America: Listen to Your Poets…

I have not so much emulated the birds that musically sing,

I have abandoned myself to flights, broad circles.

The hawk, the seagull, have far more possess’d me than the canary or mockingbird.

I have not felt to warble and trill however sweetly,

I have felt to soar in freedom and in the fullness of power, joy, volition.

Walt Whitman, Old Age Echoes from Leaves of Grass

At end of each year the winter solstice and family birthdays remind me we’re at the end of something and the beginning of something else – a convergence of old and new – things to celebrate and things to ponder. Time to review the passing year and reset for the what’s coming.

It may be age or the passing of friends but this year’s review feels different. Mine is a lamentation on America and Americans. Who are we and where are we going? Last year a friend sent me a book titled America, We Call Your Name which included the following in the introduction:

America, listen to what your poets are saying. Are we the corrosive, racist, authoritarian regime that the 2016 election brought to power, or are we a democracy, that fragile, imperfect form of government that must be constantly guarded in the struggle for equality and freedom?

It made me think of poets, past and present, who have shared their wisdom about the American experience. Poets are slow, deliberate and focused. They choose their words carefully for meaning  affect and power. They are artists but also problem solvers. I thought of Whitman, and the 100-year-old leather bound edition of Leaves of Grass given to me by my “Danish grandmother” whose father bequeathed it to her.

And I thought of Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, and my teacher, Theodore Roethke—a recluse, a doctor, an insurance executive, an unsuccessful farmer and a bipolar English professor—all exceptional poets—and their successors Stanley Kunitz, Billy Collins, Jane Hirshfield, Amanda Gorman and the musical poets, Dylan, Springsteen and Paul Simon.

A poet friend recently suggested I listen to Malcolm Gladwell’s audiobook Miracle and Wonder: Conversations with Paul Simon where they explore Simon’s songwriting process. I was particularly taken by the origin of his song, America. Such an innocent wistful evocation of what I often feel these days and the reason I settled on this subject for my year-end essay.


Kathy, I’m lost, I said, though I knew she was sleeping.

I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why

Counting the cares on the New Jersey Turnpike

They’ve all come to look for America

All come to look for America

All come to look for America.

Vietnam, 9/11, Donald Trump and January 6 have stripped away the innocence of Whitman and Frost and left us with soul-searching questions about who we are as a nation and a people. I ask myself almost daily how the electorate that chose an inspiring African American to be its president in 2008 could follow by electing a sociopath ignorant of America’s history and institutions eight years later. I will probably never understand what prevents Congress from enacting legislation to address gun violence or the reform of immigration laws to address the crisis at our southern border. I ask myself why and how the Supreme Court could ignore strictures of the 14th Amendment and became an agent for political implementation rather than arbiter of Constitutional legality. How could a rampant virus become a polarizing political cudgel?

I hear strident voices but don’t see any bipartisan solutions to these concerns. Aren’t we the same people the Founders were talking about when they stated, “We the People of the United States,” in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States.” The same imperfect founders who “held that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness?” 

It may be that we should pay less attention to pundits and more to our poets for inspiration and motivation.

Last year seven local writers, all women and all retired from professional careers, published a book called Writing While Masked: Observations on 2020. It included calendars, diary entries, poems, essays, stories and other reflections culled from a year of isolation and Zoom gatherings during the pandemic. They are concerned citizens seeking understanding and solutions. The book was self-published but found a wide circulation and this year Washington State University Press picked it up and republished it as Writing While Masked: Observations on 2020 and Beyond adding the adverbial clause.

Like Paul Simon, the last few years have left many of us looking for America—the America we grew up in or thought we knew as we were growing up, the America I fought for, the America that declared its independence and set the standard for democracy with its new Constitution in 1789.  

That’s the modern America Amanda Gorman celebrated with her 2021 inauguration poem. No pollyanna optimism, just a new generation poet with wisdom to share:

The Hill We Climb 

When day comes, we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade?

The loss we carry. A sea we must wade.

We braved the belly of the beast.

We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace, and the norms and notions of what “just” is isn’t always justice.

And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it.

Somehow we do it.

Somehow we weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.

We, the successors of a country and a time where a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president, only to find herself reciting for one.

And, yes, we are far from polished, far from pristine, but that doesn’t mean we are striving to form a union that is perfect.

We are striving to forge our union with purpose.

To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man.

And so we lift our gaze, not to what stands between us, but what stands before us.

We close the divide because we know to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside.

We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another.

We seek harm to none and harmony for all.

Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true.

That even as we grieved, we grew.

That even as we hurt, we hoped.

That even as we tired, we tried.

That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious.

Not because we will never again know defeat, but because we will never again sow division.

Scripture tells us to envision that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid.

If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we’ve made.

That is the promise to glade, the hill we climb, if only we dare.

It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit.

It’s the past we step into and how we repair it.

We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation, rather than share it.

Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.

And this effort very nearly succeeded.

But while democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated.

In this truth, in this faith we trust, for while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us.

This is the era of just redemption.

We feared at its inception.

We did not feel prepared to be the heirs of such a terrifying hour.

But within it we found the power to author a new chapter, to offer hope and laughter to ourselves.

So, while once we asked, how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe, now we assert, how could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?

We will not march back to what was, but move to what shall be: a country that is bruised but whole, benevolent but bold, fierce and free.

We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation, become the future.

Our blunders become their burdens.

But one thing is certain.

If we merge mercy with might, and might with right, then love becomes our legacy and change our children’s birthright.

So let us leave behind a country better than the one we were left.

Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest, we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.

We will rise from the golden hills of the West.

We will rise from the windswept Northeast where our forefathers first realized revolution.

We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the Midwestern states.

We will rise from the sun-baked South.

We will rebuild, reconcile, and recover.

And every known nook of our nation and every corner called our country, our people diverse and beautiful, will emerge battered and beautiful.

When day comes, we step out of the shade of flame and unafraid.

The new dawn balloons as we free it.

For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it.

If only we’re brave enough to be it.

Anti-Semitic Fever Dream

The two 4-inch square brass plaques in the photo below are stolpersteine (“stumbling stones” in German). They are embedded in the sidewalk in front of my former apartment at 14 Ruhlaerstrasse in Berlin. Edith and Willy Lindenberg lived there until November 11, 1941 when they were deported to a concentration camp in Minsk (Belarus) and murdered simply because they were Juden (Jewish). The plaques are part of the stolpersteine project created in 1992 by German artist Gunter Deming.

The plaques are to commemorate the victims and remind all who “stumble” across them of the Nazi’s “final solution”– to obliterate all “racially inferior” non-Aryans. They are placed in front of the last known residences of those deported and murdered during the Holocaust. As of 2019 there were more than 75,000 stolpersteine in 1200 locations in Western Europe.

I left Berlin in 1986, and the stolpersteine in the photo were not installed until later, but when I “stumbled” across them in 2017 I was shocked to learn I had lived in the same building they occupied.  The Lindenberg stolpersteine served their purpose, alerting me to the fact that these horrors occurred in my neighborhood in my lifetime…possibly in my own apartment. They are not relics of the past. They are also to remind us of the current dangers posed by hate-filled animus.


There are no stolpersteine in America. We have a Holocaust Museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. to remind us of that terrible epoch, but hate-fueled anti-Semitism is percolating again in the United States.

On October 27, 2018 a man shouting racial slurs and armed with an AR-15 assault rifle opened fire inside Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue  killing eleven and wounding six, including some Holocaust survivors.

And two days before Thanksgiving this year, Americans saw anti-Semitism on display at Mar-a-Lago when our twice-impeached former president hosted Kanye West aka Ye and his friend Nick Fuentes, a well-known anti-Semite and white supremacist for dinner. The same former president who announced his intention to run for the office again in 2024. 

Who knows the root cause of this curious symbiosis? Trump and Kanye; two sociopaths who should hate each other have found common cause. Like cornered rats, the race-baiting white supremacist and the white-hating Black wannabe have formed an un-holy alliance in their insatiable need to be centers of attention. The result is a fever dream grounded in anti-Semitism—perhaps the last installment in the sad but dangerous saga of the disgraced, twice-impeached former president and his deranged hip-hop limpet.

Like fish out of water, Donald and Kanye are gasping for air. They can’t live without the noxious gas of public attention. So, as the public loses interest and they feel themselves fading from view, their desperation is front and center. Nothing bothers a star-struck narcissist more than discovering no one cares. Call him a loser and he lashes out… ignore him and he fizzles like a popped balloon.

The Mar-a-Lago trio doesn’t deserve our attention, but their unquenchable need for headlines compels us to address the bigger problem—anti-Semitism—a grievance fueled animus grounded in millennia of religious hatred. Looking for someone to blame? Jews have always provided an easy target. Persecuted for centuries, envied for their achievements, driven from their homes and homelands, resurgent in their successes, Jews have survived purges, Crusades, Inquisitions, expulsions, Catholic Church excoriations, Stalinist pogroms, and “the final solution.”

We know Jesus drove the moneychangers from the temple; “My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.” Yet, in an ironic reversal the Jews, his tribe, became reviled as usurers and financial predators.

For most of my life, anti-Semitism was lurking just beneath the surface. My generation knew it was there but was righteously proud of its achievements in the civil and voting rights movements. We hoped these measures would address all types of discrimination including anti-Semitism. But Trump gave these groups oxygen and in August of 2017, the first year of his presidency, emboldened neo-Nazis marched through Charlottesville, Virginia, carrying Tiki torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us.” It was a classic white supremacist call to action, after which Trump blithely noted that “there were fine people on both sides.” Once again anti-Semitism and white supremacy were back in the mainstream of American politics.

Today Fox News commentators, rightwing groups, and elected officials like Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Lauren Boebert are attacking American “elites” for supporting “Great Replacement” theory, wherein non-white populations will “replace” the ethnically dominant white population. It’s the latest dog whistle iteration of “Jews will not replace us.”

Anti-Semitism continues today, but it’s not just as an American problem. France, Germany, Hungary, Russia, the UK and South Africa have experienced continuing incidents. In 1947 the Jewish diaspora reclaimed part of its original homeland to establish the nation of Israel but in the process displaced a large population in Arab Palestine. Discrimination doesn’t always run one-way. Remember, Arabs are Semitic people too.

I know my efforts to understand and raise awareness won’t make much difference, but I’m thinking of the song “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” written by two Jewish composers, Rodgers and Hammerstein, for their 1949 musical South Pacific. It was intended to address the racial issues faced by a mixed-race couple but  its message is relevant to discrimination of any sort:

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught from year to year,
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear—
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a different shade—
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate—
You’ve got to be carefully taught!
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

According to the Anti-Defamation League, 2021 was the highest year on record for documented reports of harassment, vandalism and violence directed against Jews. The watchdog group has tracked these incidents since 1979, and it says 2022 will look a lot like last year. (NPR 12/1/2022).

In addition, anti-Asian, anti-black, anti-Latinx, anti-Muslim, and anti-LGBTQ hate crimes are at an all-time high. As of November 28, 2022 there had been 611 mass shootings this year.

All of these incidents are related, but Anti-Semitism has more of my attention now, because I’m reading the autobiography of my friend’s uncle who emigrated from Vienna in the 1930s when National Socialists were starting to confiscate property and persecute Jewish families. It’s similar in tone to The Hare with Amber Eyes, a history of the Ephrussi banking family, one of the richest in Europe, whose property was confiscated and most of whom lost their lives at Dachau or Auschwitz. This is part of the history many school boards In America are trying to rewrite by banning books they believe cast an unfavorable light on history as white Christians want it to be.

For the record, my family is not Jewish but because of two incidents my life, I have a heightened awareness of anti-Semitism. The first occurred in elementary school when my parents told me I could not play with my black friend, Corky White, or my Jewish neighbors, Kenny Waldbaum and Ronnie Saul. The second was when I shared a house with a group of newly hired Pan Am pilots on Long Island who made disparaging anti-Semitic comments about our neighbors. I asked them to knock it off, because I found it personally offensive. Fifty-five years later some of them still wish me Happy Hanukkah annually. 

Mounting Losses…

I often think, even in difficult times, that optimism is baked into our DNA–but confronted with end-of-life issues I waver. There are so many possible tragic endings…in fiction and in life. From Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina’s throwing herself in front of the oncoming train, to the brilliant actor Chadwick Boseman’s secretive death from colon cancer at age 43, life shows us the unpredictability of our endings. Sherwin Nuland, the physician/writer, reminds us in his book, How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter that most of us mythologize that chapter, hoping and imagining a quiet slumber from which we never wake. “There is a vast literature on death and dying,” but rarely does it dwell on the ugly details.

When I was young, death was way over the horizon. As a 22-year-old fighter pilot it was something that happened to other people. Faulty equipment, bad weather, or someone else’s mistake could trigger an accident, but even then with “the right stuff” death wasn’t in the cards. If we trained hard, ate right and didn’t do anything stupid everything would be fine. Now, with a foreshortened future, that’s all in the rearview mirror. It may be something else that’s baked into our DNA.

My friend, Michael, is a case in point. An Übermensch—musician, actor, painter, potter, and tropical fish savant—he is one of the most engaging and talented people I’ve ever known. Handsome, artistic, accomplished, funny, and an exemplary husband, father and friend.

He and my former wife, both talented painters, met when they were art majors at UCLA. But, Michael was also a musician, and while still in school he formed a folk duo called The Other Singers with his friend Tom Drake. They began playing West LA bars and clubs, and in short order were discovered by talent scouts from Doug Weston’s Troubadour. It was the heyday of the folk revival, and the Troubadour was the hottest showcase for new talent on the West Coast. Mike and Tom shared the mainstage with Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds and The Eagles. I saw them recently on a poster in the Linda Ronstadt documentary, The Sound of My Voice.

While they were still playing the Troubadour, Andy Williams asked them to form a larger group he called The Good Time Singers, for his TV show. That gig lasted until his career took a different turn when his brother Jim, an actor on ABC’s One Life to Live, wanted out of his contract and thought Mike might be able to help. The brothers look alike, so Jim pitched ABC on Michael as his replacement. ABC bought it and agreed to write Jim out and Mike in by creating an auto accident that put Dr. Larry Wolek (Jim’s character) in the hospital where urgent surgical repair altered his visage slightly. Mike took over Jim’s role and stayed with the series for 20 years.

But, Michael was always resourceful and creative. When he was a pre-teen his father moved the family to England, where they knew no one. Before enrolling at an English public (private) school, his parents worried he would be seen as an outsider, an American interloper. They shouldn’t have worried. Michael was a bridge-builder. On his first day, he took a deck of cards to school and during lunch regaled his English classmates with card tricks and sleight of hand. By the end of the day he was the most popular kid in school.

In one of life’s cruel pivots, an insidious protein began depositing itself in Michael’s brain twelve years ago. When memory lapses alarmed the family they consulted a neurologist. The diagnosis, Lewy body dementia, is a cousin of Alzheimer’s. The invading protein changed Michael’s brain chemistry and brought on more than memory lapses. There were also disruptive disease-related hallucinations. Last month his wife Sally and daughter Maggie knew they could no longer give him the care he needed and moved him to a memory care facility. Invasion of the Lewy body brain snatchers.

For Mike, Sally, and Maggie the change is life altering. For me, his situation is sad and confusing. He’s lost to me in some ways but not in others. I’m trying to keep him present. I keep replaying old tapes of things we’ve done. Lunch at a little Cuban place on Columbus Avenue. Visiting their home in Dobbs Ferry. Playing guitars in our little garden in St. Tropez. Waiting for Mick and Bianca to emerge from the Hotel de Ville after their wedding vows. Here’s is a picture Mike took that day.

You can tell, I’m struggling with endings. Dying of “natural causes” seems benign but has a cruelty all its own. Alzheimer’s and its cousins don’t kill like brain cancer or a heart attack. If there’s a difference between a bullet and a slow-acting poison, is one more cruel? I don’t know. I just know the losses are mounting.

Sally tells me that until recently Mike and Jim were still getting together to play guitars and sing. I marvel that the brain, even a damaged one, can still grant this gift. I hope the brothers will be able to keep playing in Mike’s new home. I plan to play and sing along to The Other Singers CD as a way to feel like we’re all together again.

But everything is new. Sally is moving into a mother-in-law apartment at Maggie’s, where Maggie and her kids, Jack and Ella, will welcome and care for her. But she and Michael were each other’s life support and soulmates for more than 50 years. I can’t imagine how that will feel? 

The rational me thinks this is all for the best, but the other me hopes Michael can pull off a Houdini-like escape from Lewy body prison. He’s had so many incarnations. Is there one last card trick up his sleeve?

When I close my eyes I can hear him strumming softly in that little garden in St. Tropez. It sounds like Swing Low Sweet Chariot…


Are You Afraid of Books?

I recently read an article that began with “A library implies an act of faith.” I had never thought of libraries in that way, but it resonated. The quote is from A Qui La Faute?, a Victor Hugo poem written in 1872.  It suggests that by collecting books people are investing in the future—having faith that future generations will find inspiration and continue to grow intellectually, that they will learn from history and the experience of others.

But there are those who see a darker side. These people see danger lurking in the stacks. They think that by restricting access they can protect themselves and their children from dangerous and upsetting history and ideas. This is at the root of the great books debate. In 1497 Savonarola, the Italian friar, led a movement that destroyed art and burned books in the name of Christian renewal. In 1922, James Joyce’s novel, Ulysses, was banned in the United States and Great Britain and a serialized version was burned in the streets of Ireland, England and Canada.

Joyce’s novel chronicles a day in the life of Leopold Bloom as he wanders the streets and bars of Dublin. Originally published in Paris, US Customs deemed its content obscene and seized copies because might cause American readers to “harbor impure and lustful thoughts.”

In 1933 United States District Court Judge John M. Woolsey, after a month long reading of the book, ruled it “a work of literary merit:”

“In writing ‘Ulysses’ Joyce sought to make a serious experiment in a new if not wholly novel literary genre. Joyce has attempted- it seems to me with astonishing success- to show how the screen of the consciousness with its ever-shifting kaleidoscopic impressions carries as it were on a plastic palimpsest not only what is in the focus of each man’s observation of the actual things about him, but also in a penumbral zone residua of past impressions, some recent and some drawn up by association from the domain of the subconscious.
The words which are criticized as dirty are old Saxon words known to almost all men, and, I venture, to many women, and are such words as would be naturally and habitually used, I believe, by the types of folk whose life, physical and mental, Joyce is seeking to describe.
If one does not wish to associate with such folks as Joyce describes, that is one’s own choice.”

Today, exactly 100-years after Ulysses seizure by Customs censors, there is a resurgence of book banning (and burning) in America. Ann Patchett, prize-winning author (Bel Canto, The Dutch House) and bookstore owner wrote in her latest newsletter:

“It feels like we’ve heard more about banned books over the past year than usual, but it’s not just your imagination. According to PEN America, educational gag orders that prevent teaching about topics like race, gender, and American history have increased by 250% this year compared to 2021 and have been more likely to include punishments, such as fines, loss of state funding, or even criminal charges against teachers. As a result, many books that address politically charged topics have either been banned or challenged in school districts across the country. Books that aim to educate about race and LGBTQ+ identities have been disproportionately impacted.”

So, what books are we talking about? Here’s a recent list of the most commonly targeted books. The second,  third and fourth are children’s books and The 1619 Project is a recent addition of African American scholarship. The others are all considered classics of American/English literature.

·      Charlotte’s Web – E.B. White
·      Julian is a Mermaid – Jessica Love
·      Brown Girl Dreaming – Jacqueline Woodson
·      King and the Dragonflies – Kacen Callender
·      1984 – George Orwell
·      Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
·      Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
·      The Color Purple – Alice Walker
·      A Raisin in the Sun – Lorraine Hansburry
·      1619 Project – Nikole Hannah-Jones
·      To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
·      Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger
·      Beloved – Toni Morrison
·      The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

While libraries have been the traditional target of book banners, school boards and school libraries are the latest forums under attack. The most frequently given reasons for exclusion are pornography, obscenity, painting an unflattering picture of American history, grooming gay and transgender youth, student discomfort with discussions of race, sex, and gender identity. Is student discomfort a reason to keep literature off the shelves of school libraries?

Today happens to be the last day of Banned Book Week 2022, and I’m siding with Victor Hugo– a library is an act of faith. I have faith–faith that Americans can discern and decide for themselves if a book has value, and parents can decide whether they want their child to be exposed to ideas that conflict with their religious beliefs, but they should never be permitted to ban a book for that reason.

This is one wall of our living room. Behind me is another. 

I have faith that by buying and collecting books we are collecting knowledge. We are making an investment in future generations, that they will continue to learn and grow intellectually. The symbolism is that we are “in the dark” in our own time, but that by recording and storing our knowledge in the safety of a library, future generations will be able to see the light and learn from our mistakes and our experience.

It may seem excessive; but I continue to buy books – Audible, e-reader, and print. In September I bought four. Over the course of my life I’ve worked in three bookstores and a college library. M and I belong to Folio, The Seattle Athenaeum, one of a loosely affiliated group of national membership libraries. Please join me in celebrating Banned Book Week 2022 and fighting the narrow minded, fearful segment of our population that for some reason sees danger in the printed word.

Safe and Secure in Idaho…

You might recognize her as a type: a neatly dressed, polite, older woman but tentative and out of place in her role as a restaurant server. It may not be fair, but I often slot these women–mostly widows and/or single women–into a category that supplements its limited Social Security by working entry level service jobs. Last night, one served us at the restaurant next door to our Best Western hotel in rural Idaho.

Bonnie, not her real name, might fit this description generally, but our encounter revealed a more disturbing story. This awkward but friendly woman in white jeans and starched pinstripe shirt with glasses hanging from a lanyard started the conversation while busing our outside table overlooking the Snake River. With only a few post-Labor Day stragglers in the restaurant she felt comfortable pausing to talk.

Orofino, Idaho, is 51 miles east of Lewiston on the Snake River–a destination for fishermen and hunters. The biggest property in town is an RV campground that borders the river. It’s packed with campers all summer, thins after Labor Day before filling again during hunting season. Orofino is on the Lewis and Clark Scenic Byway, a beautiful stretch of the Snake leading downriver to the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area.

But Bonnie and Orofino are part of another American story—darker and more sinister. She tells us that she moved here from Victorville, on the edge of the Mojave Desert in California. She, her husband, and adult daughter were looking for a “safer place” to live. We didn’t have to probe; she explained they were Catholics, followers of a charismatic Filipino priest, who preaches that America is a dangerous country in the throes of a crisis. Was he preaching about the coming Rapture? The end of days?

It’s not clear, but after receiving God’s message in Victorville Bonnie and her family set about finding a “safer place.” To aid in the search they consulted Strategic Relocation, Joel Skousen’s book length survivalist Bible, and started looking at locations in Alabama, Georgia and Texas. They settled on rural Idaho—Orofino specifically. It had all the elements. It was rural and remote with a demographic of like-minded people.

A like-minded community was important to them, because survival is political as much as it is physical. Bonnie’s family, conservative Catholics, believe in a vast conspiracy in which Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi, both professed Catholics, are pawns in an evil plan to destroy America. According to Bonnie, Biden and Pelosi are not really Catholics. They are plants. She says she prays about it every day. She asked us to pray about it.

At this point, I’m staring at my half-eaten burger and fries. I can’t respond, but Marilynn does. “Where do you get your news? Do you watch Fox?” “No,” she answers, “we don’t trust mainstream news. We listen to podcasts. God leads us.”

I signal M that I can’t do anymore. It’s too much. We have to leave. We settle up, say goodbye to Bonnie and hurry out the door. Marilynn looks at me as we cross the parking lot. “What just happened?” I ask. She shakes her head. Silence.

The next morning, we’re off to visit family in Hailey . But first I need a latte and we want to see what Orofino looks like in the daylight. The downtown core is surrounded by neighborhoods with populated with small, early 20th century homes–the kind you see in older towns all across America. Almost nothing is new. They look like doll houses compared to what’s “normal” in urban settings. On a side street we pass a trash-packed yard with a Confederate flag hanging over the front door. A block away another homeowner has tacked a large banner to the side of his house proclaiming, “Don’t blame me, I voted for Trump.”

It’s hard to focus after the encounter with Bonnie and the drive through town. On the way to Hailey we listen to MSNBC on Sirius XM Radio. Two different worlds. We tune in Fox to get a different side, but nothing comes close to Bonnie’s strategic relocation story… the mannerly, matronly older woman, the Filipino Catholic priest, God’s will, the power of prayer, the search for a “safe place” to live, the Biden-Pelosi conspiracy to destroy America.

I would have been able to frame Bonnie’s Catholicism had it been Opus Dei, the ultra-conservative sect but still within the church, but this is nut-case, wacko, beyond the fringe stuff. In the wrong hands it could lead to another Waco or Ruby Ridge. Do Bonnie and her family have a houseful of guns to repel the invaders? It’s hard to imagine. Are they part of an organized group or are they hunkered down to get out of the way? What does “safe” mean to them? Is it defensive or are they preparing for battle?

I lived in Idaho for 25 years. When I arrived, Frank Church was Senator and Cecil Andrus was the governor–both liberal Democrats. Church, an environmental activist and opponent of the Vietnam War was defeated for a fourth-term in 1984 and Andrus retired after four terms in 1995. Idaho hasn’t elected a Democrat to a statewide office since. Blaine County (Sun Valley area) is now the only Blue county in the state. The panhandle always had a smattering of survivalists and homegrown militia, but they were fringe elements and seemed to me like grown men dressing up to play soldier. Not anymore.

According to The Guardian:

Idaho has long been one of the most conservative states in America with its fair share of extremism. Now, critics warn, the extremists are being normalized. Once dismissed as backwoods fanatics, the far right have entered the political arena and identified a path to power.

That path leads through a state Republican party that has long exploited tensions between independent-spirited Idahoans and the federal government, which manages two-thirds of the state’s land, and more recently embraced former president Donald Trump’s culture of grievance.

I want to think our experience with Bonnie was anomalous, but after Jan. 6, 2021 I see that even the most exceptional and radical things are possible. Our institutions from the Supreme Court to Congress are vulnerable and a polarized electorate is walking on eggs waiting to see what happens in the two upcoming election cycles. Bonnie wants us to pray. I will…but it won’t be for the same thing she’s praying for.