Blues for Paris

I studied photography in Paris a couple decades past, and at one point decided to take long-exposure night-time shots along the Seine. After living in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, I already knew Paris was nowhere near as threatening an environment. And I’d been out at night there on my own, at concerts, plays, talks by photographers, always traveling on foot and by Metro. Still, I was wary about shooting after dark in a less populated spot.

The first time I set up my tripod on the Left Bank, near the Pont de Archêveché, my immediate surroundings were quiet and calm. Light rippled off the water. I sighted and framed potential shots and, with all my other senses, read the atmosphere for signs of trouble.

People strolled past, talking quietly, the flood lights of a bateau mouche spread their streak of daylight across both banks, music bounced down to the river from cars passing by.

There were no red flags, just peace and calm. And its epicenter, I finally realized, seemed to be Notre Dame, buttresses like wings spread out behind her, the spire with its watchful figures, her towers looking west.

My eyes to the viewfinder, vulnerable on all sides, that sense of a guarding presence calmed me down and let me work.

There are claims that buildings are simply enclosed air, objects built from inanimate materials, but I don’t believe it. Buildings are memory boxes, repositories of the voices, footfalls, and lives that have sounded within them.

During my time in Paris I passed Notre Dame on foot, on buses, ate my lunch in the square at her feet. Within her walls and in her deep quiet, I lit candles for my parents. She stands at the center of Paris like a guardian spirit keeping watch over her city and people. Her roots are centuries deep and she misses nothing, because the world comes to her with its news, sorrows, and triumphs.

And now the world is coming to her again, with aid and prayers for her restoration.

Fires, landscape and loss

Our sense of landscape goes deeper than familiar hikes and favorite cafés. The streets we know, personal landmarks we pass, buildings we spend our days in and the views from their windows, they all give our lives contour and context.

When that landscape is incinerated, as it has been in Santa Rosa, in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties, our inner compass points burn too.

The horizon of losses from these ongoing fires feels endless and is not fully known. Families, friends, animals, and community are what matter most. Losing your home and belongings is its own depth charge of a nightmare. And it’s no small thing to lose the places where you’ve left footsteps and gathered memories.

Map of Evacuation Centers in Sonoma, Napa County and Beyond. From The Press Democrat

Tipping Point Emergency Relief Fund

Extensive listings of organizations helping fire evacuees, places for evacuees and their pets and large animals, organizations accepting donations. From SFGate

Immigration—gestures, posturing & walls

(in which Vesta has a soapbox moment, but let me just get this out of my system and we’ll go back to our regular programming)

A poet died last week. Memories of him lit up the Internet. Reading messages from writers and students whose lives had intersected with his, I could feel the traces he’d left along his way.

The poet who died is Tom Lux, and one of the most affecting messages about him was written by Vijay Seshadri, in writing freshly poured from pain and loss. It’s a remembrance of generosity and humane welcome that inadvertently shines a bright light on recent attempts in the U.S. and elsewhere to codify xenophobia.

Not that xenophobia is new, it’s a state of mind with a long and entirely shabby history. But it has attempted to pass itself off as rational in the wake of horrific events like the bombings and murders in Paris and Berlin.

Clearly, there are terrorists in the world. Very likely in every country in the world. We have our own home-grown varieties here in the states. Slamming the gates on individuals based on where they were born, banning members of any religion, will not keep this particular wolf from the door. It’s posturing. It’s throwing sledgehammers at a complex problem that requires precise tools and specialized knowledge.

The deeper problem here is that when we humans feel threatened we do what makes us feel safe, whether it addresses the actual threat or not. We point fingers. We roar. We pound tables and slam doors because it silences the noise in our heads, not to mention everyone within hearing range. This is sound and fury within the tiny neural networks of our own minds, not threat resolution out in the world where it matters.

But here we are, closing the doors. Locking the gates. Putting up walls.

I imagine Lady Liberty, our Mother of Exiles, standing in her harbor, wondering what happened to the country stretched out behind her. A place that once prided itself on can-do independence and ingenuity, the ability to roll up its sleeves and solve anything. For now, that country has decided to act out of its fear instead of its wits.

What we talk about when we talk about other people. Part I

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Like most people, I only really know what it’s like to be me. Let’s start there.

In my case that means a multiple-ethnicity American who most take for Anglo or white.

An uncomfortable thing about that has been the ease some Anglo-white people seem to feel in expressing anti-whoever is not-like-me points of view, as though I would, naturally, agree.A540 037 square crop

The first time this happened my internal reaction was: what is it about me that makes you think I feel that way? I was amazed at how much certainty they had about who I was and what my opinions were, despite knowing absolutely nothing but my appearance.

Unable to be quiet about it, I looked for ways to counter these mistaken assumptions about my point of view without getting confrontational about it.004 1-31-15 square crop To a woman who complained about “all these foreigners” who had altered the no-longer predominantly white culture of L.A., I smiled and said “But that’s the best part about being in L.A, all the people who have come here from across the globe.”

The point is we categorize others and assume we know who they are based on how they look—to us. It’s our shorthand way of moving through the world and quickly identifying who and what is in our environment.15 Jan 2010 pm 012 square crop

We are walking taxonomies of other people’s natures, except here’s what I think: I think the information most of us have filed away under these headings is not based on careful observation of other people but on careful documentation of our reactions to them. The problem is there is a world of difference between the two.

Kindness and Distance

In 2014 the British government stated it would not support the rescue efforts escalating in step with the pace of refugees who fled across the Mediterranean, an escape route that too often resulted in capsizings and deaths. There was some accompanying media commentary decrying the impending influx and calling for the European continent to prevent any spillover across the channel.

Meanwhile, in Italy, the country whose shores were often the first to receive refugees, the focus was on efforts to accommodate and to help.

Whatever the cultural differences between Italy and Britain, I’m certain the much stronger influence in these two reactions was that Italians saw individual refugees in all their desperate humanity and felt compelled to provide aid. The British government was responding from a much greater distance. At that time they had predominantly encountered only images and stories of boats filled with people.

In the spring of 2015, a professor at Coventry University (in Britain) whose specialty is international migration, pointed out that it was in the areas with the least number of people who had migrated from elsewhere that attitudes were the most hostile.

There is a lesson in this for all of us.

What is the first thing we do when we want to dismiss someone or cut them down to size? We distance ourselves from them. We focus on the ways they are different from us, or we simply pretend they are different. We create a them vs us narrative. Anyone who’s been through high school in the U.S. (and perhaps elsewhere but I only know the U.S.) knows all about this phenomenon.

The problem with all of our them vs. us narratives is that they are so out of sync with reality.

Even at the level of DNA, we are all very much alike. Sure, we are Buddhists, baptists, agnostic or ambivalent; we have skin and hair color from across the human spectrum; we’re teachers, artists, coders, attorneys; live in cabins, studios, houses, our cars. Those differences may influence who we hang out with but they have nothing to do with who should have a seat at the community table and share the feast or take part in the debate. It’s pretty hard for any community to make forward progress when each faction is pulling away from all the others.

So next time we’re tempted to sound off at or about someone, and we all will be at some point, we need to stop for a second. Look whoever it is in the eyeor if the contact is digital, give the situation an equivalent evaluationand ask ourselves if we don’t see a little bit of someone we know in there.

On the road with the rest of the world

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I live near a city of about 100 thousand people that’s home to a big university. On any drive through the business district you encounter students out jogging, on skateboards or bicycles, staring at smartphones, their feet, or off into space. A friend of mine, born and raised in New York City, is often enraged by their alteration of the city-street landscape and by the need to make sure she doesn’t run into them.

It has to be said that university students can make driving more of a challenge, but I’m glad California has a pedestrian right-of-way law, because I know it forces me to pay closer attention and to be a better driver.The skateboarder who shot out in front of me the other day could just as easily have been the driver of another vehicle who wasn’t paying attention.

We all have moments where something on our minds becomes more riveting than what’s happening around us. I once drove through a red light after hearing the announcement of a foreign leader’s assassination (call me a world affairs nerd).

We also seem to have something in our DNA that dictates that whoever is the fastest and strongest has the right of way, no matter what, no matter where. To a lot of drivers—who are also on occasion pedestrians—anyone and anything moving more slowly than we are, including other cars, is a nuisance. Who are they to get in our way?

There are cyclists who wobble out of the bike lane, older people who don’t make it across the street as quickly as they once did, and parents juggling shopping bags, toddlers, perhaps a baby carriage and a leashed dog or two. Maybe we all needed to be someplace fifteen minutes ago. Maybe none of us will get through everything we’re supposed to accomplish today. But we all have a day to get through, we’re all in the same day together, and it’s a good idea to keep our eyes on our surroundings and fellow humans—however they’re getting around—making sure we don’t slam into each other.