Anxiety in America

A text about birds pushes me over the edge.

"I want to run away," I posted on Facebook after I heard about the white supremacist Buffalo, New York, grocery store shooting, followed quickly by the shooting in a Laguna Woods, California, Taiwanese Presbyterian church. These shootings took place on Saturday, May 14, and Sunday, May 15, 2022.

As horrible as these are, shootings are part of daily life for many Americans. I live in Paterson, New Jersey, named one of America's most dangerous cities in April, 2022. During the May 14-15 weekend, ABC news reports, thirty-three people were shot, five fatally, in Chicago. These weren't headline hate crimes; they were just the drumbeat of daily life for many of us.

"I want to run away," and I'm not alone. I think we've all been a bit tense lately. There was the COVID pandemic and shutdown, and the U.S. death toll of one million, and Russia's invasion of Ukraine, inflation and high gas prices.

I don't know how people economically better off than I am are experiencing inflation. For those of us who had, previously, just been getting by, inflation isn't an inconvenience. Inflation is the monster under our beds. I had a panic attack in a supermarket parking lot the other day. At first, I had no idea what was going on. I texted a concerned friend. "My chest is suddenly tight. Finding it hard to breathe. Don't know why." I gave it some thought, and I realized. I used to feel so grateful that I lived in the U.S., where food is cheap. I had lived in countries in Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe under Communism, where food was hard to come by and it took up a big percent of available income. In America, even though, as an adjunct professor, I was one of the "working poor," I could afford, not just enough to fill my belly, but enough to be healthy, and to allow myself treats like the occasional Lindt dark chocolate bar with roasted almonds.

I'm not good at math, but, without trying, I memorize product prices. Aldi's pretzels are now twice the price they used to be. Aldi's hummus, previously a staple midday snack, is now beyond my pocketbook. It's been a while since I could find, as I used to, good apples for less than a dollar a pound. I grew up among Eastern European peasant immigrants, and they passed down to me their fear of hunger. That fear has morphed, in recent days, from the villain of the occasional nightmare to a stalking specter. I keep telling myself that I'm being irrational. I am not so sure.

The comments I hear from the current White House about inflation do not inspire confidence. I am told that Joe Biden's strong points are his relatability and his compassion. I have to disagree. I keep trying to reassure myself that competent people are in charge. I can't find any support for this reassurance. The administration's handling of the baby formula crisis isn't helping.

I've been poor all my life and those Democrats who anoint themselves as my spokespersons and saviors do not represent me at all. Bernie Sanders is a shameless, criminally dishonest snake oil huckster and I yearn for the day when someone takes him down on camera, merely by confronting him with simple truths. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez is a hot former bartender, a poseur from comfortable suburbs who pretends to street cred, elevated by leftist male fans' lust and female fans' delusion that if they purchase her lipstick they, too, can share in her Kardashian-esque fifteen minutes. Contrary to wealthy and powerful would-be saviors, I know from a lifetime of experience that "a rising tide lifts all boats." When the American economy is humming, life is better for me. Having lived in the Soviet Empire, where smalec – lard – was one of few reliably available foodstuffs – I witnessed firsthand the collapse of government efforts to make everyone economically equal.

On May 2, Politico leaked a SCOTUS draft document overturning the Roe v. Wade decision on abortion. Even if this leaked document proves accurate, the overturn of Roe v. Wade will not result in abortion becoming illegal. Abortion will remain legal in many states, states with large populations and distributed across the map, on the east and west coasts, in the South, north, and Midwest. Even so, hysteria followed the Politico leak. Democrats blatantly pretended that abortion would become illegal; abortion advocates on social media spread the same "fire in a crowded theater" falsehood.

Social media posts targeted Catholics for abuse. Ruth Sent Us, an activist group, called for attacks on Catholic churches, and vowed to "burn the Eucharist." This scapegoating of Catholics reminded me that KKK used to stand for "K---s, Katholics, and Koloreds." "My mother's earliest childhood memory is of the Ku Klux Klan burning a cross in her front yard. My mom's parents were Irish Catholic … Grandma was home with her four young children listening to hateful yelling and banging on the house," Iowa doctor Charlotte A. Cleavenger wrote in 2017.

Merely visiting my Facebook page, I could hear echoes of those Klan members banging and snarling. People I had previously thought of as friends were sharing noxious hatred against one of the most precious things in my life, my faith. As they posted one bigoted meme after another, as they denigrated, ironically enough, specifically, not Catholic men, but Catholic women as beneath contempt, I could feel shrink rapidly the already small circle of human beings around whom I share any sense of community. In the midst of all this, though, a devoutly Jewish friend popped up to say, "I'll happily buy you rosary beads to celebrate your faith and I find anti-Catholic bigotry despicable." And he did! God bless him.

Polls indicate that Democrats may experience a major loss in the November midterm elections. The New York Times and National Public Radio both report that Democrats hope to exploit abortion to win in November. Democrats, fomenting hysteria over a lie, set one American against another for their own selfish gain. Meanwhile I keep waiting for the Democrats in power to say something serious about inflation or gas prices or the rising crime that menaces poor, majority-minority cities like mine. I wait in vain.  

"Shared joy is double joy; shared sorrow is half a sorrow." When I was growing up, Lindt chocolate bars were not a possibility. We were poor, and so was everyone around us. One winter day Regina, Irene, and I went out to play. We had one sock we took turns wearing on our hands. It was our only glove. But you know what? We had fun. And we had no idea how poor we were. In our small, factory hometown, full of immigrant parents and underfed kids, we shared joy; we shared sorrow. How about in current America? Are we halving our sorrows by sharing them? We've got social media, right? Where we can share joys and sorrows? Are we responding to our fellow citizens with patience and compassion, and a focus on our shared humanity? Alas, not so much.

Our political leaders, for their own gain, encourage us to think of each other as members of enemy camps to be defeated, rather than as fellow citizens to be lifted up. Mayor Andre Sayegh just rechristened Paterson's Main Street as "Palestine Way." Of course Paterson already has Bangladesh Way, Jalalabad Street, and Peru Square. I see more and more women in full niqab – only their eyes are visible – and more and more women walking several steps behind the Islamically-mandated male guardian. Muslim women in Paterson have complained to me of hijab forced on them by male family members, of unhappy polygynous marriages, forced child marriages, and threats of honor killings. There are lots of Muslims in Paterson who tell me privately that they want America to be America for them, not a carbon copy of the homelands they left for good reasons. Politicians, though, cater to identity extremists in every group.

When Governor Phil Murphy came to Paterson to campaign and tell us what he'd do if elected, he outlined goodies he'd distribute, specifically, to black Patersonians, Muslim Patersonians, and Hispanic Patersonians. I stayed for his entire talk and he never mentioned ever treating us all as Americans. So much for e pluribus unum. Robert Putnam's research shows that emphasizing difference, rather than shared American identity, drives people apart.

I'm not just anxious – rather, terrified is a better word – about crime, inflation, division and war. There's another Apocalyptic horseman stalking the land, one John of Patmos never got around to naming. I don't know this horseman's name, but it goes by many: Orwellian codes; thought police; Woke. A beloved, veteran teacher refers to a female student as "her," and is fired. A teacher refuses to indoctrinate his students in racist ideology, and is forced to leave his job. A student makes a transparently false accusation of racism, and innocent, blue collar campus employees suffer grievous harassment. A university attempts to force a professor to use inaccurate pronouns to refer to a male student; the professor must sue for justice. A Wisconsin middle school accuses a 13-year-old boy of a Title IX-violation, that is, "sexual harassment," because the boy referred to a fellow student by an accurate pronoun.

Is this mass hysteria? Am I surrounded by people obsessed with Woke cleansing of my brain, body, and soul?

In a May, 16 broadcast, Matt Walsh shared screencaps of what appears to be a McLaughlin and Associates opinion poll. According to this poll, when asked, "Do you believe it is possible to distinguish between men and women?" 93% of respondents said, "Yes." Their response violates Woke; they could be fired for such a response on many campuses. When asked if transgenderism is a healthy human condition, 64% said "No." When asked if they felt safe expressing this opinion publicly, 34% of these respondents said, "No." When asked if elementary schools should teach sexual identity, 42% said "No," and 30% said that such instruction was not only "inappropriate" but also "dangerous." Should minors undergo so-called "transitioning" medical treatments? 90% oppose it. I don't know the accuracy of this poll, but if it is accurate, many Americans disagree with our Woke overlords, but they are afraid to speak up.

"I want to run away." I love nature. I live for the end of the workday when I can go for a walk, even if only on a garbage-strewn highway margin here in Paterson, where I might see an oriole overhead. Birdwatching transports me. I forget about whatever was troubling me. I am woven into the miracle of creation. I tread to the edge of Eden.

I have been without a camera most of my life, for multiple reasons. I don't like to own a lot of things, and cameras cost money, and I am not technically oriented. But I admire photography, and when a Facebook friend kindly sent me her old camera, I had fun with it. I have just purchased my first phone that comes with a camera, and I'm having fun with that, too.

Photography has progressed leaps and bounds since my childhood. When I was a kid, photographers could not capture crisp images of hummingbirds in flight, because their wings move too fast – up to eighty beats per second. Now, such photos are common. The bird photography I see shared on Facebook is higher quality than the bird photos in the 1964 National Geographic bird books that my mom gave me one Christmas – and that I still have. (Best. Gift. Ever. Thanks, Mom!) I know I can't take photos that compare, at all, to the breathtaking close-up and action shots that I see on Facebook. I can't afford a telephoto lens or to spend all day waiting for that perfect moment. But "a joy shared. " As amateurish as my photos are, I crave to share my joy with others.

Again, I used to think of cameras as luxuries, and my own life as one of Christian simplicity, but I've since learned, late in life, that my monkish judgment was wrong. Cameras aren't luxuries. Cameras capture and share beauty and life and doing so is a necessity. So many times I have felt despair, or even just the leaden feeling of a late winter day, when slush and mist, overcast skies and early sunsets, conspire to bar my door and nail my butt to my chair. I force myself to gear up, to pocket the camera, and step outside, and determine to find some image I must share with others. No matter how low the day, I always do, and sharing that image lifts me above my own inertia and narrow vision. This process underlines Genesis better than any sermon I've ever heard. "And God saw that it was good," Genesis repeats again and again, as God creates his world.

"I want to run away," and I did, on Sunday, May 15. That is, I went for a walk to look for birds, my camera/phone in my pocket. I wanted, I needed, desperately, to escape the grief that current events are causing.

I spotted a black vulture spreading his wings and jumping up and down atop the remains of a 125-year-old water tower. The water tower had served a former silk mill, one of the mills that once gave Paterson its nickname, "Silk City." Paterson is, now, alas, "Heroin Heaven." Drug addicts camp out in abandoned silk mills and set fires for warmth. Two years ago, most of the water tower and the mill it once served burned down. The ragged hulks of these two mementoes of American manufacturing might crumble slowly into dust along McBride Avenue.

The heroin users I see in Paterson are majority white. Online mugshots of addicts arrested for heroin possession support this impression. The other day I passed four feet away from a young, attractive, well-dressed white woman, crouching between two cars in a parking lot, injecting herself. The image was so disturbing that I immediately texted "Rick." Rick is one of those rare good people with whom I feel comfortable sharing my joys and sorrows. In the ensuing text conversation, I groused about white people coming from better-off suburbs to buy heroin in Paterson. One such person I mentioned to Rick was a young white girl from an utterly gorgeous New Jersey town studded with million-dollar homes. A couple of months ago, she killed herself with heroin purchased in Paterson. If I meet that girl in the afterlife, I will want to swat her.

When I saw the black vulture preening and posing like a runway model atop the remains of the water tower, I pulled out my phone and snapped a few photos. I was thrilled. The photos captured the vulture's gymnastics and the evocative setting. I immediately texted the photos to beloved Rick and two other friends with whom I was eager to share my joy. I captioned the photos, "Black vulture on what's left of an antique water tower burned by drug addicts."

Three minutes later, Rick replied. "Where's the black culture? Or do you mean that burning by drug addicts is an expression of black culture?"

I panicked. I felt my circle of community constrict. I felt the grip of Woke close around me. I had tried to share my great joy, birding, with someone I hold in high esteem, my friend Rick, whom I thought to be totally above Woke and its policing of speech.

I began to text frantically.

"Vulture."

"Vulture not culture."

"It's a bird species."

I went on to explain why black vultures are especially intriguing to me. When I was a kid, there were no black vultures in New Jersey, I explained. The only vulture species in New Jersey was the turkey vulture. Then black vultures moved up from the south. They are more aggressive …

And suddenly I looked at my text with the eyes of the thought police, and realized that everything I was saying might appear as some racist code. "Not native … moved up from the south …  more aggressive."

Oh. My. God.

"They've possibly moved north because of climate change."

And again panic. Climate change is politically controversial. Would Rick yell at me for mentioning climate change? Anything was possible at this point. Perhaps he'd "unfriend" me because of that vote for the Green Party that I cast in the 1980s.

I found the Cornell University "All About Birds" page for Coragyps atratus, the black vulture. I texted the link to Rick. This page, I wanted to shout (in all caps), backs up everything I said! They are indeed called "black vultures!" They do indeed come from the South! They are more aggressive!

I realized that Rick would never look at the page. The point was not to share information; the point was to "correct" a "friend" for a "racist" statement. In any case, "The right understanding of any matter and a misunderstanding of the same matter do not wholly exclude each other," as Kafka wrote in The Trial.

Rick responded to my texts. He pointed out that he had, indeed, received a message that read "black culture" rather than "black vulture." The implication was that I'd made a Freudian slip.

No, I said. The pictures are clearly of a vulture, I said. In fact Rick knows that I use the voice function for texts. That is, I don't type into the phone; I speak into it. The voice function is a blessing for someone with dyslexia. I don't have to worry. Except, now, of course, I do.

I pointed out to Rick that he knows I use the voice function. He has received multiple texts from me that show that. For example, when I talked to him about New York City media personality John Catsimatidis, the voice function wrote "Catch My Titties." Rick and I laughed over such misspellings. And yet, though I'd griped to him repeatedly about white drug addicts, he jumped, within minutes, to an accusation of racism.

After we'd sorted all that out, Rick did not apologize. Rather, he simply said, "Better proofread a little better my dear Danusha; a comment about birds was misunderstood in the worst way."

I said I never proofread texts to friends. "I rely on the intelligence and goodwill and knowledge of me in my recipients."

"Sounds risky," Rick replied.

Douglas Murray, who rails against Woke in books like The Madness of Crowds, sometimes describes himself as a "Christian atheist." In a recent interview, he said, "What I try to urge people to do is just in general, to try to hear other people's speech in the way they would like their own speech to be heard. Which is not waiting tensely to spring having found the erroneous word. But listening in a spirit of generosity." That's what happens in community. People share joys and double them; share sorrows and halve them. They are heard with the "spirit of generosity" encouraged in Christian scripture.

On Sunday, a tough enough day in a tense enough time, I tried to share my joy with someone I trusted, and I was reprimanded for a non-existent thought crime, one I did not commit, from which I was not allowed to defend myself. This was a thought crime I would not commit. I would never imply that "black culture" burned down that water tower, and anyone who has known me for years, as Rick has, knows that. I don't think that Rick mistook my character. I think that Rick saw a chance to elevate himself, and denigrate another, using current forms of thought policing as his weapon. My assessment of Rick on this matter is unflattering, but I don't know any other way to interpret what transpired. My sense of community shrank.

"I want to run away." Where? I would like to return to a time when I didn't feel this way. I ask myself, was I naïve, sheltered, ignorant, when I thought that the people around me were even-tempered, rational, not out to convict me of crimes I did not commit? Maybe so. What changed? Social media. Suddenly I can see into others' private thoughts. I see "friends" fomenting hatred against persons of my faith. I see political leaders practicing "divide and conquer" more aggressively than any foreign enemy. I see people trading community for perpetual, low-level online warfare, whose only reward is whatever pleasure comes from screaming abuse against those with whom one disagrees over matters neither party exercises any control over.

I think back on that winter day when Regina, Irene and I shared one sock, handing it off after feeling had returned to our hands, so that another could be warm, as we dug snow forts and rode sleds and dodged snowballs. We kids had so little, but we shared, not just warmth, but something precious, something that was once very American, and that is possibly irreplaceable.

Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery.

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