A missing voice

This post is about why I haven’t been writing more blog posts lately.

They say you should take care of yourself first and foremost — put on your oxygen mask before helping others — and that’s what I’ve been doing. There are several things going on in my life right now, but I’ll tell you about two major ones. Of course, you already know about the state of politics in the U.S. As a former federal employee and female scientist, not to mention U.S. citizen, I’ve struggled first with the implications and then the actions of the Trump presidency. And then parallel to that, something in my personal life: less than a week before the U.S. election in November, my dad was was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer, his fourth cancer, this time terminal. Less than a week after the inauguration, he died. 

I’m sad my dad had to witness Trump’s rise to power and not see the end resolution, which I hope will be a repudiation of fascism and authoritarianism. My dad was born in Germany in 1932, during the rise of Hitler and his Nazi party. His father was a Protestant theologian who studied Judaism and worked to promote tolerance and understanding between the two faiths. Unsurprisingly, my dad’s family was targeted by the government. When my dad was 3, the family fled to Austria. After the Anschluss, when my dad was 6, they fled again, eventually ending up in England. 

My grandmother — my dad’s mom — wrote her autobiography and I’m reading it again. There are stories about having the home searched, about previously kindly neighbors refusing to talk to her because the family was perceived as “dangerous,” about my grandfather’s risky defiance when he was brought in for questioning. The first time I read this autobiography, I was just out of college. This time, I’m a mother with a son the same age my dad was during the harrowing time his family lived in Vienna. This time I read the autobiography through a mother’s eyes. My grandmother had three kids six-and-under during this time. She had no connections. She had to try to blend in to protect her family, and writes about my dad starting first grade, about having to heil and salute with the same gusto as the other kids. She wrote that she hoped it didn’t leave a permanent scar on his soul.

What’s always impressed me about my grandmother’s stories is how she struggled along as everyday life was transformed almost unquestionably around her under Hitler, where neighbor was pitted against neighbor. What impresses me now is how she was able to survive in a new country (in England), alone with three small children [1]Once “safe” in England, my grandfather was interned in a camp for “enemy aliens,” just as Americans interned people of Japanese ancestry during WWII, where she didn’t speak the language, during wartime and labeled as an ‘enemy alien’, and subsisting on the charity of new acquaintances. My father had suffered serious burns during the travels to England and was hospitalized for four months when they arrived [2] He received some of the first-ever skin grafts.. Six years later, my grandmother and my dad’s younger sister were injured when a doodlebug landed in the backyard.

What scares me now are the stark similarities between the U.S. under Trump’s early actions and the events of the early 1930’s in Germany, time points that frame my father’s life. I’ve spent several years living in the Washington DC area. I’ve been party to its politics on a day-to-day basis. I’ve had friends and family who’ve worked on the Hill. And I was, for eight years, a federal employee of the Department of Defense. I was there in a federal building when a plane crashed into the Pentagon (and two New York buildings and a Pennsylvania field), killing colleagues — not mine directly, but colleagues of people I worked with. I saw firsthand the aftermath of policy and legal changes in the intelligence community. I worked for the Department of Defense when President Bush invaded Iraq. My job, indirectly, supported it. And I struggled mightily with that implication. I tried talking to other employees. I made what little fuss a bottom-rung 24-year-old could make. But I came away knowing that at least 95% of federal employees — probably at least 95% of people anywhere — will justify any action, absolve themselves of personal responsibility, to maintain their job, their lifestyle, their security, the protection of their immediate families. We like to think that in the face of things that challenge our principles and ethics that we would act heroically. But in reality, most of us do nothing. In reality, most of us are heavily invested in our personal lives.

I quit working for the Defense Department. But not right away. Not until I, myself, was financially secure, not until the month Bush was re-elected. And I was no Snowden. I left all the secrets, even those that rankled or seemed not quite right, behind. I had the luxury of quitting. I had no dependents, no obligations. Now I’m older, more knowledgeable about how politics and the world at large work. Now I’ve traveled widely, seen how people live in cities and in the remotest rural areas, in wealthy countries and in poor ones. I’ve lived abroad. I know how much the politics and policies of the U.S. affect people across the whole world. Now I have connections and developed organizational skill. Now I have more power. But I now also have dependents and obligations.

Now I have to answer my son’s fears: “My friends are saying Trump will start a world war. Are we going to be in a war?” I have to try to explain about death and its consequences to both my 7-year-old child (“What is cremation? Why can’t I go visit Grampa’s grave?”) and my 2-year-old child (“Grampa is not dead! I will go and ask him if he is okay. Are you happy about grandma?”) Now I have to try to find little chunks of time for myself, among a life already filled to brimming with work obligations and parenting and remaining connected to friends and family. Little chunks of time to reflect, to love, to allow myself to feel, to grieve. 

Now, as much as I care about what’s happening to the country, I haven’t the time or emotional energy to do much for it. I took my family to the 21st in Boston’s Women’s March. I want to do more, but right now I have to sit out a bit. Right now I need to take care of myself and my kids first. And the blog, of course, falls to the wayside. Because amongst everything going on, writing about Excel bugs or letters of recommendation seems so trivial. I do have some posts brewing on things I think are important, but they take more time and emotional energy to write than the average post. The irony of a blog is that regular posts are best for maintaining people’s interest. But regular posts can also use up the personal resources needed to write pieces that take longer, but are more meaningful.

So for now, posts will be somewhat sporadic. In time, I expect I’ll be able to regain my regular weekly posting. Thanks for reading.

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  1. Simon Leather

    Very moving and resonates very much with me. I was seven years old, and living in Jamaica in 1962, which as you will know was the year of the Cuban missile crisis. The feeling of helplessness and fear that I felt then are very much how I am feeling now; horrified disbelief that the world seems to have gone backwards in time to the days of nationalistic and bellicose populism. I remember too well the days when a common saying in the USA was ‘”better dead than red” 🙁

  2. Meghan Duffy

    This is such a powerful, important post. Thank you for sharing it with us!

  3. Ken

    This is a difficult time for sure, more difficult for some than others and I am glad that you are caring for yourself. We will all need to do so to have the resilience to work our way through this time. But I am hopeful because I have heard over and again that the election of Trump can be the catalyst for something better.

    Now I have to try to focus on my work (writing at the moment) which presents its own challenges partly because I am currently a federal employee and I know that what I am doing is not consistent with the political mood of most Americans today. I came to your blog hoping for inspiration and I have found it, just not of the type I was anticipating.

    Thank you for sharing this.

  4. Brian McGill

    Thank you for this post.

    My grandfather left Austria after the Anschluss because he was the type of person who couldn’t keep his mouth shut and had watched several friends “disappear” by the SS. He started a new life in the US where he didn’t speak the language and was classified as an enemy alien. And he did it being only a couple years older than my oldest son which boggles my mind. So much of your story resonated heavily with me.

    I think there are many ways to make an impact in the world. And raising wise kids with values is a big one. I sometimes think with modern media at the speed of light we get too focused on one small piece of the power structure. Aside from children, there are a lot of other important ways to make differences that are much more local (and much harder than a tweet or even a march) that I feel get overlooked. Local school boards, town councils, and in some states, citizen legislatures, get no glory but make a real difference too. The notion that one has to topple the president or change federal law or its just not worth doing gets in the way of doing a lot of good. Conversely, if some of our leaders spent a little more time on self-nurturing the world would be a much better place.

  5. Matt Burgess

    This is really thoughtful and insightful, Margaret. You have a very unique background that gives you an interesting and valuable perspective on the world. Thanks for sharing!

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