom outside in her wheelchair for the sunshine and fresh air — a luxury there, trust me. 

Inside, I observed so many humbling moments, bizarre conversations and quiet acts of dignity and kindness that I took notes, knowing I had to do something with what I was witnessing. 

I even tried to write a play, which I never finished or tried to publish, titled “The Unit,” a nod to the dementia floor. 

The drafts are somewhere in my files, where they should stay until the next bonfire, but I did like one part of what I wrote (it happens occasionally). 

One character was “Mr. Zip.” I made him a former postal worker who could name the Zip code of pretty much any city in the U.S. 

“Mr. Zip” got a particular kick out of asking visitors, “What’s the Zip code for that big state university in Columbus, Ohio?” (It’s 43210). He would answer his own question, “4-3-2-1-BOOM!!” and laugh uproariously. 

That was poetic license, mind you, but I had to create some levity where I could.

Like many on the Unit in real life, the man who inspired the Mr. Zip character could be funny and charming one moment, belligerent or violent the next — and sometimes remarkably reflective and insightful.

“Sooner or later,” Mr. Zip said in one of his quieter moments, “we’re nothing more than a dusty picture frame in our kids’ living rooms. Gone and forgotten.”

Those three months shaped me more than I realized. I still read the local obituaries online every day and look for familiar names and the ages of the recently deceased. If I see someone my age or younger — which happens more and more — Oliver’s question comes back at me with renewed urgency. Maybe it’s panic. 

When COVID hit in early 2020 and claimed legendary singer-songwriter John Prine as an early victim, I watched a video of him in an intimate setting singing, “Hello In There.” 

Almost immediately I signed up as a volunteer for Meals on Wheels, delivering food to senior citizens one day a week. In less than two years, six or seven of the clients on my route have died. They lived alone, but they were in their own homes or in senior housing, and they were wonderful, kind people. 

I still think about them when I drive past their homes. Occasionally Prine’s lyrics find space in my head alongside Oliver’s question.

“You know that old trees just grow stronger

And old rivers grow wilder every day;

Old people just grow lonesome

waiting for someone to say,

Hello in there, hello.”

I don’t worry too much about how things will play out for me. It’s more productive, I think, to hone a skill Oliver cites in “A Summer Day” — knowing how to pay attention.

And having the courage to ask ourselves the difficult questions.

In “When Death Comes,” Oliver wrote, “I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.” 

The poet died in 2019 at age 83.

Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. The headline comes from a song, “Three Wooden Crosses,” written by Kim Williams and Doug Johnson. John Prine’s family established the Hello In There Foundation in his memory. The foundation’s work of supporting people on the margins of society is inspired by his song, “Hello In There.”

Our companion, an asylum seeker recently released from an immigration detention center in Calexico, Calif., asked if we could pose for a selfie en route to the San Diego airport for his flight to be reunited with his wife, whom he hadn’t seen in 2 1/2 years. Nina Wickett is on the left and the author on the right.

By JIM McKEEVER

The Facebook message from Julie at Minority Humanitarian Foundation arrived on a Wednesday afternoon.

“Hi Jim and Nina would you be available/interested in driving to Calexico tomorrow to pick up an asylum seeker? His wife just called us and he is being released today. … we were wondering if you could pick him up from the hotel tomorrow … and then take him straight to the airport and walk him through TSA.”

Nina Wickett and I had spent the day in Tijuana helping to prepare and serve a meal outside a health clinic with the wonderful people of Contra Viento y Marea community kitchen.

It didn’t take long for us to say yes to the 220-mile round trip from San Diego. 

The coordinated effort to reunite this man with his wife, whom he hadn’t seen in 2 1/2 years, was remarkable. 

The not-for-profit organization Border Angels paid the man’s bond to release him from Imperial Regional Detention Facility in Calexico. Minority Humanitarian Foundation put him up in a motel and bought his plane ticket (it does this regularly through Miles 4 Migrants.)

This work goes on behind the scenes day after day, night after night.

While Nina and I drove across the California desert to El Centro, Julie messaged us with detailed instructions about the man’s paperwork and the process of navigating airport security. 

We found him at his motel, his eyes smiling above his mask, and began navigating our language situation. He speaks some English, I can get by with mediocre Spanish and Nina speaks French. The laughter started pretty quickly.

A generous friend of ours, Amelia Nigro, had given us $100 toward our trip. We spent some of it on our new friend’s breakfast at McDonald’s, and then started the drive back to San Diego. We were on a fairly tight schedule.

The anxiety we felt about making sure we got him to the airport no doubt paled in comparison to the emotions of our friend as he sat smiling in the back seat of our rental car. He was ecstatic about his release and the reality that a four-hour flight would reunite him with his wife.

We made it to the airport two hours before his departure. 

It took some negotiating with the airline, which allowed only one of us to accompany our friend through TSA. That was me, as I could more easily communicate with him in Spanish.

Going through TSA was the only negative part of the day — people released from immigration detention centers are given extra scrutiny, including an invasive “pat-down” — in public — of basically every part of the clothed body. 

I grimaced as our friend endured that indignity, but he did his best to grin his way through it. (As another volunteer told me later, the pat-down is probably nothing compared to what refugees may have experienced “on their journey”).

We finally made it to the departure gate, and it was time to follow another request from Julie at MHF — to buy our friend more food for the flight. 

He decided on barbecued chicken and iced tea, and as we sat there waiting for his order, he said something directly into his phone.

He then turned the phone toward me and showed me what was on his Google Translate screen. It read something like, “I am very grateful that you brought me to the airport and bought me food. Thank you.”

I didn’t know what to say, either in English or my halting Spanish.

Our friend walks toward the gateway to board his flight.

So I just tapped my heart with my hand. 

After the food arrived, we went back to the gate so I could tell the employee at the counter that our friend didn’t speak much English and might need help during the flight. The employee looked up his name and said the airline already knew he was Spanish-speaking (thank you, Julie!) — and that he could join the first group allowed to board (thank you, Delta!)

As we waited, I asked him, “¿Este es tu primer vuelo?” (“Is this your first flight?”)

Indeed it was, at age 48.

The announcement came to board, we hugged and I took more photos as he walked through the door to the gateway. 

As good-byes go, this was a beautiful one.

This is one person, one husband, one human being. All over the world there are millions like him — men, women and children in desperate situations. 

Asylum seekers and refugees leave their homes, their lives, their families, not because they want to. They do it because they have to. 

Care to walk a mile in their shoes?

Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. The headline, ‘Humanity Knows No Borders,’ is the phrase Minority Humanitarian Foundation uses to sign off on social media posts. They pick up asylum seekers at all hours of the day and night and send them on their way, we hope, to new lives and new freedom.

Author John Grau, ensconced in his new normal. Photo © Mary Beth Grau.

By JOHN GRAU

Funny what social distancing does for the view.

After 18 months of pandemic emergency — with its shutdowns, quarantines, masks, hand sanitizers, panic buying, online shopping, online appointments, online gatherings, as well as no dining out, no going to the movies, no attending church, no concerts, no theater and no unnecessary travel — the landscape is awash with people headlong “getting back to normal.”

I’m in no hurry.

Confinement has allowed time for some unexpectedly pleasant discoveries. How comfortable my couch really is, for instance. From that perch — often while luxuriating in seasonal bathrobe attire — discovering the smorgasbord of streaming entertainment on TV with the likes of HBO Max, Disney Plus and Netflix. 

Between episodes of  “The Nevers,” “The Mandalorian” and “Stranger Things,” and all things Marvel, however, something else unexpectedly crept into my Fortress of Solitude.

Reflection.

I certainly wasn’t looking to carve out time to contemplate, evaluate or otherwise meditate on life. Especially so, given the grim daily witness of the pandemic’s outrageous — and, in my opinion, needless — toll.

It kind of snuck in.

Last winter, I came across an advertisement on social media raising money for animal rescue programs. As incentives to contribute, the ad offered posters, stickers and apparel with various pet-oriented slogans. One that immediately stood out was a denim ball cap that said, “I like dogs … and maybe 3 people.” My style of humor, for sure, and I thought about ordering the hat for when I would be back on the street again.

Not long after, federal aid started flowing to small businesses; great news for the many struggling restaurants in the coastal tourist area where I live. At the mention of once again being able to dine out, however, my instant thought was, “Do I really want to go to all that trouble?”

With the arrival of spring, I began joking with family members that I had begun mentally reviewing the long list of pre-pandemic friends, acquaintances, associates, and organizations I had been connected with and thinking about who and what I really want to be around again. Soon, it began to sink in how many social obligations I had previously tied myself to that no longer made much sense. From there, it was just a short couple of steps to asking myself why some of these obligations even had made sense in the first place.

It is amazing how many obligations cease to be obligations once those obligations cease. Or something like that.

All the while, I had been gravitating toward a couple of pursuits that have had central meaning in my life but over the years had little-by-little been buried under the messy tangle of work, family, health and, of course, social obligations.

Unable to indulge my penchant for overbooking my calendar, I could no longer ignore the plain fact that I had the opportunity to sit down and write the sort of things I had spent decades complaining that there was no time. Even more compelling was a reawakening to the sheer joy of playing music, a passion that sustained me through a very difficult adolescence and later took me to the threshold of a career.

For my wife and I, who have compromised immune systems, the latest coronavirus variants spreading their shadows across the country signals that our  “new normal” will be one less of expectation than of caution and continuing risk assessment. Quite naturally, trust — already bruised and bloodied before the lockdowns — is now on life support.

Even as the pandemic emergency eventually fades, I intend to maintain the pandemic shopping strategies in which I developed a number of “sweet spot” times at grocery, hardware and big box stores when there are minimal numbers of shoppers. Observing the almost heedless return to old shopping habits — clueless old men clogging aisles, putzing shoppers funneled into impulse-item bottlenecks, people reaching in front of you to grab a sale item — have once again left me wondering why I ever put up with this in the first place.

Additionally, there are resources that arose in this life in time of plague that I hope can continue. Foremost, Zoom and its related technologies have been a revelatory convenience. Online medical appointments have reduced the time spent at routine doctor’s checkups by hours. Practice with these technologies also has ushered in a time of warm and overdue reunions with friends around the world.

At this point, of course, what will turn out to be truly normal in the coming new normal is probably anybody’s guess. It’s my bet that this new normal ain’t gonna be normal at all for some time.

And that’s okay with me. Just as long as there are some dogs around.

John Grau is a retired journalist living in Delaware. He is currently dogless, and lately wondering why.

Sense of Decency is soliciting personal stories of … well, decency. If you have witnessed an act of unexpected kindness, or benefited from it, we’d like to share it here. The anecdote below prompted this request. We hope to hear from many of you soon. — Dennis, Jim and Michelle.

By JIM McKEEVER

On a recent morning I stopped at a local coffee shop before getting on the highway to spend a few hours with my two grandchildren.

Only one barista was on duty and he was busy making a fancy beverage for the only customer ahead of me. I stood behind the customer, a man in a baseball cap, resigned to waiting a few minutes. I wasn’t in a hurry, so it was not an inconvenience — just a much-needed exercise in patience. And then …

Almost immediately, my thoughts lurched to negativity: Why can’t people just order real coffee instead of foofoo drinks with ice, flavored syrup and whipped cream? That’s not coffee. It’s dessert.

And why am I the only person in this place wearing a mask? A day earlier, the CDC had released information on a rash of breakthrough COVID cases on Cape Cod among the vaccinated. News already had been trickling out about virus hotspots, sparking angry refusals to wear masks or get vaccinated, this is tyranny, how dare you infringe on my liberty, etc. 

(I am fully vaccinated and — liberty intact — I have resumed wearing a mask indoors in public places, even though as of this writing it’s only a recommendation in my county.)

In no time at all, I had gone from zen-like patience to irritated and then disgusted by the state of our country and many of the people in it.

Finally — finally! — the man’s shiny drink arrived and as he went to put his credit card into the reader, he gestured toward me and told the barista something to the effect of, “And I’ll pay for whatever he’s getting.” 

Maybe “gobsmacked” is too strong a word, but I certainly snapped out of my cynical reverie. I asked the man to clarify that he was indeed treating me, and he confirmed it. “It’s the decent thing to do,” he said. “I made you wait.” 

Of course, I thanked him profusely and at some point said something about random acts of kindness. I ordered my small coffee (hot, no ice, no sugar, no syrup, no whipped cream) and a day-old muffin and told the barista, “You don’t see that every day.”

But other than tossing a $1 bill into the tip basket that morning, I have yet to pay it forward.

Maybe telling this story takes care of that. 

Or encouraging you to watch “This is Water,” a video based on excerpts of a brilliant 2005 commencement speech by David Foster Wallace, who implores graduates to resist their self-centered “natural default setting” and to be aware “of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us.”

But let’s take it one step further. Send us your personal stories of “random acts of decency” and we’ll consider it for a future post in Sense of Decency.  

Check out the guidelines on our “How to Submit” page and send us your anecdote at contactdecency@gmail.com.

Pass it on. It could be contagious.

Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. Full disclosure: After decades of drinking coffee with skim or low-fat milk, he now prefers coffee with oat milk. 

Author Debbie Urbanski on the deck of her home in Syracuse, N.Y. Photo © Jim McKeever

Debbie Urbanski writes with raw honesty about the choices we make as individuals and as a species. She examines the vulnerability of a woman who discovers she has inherited a BRCA1 breast cancer mutation (herself) and the fate of a planet whose inhabitants continue to make choices that are not sustainable. 

And she does all of this with a sense of humor. 

Urbanski has been published in dozens of magazines and literary journals since 2003. Several of her short stories and essays have won awards and have been selected for “Best of” anthologies. Her first novel, “What Comes After the End,” will be published next year by Pantheon Books.

Urbanski calls her fiction “speculative,” rather than applying a label of science fiction or fantasy. She also writes essays on climate change, species extinction, nature and her own physical and mental health.

She is a regular contributor to The Sun magazine, including her recent essay, “Inheritance,” about inheriting a mutation of the BRCA1 tumor suppressor gene, which increases the risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Urbanski’s grandmothers and an aunt died of cancer, the oldest at age 61. Two of them had a variant, or mutation. In the essay, Urbanski writes about the emotional and physical toll of learning of her “inheritance” and her decision to undergo major surgeries. 

Urbanski and her husband, Harold, and their two children (Jasper, 14, and Stella, 11) live in Syracuse, N.Y. Jim McKeever visited with Urbanski on the family’s backyard deck. Here are excerpts from that conversation, and from follow-up e-mails. 

Q. Why don’t we start with your novel coming out next year, the whole process?

A. I’m editing now. I’ve been working on it seven, maybe eight years. Some parts of it have been published in The Sun — apocalyptic, environmental climate change stories, and the same characters are the people in the novel. It takes place in the future and I’m imagining humans going extinct as a solution to climate change. And it’s told backwards. There’s A.I. (artificial intelligence), as narrator, so there’s a lot going on.

Q. What was the germ of it? You delve into sci-fi a lot, and children are probably part of it. 

A. I love apocalyptic fiction just as a reader, but I think what always frustrated me was the entertainment value in it. I mean I love getting lost in heroic stories of the end of the world and survival, but I was interested in a non-heroic story. Humans are such a small part, a speck in the big picture. All species eventually go extinct, so that got me thinking, what if that happens sooner? And then I started reading more and more about climate change and species extinction, and started questioning whether we should prioritize humans vs. other species when we’re thinking about climate change. 

Q. In your non-fiction, you put yourself out there as far as vulnerability, your family and physical and mental health. That’s really courageous.

A. I guess I feel like the mental health stuff, the depression, also for the BRCA1 mutation and the surgeries I went through, I feel like that’s important to try and verbalize or get out there. I wish there were more writers that I could have seen being OK on medication. I Googled and I looked and I looked, but I think a lot of writers are still uncomfortable about it. I myself was really uncomfortable about it.

And with the BRCA1 stuff, it’s kind of the same, it’s still kind of new, they’re testing more and more. I don’t see a lot of essays, there’s a lot of articles that are helpful, but it’s not about the emotional experience. Those topics felt important. That said, it is weird having that stuff published. Writing it is one thing, and realizing people are reading it, it’s different for non-fiction. I think the hardest part was going through it, to be honest, so writing gave me some nice closure. 

Q. I detect some humor in your writing, self-deprecating or dark humor. Like when you broke your leg in a fall in the Adirondacks. I confess I laughed out loud at, “I asked my husband to shoot me. We didn’t have a gun, of course. All we had was Advil.” Where does that come from?

A. Good, I’m glad that comes through. I think partially the topics I write about are pretty dark most of the time, so I also think looking back at a lot of moments, they’re so surreal they are kind of funny. I jot them down. I can’t believe we actually said this stuff, but we did. The humor I think comes from it being surprising or weird or strange, so I don’t do it intentionally. I think it’s just how things in retrospect feel and sound. 

Q.  We have to laugh at ourselves occasionally.

A.  Yeah, yeah, in some of the pieces about the BRCA1 stuff, I had my dead relatives come and question, “Why are you writing about yourself so much?” and the question about why I was making my — I was calling it suffering, and they’re like, “Whatever, that’s not even close to what we experienced,” so it gave me an opportunity to have a little voice in my head come out, in a funny way maybe. 

Q. There’s a character Dana in one of your apocalyptic stories who has to record everything. She’s the witness, and it doesn’t matter if anyone else gets to read it. You obviously have an audience, but why do you do this?

A. I feel like often I find holes in genres or in stories. I’m interested in what I feel is missing. That’s why I’m interested in genres, in science fiction, fantasy. The idea of portals (temporary passages to another world) fascinated me for a while — what if somebody never gets to see those? It’s so often a story of someone who goes through a portal, what about the people left behind? Or can’t find their portal. That’s a fantastical example.

I guess some of my non-fiction, like the BRCA stuff, I feel I want more about the experience to be out there so if people go through it they feel like other people have gone through it as well. 

With my novel — why am I writing my novel? (laughs) We hike a lot. I care very deeply for the forests around here, and other species. I do hope the novel gets people to think. I hope they also enjoy it as a novel, but I would love for someone to think about, “Are these the right choices we should be making for the entire earth rather than just ourselves?” 

Q. I don’t know if you want to delve into the political realm right now. I saw in one interview, your concern about the rise of right-wing extremists out there … 

A. I wrote a short story (“Long May My Land Be Bright,” in the New England Review) about envisioning the country as having two presidents. There was an even-day president and an odd-day president and the country splits off. It’s very fantastical. Your neighbor could be an “oddist,” I called it, and they have to pretend to be an “evenist” on even days. Eventually these rifts, these holes in the ground, started opening around neighborhoods and in cities and they got so wide people couldn’t cross them. So I guess that describes my feeling about what is happening. I love thinking of it as a physical distance between each other.

Q. In a 2018 interview about the writing process, you were asked how you know when you’re done. I think your answer was something like revise, revise, revise and if you reach a point where it seems like “I didn’t write the words at all, that these words have always been this way,” that’s when you know it’s finished. I found that fascinating. 

A. It’s kind of magical when that happens. 

Q. Does it happen every time?

A. Usually I don’t have actual deadlines, so this (the novel) is a weird experience for me. Generally I’m writing essays or short stories and I send them out so I can take as long as I want on them. I have the luxury of going over and over and over them until everything is like I want it. So it has happened. At The Sun they do a lot of editing, they send back their edits and when I’m reviewing them I think, “I would never have said that, had written it that way,” and I assume they changed it, but no actually I wrote it and I just forgot that I had. I hope it’ll happen with this novel. 

Q.  Your background and education — you’re from Minnesota?

A. I was born in Chicago. We lived in a suburb growing up, I moved to Minnesota for college where I met my husband. We went to Minneapolis for a couple of years and moved out here to go to grad school (she has an MFA from Syracuse University’s creative writing program). We co-own a letterpress business, Boxcar Press, so the presses moved with us and were in our house for a while. I ended up working with Boxcar Press during grad school instead of teaching. I ended up working with my husband for a long time after I graduated before I decided to write more and spend more time with the kids.

Q. Do you want to talk about the pandemic, and the effect on your writing, your life? 

A. Our letterpress shop prints wedding invitations and nobody was getting married. There were a lot of scary things about the pandemic for a lot of reasons, but one of them was watching businesses really dwindling to nothing until the government was able to step in with all the loans and support. I’m a writer and I sold my book, but we still need our business to survive. So that was stressful. I did try writing in that time, when I was really stressed and nervous and wondering whether our livelihood was going to go away. 

I remember walking with my daughter — we go on a lot of walks together — and we were walking maybe a day or two after things shut down and there were no cars on the street. We were walking down the middle of the road, no people, it really felt post-apocalyptic. Whenever I saw somebody I was so grateful somebody else was out there. But people are getting married again and the business is more stable, and the kids went back to school, the vaccines, things are feeling more normal. 

Q. I remember one of your stories, it was in the Sun in 2019 and has to do with a virus —

A. — That’s my book!  

Q.  So you were prescient in regard to that. Did you think about that once COVID hit?

A. Everybody’s going to think I wrote (the novel) in reaction to COVID, right? But it is amazing how I feel like lot of novels and movies that are post-apocalyptic kind of nailed how things were slowly falling apart. I’m glad they stopped, in the books they keep falling. But at that beginning stage, they really understand what it’s like even though they imagined it. 

Q. I started following you on Instagram. Does photography serve a particular purpose for you, as a human being or as a writer?

A. Lately I’ve been interested in trying to identify plants and insects since I got a macro lens. I love just putting the camera with the macro lens on the ground and taking pictures to kind of see what things look like down there.

Q. I saw some of your photos of ants and dandelions.

A.  l feel kind of bad about the ant thing. I really want to write more about the environmental landscape, I feel like such an intruder sometimes — here I was lifting up this pot and then the ants had their eggs, some stage of eggs, they were trying to save the little white things, so it really disturbs them and I did it to get a picture.

I’m interested in the kind of choices people and companies are making on a larger level. It’s just me and my backyard and my ants, but a lot of times people make the same choices with bigger repercussions. So with photography I guess I’m excited by looking at things close up. I had no idea dandelions are so beautiful, or anything when you look at it close up.

Q. Are you optimistic about the way things are going, pessimistic, or do you go back and forth about our society, our planet?

A.  I think I’m more — rather than optimistic or pessimistic, it’s more maybe just a sense of acceptance that (pause) I’m not sure I want to say it, I don’t think things will go great for the planet. 

I think we’re prioritizing humans over natural spaces, over other species.  I feel like there’s going to be a lot of extinctions. And I think that’s going to be a huge loss. All the stuff I’ve read, it’s about how we can keep our lives as close to how they are now, how can we use technology to make our impact less but still have everything we have now. I feel like there’s not a discussion about the radical changes we would need. I feel terrible saying that. So I don’t know … I think there’ll always be dandelions (laughs) and ants. They’re amazing! Maybe there will be a lot of loss, but we’ll find some new forms of nature. 

Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. In the spirit of the quirky biography blurbs published by The Sun magazine, Urbanski would someday like to eat the ripe fruit of a mayapple, and she recently learned that everything is beautiful when looked at close up (except, perhaps, jelly fungus.)

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