Saturday, August 9, 2014

All Done with This

Interesting what sends the past bubbling up and burning. We’re at a soaking pool one evening, my husband and I, steeping like leaves of jasmine. A woman enters with a baby, less than two months under his little elastic waistband. My eyes gravitate toward the infant the way my eyes gravitate to all the wrinkly heads and unsteady necks of infants, the shattering beauty of their animalness and vulnerability. But I cannot stop staring at this baby. He looks exactly like my own baby at that age. Almond-shaped dark eyes and a thin pelt of brown hair. Olive skin. Heavily creased forehead and red lips.
My daughter is now a hilarious, warm-hearted twenty-something, tall and Romanesque as a statue, who—thank the Graces—turned out well. Yet given the chance, I would change almost everything about her infancy. Seeing the baby at the pool, I feel the crush of hunger to go back and fix things I can’t.
I was twenty-one when my daughter was born. At the time, I was three years into an abusive marriage I would not leave until she turned two. I’d been sickly in the years before her birth (my teen years, really), an overuser of antibiotics, and I suspect this precipitated her copious allergies and tendency toward illness—her woefully inadequate intestinal flora. In our daughter’s second year, her father built a fiberglass car body in the small garage attached to our house, and I suspect the cloud of toxic fumes sparked her learning disability. At the time, I thought myself powerless to stop it. But I wasn’t. These are the glaring failures. The failures that shine under her skin, their shelf life longer than her own.
As I exit the locker room after swimming, I see the mother standing outside with her baby. She fumbles with the waist buckle of her baby backpack and looks straight at me. “Can I get your help with this?” she asks.
I look in her eyes as I latch the buckle. “Your baby looks exactly like my daughter did,” I tell her. And just as the words cross my lips, I am buried in emotion.
“Really?” the mother asks. “How old is she?”
“Twenty-one.” I fight an onrush of tears.
“Wow, and where does she live?”
“Nearby, a couple hours from me.” I turn my head so she doesn’t see my eyes grow red and wet. I put my hand on the baby’s back.
“So you’re all done with this?” she asks, meaning childrearing, and I nod. “Well, I’m a little jealous,” she adds lightheartedly as I step away. This mother is my age, forty-something, and has decades until her nest empties.
“I’m jealous too,” I tell her, turning and smiling through the tears.
{First published in Oregon Humanities, Summer 2014}

Portrait of a Neighborhood

Dead-End, reads the yellow sign at the beginning of my road, and not until now have I pondered the misnomer. This stretch is so alive it would obliterate all inhabitants given time. We rev our weed-eaters and brandish machetes in defense of our homesteads. “Dead” is what a city dweller might say of my rural neighborhood. But how backward, the thought.

I live in a neighborhood midway down the stretch called Miami-Foley in Tillamook County. It is an area not unlike the Appalachians, I hear, though I’ve not seen the Blue Mountains. A dwarf cousin, at the least. I cannot explain how I found the place other than to say it found me.

My neighborhood—dead-end street and beyond—is a quiet mix of retired households, a few Gen-X families like mine, some second-home owners who come to set out lawn chairs in the woods or to dust off boats for fishing excursions, and then the other folks. I’ve not met many of the other folks, though among these are the neighbors you likely read about in the paper—our area being no stranger to crime (My husband and I wryly conclude we’re safe since unstable neighbors seem only to kill their friends).

Most of the houses here do look like homesteads. Outbuildings spring up on properties like mushrooms, and plots accumulate the detritus of collecting. Homeowners hold on to vehicles, or the wistful tent trailers and campers that promise future getaways, and tools are tucked away on dusty back shelves or huddle like refugees under the eaves of sheds. It is a testament to thrift, this collecting, thick in the marrow of people who inhabit rural neighborhoods fulltime, myself included.

There are houses tucked down hills, appreciated fully only on foot. One of my favorites sports gingerbread trim and a picket fence, and has a matching creek-side guesthouse mostly covered with moss. A shop with a sliding wood door and small bell tower sits alongside the French-vanilla cottage, and out front, a greenhouse. Other homes—in full view—are sorely neglected. Grass rises to hip height before a shearing.

Lacing through the neighborhood is our creek, called Foley, and it is the compass by which we orient ourselves, its singing the underscore to all other sounds. Around each bend, it is somehow new, altered like a chameleon—the same, but not. Under summer light filtered through the lace of hemlock and maple, it becomes inconceivably charmed. It settles me here, the way the ocean settles coast dwellers.

On a typical walk through my neighborhood, I pass a scatter of empty lots, the broad hairy shoulders of green space that set rural neighborhoods apart from suburban counterparts. The lots belong to absentee landowners who drop in when life gives way for retreat. Ascending a shady side street one mile from my house, I stroll past such a lot. Instead of the bare circle of root-hatched earth I usually see, I witness a tent trailer and a table. On the table, a can of Pellegrino, an empty wine glass, a Mason jar holding a listing bouquet of daisies. The al fresco kitchen is probably the kitchen-away-from-home for city dwellers fortunate enough to own an ideal camp site—a lot in this quiet, bucolic neighborhood. Across the street from this site is a tree-strewn sheep pasture with thick gnarled roots rising from the ground and an arched billy-goat bridge spanning a rain ditch. Below the site, a hairpin bend of creek so clear you can count the rocks in it.

To call the site “pastoral” would not be cliché. Yet my neighborhood attracts with subtlety. It requires that you get out of your car, feel the shift of air and light, and stand still enough to see the birds disguised amid a rainforest of foliage. Some become distracted by the dog-eared mobile homes and the home sites more kitschy than cool. But there are those who come, perhaps on a whim following an ad that reads “Lot for Sale,” who get it right away.

One empty lot down the road from me stood overgrown and for sale eighteen months. It was unlucky enough to hit market a split second before the market careened off a cliff. But it eventually sold for a steal to city dwellers. They began clearing space and setting up camp right away, like that was exactly what they had in mind, and months later, the land was cleared of trees just enough to accommodate them. It had a cabin the size of a storage shed and space for a tent. Stacks of wood from newly shaven trees dotted the fringes of the site, and camping essentials became permanent installations. One imagines this place as a sort of “Hooverville” in reverse. Unlike the shanty towns of the Great Depression, this permanent campsite signifies a sort of adopted, opted-for simplicity. Maybe the family hoped to build a second home on the lot eventually, creek side and hunkered against a mountain. But at first, it was their getaway. I sensed it as I passed. Until they got too busy, or broke, and never came back.

The wild edges of this place can escape our awareness, the way we’re unaware of our own trailing scent. We all have our cultivated plots, our settled lives. But beyond them are woods that stretch for miles, and the miles belong to others. Elk and deer, of course, but also coyotes, bobcats, even bears. I’ve not seen the bears myself, but my daughter had an encounter with one in her first six months as a driver. Driving home late one night, a bear was spotted up ahead crossing the road. She slowed as much as safety allowed—but not enough to miss the bear entirely. The front corner of her car bumped its large behind as she passed. And as you can imagine, she milks it.

If any image means summer at Foley Creek to me, it is tire tracks etched out of wildness, two tracks outlined inside and out by fuzzy ribbons of grass and weeds. The seldom travelled roads and driveways thus outlined are the epitome of country living in my mind. Maybe I heard too much John Denver growing up. 

But no portrait of a neighborhood would be complete without a discussion of the neighbors. And by this I mean my immediate neighbors, those to my left and right who spot me drinking morning coffee on the porch in my bath robe. Before I was a resident of my dead-end street, while still building my house, I became well acquainted with the patriarch and matriarch across the street. Any tool I needed was offered with matchless generosity. And if I needed help raising a ladder to reach the roof, or holding a fixture while I screwed it into place, I could count on two extra hands. Occasionally I have something they can use and am able to reciprocate—a cup of cornmeal, a bit of computer expertise. But most often, I’m on the receiving end.

To my right is a family with two young boys and a host of animals, who help create the country environment. Though I rarely see these busy neighbors, I relish their chickens’ chatter and the effluence of affection offered me by their dogs, who spend countless hours on my porch.  A few others reside in close proximity who keep to themselves, yet there is not a bad egg among them.

I’ve heard of days when neighborhoods were close knit and neighbors shared freely with one another, whether tools, cars, the odd teaspoon of vanilla, or the abundance of their gardens. That is certainly not the norm nowadays, but I get to experience a small taste of it. In that sense, neighborliness is alive and well on my so-called dead end street.

{First published in RAIN Magazine 2014}

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Becoming Godmother

In the earliest photo of us, I am concealed behind the bloom of Luci’s baptismal gown while she is ruby-faced, captured mid-scream. It’s an inauspicious snapshot of the relationship to follow.
But leap-frog four years. I wait outside Luci’s preschool classroom to show my ID to her teacher so I can pick her up. She’s travelling home with me and Godfather Gil, my husband, for her first sleepover. Luci spots me and hunches her shoulders as her face bursts with a grin, the way a child might look while admiring a baby bird. She’s so elated she can barely fetch her backpack to collect worksheets from the day. “That’s Aunt Tricia,” she gushes to her classmates like I’m not only the Godmother, but God. I am beside myself with love for this effusive girl with cheeks round and sweet as meringue and a natural streak of blond in her sable brown hair. Gil and I clutch her hands as we walk to our truck noticing the stares we garnish from parents, and strap her into a booster seat like we’re taking home the grand prize. Everyone must be jealous.
We head to the diner-slash-ice cream parlor where she and Gil take turns sampling flavors, Luci’s choice a display of so many artificial colors I shield my eyes, until I see her delight upon eating it. She decides to eat her hot dog sans bun, to eat ranch dressing from the tips of her fingers—forget the fries, expressing her autonomy with food, as she does in most matters.
Filled, if not nourished, we commence the two-hour drive home. Fog fades the landscape on the coast-bound highway, but not the ebullience of our brave little Goddaughter. “I can’t believe we can have two sleepovers!” she shares, entertaining herself by rifling through the glove box. She proffers gifts to me: an old gas station receipt, a complementary comb embossed with gold lettering. When she finds a hawk feather in the side pocket of the truck, she lays it on my lap and Gil reaches from the back to admire it.
“Give that back to Aunt Tricia,” she instructs matter-of-factly. She explains it’s my present.
“Oh,” he pines, stroking the feather’s edge, “I would love to have a feather like this.”
“Yeah well,” she says, “get one from a bird!”
Gil and I meet smiles in the rearview mirror. It is this refreshingly unvarnished persona that charms us, a four-year-old refraction of my late grandmother—a woman so phlegmatic, unembellished, and bittersweet she was barely fit for polite society.
Not only is Luci rough on the edges, she’s a head taller than her classmates, a wearer of size 12 shoes at the age of four. She careens through the world like a clumsy giant. And she’s prone to the absurd, the mischievous. She recently asked her mother: “What is my husband named? Is it Aunt Tricia?” To this, her older brother stated, “No, your husband will be Saul [Luci’s preschool crush].”
“No,” Luci responded, “he is my boyfriend. Teacher said ‘no boyfriends’. But I asked him quietly, and he said yes!”
Can’t helping thinking Luci will need Godparents.
We’re happy to oblige. Yet where Gil is Godfather three times over, I am new to the business. For those likewise unfamiliar: a Godparent is traditionally a person who sponsors a child’s baptism, and who makes a Profession of Faith, agreeing to instruct the child in religion. More recently, Godparenting is popular with non-religious parents, who view Godparents as life-long friends and supporters of a child. But whether secular or religious values motivate the institution, I’m convinced it’s ingenious. It gives carefully selected individuals permission to have abiding, close relationships with Godchildren without worry of “playing favorites” among siblings. It confers particular responsibility on Godparents to assist children in developing toward wholeness. And it not only undergirds the child, it can allow non-parents to experience the joys of “parenting”. In fact, the Chinese equivalent of Godparenting is designed specifically to fulfill this need for childless adults.
Just two days before fetching Luci, we happened to attend a boy’s presentation. The three-year-old looked swanky in his black suit and stiff white lapel, the dimly lit sanctuary reflected in his patent-leather shoes. Our small community stood with the parents and recited a commitment to help raise the boy. But though I mouthed the words, I was skeptical. Do faith communities fulfill this commitment better than anyone else? Later that night, in the book I lifted from my bedside, I happened to read bell hooks as she extolled the virtue of raising children in extended families or familial groups. The repetition of the message reinforced the ideal in my mind. Most parents do want support in raising children, and some people actually want to help. But in a culture of individualism, it is tricky to live out the ideal.  How do we help parents raise children without horning in on the nuclear family, which often feels impenetrable?
I’m starting to think Godparenting makes a way.
Close to home we stop at our favorite wintertime farm stand. As I pilfer dollar bills from my wallet, I hand two to Luci, who teeters with enthusiasm. She chooses a bundle of carrots. These are my carrots, she’s wont to explain, and I tell her they came from the field just over there, pointing across the street. On the way home, she eats three, and despite her original intention, shares them. "Thank you for letting me buy this stuff,” she says. A moment later adding: "It’s because you love me.” Which, of course, I do.
I don’t strive to be educative with Luci, but I snatch opportunities. At dinner, she looks at the carved Mexican cross hanging on our wall and explains that “God died on a cross.” As a PhD in New Testament, I find this sloppy—even for a four year old. “Well, Jesus died on a cross,” I tell her. “But God didn’t die on a cross.” She looks at me, then back up at the wall, and I can almost hear the calculations in her mind, like the crisp ticks of old computers. I don’t say more. But what I’ll tell her next time is that God is the eternal spirit in Jesus, as well as the eternal spirit in her, and that God never dies.  
Shortly after arriving at our house, Luci asks Gil to remove a large handpainted Dia de los Muertos mask that hangs above our door. It disturbs her. Besides, she explains (as if we’re slow on the obvious), it isn’t even Halloween. Later that day she notices skeletons again, this time the colorfully costumed variety on her guest-room pillows. I explain that, in Mexico, the skeletons are a way to remember loved ones who’ve died, to imagine them having fun after they’ve left this life. Luci decides this is nifty. She asks us to hang the mask back on the wall.
Gil, for his part, wrests educational moments as well. He instructs Luci in building fires, and by the end of her visit she’s opening the woodstove door to feed the fire with utmost care. She helps him peel boiled eggs—dozens of them since, as it turns out, she consumes eggs like a ravenous coyote, subsequently passing gas with glee (“that’s from the eggs,” she says each time)—and helps him tidy up after dinner. He explains recycling to her so she’s filled with optimism with every toss of a tin can.
Before bed, Luci asks for a movie. I put on the Muppets and take my place beside her. Luci shimmies up next to me and lifts my arms, one and then the other, wrapping them around her. The next day, as we drive to visit a horse, she leans and rests her head on my shoulder. I kiss the musty filigree of her hair. It feels like a return. Like I have warped back to the time when I had a child warm beside me, reaching for me, spilling over with affection.
Rare it is to return, and a privilege. That is the magic of Godparenting. I have several nieces and nephews and small friends who express love and appreciation. They have learned affection. But it is nothing like the familiar bond between a parent and child, between a grandparent and child. When Luci invites me to hold her like I once held my own daughter, I am reminded of that bond. People in our culture have pets to replace the effortless tenderness of children (my cat stands in), or they use other stand-ins—maybe sports, or long hugs with friends. Yet we miss holding the hand of a child. We miss having our hand held.
I quickly establish a house rule for Luci: I am allowed to read bedtime stories. This happens the first evening when I tell her it’s time for stories and she politely refuses. “No thank you,” she says. Thus—my rule. The first night, I get through Madeline’s Christmas and a whimsical I, Spy. But the next night, Luci asks for a third book—one about Jane Goodall as a girl that is sublime and almost spiritual. When I finish, she wants it again. Victory!
I hear that in some cultures, Godparenting runs amok. People are asked to Godparent too many children, thus diluting the relationship. It becomes symbolic and superficial, often aimed at gaining monetary assistance for the child, and Godparents barely know their Godkids. I sympathize. If asked to Godparent another child, I would probably say no, at least until Luci is grown. I take the commitment too seriously and want to do my best by her. I think every kid should have a committed Godparent.
As a child, I grew up far from extended family. Not only did I not have Godparents, I barely knew my aunts and uncles. In lieu of a close extended family, I could have used the affection and mentorship of Godparents during bouts of wandering, times when my curiosity was too scary for my parents, or when I didn’t know how to be close to them and authentically myself. For most of her youth, my own daughter had countless relatives nearby. She was like a child in a mountain village of Bhutan. I saw what a difference this made for her and her sense of self-love.  Most children don’t have this, so I advise new parents to use Godparents. This advice comes not from me, the green as grass Godmother with brilliant wisdom to purvey, but from the fourteen-year-old me who could have used one.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Moving Outdoors

This week, with the dawn of slightly warmer weather, I decided to move eating (and general being) outdoors. I was reminded of this poem I wrote in 2002, eight months after the September 11 attacks.

 When Summer Came in 2002

My daughter and I carried the spare table out
back, began to live under green and blue.
Spent our days nourished, and noticing things.
Like the flamboyance of a single tiger

lily against the foxgloves' purple foil,
or the way just-fledged finches played like
kids in a fountain as the soaker-hose
drenched their twitching wings.

As men in faraway places carried their
deaths onto buses, in bombs strapped to thighs,
we sought the golden lilt of the monarch.
As soldiers bulldozed refugee homes,

ate food stockpiled by the occupied,
we absorbed the tickling scent of blooms,
chased a flashing red to find a box-
elder bug.  While men in high places called

assassinations and hookers, we learned the song
of the chickadee, the maple leaves'
hushing.  As boys fought to "protect our way
of life," we lived like we knew

we were going to die.

© Tricia Gates Brown 2002

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Eighth Sacrament

It is my daughter’s nineteenth birthday. I drive to her small Oregon college in the sorrel glow of ill-defined weather, feeling the strangeness of going to visit my one child at her new home, to share her dorm bathroom and sleep on her crusty dorm floor. We are unnatural in our separation, Madison and I, each a single unmatched sock. We’re the sort of mother-daughter who walk with linked arms and give one another bear hugs in public, who stir each other to laughter or to such a pitch of frustration that we repel one another like colliding projectiles. It is not that we have a fraternal relationship lacking parent-child boundaries; we are simply a mom and daughter who know and love each other compassionately despite it.
This bond between parent and child strikes me now, more than ever, as sacred, and I lately wonder, in the manner of wondering for its own sake, why parenting is not a holy sacrament. Why is marriage a holy sacrament, or confirmation, or baptism, and not parenting? I have imagined that something got missed. Maybe the symbolic number seven delimited the list and parenting simply didn’t make the cut—too hard to enforce, too hard to validate in the way of holy sacraments.

“Don’t be obvious,” Madison says as we are sit together in the cafeteria, “but look at that boy walking in. He has an ear bud in his ear constantly, playing loud speed metal.” The boy walks across the room to meet up with a friend whom he greets without removing his ear bud. “Whenever I see him,” Madison confides, “I think of what you always tell me about silence, and how our spirits need silence.” Hearing this, I feel so swept away by thanksgiving that I almost float out of the cafeteria into cloud-dappled ether. She has been listening to me.

I want baptism for my daughter—this immersion in spirit—more than I can understand, I want her heart to connect irreversibly with the undercurrent of love that stirs life in her and heals the things we humans break and makes the sap to run and the hummingbirds to arrive at my feeder. I want her to feel surrounded by the breath of God that made her and guides her and that will receive her back as breath in the end. I worry, in a culture so cacophonous, so overwhelmed, where the young people, where my young person, will arrive at a meeting with this spirit, where they will sit down to meet themselves for the first time.
My phone rings one night. It is Madison, her voice immersed in the holy water of tears. “I’m just so bad at this,” she tells me, meaning college. Madison, who has a learning disability, has struggled academically for as long as I remember. “I try so hard,” she sobs into the phone, “but I just can’t do it. Maybe I’m not cut out for college. It is so hard. Especially studying for tests … I look at the same notes over and over and cannot seem to focus, and just when I think I’ve got something, it vanishes.”
I try not to hate the pain seeping through her words, the anguish in her voice. I know that the struggle is part of what shapes her, is part of the crucible of faith formation. Yet I want to gather my arms around her. She is four hours away. I want to protect her from the fear and drowning that led me to practically sell my soul when I was her age. I believe her, that she is trying, doing the best she can do, but I advise her to use different study methods, maybe work for shorter periods or at different times of the day. “I am sorry,” is mostly what I tell her. “I’m so sorry,” I say, “I wish there was more I could do to help.”
She hasn’t even reached the part about loneliness, which leaks out in tragic sobs that tear my heart.

Holy Orders
After lunch in the cafeteria, where Madison pointed out the ear-bud boy, we head back to the dorm. She collapses her sibylline head onto my lap. She’s had a headache for days, she tells me; asks if I will massage her neck; so I sit rubbing her slender neck and stroking her hair in the lava-lamp-lit room.
“I miss you,” she says. “It can be so lonely here.” And as I continue to stroke her temples, I fight back a monsoon of tears, praying achingly, almost desperately, into the silence, “God, help her. God, help her. God, help her.”
            If a sacrament is “a visible sign of an invisible reality,” as classically defined, why wouldn’t the parent-child relationship be viewed as a sacramental sign of God’s relationship to humanity, which is characterized as a parent-child relationship with every whispered “Our Father…”? If there is anything analogous and signatory of the tender creating and guiding of a world by God, wouldn’t it be the conception and birthing of human children, and the stinging, euphoric work of holding them and releasing them and loving them into full being? Wouldn’t this be a better symbol of God’s way of leading than anything else?

At dinner, in our favorite pizza place, we become distracted by the couple sitting across the aisle from us, who appear to be on a date and having a quarrel. Earlier the man had dropped his head to the table, burying it in his arms while the woman moved her chair beside him and draped her body across him, probably whispering consoling words in his ear. Now they have stood and are sharing a long, sad embrace in the middle of the restaurant. I wonder if we have witnessed a break-up and feel terrible in my role as witness. Just looking at the man brings up a hollow, expanding sickness that lay dormant in my gut—a feeling mildly like panic, the memory of devastating someone who loved me. Maybe I wish parenting was a sacrament because I have failed so miserably at matrimony. Maybe I want another sacrament to make up the difference.

Penance and Reconciliation
Yet I have failed, too, at parenting. Madison was a colicky, fitful baby; I a young mother, twenty-one years old when she was born, and I am sure I started failing her on the third day, when sleep deprivation caught up to me and I became exhausted and impatient. I haven’t stopped failing her since, in the innumerable, unintentional ways parents fail their children. As a parent I have always wanted, more than anything, to help my daughter see and embrace divine love. Yet I have simultaneously failed to love her in the ways I had hoped. I have ruthlessly hushed her as a small child for fidgeting and jabbering during the concerts and classes I dragged her to, shaming her for nothing more than being a kid. Before learning Madison had a brain ill-equipped for organization, I would force her to spend painful hours cleaning her room, organizing her belongings. I descended into instinctual silences too many times to name, when what Madison needed was companionship. I’ve yelled at times. I have taken my frustrations out on her. I have spent whole days of her life consumed with my own recklessness and obsessions, too stuck in my head to be a good mother. I confess. Lord have mercy.
Despite all of this, Madison seems to know that God loves her. This is the sweetest grace of all.

A sacrament is a conveyance of grace, a vehicle for stepping consciously into the surrounding air of holy, divine love, a bell waking us up to what is already ours. When young people are confirmed, they are anointed with oil—a sign or symbol of the holy spirit’s anointing of them, of the inescapable holiness of who they are and the everyday holiness of their imperfect lives.
As a parent I’ve come up blank so many times, wondering how to awaken my child to the divine love she is soaking in. Yet I was doing it all along by conferring parental love. In fact, parental love seems to be the main way kids are awakened to God’s love, through this primary experience of love at home. How many of us had our sense of grace shattered because parental love was poorly communicated or imparted with dangling strings?  How many of us know people who have suffered this shattering? 

Anointing of the Sick
As evening arrives on Madison’s birthday, I am initiated into the nightly college rite of fro-yo. We walk to the frozen yogurt shop before returning to a friend’s dorm to watch the Grammys. I take a seat next to Madison and massage her feet and her headache magically disappears.
            The root of the word “sacrament” means “consecrate.” To consecrate something means to make it an object of veneration, or to dedicate it for a specific purpose. If parenting was a sacrament, would we venerate it? How would that veneration look? Maybe if parenting were venerated, staying home to raise children would be viewed as an exalted calling, a holy act, an ordination. Maybe the people who do it, moms or dads, would be supported and rewarded and honored instead of being ignored and dismissed, or paid with lip service rather than substance. Perhaps if parenting were venerated, the current of economics would bend to something other than competition.

Madison and I crawl into our beds, mine a borrowed mattress thrown on the floor next to hers. She snuggles under the quilt I fashioned for her from yards of flannel and love. I turn on my side, away from her.
“Mom,” she whispers so her sleeping roommate will not hear, “will you turn around?
So I do, knowing she wants to hold my hand, that the bedtime hour of lying in the dark feeling the loneliness and homesickness of months gather like a swarm of bees around her head has come, but her mother is there and she can hold my hand. I lay there stroking the caterpillar skin on the back of her hand, thinking how much it feels like the little-girl grip I’d held and stroked every day of her young life, how the bones have the same inconsequential weight and the knuckles the soft suede ripple of a bean pod. Then she starts to cry, softly, almost inaudibly, and I do too. 

{Originally published in Portland Magazine, Spring 2013; To read the article in the magazine, click here:}

Monday, February 11, 2013

Poems for St. Valentines Day


I carry you with me into that light,
bread of the masses, silence of ages
you ingest, invest through me.
The cave at my center, like cupped hands
before a fire, holds you. My finger traces
your outline on my skin and you are there.

I can see your listing gaze, the hunger at the base
of your taut throat, the graces looting your knapsack
of tortured remembrances. We will take them—
they say, they will be gone, extinguished like a star.
Breathe with me, look around.
You are already there.

~ Tricia Gates Brown

Walking, Coldest Day of the Year

The sun loves days like this, seen
in a million new ways, each blade of grass
tipped with a diamond, light refracted
into myriad forms of honor. Whole fields

of crystalline white, patched in chartreuse
here and there, where the sun went too
far. Puddles, frozen and thawed, froze
again into expressionistic layers, pod

forms overlapping, concentric circles.
I pass the woman I met at the Bookmobile,
and she waves through a window. My dog
crunches brittle turf under calloused paws,

and runs over threads of moss lacy with
frost. My mind lies resting in a small
pocket, future and past dissipate like
tendrils of smoke, and you are closer to me

than my skin. I hold you inside me
like a Russian nesting doll, and when I stand
at the creek, I know you hear its trickle
and roll. When the love all around shakes me

like breath on a reed,
I know you feel the vibration. Loving a blade of grass is
loving God, and loving God is loving you.
You are a fish. Love is water.

~ Tricia Gates Brown

{Originally appeared in collection Sackcloth and Ashes2008}

Wednesday, January 16, 2013


(New year poem, December 2012)

In your dreams, they are there,
threading beads on a string of years,
molding clay with small warm hands,
and you awaken to find them gone.
This is the part that pinches my heart
in a vice that must be empathy. The cruel
disappointments of grief, the indelibility,
while others look away and forget. Sandy Hook,
Yemen, Gaza. Someone always points

a finger—on Facebook, the news.
Machine guns, mental illness untreated,
schools underfunded
spirits   unfed while we’re encumbered and fat,
stress on families, videos, games teaching
violence, abortion used carelessly as birth
control, myths of redemptive violence,
militaries larger than countries.
Earth’s destruction. Self.
Pick one agenda. Run with it.

Why can’t we admit: all of these things make us sick?
The vivid constellation of our violence, crippling
imbalance, dominance we carve out and serve. Here,
let me make it clear: we can choose to do better.
We can choose to do better starting today.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Letter to Fellow Democrats on the Re-election of Barack Obama

Dear Fellow Democrats,
On Tuesday night, a collective sigh of relief was heard among us. And in the past few days, as I’ve turned my ear to the conversations swirling around me, I believe I still hear it. A loud and prolonged whew.
I, like you, look forward to things to be done in a second Obama term. But I suggest one action is called for before we move past this election. I envision a collective “thank you” to the Latino voters who made this Obama victory possible. Without these voters, Obama could not have won.
Over the next four years, non-Latino Democrats will have historic opportunities to make our “thank you” an expression of genuine gratitude rather than empty sentiment. Already, immigration is moving to the fore of public conversation, a direct result of the election and the importance of demographics for the outcome. As this conversation unfolds, and as our legislators undertake efforts to address (or block) compassionate, far-reaching immigration reform, some of us need to move from the role of onlookers to the role of engaged allies.
The issue of greatest importance to Latino voters is immigration. At least sixty percent are personally acquainted with someone who is undocumented. Immigration is a heart and hearth issue for Latinos, but it is something that touches the lives of all Americans. I was recently told of a local Anglo woman who takes fastidious care not to hire undocumented immigrants to clean her house because of her dedication to “following the rules.” But the truth is, if this woman wants to remain untainted by the issue, she needs to avoid almost all food sold in grocery stores and never eat out at restaurants or stay in hotels. She needs to rescind her business from places cleaned by undocumented workers, and she should probably avoid all box stores and airports. In other words, her resolution may boost her self-image, but it is entirely unrealistic and somewhat egotistical. All of us who are part of the US economy benefit from the labors of undocumented workers. We all pay lower prices, almost every day, because of their labor. We are all participants in the broken system. Yet disdain and criminalization are reserved for the undocumented. As news anchor Jorge Ramos recently stated on the Stephen Colbert show, “There are millions of people who benefit from their work, and there are thousands of American companies who hire them, and we don’t call them ‘illegal.’ We have to talk about co-responsibility. … They are here because we need them, and they came here simply because we are hiring them.”
Most Americans—even those sympathetic to immigrants—know almost nothing about US immigration law. Yet laws that were put in place in the late 90s make a road to legal status impossible for the large majority of the undocumented. For example, anyone who has stayed in the country undocumented for over a year is barred from legal status without leaving the US for 5-10 years. And any immigrant who was in the US undocumented, then left for any reason and returned again undocumented, is under a “permanent ban,” meaning they’re not allowed to receive legal status under any circumstances. Permanent, 5-year and 10-year bans are in place for many other situations.
Most of us admire the high value placed on family, even extended family, by Latinos. Family commitment runs so high in Latino culture that if an immigrant feels she is needed by her family “back home,” she will go to the aid of her family. And when she returns to the US, she will permanently be barred from legalization as an immigrant, under any and all circumstances.
The NAACP, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, National Action Network, Congressional Black Caucus, Amnesty International, and other civil-rights groups, have all stood in solidarity with undocumented immigrants in the US, recognizing immigration as a key civil-rights issue. As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Those of us who are concerned about justice will have an opportunity in the next four years (and beyond) to stand with these groups in their advocacy for undocumented immigrants. We can educate ourselves about US immigration policy. We can talk to our friends and write letters to the editor. We can challenge use of the dehumanizing term “illegal.” We can use social networks to spread knowledge and advocacy. And most importantly, we can call and write to our legislators, repeatedly, telling them we care about immigrants and want to see far-reaching reform. In my view, there is no better way to say “thank you.”
Tricia Gates Brown
{First published at Upper Left Edge}

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Freedom in Tradition

Garlicky minestrone reaches down the hall and out the front door of the church, drawing me in on a wave of scent mingling with undertones of home-baked bread. I find myself thinking,church people know how to do food. If nothing else, you can count on the food. Then I immediately recant the sentiment, remembering nothing spoils the appetite like a bad church experience. Actually, encouragement of theological questioning and curiosity are what draw me to St. Catherine Episcopal. Thanks be to God.

Over ten years ago I completed a PhD in biblical studies because I was intensely curious about Judeo-Christian scriptures and wanted to teach bible. Then I proceeded to teach at an Evangelical-Quaker university with a strong fundamentalist student demographic, and let me testify, the experience cured my career ambitions with all the potency of chemo. I found that academically instructing young fundamentalists on the subject of biblical studies was like strolling through a minefield on the fringes of Afghanistan. The teaching experience had such a disillusioning effect, I didn’t even wander over to liberal colleges or write persuasive articles about uninformed scripture reading. I up and quit. Before I could teach biblical studies to anyone, I needed to figure out what was so fraught about the bible.

Though it’s taken a while, I have, over the last few years, developed one idea of why fundamentalist Christians need to defend the bible, and specifically, their own denominational interpretations of the bible, so zealously. Essentially, their institutions demand it.

Human development and the coherence of institutions necessitate structure and guidelines. But once humans reach a certain level, they are able to leave behind the structures and rules that helped them grow up. In fact, people at higher levels of faith development always let go of the need for defining structures. Yet scholars who study stages of faith and spiritual development, from James Fowler to Bill Plotkin, tell us that while this is true for individuals, institutions perpetually operate at an adolescent level of spiritual development. They cannot move onto the deeper concerns, or struggle through the formative losses, that steer us beyond the superficial boundaries imposed by others. Institutions, including faith communities, need sets of established guidelines and definitions to bind them together and power them forward. But unlike young people who learn the rules so they can effectively transcend them, adapt them, or outright break them as mature adults, institutions need guidelines, period. So dominant religious traditions throughout history directed their adherents with established rituals, creeds, and codified rules of conduct. This worked, even if the institutions thereby created were often immature and petty.

Over the last hundred-plus years, many modern Christians have eschewed such traditions in favor of free-form communities and “non-denominational” churches. Culturally, we have moved away from tradition and toward individual consciousness that is wary of institutionalism. As a result, many modern Christians demoted creed, ritual, and rules as structures for communal life, leaving a vacuum that had to be filled. In this vacuum, arose the Bible. The Bible-with-a-capital-B Bible, along with the rapid ascent of American fundamentalism. The Bible became the supreme authority for a large segment of American Christian communities. The bible is, for these churches, a bulwark against the formlessness that would threaten the institutions themselves.

But as it turns out, the Bible doesn’t simply substitute for the rule of tradition. In fundamentalist churches the bible is actually viewed as the word of God, not as a human-formed tradition that can, to some degree, be taken with a grain of salt and/or reformed. For many nondenominational fundamentalist churches and Christians, the bible not only replaced tradition, it eviscerated it. Who wants tradition when you can have God on the page, God you can hold in your very own hands? For non-historic, non-ritualized and uncodified faith institutions, the bible became the kind of authority every institution, like every adolescent, needs to define reality, but those who question or disagree with this authority are viewed as usurping the authority of God. The irony is that the bible is interpreted individualistically by people culturally predisposed to interpret so, yet it is held up as universal, divine, authority.

This elevation of the status of the bible has led to a fundamentalist American Christian demographic that increasing justifies violence and bigotry by misusing scripture. Past generations certainly saw violence and bigotry sanctioned by tradition. But different today is the tendency of fundamentalist Christians to cut off all discussion of the issues by appealing to literalistic biblical justifications of violence and bigotry. According to this hermeneutic, these things are justified because, simply put, God says so.

I am a Generation-Xer who has a strong aversion to institution for institution’s sake. In my early twenties I gravitated toward Quakers because the denomination seemed least institutionalized among Christian denominations. Tradition tends to rub against my grain. Yet when I tried to jettison church participation, I couldn’t stay away.

So I have made my peace with institutions, at least in theory. This is in part due to acceptance of how institutions, though often disappointing and adolescent and deserving of scrutiny, play a necessary role in communal life. I have also learned to value the traditions that hold many faith institutions together because, in healthy circumstances, the coherence around human-formed tradition and ritual allows intellectual and moral integrity to flourish. In a time of increasing income disparity, environmental crisis, and militarization, it is more important than ever for churches to allow discussion and dissent around issues of justice and violence and how Christianity can speak to them. This includes calling into relentless question portions of tradition and scripture that have been used to justify domination, exclusion and violence. Christians need stabilizing structures that hold communities together while allowing free and open-minded debate.

I now worship with Spanish-speaking Episcopalians. Among this group of liturgy-enacting, ritual adhering, scripture-reading Christians, I am free, with others, to both question and relish the intricacies of scripture. We are free to roll our eyes at the tradition at times, or to discuss it critically as the human construct that it is. In a faith community ordered around tradition, rather than around the supposedly inscrutable Bible, we are free to communally worship the Lord God with all of our heart, soul and mind. Thanks be to God.

{First published at Episcopal Cafe}

Monday, September 10, 2012

In Praise of a Quiet Life

In praise of waking when wakefulness stirs you because you do not own an alarm clock and if you did, would not know where to find it. In praise of grinding coffee or brewing tea or hydrating with water, if that’s your preference, of eating breakfast when you feel hungry and not before.
In praise of meditating for a spell before beginning the work of a day. In praise of running a hot bath and listening to radio essays while bathing and starting laundry and sweeping the floor. In praise of On Being and Fresh Air and Bill Moyers. In praise of morning.
Around eleven, I fetch our weekly CSA delivery. Before unloading the fresh-picked vegetables, I pull out the few leftovers from last week’s delivery, dice them, toss them with salt and olive oil, and set them roasting. On the way to the compost bin, I am waylaid by gardening. Crocosmia shoots overtake late-season rhubarb, and under enormous rhubarb leaves, sprays of lavender bow toward the sun, a posture common for sun-loving plants in this Oregon Coast holler. I set aside the compost and fetch a knife. After harvesting the rhubarb, I tie up crocosmia and nudge the lavender westerly. “Work”, as in employment, can wait.
I live a quiet life so I have time to do these things. To prepare organic food and grow a bit myself, to be side-tracked by gardening when the need arises, or a friend’s unannounced visit, the urge to read a book.
We who live quietly have become an invisible counter-culture. We don’t tweet or use smart phones, sometimes not even cell phones; we don’t have television; we don’t blog frequently or sample often from the smorgasbord of the web. We avoid the noise of incessant connection and activity. And even these small acts of quietude have become resistance in the digital age. We are harder to sell to, harder to influence. Yet resistance is not the reason we choose quiet. The quiet life is chosen because it feels more alive to us, less distracted, more healthful on personal and global levels.
Lest you think quiet a luxury, I can tell you that I am not wealthy (not on a local scale, at least). My spouse and I share a simple 720-square-foot home and run-down cars and bicycles. Of the people I know who choose a quiet life, none are wealthy, come to think of it. So bunk to the theory of luxury. In the choice between busyness and quiet, we choose the latter not because we are either well-off or ascetic, but because we want to live fully.
I average four hours a day of work, my husband about seven. Since I work largely from home, I do more work domestic. When we feel too busy, we turn down jobs. We may not be wealthy, but with our quiet life, we are rich. My husband takes time each week for soccer: once to play in a league, once to lead a soccer club for local kids, mostly immigrants—a weekly pleasure that I help coordinate. I find time for intellectual pursuits, to absorb nature, to create objects of art. He finds time for friends and play and walking on the beach. We serve as volunteers on occasion, but we also relax and have fun and get plenty of sleep.
My husband and I are self-employed and empty-nested. We would perhaps have less free time were it otherwise. Earlier seasons of life were certainly more boisterous, even before the advance of the internet. Yet we both lived simply and did not amass debt. Even with our present-day circumstances, however, we know our lives could look different. We could fill them with gadgetry, more constant communication, more consumption and materialism, more entertainment and activity, more expansive professional ambitions, more work, larger investment accounts, niftier stuff. If we tuned in to media more frequently, we could fjord a stream of voices telling us we need these things. These things, the very keys to our happiness.
The quiet life is not without limitations, of course. But isn’t embracing limitation the heart of contentment?
True, living a quiet life will not get you everything you want. It is unlikely to get you an Oprah interview, for example, or a book deal with a publisher of notable size. It is unlikely to win you the big promotions. The quiet life will not garner copious community-service awards or run up the “Likes” on your Facebook page. You will not be described as influential, or leading, or the voice of a generation.
The quiet life will not earn you a hefty retirement income or buffer you against the insecurities of old age (unless perhaps you live in Finland). In the U.S., the quiet life may eventually land you in a modest, state-subsidized nursing home. Hopefully the mental and spiritual benefits of a life lived quietly will let you see this glass as half full.
Living the quiet life will not guarantee you a spotless home or tidy car, and if young children share your quiet life, they may at times look unkempt. You will not be asked by the local Home and Garden Club to feature your home on a fundraising tour, and you are unlikely to epitomize modern fashion.
Yet how many of these limits will matter on the cusp of your death?
The quiet life is about listening and attending to your existence and to that of the universe and spirit around you. It is about stilling the noise enough that you can hear. What you hear will depend on your singular vocation, your calling.
At times, quiet may lead you into seasons of increased activity and engagement. These seasons will be well nourished by the quiet. Your life will mimic the natural world, which cycles through abundance and fallowness, drama and repose, migration and homecoming. Roots nurtured in stillness and quiet will be strong to abide your seasons of action.
Therefore, I sing the praise of a quiet life, a simple life, a life fully and justly lived.
{First published at Upper Left Edge.}

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Poems in the Shade of Green


Each summer woods threaten
to take this place. Salmonberry, elder,
the Sasquatch mittens of devils claw
encroach on the patch around our house

then swallow it whole. We have never had
the wild and cloying cucumber but there
he is, showing out of nowhere, like sea scum,
algae blooms, crops of a warmer earth.

On this misty day, the flora don patinas of brilliant
resilience, like they dare us try
and stop them, same as we did in our twenties,
when fluids coursed through and we toiled

and reached, and our dreams were a bow that shot
us every moment, every day, to the final power.

© Tricia Gates Brown 2012

Pondering the women who, given no choice, mourned leisure

Noticing the dogs make a blanket of sun,
I move out under the bee tree, hear them
barely for the sound of lawn mower, bird
song, creek song, jitter of bamboo chime.

But the bees sidle close, outline the page
where I write, asking, what is there to say
but the blue of forget-me-nots, bow
on the horizon, buoyant on this April

day? Moondust euphorbia, raspberry peony,
hands to the Lord, erysimum navel orange,
stretching side-long to the violet of hyacinth?
Even the aspenwood risks its leafing. Let

the wind kiss you, the bee-monk says, let it
always take longer, this kissing. Cat slinks under
my leg, its warm fur an invitation, and
finally I give in, stubborn as a beam. Is it not

better to lie in a blanket of sun?

© Tricia Gates Brown 

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Las Posadas

Celebrants press wall-to-wall into houses where we gather, forty to sixty people, night after night reciting the prayers and singing the songs of Las Posadas. Steamy windows emanate light into winter’s deepest dark. Posadas (translated literally as “lodgings”) take place each night from December 16 through Christmas Eve and reenact Mary and Joseph’s attempt to find lodging in Bethlehem. The tradition originated in Spain and was carried to Mexico. The uniquely Mexican version seems to have started in 1538, when Spanish friars intent on assimilating the faith with Aztec rites, combined posadas with the nine-night winter ritual of imploring the sun god’s return. Mexicans still celebrate posadas, enlivening them with balloons and papel picado, and the shrieking of children as candy erupts from handmade piñatas.
On foggy Oregon coast nights, in the homes of immigrants who work among the cows and hay of our nativities, who struggle to find open doors at banks, at college departments of financial aid and dental offices, at the Department of Motor Vehicles, we await the advent of Jesus, the one with no place to call home. I stand shoulder to shoulder with my Mexican friends in their rented houses that have seen better days, that sleep several children to a bedroom and boast a shrine of mother Mary, the Virgen of Guadalupe, surrounded by frolics of icons. I sing along with the “posada song”, pretending to be Mary and Joseph at the door of the inn (and on other nights, the innkeeper, roused from his sleep and ill-tempered). And as each night passes, I begin to understand a part of the Christian story I have previously not understood. Mary and Joseph were like these Mexican immigrants. And I, standing there in my invisible cloak of white privilege, will find it harder to know them.
Mary and Joseph were Galilean. And the people from Galilee were belittled in Bethlehem and throughout Judea. In a reversal of geography, they were the disregarded neighbors from the backwater north, the presumed uncouth and superstitious and freeloading and restive. In Judea where they went to pay taxes, they were shut out as a matter of course. Galileans were stereotyped by Judeans as lawbreakers. Galilee was a renegade land that spawned messianic movements awaiting the coming of the Lord, a new day of fairness—movements started by leaders like “the Egyptian,” or “Judas the Galilean,” that were historically successful. That is, until the Romans got miffed and sent riot police to disband or kill them or paramilitary troops to intimidate them, or turned on them their own client kings like Herod Antipas, who wiled away the wealth of his subjects, sending them to border towns to pay their dues.
At times the term “Galilean” was used in Jesus’ day to simply mean an outsider, especially of the political sort. Galilee was a center of economic protest, where the messiah named Jesus would wax prophetically on wealth and the sharing of it, on how the rich couldn’t make it into heaven any more than they could make it through the eye of a needle, or the Rio Grande, or a few days in the Arizona desert. In his last years, Jesus’ friends and audience were Galilean fisher-folk, and according to Roman values, dwelt at the bottom of the labor pool. In the words of Cicero, quoting the well-bred Terence: “The most shameful occupations are those which cater to our sensual pleasures: ‘fish-sellers, butchers, cooks, poultry-raisers, and fishermen’” (Cicero, On Duties 1.42). In our day, Cicero might have added hotel cleaners, line cooks, gardeners, vineyard or dairy laborers, makers of Versace denim jeans.  
At posadas, we are reminded by word and ritual that God chose an indigent, young Galilean girl, “Alegría, alegría!” We pray for the immigrants facing deportation, for the women with back pain and diabetes who need strength to rise each day and make two dozen beds. We pray for the children, for the church and its message of good news. We pray for the high school students fighting for a chance at a dream.
The litany, prayers and songs culminate in a meal, a feast of hospitality that night by night includes carnitas, tacos, tamales, pozole, always accompanied by rice and beans and a prismatic display of salsas. After dinner, children swing at brilliant piñatas.         
For reasons unknown, the children flock to me and my husband, throwing hugs around us like coats on a rack. They glow with beauty and unyielding hope, and in America they are not unlike Jesus and his friends running about Jerusalem at Passover, yet unaware of how they are seen, or who they will become, only that they love the songs, the traditions of Christmas, the smell of the Passover tamales, and the community of Galilean pilgrims who love them. These children know only that Jesus and his parents were poor and had to stand at a door and knock only to be ignored, and then finally let into our broken and peregrine hearts as the queen and kings of heaven. 

{First appeared in
RAIN Magazine 2012; a shortened version, in Oregon Humanities, Summer 2012 }

Undocumented at the Beach

“Antonio” was visiting a small Oregon Coast tourist town in 1993 when he heard a man shouting to him out of nowhere. He was alarmed until he realized the stranger spoke to him in Spanish. “Trabajas? Trabajas?” the man yelled awkwardly, race-walking to catch up with him. “You work?  You work?” Antonio, an undocumented Mexican immigrant, lived in California at the time. He had come to Oregon to visit his brother. After this encounter, Antonio spent the remainder of his visit working full-time, eventually deciding to relocate. He had a new job, in a restaurant in an Oregon beach town of such extraordinary beauty that it attracted tourists from around the world.

To the desperate restaurant owner walking down the street, Antonio looked like one thing: cheap labor. He was well-built, young and Latino, exactly what coastal business owners sought.

The northern stretch of Oregon’s coast had experienced several boom years, both in tourism and property values. The concerted efforts of developers and leisure-industry investors in the 1980s had transformed the coast from a quirky, quiet family-vacation site to a high-rent district and status symbol. The tiny towns strewn along the coastline attracted masses of vacationers each summer, as well as second-home buyers who drove up values and property taxes. Come summer, the towns needed a swarm of workers to run the hotels and restaurants frequented by visitors seeking sunsets and bonfires and five-star dining. By the early 1990s, restaurant and hotel owners in the town were so hard up for workers, they sent buses to the nearest city to pick up Latino immigrants willing to work.

The problem is the same in many vacation destinations across the U.S. today. Wooing legal workers to high-price tourist towns would require raising wages and travel costs for consumers, so the U.S. tourist industry, like the agricultural industry, relies on undocumented workers to keep costs down. The workers make ends meet by juggling multiple jobs or wedging several inhabitants into small apartments, subsidizing the vacations of middle-class people like me.

Since the late ‘90s, American immigration policies have blocked access to legalization for “unskilled” immigrants and those from places like Mexico and Central America. Government leaders on the national and state levels restrict immigrant rights and demonize undocumented immigrants in public speeches, referring to them increasingly as “illegals.”

Immigrants who work in the U.S. tourist industry may sometimes be treated respectfully by their employers and by guests. They may be thankful to reside here, to have work and opportunity, and to raise their children in the United States. Some immigrant friends working in Oregon tell me this is their experience. But in the country as a whole, conditions for immigrants are deteriorating. In Alabama, undocumented immigrants can be arrested for setting up water service, people are required to show immigration status when registering children for school and it is literally a crime to be undocumented. Even in my home state, immigrants can’t legally drive, they can’t get an account at most banks or receive a credit card, and they live with the constant threat of a sweep by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that could have devastating consequences (for example, a recent study by Applied Research Center found that currently in the U.S. over 5,000 children flounder in foster care because their parents have been deported).

After almost twenty years, Antonio still lives in the same Oregon coast town and holds down jobs catering to tourists and second-home owners. He and his wife each work two to three jobs, depending on the season, and both, to this day, are undocumented, as are most Mexican-immigrant workers in their mid-forties or younger due to the legislative changes of the late-1990s. They and their children live with extreme uncertainty.

U.S. tourists must understand both undocumented immigrants’ contributions to the tourist industry and their disenfranchised status in the Unites States in order to be informed, conscientious travelers. Equipped with awareness, we can take steps to travel justly.

Tips for ethical travel in the U.S.:
-leave a tip specifically for the dishwashing and culinary staff at restaurants to help increase equitability among workers
-generously and directly tip housekeeping staff at hotels
-eat at small, family-owned restaurants and avoid all chains
-boycott travel to states with egregious anti-immigrant policies
-choose unionized, worker-friendly hotels, such as those listed in the directory at (though the fact remains, undocumented immigrants rarely join unions for fear of deportation – a threat employers can easily levy against them)

When you get home, here are some ways to thank the workers who served you on your vacation:
-call or write to your political representatives advocating for comprehensive, immigrant-friendly immigration reform
-write a letter to the editor of your local paper advocating the same (encourage your faith community to join you)
-host discussions about local anti-immigrant policies such as Secure Communities
-start a letter-writing campaign to support the DREAM Act (the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act), and demand that it include alternatives to military service
-talk to your children about immigration and raise a generation of immigrant advocates

{First appeared in GEEZ Magazine, Summer 2012}