Practicing Patriotism

On a warm weekend afternoon at an outdoor café, my friend Randi divided up her stack of stamped postcards and passed half to me across the table. We chatted and caught up on each other’s lives as we wrote the identical message over and over to strangers in South Carolina: “We do our best for our families no matter our color, age, or gender, but some politicians divide us to block access to affordable health care, good schools, and clean water. Let’s join together and vote in the November 3 election.” I signed my first name on my stack, and Randi signed hers, under the narrative provided to us by the two sponsoring organizations, Indivisible and Postcards2SwingStates. The only variations were the salutations—Ashton, Tiffany, Cindy, Marco, others—and the individual addresses copied from a list of Democratic voters.

I had brought along my own ballot in the car to deliver afterward. After I parked outside the café, I hesitated about leaving my ballot unattended on the car seat with a momentary concern about it being taken. I realized that having participated in elections for decades, I have never been more attached to my ballot. When Randi and I finished up, she graciously offered to mail my postcards along with hers. I had become attached to these potential votes as well, and kept the cards to mail myself.

I headed to turn in my ballot at the county Civic Center that houses the local courts and other government offices. I followed the signs in the large complex pointing to the location of the ballot drop-off. Alone in the empty parking lot, I walked up to the official box and stopped before pulling the handle. I reflected on what I was holding, more than a piece of paper and a sealed envelope. It held the weight of all the people across the world who have risked their lives, and sometimes lost them, for the right to cast their vote.

In my own country, it was only 100 years ago that women who were white first obtained the right to vote. I thought about how the Voting Rights Act protected the ballots of Black Americans only in 1965. Indigenous Americans’ voting rights were secured by the last holdout state only in 1962, and they still face legal obstacles. In my own lifetime. Now those in power are trying to take the ability to vote away.

It wasn’t until after I dropped my ballot into the chute that I noticed the cardboard sign across the paved walkway, adjacent to the building’s big glass doors. Curious, I walked over to look. It was a makeshift memorial for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Two battery operated candles had been placed on either side. A jar had previously served as an improvised vase with water, its bottom containing brightly colored marbles. With this public entrance long closed due to the pandemic, the jar was completely dry and held the desiccated remains of what had been flowers.

Teary-eyed, the action I needed to take became clear. I drove the 16 miles home to fill up a water bottle, bought a colorful bouquet, and returned to the Civic Center just before dusk. My license plate was no doubt appearing on a security camera, with someone watching me pouring the water into the jar and placing the fresh flowers. I removed the disintegrating remnants of the previous offering and placed them at the base of some ornamental shrubs nearby, to decompose and replenish the soil.

Amidst the behind-the-scenes maneuvering to undermine democracy, patriotism isn’t hateful bluster while waving a flag. Patriotism is thousands of people across the country writing more than 15 million postcards to voters they’ll never meet. It’s the anonymous individual who showed up with cardboard, candles, and a jar, and made a lifelong promise to a heroic American to stand up for justice for all.

Photo at Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles by A. Joseph Glaser

Walking in the Footsteps of Galileo – The March for Science

On Earth Day this year, 50,000 other sane people and I walked down Market Street in the March for Science in San Francisco. Until recently, I would not have thought I’d have to defend that most basic of nonpartisan concepts—science. You know, the field that brought us handwashing.

Alone, it’s easy to despair and feel powerless in these challenging times. But that wasn’t possible when I was surrounded by so many committed people of all ages with their creative signs and costumes.

While the purpose was serious, our collective mood was upbeat. This is why I attend peaceful protests—to recharge for the slog that is social change. I will continue to show up.

Me and the other heretics.

This Is What Democracy Looks Like: Action at the Airport

When I read the news about the president’s executive order targeting Muslim immigrants from the Middle East and heard about the protest at San Francisco International Airport, I knew how I was going to spend my Sunday. Somewhere hidden in that airport were unfortunate travelers in custody, separated from their families based solely on their ethnicity and country of origin. My friend Saret and I headed down early to help out the couple dozen committed souls who spent the night there after some of the thousands there the day before had headed home.

I made my simple sign, writing in black marker on a piece of paper in between chants of “No bans, no wall, sanctuary for all” and “Tell me what democracy looks like, this is what democracy looks like.” Just a simple message in big enough letters to read from a distance: “Let them in.”
beverly-with-sign-at-sfo-protest-1-29-17-cropped-smallWhen Saret had to leave for work, I connected with a number of new friends who were good company throughout the day.







As people came and went they left their signs behind to be picked up by others.

signs-collection-at-sfo-protest-1-29-17-smallAttorneys arrived and offered their services, forming a spontaneous team. Some set themselves up in a coffee shop as their legal headquarters. Others walked around prominently to direct people to the headquarters, and asked around to find people who could translate their signs into Farsi and Arabic for arriving travelers. At one attorney’s request, our crowd chanted our support: “Let the lawyers in, let the families out.”

attoney-at-sfo-protest-1-29-17-smallAs the hours passed, more and more people arrived at the airport. We sang and chanted while some American travelers happened upon our protest and cheered for us.

crowd-scene-with-toddler-at-sfo-protest-1-29-17-smallDroves of supporters had started dropping off food the previous day for people staying overnight, and there continued to be lots of food available on tables along the sidewalk outside the terminal.

protest-food-station-af-sfo-protest-1-29-17-smallSympathetic managers at San Francisco International Airport issued a formal statement of support: “We appreciate all those who have so passionately expressed their concerns over the President’s Executive Order relating to immigration. We share these concerns deeply, as our highest obligation is to the millions of people from around the world whom we serve. Although Customs and Border Protection services are strictly federal and operate outside the jurisdiction of all U.S. airports, including SFO, we have requested a full briefing from this agency to ensure our customers remain the top priority. We are also making supplies available to travelers affected by this Executive Order, as well as to the members of the public who have so bravely taken a stand against this action by speaking publicly in our facilities.”

constitution-sign-at-sfo-protest-1-29-17-smallHundreds more people continued to stream in as I headed home. Eventually there would be 1,000. Later in the day the last person detained, a man from Iran, was finally released and united with his worried family.

This is indeed what democracy looks like. To get involved with a national movement with your local neighbors, I hope you’ll join me in connecting with Indivisible. Please spread the word.


Why I’m Going to Arizona for the Election

flag-lapel-in-hand-10-2016-cropped-smallIt was in July that I made my decision about what I needed to do.

I had already watched the Supreme Court decimate the Voting Rights Act. I’d been appalled at how state after state subsequently passed laws to restrict which Americans could vote. And when the Republican Party named their candidate for president with his hateful rhetoric, I resolved to act.

With no issues in my home state, I’m volunteering for the presidential election in Arizona. I’ll be joining the efforts of the Arizona Advocacy Network’s Election Protection team in the Phoenix area, where the Maricopa County sheriff is nationally infamous for violating civil rights.

I’m going because I’m patriotic.

With so much at stake, I am compelled to counter those who reference American values in the most perverse language possible—citing freedom as a basis for hate and promoting violence against those who don’t meet their standards of whom their fellow Americans should be. I’m reclaiming their adjectives and slogans to promote the best of American values. Liberty for all. Regardless of what we look like, what language we speak, what country we were born in, what religion we believe in or not. And so many other freedoms.

I cannot let the fear-mongering go unchallenged. The America I believe in doesn’t discriminate. My America opens the door for every voter.

On election day, I will be there with my flag lapel on. For liberty and justice for all.

Speaking Up as an Ally for My Fellow Humans

“As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.” – Peggy McIntosh

Some years ago, I was waiting in line for the bathroom at the grocery store when someone mentioned it needed attention and she was going to find an employee to take care of it. The man waiting behind me, white as I am, commented to me that the bathroom wasn’t appropriately clean because employers hire Mexicans and they don’t do a good job.

I wanted him to stop saying such horrible things, so initially I wasn’t responsive. The door to the other bathroom opened and I went in, giving me just enough time to prepare for the rest of the conversation I knew I needed to have when I came out.

The man was still there. I politely said something like this: “I need to let you know that just because I am also white, it doesn’t mean that it’s okay with me to categorize an entire group of people based on their ethnicity, and I found what you said offensive.” At first he was stunned, and then he grew angry. I responded: “I realize you are describing your experience. That is not my experience, and however you intended it, what you said landed as offensive for me.” I ended the conversation and left.

Beneath my external calm, I was shaking. But I had taken the critical step across our societal line of complicity. I landed on the side of using my privilege to make a difference instead of taking advantage of it in silence as I had for many years before that. I doubt that I changed that guy’s mind. But there’s a good chance he would hesitate before saying such poison words to someone else.

I cannot return to a place of silence. The nonviolence trainings I participated in decades ago when I was attending protests against nuclear power and logging of ancient redwoods seem even more relevant in these times of increasing hate and violence. I stand upon my Buddhist practice as another layer of the foundation. With so much at stake, I must keep reaching out to make that human connection for a better world.

How do I look bigotry in the face and see the humanity of the person on the other side, to change our society in my daily interactions without falling into a hateful place myself? This is my ongoing practice.

With that in mind this Independence Day weekend, I took myself to the county fair where volunteers had set up booths for this year’s presidential candidates. I have never met anyone who supports the Republican Party’s scary nominee—I can’t bring myself to type his name on this blog—and I wanted to look in their faces, have a conversation with them, try to understand.

I spent the first part of the day soaking up the upbeat energy of the fair—the determination of the kids in 4-H showing off their dogs’ agility training, the jugglers and music, the artwork and photographs in the galleries, the taste of roasted corn on the cob. Then I made my way to the red, white and blue booth.

So much of understanding is just about listening, so I started there. I listened to the man beside me explain to the volunteers that he believes in the Constitution, and that’s why he is going to vote for the nominee. I believe in the Constitution, too, I thought, which is why I came to the exact opposite conclusion. Someone came by and bought a bumper sticker. And then it was just me and the three women, facing me across their table piled with books, stickers, a clipboard to sign up to help the campaign. They appeared to be about my age or a little older. One of them greeted me.

“I’m here because I’d like to find out why you support the nominee,” I began, as politely as I could. Two of them took turns responding with the catch phrases I’ve been reading for months. “A strong military.” “Securing our borders.” “Keeping us safe.” They then asked me about my opinion.

I started with explaining that when the nominee was asked a question by a reporter with a disability at a press conference, he made fun of the reporter’s disability. All three of them nodded and one softly said, “Yes, that was unfortunate.” Another said, “Well, he doesn’t practice, he just says what he thinks.” Indeed, I thought.

“I’m Jewish,” I said. “And a lot of what he says about Muslims and immigration reminds me of what so many people said about Jews during World War II when they refused to let them into their countries when they were targeted by the Nazis. You could swap the word Jews for Muslims and that’s how it seems today. I think that’s racist.” The reply: “Oh no, it’s not the same. Jews weren’t terrorists.”

And so the conversation went, as they ticked off familiar buzzwords about the Koran and allowing Muslims into the U.S. To keep my center, I visualized the darker-skinned faces of Americans I care about who were born in other countries. That helped me stay calm. I said that the Bible promotes some pretty awful things but that doesn’t mean Christians act on them all, and asked if they’d personally met anyone who is Muslim. They stammered.

One woman asked me who I liked in the election. “I don’t like either of them, actually,” I said, “but I am voting for the other candidate because I find the nominee so frightening.”

We talked a little more. Our conversation was uncomfortable. They drew closer together and I think they might have been a little afraid of what I might say or do. It was time to wrap up. “Well, I see we disagree. Thank you for talking with me.”

I walked away, breathed deeply and set out to locate something uplifting. As a counterpoint, I happened upon the booth for the firefighters, people who risk their lives responding to anyone who needs help without discrimination. I smiled watching them help little kids climb into the fire truck and listened to the children laughing as they placed their tiny hands on the steering wheel.

I came away with a few things from the county fair. A book on local trails, information about where to recycle some old electronics, a framed photograph of a beach that I’m attached to. And a reminder that there is no us vs. them—there is only us. To create an equitable world requires dialogue even with those whose world view I find harmful. Staying silent is staying complicit. On this Independence Day, I recommit myself to freedom for all, being an ally and continuing to speak up.

From Charleston to Castro Street

Glide Description-Unconditionally

Glide, Unconditionally

Last week, I filed silently into Glide Memorial Church on an evening after work. Inside the church sanctuary and adjacent to the entrance, I walked past the memorial posters with photos and names—Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Reverend Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton and Myra Thompson. Their faces were spread across the first pew, reserved entirely for them.

I found a spot in the middle of the many rows and took my seat. I looked around at the rainbow spectrum of people surrounding me. Eventually there were more than 350 of us. We had come to honor the nine people murdered in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, targeted because they were African American. I guessed that others there were like me, not knowing any of the dead personally. Yet we had all come to honor them as our kin.

Waiting quietly for the vigil to begin, I felt immediately at home despite typically having no connection to churches. Fifty feet above me were timbers installed in 1929 and painted with pastel flowers. The stained glass windows featured flowing patterns in bright greens, blues, reds. Banners hung around the perimeter. “We are all precious and accepted.” “Justice.” “Liberation.”

My tears started with the first words from the man who began the ceremony. Wearing a tee shirt emblazoned “Love Heals,” he told us, “We did not come here to tear down—we came here to lift people up. Thank you for your head and your heart. We will not break up. We will put together.” He read a powerful poem about his personal experience as an African American and concluded by leading us all in a chant, “Black lives matter.”

One by one, individuals stepped up to the altar to light a candle. Nine times, a flame was lit in tall green cylinders set on a bright green tapestry with two large red hearts. After each one, a speaker picked up a poster and showed us the photo while reading about the person whose life was taken. Between the readings, we all paused in silence to the chime of a metal singing bowl, reminiscent of the Buddhist retreats I have attended.

At tables around the church were Action Stations—places to share condolences with the Emanuel African Methodist Church, write letters to the South Carolina legislature to remove the Confederate flag, create a patch for a quilt of comfort and solidarity, take signs of protest and hope to share, record a video of what needed to be said, and a brainstorming list of “pathways/future actions to challenge racist structures and systems.”

Grief was just the first step. As the evening’s printed program said, it was a time to remember and a time to act.


The following morning, when the news of the Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing same-sex marriage was announced early in the day West Coast time, the Bay Area community exploded in jubilation.

Just minutes after I awakened, horns were honking around town, even the boats in the harbor. At work, we cried and laughed and hugged each other. On the eve of Pride weekend, people flocked to San Francisco City Hall and Castro Street in spontaneous parties. Everywhere there was a celebration, whether it was at someone’s desk or filling the street. We smiled and greeted strangers, with a tangible flood of joy for the whole weekend.

On an ordinary weekday afterward, I found myself drawn to a personal pilgrimage alone, to express my gratitude more privately.

In the 1970s, 575 Castro Street in San Francisco was Harvey Milk’s photography shop and LGBT activist hub. It was the center for launching the campaign of the nation’s first openly gay man elected to prominent public office as well as a national movement—and the epicenter for events that ultimately led to Harvey’s assassination.

For the first time after decades living in the area, I visited the former camera store. Although it’s been nearly 37 years since Harvey’s death and Castro Camera is long gone, I needed to come here to honor his memory and the success he helped create. Today, the building is the home of the Human Rights Campaign Action Center and Store.

Harvey Milk-575 Castro Street door signSign on the front door of 575 Castro Street honoring Harvey Milk

Inside, among the clothing and mugs for sale, Harvey’s spirit was celebrated in photos and videos. On the wall was the quote that showed he knew what he was risking: “If a bullet should enter my brain, let the bullet destroy every closet door.”

It didn’t feel right to leave without buying something to further the cause. I left with a small rainbow pin for the bulletin board at my desk.

Standing on busy Castro Street outside, I said a silent thank you to Harvey. No candles, poems, or chimes this time. Just the tears.

A rainbow pin now prompts me to remember what one woman shared during the Glide vigil. “Love is more powerful than hate. We can overcome. We have practiced over decades radical acceptance. We are the hope. We must continue.”

Learn about the important work of Glide and the Human Rights Campaign.

UPDATE:  I shared this post with Glide to express my appreciation, and they added it to the Glide blog. I am deeply honored.


Broken ankle treatment summary 1-2015

Last month, lost in thought about being late and rushing to meet my Buddhism and diversity mentor for a conversation over dinner, I was not paying attention to where I was walking. I stepped on the edge of the sidewalk where it met dirt, and down I went with all my weight on my left ankle. I sat up on the sidewalk and as I steadied myself, I figured I had a bad sprain.

Throughout the evening, multiple people kindly offered to help me. Two employees at a restaurant who had seen me through the window came flying out the door, helped me up and supported me so I could get inside and sit down. I discovered I could put some weight on my foot but bending my ankle was not a good idea.

Someone brought me an icepack. I didn’t have my mentor’s phone number with me, and someone looked up the number of the restaurant where she was meeting me so I could leave her a message. While I had my leg propped up, another person introduced himself as a paramedic and checked to see if I had normal sensation and movement in my toes. My mentor came to pick me up and was ready to take me to the emergency room, the obvious and inevitable destination. She graciously accommodated me when I realized that since I wasn’t particularly in pain sitting down, we could still have our dinner first.

At the emergency room, an efficient and compassionate medical team took x-rays, weaving me into the evening’s schedule of patients and attentive to us all. I was lying face down for the technician who was holding my lower leg up at a right angle and putting a brace on, so I couldn’t see the face of the doctor when he came back in. He touched me on the shoulder and gently said: “You broke it. I’m sorry.” The brace turned out to be a temporary cast, and the doctor gave me crutches and the phone number of the orthopedist to call in the morning.

I fell asleep that night with a deep sense of gratitude for everyone who had helped me.


The next morning I read the news of the attack at the Charlie Hebdo newspaper in Paris, stunned and horrified along with countless others across the world. I know such atrocities are not new, but there was something about the juxtaposition of strangers being kind to me after my injury along with this violent incident that broke through my daily routine. I’ve been pondering the complexities of the human species—capable of both so much kindness and so much brutality.

What creates such broken people? We all come out of the womb as inquisitive beings with a capacity to love.

A few weeks ago, I watched a talk by Angela Davis. When she said she wondered what kinds of awful things had happened to these individuals to make them evolve into the killers they had become, she verbalized what I and I’m sure many others had been thinking.

Of course anthropologists and sociologists have been studying such things for years and certainly I don’t have the magic answer for what promotes peaceful behavior. What I do know is what the answer is not—the prejudice that paints whole ethnicities, countries of origin and religions as evil and then creates a world of oppressive structures resulting in poverty and a lack of liberty, an environment where resentment and hate can thrive. What I do know is that the world has too many have-nots, and to plant seeds that will sprout as love and not hate requires making the ground fertile for justice and equality.

What had prompted me to schedule my dinner with my mentor, and made me resolve to continue with our conversation instead of going directly to the emergency room, was that I wanted her advice about how I as a white and privileged individual could best be an ally to create peaceful change and opportunities for all. The subsequent events in Paris have highlighted the importance of becoming my best self to help create a world where others may become theirs, to have the opportunities to become the people who would choose to help a stranger with a broken foot instead of reaching for a gun.

I take my cue from Angela Davis who gave a speech remembering the victims of the Paris attack. “Let us find ways of mourning them that are liberating from the impulses of revenge and retribution so that we can ask ourselves how we can begin to move toward justice as a transformation of the relations that bind us all together.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day – Lessons from My Mother

On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 1999, I reflected on this extraordinary man’s courageous life and wrote a letter to the individual who brought his vision to life for me personally—my mother. Here is an excerpt from the letter written 15 years ago.

January 18, 1999

Dear Mom:

Today, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I’m recalling a Detroit evening in 1968. I was 11 years old. I had been out somewhere and don’t remember much about what I’d been doing. It was what happened when I returned home that is still vivid in my memory.

You were crying, a rare thing for me to see as a child. I was immediately concerned, and you told me Martin Luther King, Jr. had just been assassinated. I remember details—you sat in the big brown chair. You wanted me to know what happened. When I asked why he was killed, you told me some people are full of hate.

In those days, I barely noticed we were one of the last white families in our Detroit neighborhood, unlike those who had fled the influx of black families. The skin color of our neighbors and friends was so irrelevant that I was stunned when I became aware of how basic day-to-day living was hard for them in a bigoted world.

This weekend, I honored Martin by attending a speech by Robert Meeropol, a fundraiser for the Rosenberg Fund for Children. This incredible organization provides support for children whose activist parents have been targeted. Of course I have known since I was a kid who Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were, and who their son Robert Meeropol is. You made sure when I was growing up that I knew the truth about this family. You consistently informed me about the real, courageous people populating the political landscape.

Right now I hold a mental photo of you that sad night in 1968, pondering as an 11-year-old that you were moved to tears by the death of a man you’d never met. At age 41, I am now as old as you were then, and I recognize you as the source for my life’s work on behalf of children and the earth.

I could no easier cease working toward a better world than I could stop breathing. I am the daughter of the woman for whom Martin’s death was a personal irreplaceable loss, who boycotted grapes and lettuce on behalf of the union organizing efforts and well-being of distant Latino farmworkers, who always made sure I understood that I’d never be a soloist on this planet.

I appreciate many traits I inherited from you, but value most the intangibles. Compassion. Perseverance in the face of injustice. The ability to still laugh in hard times, to notice when others—human or otherwise—are suffering, to know when I am obligated to act.

Robert Meeropol said in his speech: “Where there is tyranny, there is always resistance.” I am forever committed to the resistance. Unequivocally, I learned this was essential first, and best, from you.

Update: I’m honored that the Rosenberg Fund for Children has shared this post with their community.

My Renewed Commitment to Working for Change

Two events are occurring today that motivate me to write this.

First, I read John Boehner’s announcement that he will not allow a vote in the House of Representatives on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act–legislation that would protect people in the queer community–because “the Speaker believes this legislation will increase frivolous litigation and cost American jobs.” Second, tonight is my volunteer shift at the GLBT National Help Center. I talk with people from across the country who call or chat me anonymously for support as they navigate our societal issues around sexual orientation. For many, it is the first time they have found the courage to tell anyone who they are because it is such a huge risk in the context of their lives.

It is precisely because of the threat countless people face that I am motivated to be there for those who reach out. I am grateful that I am employed at a place where I have never once had to ponder risking my livelihood for being the B in LGBT. And I recommit myself to working for that same right for all of us.

The Heroic Work of Saving an Unpopular Life

My brother in court standing beside the prisoner (photo by a newspaper photographer)

In 1993, a mentally ill man murdered four people. Since his conviction in 1996, he has been on death row.

His legal journey is once again in the news. While many people across the nation are clamoring for his days on this earth to end, 17 years later he is still alive due to the efforts of a group of people committed to commuting his death sentence to life in prison without parole. Two of these people are attorneys on his legal team, my brother and my brother-in-law.

Each day that this prisoner has awakened to take another breath is the direct result of their battling against an entire culture focused on vengeance and sanctioned killing. When I contemplate the world’s heroes, these two are among them. I am honored beyond words to be in their family.

UPDATE:  The prisoner has been given a reprieve by the government.

What I Do for Two Hours Each Week

She is 18, from the South, and a Christian. And she’s a lesbian who has never told anyone that before. By the end of our online chat, she has a contact for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender center at the university that she’ll attend this fall. She tells me she had heard such welcoming places existed, but never had come across anything like that. She thanks me before we disconnect. We have not met and never will—our entire relationship lasts 33 minutes.

For two hours each week, I talk to people who reach out to peer-counseling volunteers like me at the GLBT National Help Center. Some come through online chat, and others call on the phone. I can’t tell who they are, what their phone number is, or where they are chatting from. Their anonymity is the essential component of what makes it safe for them to tell me who they are and how they are navigating their world. Sometimes I just listen. I am often the first person they have ever told about feelings that vary from the dominant heterosexual culture, after painful years of struggling with silence.

In my own life, I am fortunate to be loved and accepted as the B in LGBT, and it’s important to use that privilege to extend an anonymous hand to these people from all over the country. All of them are amazingly courageous people across the spectrum of ages, backgrounds, and gender identities. I am honored that they trust me to bare their most vulnerable selves, and my commitment to them is to hear their truth, listen with an open heart, and help them feel empowered to begin to let go of shame and fear—to take that first step toward being proud and embracing themselves as they really are.

The GLBT National Help Center operates the GLBT National Hotline and the GLBT National Youth Talkline:

First Blog Post: Part 1 of My Travels – A Visit to Manzanar

In September, I took my first extended vacation in three years. My only firm plans were to spend my first night in Bishop, California and eventually head up to fulfill a long-time dream of seeing the world’s oldest beings, the bristlecone pines in the White Mountains during my two-week journey. I threw all my camping gear in a rental car and headed up and over the Sierra Nevada and then south.

My first full day, I visited Manzanar National Historic Site. For those who don’t know about Manzanar, here is the description from the website of the National Park Service: “In 1942, the United States government ordered more than 110,000 men, women, and children to leave their homes and detained them in remote, military-style camps. Manzanar War Relocation Center was one of ten camps where Japanese American citizens and resident Japanese aliens were interned during World War II.”

This might seem like a strange place to launch a vacation, since it is definitely not an experience I would describe as fun. But as someone who is committed to social justice work, it felt important for me to see where Japanese Americans and immigrants were forced to live from 1942-1945 for no reason other than their ethnicity.

It was a strange experience to visit this place in the Great Basin desert with stunning views of the mountains, and see it as picturesque when those unfortunate to be imprisoned there had such a different experience. I spent the whole day there, absorbing the former prisoners’ stories through listening to recordings, watching videos, standing alone in a reconstructed replica of the typical open room that housed 8 people with no walls and no privacy.

I had tears in my eyes most of the day. My heart ached for the suffering that accompanied this sad part of our country’s history. And yet I was touched by the beauty the people who lived there created despite their painful lives: stonework, gardens, landscaping at a desert spring, orchards. On the driving tour, I stopped at a site that was once a garden and another that was a cemetery for a few people unfortunate to die there. I paid my respects at both places.

I had my camera with me this trip but it was clear that it seemed inappropriate at Manzanar. Documenting the suffering that occurred here did not feel right. I took only a single photo outside the gate, of an old guard tower that stands against the backdrop of the stunning Sierra Nevada landscape. I wanted this image as a reminder for myself to be part of preventing such a tragedy from happening again.

A couple days later, I hiked up Little Rock Creek and found an oak sapling, less than two inches tall, growing out of the tiniest bit of fertile earth, a small patch of lichen on a boulder. I snapped a photo. Looking at the image now, taken soon after I visited Manzanar, it struck me as a reminder of the tenacity of the people so unjustly imprisoned in their own country.

I can offer these people who suffered nothing. I cannot undo what happened. But in my mind, I associate this tiny tree with their spirit, a symbol of life springing from what would appear to be impossible. So here are two photos to pay tribute to all of those at Manzanar and their loved ones and descendents–a guard tower that still stands as a reminder of what Japanese Americans endured, and the little tree that reminds me of the strength of the human spirit.