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Courtesy Wikipedia

A few weeks ago, I attended a meeting about story quilts, and one of the topics was Hmong story quilts, made by immigrants from Laos who were uprooted by the Vietnam War. The presenter, in her twenties, asked anyone knew of the Vietnam War, and I laughed out loud. Later I apologized, and we talked about how every generation experiences its own defining events. She said for her it was 911. In my parents' generation it was the the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In my generation, the Vietnam War was certainly big, but it was something that went on for so long, that you don't usually hear people ask, "Where were you during the Vietnam War?" I'd say, for my generation it's the day Kennedy was shot.
As I write this, it is the 60th anniversary of that day. I might not have remembered it, except that my youngest brother turned 60 yesterday, and his birth has been tied to that event often enough that in a family text thread he said yesterday, "Oh yes, my claim to fame." This morning, when I recalled that today is the actual day, I reflected on the many memories I have of that day and the few days that followed, and I thought I'd share them with you.
I was a junior at the Rehoboth Mission High School, living in the dorm, the first White student to integrate the dorms, not without controversy. Grades 1-12 still ate family- style dinners at noon in the Mission House then, and we'd just begun passing food around when Mr. Hoekstra, the head cook, interrupted us to tell us that the president had just been shot in Dallas. "He's in surgery now," he added. "Let's take a moment to pray for him and the surgeons." Everything stopped, and we bowed our heads for the second prayer of the meal. I remember feeling stunned, and our conversations were subdued for the rest of dinner. Before the meal was over, Mr. Hoekstra, who had been listening to the radio in the kitchen, told us the president had died, and after the meal, he prayed for our country and for Kennedy's family.
That evening we were scheduled to give a band concert, and we had band practice right after lunch. Mr. Dobbs told us there'd been some discussion about canceling the concert, but they'd decided to go ahead and to offer it as a memorial. It was especially fitting, as one of our numbers happened to be the "Navy Hymn." Before we played it that night, Mr. Dobbs dedicated the hymn to the memory of the president, who had been a lieutenant in the navy during WWII. It's such a solemn, moving piece of music with great low brass parts (I played trombone), and I know I felt the gravitas of the situation, playing with a lump in my throat.
That afternoon, I'd walked to the hospital and stood outside my mother's room, so she could lift my seventh brother to the window for me to greet him. We talked about the president's death. Most people at the mission were, unsurprisingly, Republican, while Kennedy, of course was a Democrat. He was also a Catholic, another strike against him at this conservative, Protestant mission. Some, despite that, were truly grieved, regardless of their political beliefs. They hurt with the rest of the country at this violent death. Not my mother, though. She expressed voluble annoyance about one of the nurses who had wept about the loss and the impact on us as a nation. I remember being impressed that Mr. Hoekstra, on the other hand, had felt compelled to pray as he did.
Over the next few days, we high school students who lived in the dorm sat on couches, the floor and steps in the darkened living room to watch the events taking place on the dorm parents' black-and-white TV. We repeatedly watched scenes of the Kennedys leaving the plane at Love Field, the motorcade, the shooting, LBJ taking the presidential oath with Jackie Kennedy at his side on the plane. We watched reruns of significant moments in JFK's life and presidency––him sitting in the rocker speaking to us from the Oval Office, the Cuban Missile Crisis, playing family football in Hyannis Port. And we were released from classes to watch the funeral parade.
Those were an emotional few days, and then life went on––algebra tests, reading Walt Whitman in American Literature, work detail in the school laundry. Yet people of my generation can still be heard to ask each other, "Where were you when you heard that Kennedy had been shot?" And then we have a story to tell, not only about where we were, but how we felt, personal events of those days, like a new baby in the family. It's a moment of connection, of bonding with others who had that same, overwhelming experience.
What do you consider to be the defining event(s) of your generation? If it was the Kennedy assassination, where were you when you heard?

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Winter Solstice Sunrise, Chaco Canyon, A. Redsand

A few years ago, just before Thanksgiving, I heard a Diné man say that he was bewildered by the fact that in America we devote a single day to Thanksgiving. He said, "In our tradition, every day is a day for giving thanks." In 12-Step programs people who are feeling depressed about getting clean and sober are often advised to make a list of things they are grateful for. It's called having an "attitude of gratitude," and people are reminded that it is hard to be depressed while you're being grateful.
Around the time I heard that Diné man speaking in a radio interview, I started a daily practice posting three things that I was grateful for on Facebook (I was still on FB then). I hoped that it might catch on and go viral. I thought if it did, it could help to change the world. I do believe that if millions of us are being grateful and sharing our gratitude with others, the world will be transformed. It is not only difficult to be depressed when you're being grateful; it is also difficult to be mean or angry or violent. Think how the world would change, if gratitude helped to keep us from harming ourselves and others.
Many years ago, I read the story of an adopted child who had been severely abused and neglected. He had been left for days in a cellar with only bread and water to eat and drink. Rats were his only companions. Despite the loving care he received in his adoptive family, he remained understandably angry. He was mean to other children. The rest of the time he withdrew from everyone around him. His new mother gave him a calendar and asked him to write in each square one thing he was thankful for. For weeks he wrote nothing. Then one day, he wrote, "Teacher let me." His mother asked what that meant, and he said his teacher had let him pass out the milk in class. His recognition of that one positive event became a turning point for him. It wasn't that nothing positive had happened before, but on that day, he recognized it and was thankful. He began filling each date with something he appreciated, and his relationships with others began to change.
Practicing an attitude of gratitude and going one step further by sharing my gratitude with others had the effect of making me more aware throughout each day of the large and small things I was grateful for. Most of the time I found it was the simple things that I could otherwise easily have taken for granted—warm showers, a delicious breakfast, my truck that worked as soon as I turned the key, a beautiful sunrise, colors, laughter, naps, and rain. Other times it was something I might not be happy about at first—like several hours of insomnia. But I realized I could be honestly thankful for that because, in my tossing and turning, I got an important idea for the book I was writing at the time.
There were times, of course, when I didn't (and still don't) feel grateful for anything, but my a commitment to naming things I was grateful for pushed me to think of things I could be grateful for. In 12-Step programs, this is called "acting as if." Acting as if I am thankful, even when I don't feel thankful, can actually change how I'm feeling. At these times I often think of some of life's most basic gifts—that I'm alive, that my family is safe, that I have a house to live in.

When I was doing those daily posts, one of my friends told me that she'd been inspired by them. She said she'd seen a centipede on the porch, and she hates centipedes. "Then I thought of your posts," she said. "I realized that I can be thankful because centipedes eat insects, and also because this one was outdoors, not in the house." Some people did start practicing gratitude posting. Other friends, even ones I didn't know except online, were reading my posts, and might comment out of the blue, "I love these posts." I thought, "Oh good. I was privileged to give someone joy today, and they even told me about it."
An attitude of gratitude is a powerful agent for change. Sharing what I am grateful for can remind others of what they have to be thankful for—sometimes in a day or a week filled with problems. Mostly, being grateful changes me and how I look at life, even more than it changes others.
The fourteenth century German theologian and philosopher, Meister Eckhart, wrote, "If the only prayer you ever say in your whole life is 'thank you,' that would suffice." He and the Diné man who said, "Every day is a day for giving thanks," were onto something big.
This post appeared in the Gallup Independent a few years ago and has been updated in the hope that all of us in this season will be reminded that an attitude of gratitude is a powerful change agent every day, year-round.

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Original 1863 Letter 

Recently the Museum of Danish America, where my daughter Cheyenne is the Archives Manager and Outreach Associate, received the donation of 41 original letters from Christian Peter Andersen, a Danish immigrant and Union sergeant in the 6th Volunteer Missouri Cavalry, to his immigrant sweetheart, Annie C. Jessen, (later married). Cheyenne was the one who accessioned the letters, and she knew I might be interested in translating them. Translation is like solving puzzles, in fact, it often literally requires puzzle solving. It also draws on my linguistics background and my skills as a writer. I love doing it, and it's also a lot of work. These letters are in Danish, in faded Gothic script, which is challenging for a first-language speaker of Danish to read, let alone for a second-language speaker like me. 


Enter Anders Bo Rasmussen, Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of Southern Demark (SDU) and author of Civil War Settlers: Scandinavians, Citizenship, and American Empire. Because the intersectionality of Scandinavian immigrants and the American Civil War is a specialty area for him, I thought he could be interested in what the letters might teach us about the Civil War and that period in history through the words of a specific soldier. I thought Anders and I might collaborate in a transcription/translation project, in which he would do the transcription and I would do the translation, as translation can best be done by a native speaker of the language into which the work is being translated. Anders and I met at a conference this summer and agreed that we would like to work together. 


We had already started by using this process with a sample letter, the first page of which appears above. It was important to know if these letters were simply romantic communication, or if they were of historical value. It was clear from the sample that, although there was certainly romance involved, coming from the battlefront, they contained a soldier's views on military engagements and also advice to his beloved about how the war could impact her personally. 


Because the translation would involve a tremendous amount of work, I decided to apply for a Bodtker Grant from the Danish American Heritage Society to pay for my work. Anders was on board with the project and would not need to be paid because he would be on salary at SDU and would not have teaching responsibilities next semester.


This morning, when I opened my laptop at 5 a.m., I was greeted by the news that I had received the requested grant! I'm grateful and excited. We will be starting work in January, and I look forward to keeping you updated from time to time. One requirement of the grant is that I write an article that can be published in the historical society's journal, The Bridge. Anders will also write an article. 


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Photo by Mark Abramson, NYT

The war between Israel and Hamas brings untold pain, death and destruction to people in such varied positions, including us who are physically far removed, and there isn't much good to be heard. In the midst of the devastation, I was heartened by a New York Times article telling the story of New Ground, "a nonprofit fellowship program that has helped more than 500 Los Angeles Muslims and Jews learn to listen, disagree, empathize with one another — and become friends." Run by Aziza Hasan, a Muslim with Palestinian roots and the associate director, Andrea Hodos, a devout Jew who spent her post-college years living in Jerusalem.

The women describe their relationship as much deeper than that of coworkers. "Aziza is like a sister to me," said Ms. Hodos. "She is family."

"We're so connected," said Ms. Hasan, "that sometimes Andrea can complete my thought or start a sentence and finish it for me."

On October 15, a week after Hamas's attack on Israel and a week before this article appeared, Hasan and Hodos met with a circle of other Jews and Muslims, all members of New Ground, in a Los Angeles park. The meeting began with Ms. Hasan speaking of loved ones who had died in Israel and Gaza, then quoting from the Quran, asking God, "Show us the straight way, the way of those whose portion is not wrath and who go not astray." Then Ms. Hodos sang a Hebrew song and translated it, "On my right side is Gabriel, God's strength, Behind me, God's healer, Raphael. Above my head is God's divine presence." Following this dual introduction, the New Ground group in the park broke into small groups that shared their fears, their losses, their love.

One thing that struck me about this story was how these two women began their life-changing friendship––which has reached out to encompass many others in peacemaking and understanding through honest listening and telling––long before the present war that has so impacted them began. It tells me something about how important friendships across differences and disagreements are to the healing of our world––to tikkun olam, to use the Hebrew phrase. And that we can and must make this effort before such devastating tragedy strikes because then we will have the foundation that can take us through the great troubles that arise.

Writing this brought me up short as it occurred to me that I need to make such an effort with one of my brothers. He reached out to me a couple of weeks ago after a long silence. It was yet another overture to turn me from what he considers ways that will lead me to eternal destruction. Hell, in other words. I'm so over all this that I don't feel I can engage with him and other family members on the intersectionality of my sexuality and religion. But if I'm so affected by the story of these Jewish and Muslim women and how they come together for support and deep conversations, walking through the fear to friendship, shouldn't I be at least willing to try with my brother, with whom I share family ties and a history of once having a close relationship, at one time spending every single day of our lives together? We've tried unsuccessfully before, and I know we need some agreement about how to go about it, so I hope we can take a page from New Ground's values, placing curiosity over assumptions, relationships over beliefs, for a start. 

After the attack on Israel, Ms. Hodos was reeling. Her son's friend had been taken hostage. She received a text from Ms. Hasan, "How are you holding up?" Then Hasan expressed anger that these actions had been taken in the name of God. She texted her fears that there would be violent retaliation and loss of innocent lives. Then, " I love you. I am sorry."

One of Ms. Hodos's fondest memories is of the two friends making cookies together in her kosher kitchen––pinwheel cookies from an old Palestinian recipe.


I've linked to the NYT article, but if you don't have a subscription, you may hit the paywall. If you want to read it, let me know in the comments, and I can probably share it with you directly.

How does this post touch you personally? Please share in the comments.


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