Sense of Decency

Listening to others, seeing things through their eyes.

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.)

——

By JIM McKEEVER

I am in awe of James Baldwin. 

The novelist, poet, essayist and activist has been in vogue recently, thanks in part to the 2020 re-release of the documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro,” and scholarly books such as Eddie S. Glaude’s “Begin Again.”

Baldwin, who died in 1987, was a brilliant writer and champion of civil rights and a lightning rod for criticism. As an outspoken gay Black man, he was attacked from every corner, including by fellow Black civil rights activists. 

“I Am Not Your Negro” includes excerpts of a 1965 debate Baldwin had with conservative icon William F. Buckley at Cambridge University in England. The motion, or subject, of the debate was, “Has the American Dream Been Achieved at the Expense of the American Negro?” 

The entire debate is on YouTube, and it is fascinating viewing. Baldwin is absolutely mesmerizing throughout his 20-minute argument. 

The most powerful point he made, one that still resonates, was his empathy toward White racists in America, particularly in the Deep South.

He cites infamous Sheriff James Clark of Selma, Alabama, who led violent attacks on Black Americans during 1965’s “Bloody Sunday” on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, and other physical assaults on civil rights demonstrators, particularly Blacks trying to register to vote.

Baldwin tries to understand why Clark was so cruel, and said that no one, including the sheriff, can simply be “dismissed as a total monster.” 

Sheriff Clark, Baldwin said, “doesn’t know what drives him to use the club, the menace of the gun, and to use a cattle prod. Something awful must have happened to a human being to be able to put a cattle prod against a woman’s breast, for example.”

Baldwin’s view of Southern Whites in general shows how he tried to find the roots of their racist behavior.

“They have been raised to believe … that no matter how terrible their lives may be, and their lives have been quite terrible, and no matter how far they fall, no matter what disaster overtakes them, they have one enormous knowledge and consolation, which is like a heavenly revelation — at least they are not Black,” Baldwin said.

“Now I suggest that of all the terrible things that can happen to a human being, that is one of the worst. I suggest that what has happened to White southerners is in some ways after all much worse than what has happened to Negroes there.”

It astounds me that Baldwin endured and witnessed such cruelty at the hands of Whites throughout his life, and still tried to find the humanity within.

Racism is not strictly an American epidemic, of course.

In mid-July I watched the championship match of the Euro 2020 soccer tournament featuring England vs. Italy. 

The score was 1-1 at the end of regulation and extra time, forcing a penalty-kick “shootout” to determine the winner. In a shootout, five players from each team are selected and each team takes a turn with one player attempting to score on a single kick vs. the other team’s goalkeeper from a designated spot 12 yards away.

The English coach chose three young Black players among his five, and all three failed to score. Italy won the coveted title.

I immediately texted a friend, an avid soccer fan who I knew was also watching the match. I told him I feared a nasty racial backlash from English fans toward the three players. 

Within an hour or so, he texted me back with a link to a news item about the trio immediately being racially abused on social media. “As you predicted,” my friend wrote, punctuating it with a frown symbol.

While some ranters faulted England’s coach (who is White) for selecting less experienced players to take “spot-kicks,” there was plenty of racist venom directed at the three players, ages 19, 21 and 23.

Bukayo Saka, the youngest of them, issued a statement a few days later, thanking his supporters and admonishing social media platforms. “I don’t want any child or adult to have to receive the hateful and hurtful messages that me, Marcus (Ashford) and Jadon (Sancho) have received this week,” Saka wrote. “I knew instantly the kind of hate I was about to receive and that is a sad reality …” 

He signed off with, “Love always wins.”

Meanwhile, back in America, those who harbor the views of Sheriff Clark don’t need to resort to billy clubs and cattle prods to keep Blacks from voting. Some state legislatures are taking care of that without bloodshed.

In 1962, on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, James Baldwin said it would be another 100 years before Blacks in this country could celebrate true freedom. We are more than halfway there.

If he were alive today, what would he say of that timetable?

Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency.

This sign is one of many sold as a fundraiser by business owner Mark Golden, whose goal is more civility in public discourse. Photo © Dennis Harrod

By DENNIS HARROD

A word has ignited a war of words on the letters to the editor page in The Sherburne News, a weekly newspaper in the next county over from where I live. The word that started the war begins with “F” and ends with “K.”  It appears in very large letters on the main road into town. The “F word” is followed by “Biden.”

A letter to the editor a couple of months back objected to the F word, saying it was vulgar and not appropriate for school children to see as they pass by on the bus. The following week, the owner of the sign wrote her own letter and said that what was vulgar was the current deplorable condition of the country.

She said it’s becoming a “third-world cesspool.” Democratic policies are leading us down a dangerous path, especially the rolling out of a “red carpet” for immigrants. That’s what is vulgar in her opinion. And school kids learn far worse language than that long before they pass her sign, she added.

Letters appeared weekly on both sides of the issue. At one point, in what appears to be unintentional irony, the person displaying the “F***  Biden” sign tells her left-wing counterpart that “you really need to move on.”

The nature of this sign and other expressions like it prompted the #KEEPITKIND campaign. Photo © Dennis Harrod.

While the war of words raged, Mark Golden was driving to work in New Berlin every day and passing a number of other signs of the F Biden variety.  

“By the time I got to work, I was angry,” he said in a recent interview. A self-described “child of the 60s,” Golden doesn’t like to be angry. So he decided to do something about the decline in civility along the roadsides and in society at large. 

Golden, CEO of Golden Artist Colors, an employee-owned company (and a story of wonder and kindness in itself) talked to an artist friend about designing a sign to encourage people to tone down the rage and keep in mind that we’re all human.

They came up with a yard sign with rainbow colors and #KEEPITKIND written on it. Golden took out an ad in The Sherburne News. Under the headline #KEEPITKIND, the ad said: “We have so many more things that bind us than divide us as a community. Please help us share a message of kindness by posting a ‘KEEPITKIND’ sign on your property. They are available at Golden Artist Colors….”

The ad goes on to request a $10 minimum donation that will be given to one of three local food banks, and concludes with: “Let’s plaster our community with kindness!”

Golden said his action was not specifically in reaction to the ongoing exchange on the letters page of The Sherburne News, but to the general decline in civility throughout our society. He did say, however, that although he disagreed with the tone of the F Biden signs, he admired the woman who wrote in for putting her name on the letters and not hiding behind the anonymity that makes so much of contemporary discourse so nasty.

In a 2019 interview with Syracuse.com, Golden said respect is a value he holds dear and it’s that loss of respect in contemporary society that he laments. The anonymity of the Internet has contributed heavily to that loss of civility. In the past, you “wouldn’t give someone the bird because you knew you’d see them later in the grocery store,” he said.

So far more than 100 signs have gone up along the roads in Chenango and neighboring counties and Golden expects to see more. Now, on his drive to work, he passes more signs saying #KEEPITKIND than the other kind. And he’s not angry anymore.

“Now, seeing the signs along the road, I arrive at work happy,” he said.

So if the state of debate in our country has you down, follow Route 80 into the hills of Chenango County to the Golden Artist Colors and pick up a sign. You’ll be helping to feed hungry people. And it’s a beautiful ride. And you might come back less angry.

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

#KEEPITKIND signs can be picked up at Golden Artist Colors, 188 Bell Road, New Berlin, NY 13411 Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. You might want to call ahead at (607) 847-6154 and make sure they have some on hand. Golden said they are going fast and he plans to order more. The requested $10 minimum donation will go to your choice of the following: New Berlin Food Pantry, St. Malachy’s Community Food Bank (Sherburne) or Hamilton Food Cupboard.

Volunteers with Team Brownsville in Texas play with children recently arrived from Mexico. Photo © Jim McKeever May 2021.

By JIM McKEEVER

What must it be like to give up everything you have, especially if you are forced to flee your home and travel thousands of miles, protecting yourself and your children from harm?

Each day asylum seekers from various countries, as well as detainees released from a Texas immigration detention center, are dropped off at the bus terminal in Brownsville, Texas. Bus stations aren’t always cheerful or safe places, but Brownsville’s is clean, well-maintained and welcoming.

Through a cooperative agreement with the city and not-for-profit organizations, the new arrivals receive help with basic necessities and bus transportation to cities throughout the U.S. where family members or sponsors live.

I spent a week in mid-May volunteering with Team Brownsville, a not-for-profit founded three years ago by special education teachers to help asylum seekers, first at a makeshift camp in Matamoros and now in Texas as two or three dozen people per day are allowed to cross into the U.S.

Every day, Team Brownsville volunteers staff several tables and distribute donated and purchased items to the arrivals after they are given a hot meal and have secured their bus tickets. 

My interactions with these men, women and children were both practical and profound. How best to explain that? Perhaps through a partial list of the things we gave them — and what we were given in return.

We gave men new underwear and T-shirts; we gave women feminine hygiene products and socks; we gave children stuffed animals and Hot Wheels cars.

We gave snacks, face masks, deodorant, toothpaste, shoelaces; we gave Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle caps that grown men were not ashamed to wear.

We gave bottles of water, essential in the Texas heat; we gave blankets for the air-conditioned bus rides to places like Virginia, Florida, Nebraska.

We gave a dwindling number of shoes, trying as best we could to find the right sizes for men, women and toddlers.

We gave pens and notepads, coloring books and crayons.

We gave backpacks to the liberated detainees to replace the demeaning, tattered mesh sacks they were given in detention.

Most important, however, were the intangible things we gave when these folks first arrived at the terminal. We gave of our time and talents, kneeling on the hard cement floor to play with a brother and sister, speaking our best Spanish, braiding the hair of a 5-year-old girl so her pregnant mother could rest.

From our tables or from the parking lot, as each group arrived, we stood and waved and smiled and called out one word.

Bienvenidos!

Welcome!

Here is what they gave in return.

Immeasurable, silent expressions of gratitude and hope as their eyes met ours, spoken words of “Gracias” and “Dios te Bendigo” (thank you and God bless you), the gift of allowing us to share in their relief, their safety, their freedom from whatever horrors they had endured in Central and South America or the months or years they had spent in detention centers in the U.S. 

We did not ask where they had come from, or anything that might remind them of why they had fled — gang violence, threats, rape, extortion, abject poverty, recent hurricanes, corrupt governments and police. 

We didn’t need to know any of that. All we needed was to look at the children the moment we handed them one of the teddy bears that had been donated that week. They hugged the bears tightly and smiled at us and whatever fear they had disappeared, at least for a moment. 

There are images from that week that I hold onto now, images of hope amid ample evidence of the cruelty of man and governments: 

A child not much older than my granddaughter, comforted by a stuffed animal, ecstatic to see a bin filled with hair ties she could choose from … adult female detainees hugging each other after they emerged from a detention van and were freed from waist chains, handcuffs and ankle restraints by guards who glared at us… a 69-year-old Venezuelan man’s smile as he rather generously complimented me on my Spanish … a young detainee approaching me the morning after he spent the night in the station, asking for a sweater for the air-conditioned bus that would take him, eventually, to Florida.

I found one that fit. It was my last shift with Team Brownsville and as he thanked me and rushed off to catch the bus, I said for the last time that week, “Buena suerte.” 

Good luck. 

Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. The headline comes from 1 Corinthians 13:13: “And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

A group of asylum seekers is admitted into the U.S. from Tijuana, Mexico, 2019. Photo © Jim McKeever.

By JIM McKEEVER

I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. — Matthew 25:35.

On April 15, the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University hosted a dialogue, “Immigration Challenges and Choices: People, Principles, and Policies.” The hourlong presentation was recorded and can be viewed online.

The panelists — a Catholic bishop, an Evangelical minister, a journalist and a DACA recipient — offered their perspectives on immigration, refugees, xenophobia, race-based violence and asylum. 

They stressed a humanitarian approach to addressing a global reality that is thousands of years old, and is drawing attention again at the United States’ southern border. 

Some excerpts:

The current situation at the southern border with Mexico represents “a pivotal moment in our country,” said the Rev. Walter Kim, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, Presbyterian pastor in Charlottesville, Va.

The Rev. Kim, whose father fled Communist China for South Korea before emigrating to the United States, pointed out that the Bible “is a story of migration. … Essentially to be a Christian is to be a migrant. … It’s also a call to be hospitable, to extend hospitality to those who are migrating.”

Journalist Sabrina Rodriguez said the Biden administration had pledged to create a fair and humane immigration system, but “saying it and doing it are two very different things. There are very real challenges to accomplishing that.”

The administration has made some changes, including discontinuing the Migrant Protection Protocols. About 6,500 of the 25,000 MPP enrollees, some of whom have been waiting for more than two years in Mexico, have been admitted to the U.S., Rodriguez said. Other groups of migrants from all over the world, including Central America, are fleeing their countries for various reasons — crime, lack of jobs, the pandemic and the devastation of hurricanes. 

Rodriguez said the number of migrants arriving at the border has increased since April 2020, but there are nuances that are often overlooked. Most families who attempt to cross are sent back to Mexico, she said, but often the next step is to send their children across on their own. This inflates the numbers of apprehensions cited by government officials and has resulted in an increase in unaccompanied minors — many of them who have relatives in the U.S.

Bishop Mark Seitz, who has been in El Paso for eight years, noted that politicians “fall into place” and say the same things every time the border is in the news. “Maybe it’s time to stop politicizing these issues and begin Christianizing them,” Seitz said. “People are at our door and they are begging to come in for refuge.”

The bishop urged people to learn why migrants are coming to the U.S. southern border, what countries they are coming from and what situations they are fleeing, especially in Central America.

Bishop Seitz was asked about the August 2019 mass shooting in El Paso, in which a white nationalist drove hundreds of miles to El Paso because he was upset by the “Hispanic invasion of Texas.” The 21-year-old shot and killed 22 people and injured 26 others, many of whom had Latino surnames.

“I don’t think there’s any question that racism plays a role here,” Seitz said. “One message we often give to politicians is watch your language” and stop using fear-mongering words like criminals and invasion that appeal to fear, as well as to the racism that has been a part of this country since its beginnings. 

“This attitude is death-dealing,” Seitz said. “It has an impact.”

Loren, a Georgetown University student and DACA recipient, said her family came to the U.S. from Colombia when she was 3. The economy was bad, and it was dangerous where they lived. It wasn’t until she was a freshman in high school in Boston that she learned of her immigration status and that of her parents. She has younger brothers who were born in the U.S. 

“I constantly struggle with being stuck between two countries,” Loren said. “I want to tell my story as often as possible, to let others know they’re not alone.” 

Two months ago, Loren’s parents contracted COVID as front-line workers in the food industry. They have since recovered.

Rodriguez, who writes about immigration for POLITICO, urged people to listen to people who live and work near the border and to listen to immigrants who have been in the U.S. for years as well as new arrivals. 

“It is really essential that we humanize this reality,” Bishop Seitz said. “That we listen to those who are experiencing it … to hear the stories, to understand that these aren’t just numbers, they are real human beings, brothers and sisters.” 

Ultimately, Seitz said, we’re going to need the courage to think beyond “the narrow confines of, ‘How do we enforce our law?’ without really asking whether the law and its consequences are moral in the first place.”

Moderator Kim Daniels asked Rev. Kim to discuss the recent increase in physical attacks on Asian-Americans. He cited the case of the woman assaulted in New York City, when three men at a nearby luxury apartment did not help the woman and a security guard closed the doors.

Such “bystander apathy” happens too often, he said. “Do not close the door and turn away. …

“No one can do everything,” Kim said. “But everyone can do something. So choose some thing.”

Panelists: 

The Rev. Walter Kim, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, Presbyterian pastor in Charlottesville, Va. 

Sabrina Rodriguez, journalist with POLITICO. 

Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, Texas, which borders Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

Loren, a student at Georgetown University and a DACA recipient.

Moderator Kim Daniels, co-director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University.

The initiative will host a followup program May 4, featuring Sister Norma Pimentel, a nun who works with migrants at the southern border. 

Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency.

By WILLIAM D. SUNDERLIN

The abolition of slavery in 1865 through the 13th amendment, together with the 14th amendment (citizenship for all people born in the U.S. including formerly enslaved people) and the 15th amendment (the right of citizens to vote) ratified soon thereafter, supposedly laid the foundation for racial equality in the United States. If this is true, then why is it that, a century later in the mid-1960s, the struggle for civil rights began almost as if it were starting from scratch?

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is an American literary critic, professor, historian and filmmaker. He is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. Photo credit: Stephanie Berger.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. answers this question in “Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow.” Gates sheds light on how the institutions of white supremacy, hardly deterred but instead inspired by their defeat in the Civil War, systematically dismantled the civil rights gains of Reconstruction through widespread violence, suppression and rescinding at the state level of civil rights granted ineffectually at the federal level, and through mass saturation in literature, advertising, and other public imagery of alleged inferiority of African Americans.

Gates places emphasis on this cultural battlefield because it has been largely out of sight. He also documents the rich history of courageous efforts by African Americans to right the wrongs committed on this battlefield.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in 1968 that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” While we have to hope this is true, Gates’ book reminds us that this arc does not bend gently, but instead lurches in accordance with whether white supremacists or racial egalitarians have the upper hand in the long-term struggle.

And that is precisely why “Stony the Road” is so important at our current juncture in history. With the failure of the “Second Reconstruction” in the 1960s to create a decisive shift toward justice, and with white supremacy emboldened and unleashed by the Trump presidency, it is vital that we understand our cultural history well. To see how deeply rooted supremacist thought, culture, and action is in history is to appreciate how virulent and dangerous it is now.

It is especially important for white people to learn these lessons, for two related reasons. First, the historical underpinnings and dynamics of contemporary racism are far more opaque to the oppressing race than they are to people of color. Second, an unstated lesson of the Gates book is that bending the arc of the moral universe decisively toward justice will require far greater participation of white people than has been the case to date.

“Stony the Road” is a difficult read because it spotlights the depth and breadth of white supremacist thinking in the decades after emancipation. But the knowledge gained provides useful guidance for understanding our ugly current impasse, and inspiration for helping to smooth the stony road.

William D. Sunderlin is a researcher, professor and activist living in Fayetteville, N.Y. He is affiliated with the State University of New York – College of Environmental Science and Forestry (Syracuse, N.Y.), the Center for International Forestry Research (Indonesia), and the Rights and Resources Initiative in Washington, D.C.

“Stony the Road” are words describing the struggle for freedom and justice in “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often called the African American National Anthem. Composer and pianist Jon Batiste performs part of the piece during an interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” with an introduction at about the 11:30 mark.

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