Tag Archives: boundaries

Tearing Down the Walls

fallofberlinwall_bundle_576x361Today is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Today is also two days before Remembrance Day, which recalls the signing of the World War I armistice, and Veterans Day, honoring all military men and women who have served our country.

Remembering these soldiers and these wars, recalling our defense of freedom and defeat of tyranny reminds us of the fragility of peace. Evil flies in planes across our borders, bombing our cities. It creeps through the jungle into our civilized world. But it is also deep within each of us, lying dormant, or not so dormant, asleep or not so asleep. A wall runs through each heart, a wall not so unlike the one that divided Berlin. On one side, the bestial; on the other, the celestial. One side is self-preserving and tyrannical; the other is self-sacrificing and honorable. Most of us do not see the border, for we are used to it and the territories merge. It is a smudged line at best, and we ignore it.

Similar blurry lines run through cultures. Parts are barbaric and others civil. One side recognizes the law of the jungle, might makes right; the other upholds the law God gave to man, life is precious, love one another, the common good is good. In some countries the boundary is clear, a geographical periphery bordering the nation, defined by democratic institutions. In some communities it is hazy and lazy, as law-abiding neighborhoods slip into law-breaking ones. Inner cities, once “gentrified,” blur into crime-ridden communities, where politically correct policies encourage the criminals.

Other lines are more clear. We can see clearly the border between the Trade Center Towers and the terrorists who destroyed them. We see the border between the peaceful shoppers in a mall and the terrorist who beheaded the coworker. We can see also the border between the innocent runners in a marathon and the terrorists who maimed them.

We fought two World Wars so that free peoples could live freely and peacefully. How ironic and tragic that we must go to war to ensure peace. It seems to be the way of man, that one side of his heart must triumph over the other in order to protect the good from the evil. The free must triumph over those who seek to enslave them. This is a just war.

The Berlin wall was hugely symbolic and terribly effective. Many lives were lost in attempts to flee Eastern Germany and the shackles of the Communist Soviet Union, to the safety of the West. But even with the wall finally down, and even with our rejoicing in its fall, we know there are still five countries imprisoned by Communism. For them the wall has not fallen; they do not remember victory on this day or any day; they mourn for the daily victims.

Hong Kong, back under Communist China’s control since 1997, recently witnessed thousands of protesters demanding the right to vote in honest elections. The protest was quelled by tear gas, pepper spray, beatings, jailings, in an echo of the Tienanmen Square massacre twenty-five years ago. In Laos, the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, the only party allowed, denies free speech, religious freedom, and property ownership. Like its neighbor Communist Vietnam, the government tortures and imprisons those who disagree. Cuba follows the Communist playbook as well, keeping a tight grip on thought, speech, and freedom. The border between Communist North Korea and Democratic South Korea is a clear geographical boundary, a four-hundred-mile demilitarized zone, separating a people with common language and history. The Communist North tortures and starves its citizens, denies freedom of religion, thought, travel. As Mr. Marion Smith, Executive Director of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal:

“To tear down that wall will require the same moral clarity that brought down the concrete and barbed-wire barrier that divided Berlin 25 years ago. The Cold War may be over, but the battle on behalf of human freedom is still being waged every day. The triumph of liberty we celebrate on this anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s destruction must not be allowed to turn to complacency in the 21st century.”

And so remembrance inspires us to rededicate and re-shore our beliefs, our courage, and yes, our military strength as a free nation in a world of shackled peoples. Recent midterm elections recognized this. I hope we will see more clearly the wall dividing freedom and tyranny, so that we may preserve our own scattered communities of peace.

And we give humble thanks to the brave men and women who have kept us free, fighting and dying for our freedoms. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

A Bobcat in My Yard

The Fire Trail, my novel-in-progress, is about the borders between civilization and the wilderness, so it has been with some interest that I witnessed a bobcat appear in our backyard three times in the last two weeks. He shows up around four to five o’clock in the afternoon, slipping silently up the hill below our house, through the rosemary and lavender, where he pauses on the edge of the patio and stares at me.

He is small, not much larger than a big cat, and I hoped that he was a cub and could not fit through our iron fence once he was older. But after Googling (hooray for the Internet), I have learned his full size is about twice the size of a cat, which means the fence will not bar him, will not protect us. We have not fenced out the wilderness.

I love animals and especially cats, so I was intrigued with the catlike face as our eyes locked. He had substantial whiskers, powerful hind legs. He loped confidently across our patio into the bushes on the opposite side, a graceful animal. But we have domestic cats, Lady Jane and Laddie, and we fear this wildcat would make short work of either of them. I saw the bobcat’s photo online, spotted in Mt. Diablo State Park nearby last week. The comments were all about how cute he was. Cute?

He is wild and he is hunting in my backyard. The wilderness has encroached upon the small space of safety we call home. The bobcat, I reflected, is a timely reminder of our helplessness in the face of nature. I recalled reading that Canadian wolves re-introduced to the northwest have multiplied beyond desire and safety. We cannot control the natural world.

In The Fire Trail, set in Berkeley, a trail runs east of the university between the town and the high dry grass and the flammable eucalyptus. Fire trails, like fences, are designed to keep the wild of the wilderness away from our domesticated and safe communities. They create a break between death and life. Fire, like the bobcat, has uses. Bobcats are excellent pest controls. Fire is useful too: it warms us, lights our way, cooks our food, runs our industries. Yet it burns, maims, devours, kills when not held in check.

And so it is a short way from the border between wilderness and civilization and the border between freedom and responsibility. How does a culture set its boundaries of behavior? How does an individual limit his own actions, impulses, desires? What are the limits, if any, in a democracy that cherishes the individual over the community, the minority over the majority, and oddly enough, those who cross the boundaries of accepted mores and suffer for doing so. These last – those who see freedom as the right to self-fulfillment at any cost – are lauded in our culture, as though our commonly held assumptions mean nothing. How do we protect free speech and the practice of religion in an orderly and civil manner?

Civil society has long looked to history to draw its boundaries, to tame the wild, to define its very self. It has long looked to its institutions – churches, temples, schools, community organizations – to tame the beast in each of us. Within the church, structured rituals tame our raging hearts, our untamed desires, our envy, anger, greed, gluttony, pride. We follow the Church Year faithfully, Christmas incarnation through Easter resurrection and see that we are fallen creatures who need help to rise from the earth, to stand. We cannot pull ourselves up on our own.

The bobcat paused and stared at me. I do not think he reflected, considered, that he was trespassing. He was hungry and thirsty. He hunted to survive. He was deadly.

It is Lent. It is a time to consider, like St. Therese of Lisieux, the “little flower,” our littleness, our helpless selfishness, our incivility, without God. In the still small moments of quiet that appear without warning during the day, in the sudden wakefulness that touches us in the dark of night, we pray, Our Father who art in heaven… We embrace little denials, here and there, unseen and unknown, and we pray, You are all I need… We learn to discipline our hearts so that we can truly love.

This week we celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation, that remarkable and glorious moment when the Angel Gabriel announced to Mary that God had chosen her to bear his son. Mary sings a song of praise, My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my saviour… God used her littleness to enter our world. He can use yours and he can use mine.

Our world is slip-sliding, it seems, backwards, away from the way forwards as the jungle encroaches upon us like a roaring lion. But like Mary we can say, Be it unto me according to thy will. Through sacrament and worship, through little gestures of listening and love, through our own self-denials, God magnifies us and strengthens us. We fall again and again. He reaches for us and pulls us up so that we can stand. He shows us the way.

And the bobcats will return to the wilderness as we rebuild civilization.

Shadowy Borderlands

I’m setting my next novel in Berkeley, California. Folks ask me, “What is it about?” and I am challenged to give a coherent, short answer. “It’s a story about a girl who witnesses a murder…” I begin. But then, of course, it is so much more, and where do I truly begin, I wonder.

In some ways the theme is about borderlands, the edges of civilization. I believe our own culture is slowly returning to a wilderness state, with the borders of law, manners, social behavior redrawn each day, shrinking. We have been living in a darkening age for some time, a twilight time, but the night seems to be falling swiftly.

Berkeley is a perfect setting for a discussion about borders, for it sits between parkland wilderness and bay waters. Fire trails protect the townspeople from the dry hills above and hopefully break a wildfire’s path. The hills have known devastating blazes that devoured communities, so fire is no small threat. But other threats lurk as well, with a rise in crime in the civilized cities that form a necklace around the San Francisco Bay. Berkeley shelters its share of crime with lenient laws that encourage drug use, theft, and other violent means of self-expression.

Berkeley is also set in a landscape of intellect and passion, of mind and matter. Here the University of California, one of the greatest schools in the world, has birthed major scientific discoveries. The arts thrive as well, those expressions of our thoughts and beliefs and deepest desires. And yet traditional core curriculum is crumbling, no longer requiring a study of the past to understand the present. Gender and racial studies replace history, as though a narcissistic self-examination of skin and sexuality will throw light on civilization and what it means to create and foster civil society.

Berkeley’s early beginnings were Ohlone Indian, then Spanish, then Irish Catholic, having been settled by an Irish farmer (James McGee) who gave land to the Catholic Presentation Sisters for a convent and school. The city was named  in 1866 after an Irish Anglican bishop, George Berkeley (1685-1753) because of a line in the following poem:

Westward the course of empire takes its way;
The first four Acts already past,
A fifth shall close the Drama with the day;
Time’s noblest offspring is the last.

from Verses on the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America

The first line became shortened later to the cry “Westward ho!”  The line also became the title and subject of a mural by Emmanuel Gottlieb Leutz (1861), which can be found in the House of Representatives behind the western staircase. The phrase and painting represent the idea of manifest destiny.

The “course of empire,” of course, was thought to be at one with the advancement of civilization. The British Empire was and is a civilization built upon classical and Christian traditions, laws and values. As these authorities lose their power and persuasion, civilization loses as well, and cracks and fissures give way to a crumbling.

This week is the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, when “time’s noblest offspring” – America – legalized the killing of unborn children. Since that day, 41 years ago, 56,662,169 unborn babies have been killed by abortion. And we continue the killing, with 1,382 lives – daughters and sons, nieces and nephews – lost yearly. January 22, 1973 was a watershed moment in our history, a time when we turned in upon our own people, to feed upon our own humanity.

It has been said that when we do not respect human life – the unborn or the aged, the infirm or the ugly or the handicapped – we encourage a culture of crime. We look out for ourselves, not others. We take what we can when we can as long as we can. Moral parameters become defined by legal boundaries; individual conscience does not matter. Soon it does not exist.

January 22 hits me by surprise each year, like a slap in the face, and I join in the crying of those who march upon the capitols of our land. I cry with them to return civilization to our once great and generous and loving country. I suppose the surprise comes to me each year because this memorial anniversary arrives so soon after the birth of the Christ Child in the humble manger, the child that would love us no matter our abilities, looks, health, age, no matter if we breathed outside the womb or not.

So we are as a nation in a shadowy borderland, a shadowland, between civilization and the jungle. A fire trail runs around our cities, but can’t always protect us from the blaze, the inferno of self. When such a trail becomes God’s fire of purgation, a cleansing of these sins through repentance and forgiveness, only then can we love as we are meant to love – love even the unborn, even our neighbors, even, even, even…

May God have mercy on our people, and may all victims of violence be comforted and redeemed by his great love.