A Flag for George

This is a guest post by my friend John Raskauskus. His observations and reflections on our country—past and present—offer a unique perspective on the America he remembers when he was growing up, our troubled present, and a hoped-for-future.

On Tuesday (4/20/21), I was driving home and listening to news about the guilty verdicts in the trial of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd. I was also watching a lifted diesel truck a few cars ahead of me, towering above the neighboring cars and “rolling coal” to run the yellow light and speed well beyond the 25mph limit in our 3-stoplight town. A large yellow “don’t tread on me” flag and a slightly smaller American flag were rigged to fly side by side in the bed of the truck above the diesel exhaust and noise imposed on surrounding motorists. I watched the flags snapping in the wind under a clear blue sky as the truck rounded the bend beyond the intersection.

By the time the light turned green again, my mind had returned to George Floyd, a Black man callously sentenced to a terrible death by white Officer Chauvin, in response to a minor criminal offense. If I tried to pass a fake $20 bill like George did and got caught, I’d expect a trial, a fine, and perhaps the shame of a mugshot in the police report of the local newspaper’s website. My kids would suffer the embarrassment for a criminal father, but not mourn his violent death.

A mile further on, I saw a sheet blowing along the road as cars passed over and around it. As I got closer, I recognized it was the flag from the truck. I avoided it and continued driving for about 10 seconds before pulling over. I clicked on the caution lights and watched the flag in the rear-view mirror as it fluttered into the ditch. I got out and walked back to the spot, then down the rocky embankment. The rivets were torn out, the edges were tattered, and the fabric was dirty from the road. I picked it up and began to fold it. First in half, in half again, then from the outer to inside edge, repeated triangular folds, finally tucking the inner edge, leaving the blue field with white stars.

Weathered Old Glory Flag USA — Photo by Les Cunliffe 2019

I know how to fold a flag because my grandfather and my parents taught me how. My grandfather saluted this flag through a lifetime of undiagnosed PTSD from World War II. My father also served as a Navy pilot in the 60s and 70s. I believe my mother served equally, though her service went unrecognized. She willingly uprooted her life every time the Navy required a move, driving belongings across the continent while my Dad’s squadron flew to the new base or carrier. She worked, maintained a home, supported whatever community she found herself in, and worried about my Dad. Crashes and deaths were not uncommon among his colleagues. In the present, my wife and my brother are both teachers. The work they do is at least as important to the future of our country as anything my parents or grandparents did, and this year is the most difficult year they have ever had.

I stood in the ditch holding the flag, considering these family connections, but also considering George Floyd, Derek Chauvin, the fearful man driving the $75,000 lifted truck, the unhealed wounds and ongoing injury from a system that subtly elevates a man like me, and not so subtly holds a man like George Floyd down. I thought about this past year of pandemic, a re-awakening of purpose-driven protests and political engagement, but also outrage and riots, fires and smoke. I thought about my relative who is a Portland Police Officer. He’s a good man and takes pride in serving the community, but he is exhausted from a year where he’s been pelted by rocks and screamed at by people intent on breaking the same downtown windows over and over again. His wife worries about him too.

I held the flag and remembered when the honor guard at Willamette National Cemetery handed one folded the same way to my Dad at his father’s funeral. An inherited symbol not big enough to hold all the meaning ascribed to it. Meaning that has gotten more complicated as the country and I grow older. Tattered around the edges, but still holding vast potential if we can learn and take responsibility for our mistakes, remembering to listen and look each other in the eye. Giving those in need a hand up instead of holding them down. Making this country better instead of just saying it’s the best. That would be meaningful.

I decided the flag is for George and took it home.

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Ordinary Equality

“I never doubted that equal rights was the right direction. Most reforms, most problems, are complicated. But to me there is nothing complicated about ordinary equality.”

— Alice Paul, American Quaker, suffragist, feminist, and women’s rights activist

Alice Stokes Paul (January 11, 1885 – July 9, 1977)

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Blow That Horn

Six days ago I had an experience of pure exultation, sheer joy, and unmitigated happiness. I spent several minutes dancing and jumping around, saying, “We won! We won!”

All that crowing was followed by a handful of hours when I felt like I was walking on air. Remember this feeling, I told myself.

Many of my friends, and some of you who know me through social media, already know about the news that gave me an afternoon of exhilaration: I had just learned that Tallulah, a film I wrote and directed, won the 2021 Audience Award for Local Films at the 10th Annual McMinnville Short Film Festival.

For me, it was the equivalent of winning an Oscar. I let my cast and crew know we had won, thanked them again, and again felt a sense of pride in the talent, skill, work, and dedication they had brought to our film. I also thanked the friends who helped our film all along the way.

Now I understand—in a visceral, rather than an abstract way—those people reeling off a list of names and saying thank you to all of them as they accept a trophy.

It takes a village to make a movie, even a short one.

I’ve heard that you have to blow your own horn, so that’s what I’m doing—Tallulah won the popular vote, and that means the world to me.

In an essay by Brian Doyle, I came across this quote by Samuel Johnson: “I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers, uncorrupted by literary prejudices…..must be generally decided all claim to poetical honours.”

I rejoice to concur with the common film-goer.

Subtitled A Tale of Transformation, Tallulah is a romantic comedy about a young, uptight Victorian woman and her shy fiancé. For those of you who have yet to see our light-hearted romp, here’s the link:

And here’s more horn-blowing for other folk:

For my fellow filmmakers who don’t know about the McMinnville Short Film Festival, check them out. The team there—with a special shout-out to the festival founders Nancy and Dan Morrow—are a really fine group of people who put together a terrific festival, with films submitted from both local and international filmmakers.

https://mcminnvillefilmfest.org/About/Who-We-Are

And here’s a link to my personal pick for Audience Award winner in both the “Animation” and “Just for Kids” categories at the 2021 McMinnville Short Film Festival: Steve Cowden’s Chocolate Cake and Ice Cream makes me happy every time I look at it.

Wishing you all happiness and myriad reasons to blow that horn for yourself and others.

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To Dance Always

“I want to dance always, to be good and not evil, and when it is all over not to have the feeling that I might have done better.” — Ruth St. Denis

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Conviction


I am a life-long Democrat with a deeply held conviction that Democrats, by and large, are better at good governance than Republicans. Through my entire adult life, I’ve recognized the importance of exercising our right to vote. I vote in local, mid-term, and national elections. During presidential campaigns, I pay close attention, because that is when we determine who will lead the nation and who will set the tone for our public discourse.

I also have a personal tie to the calendar date of our presidential elections. Every four years, my birthday either coincides with, falls just before, or close after the day we elect our president. As we were approaching November 3, 2020, my better half asked, “What do you want for your birthday?”

Without hesitation, I answered: “Win the White House. Hold the House. Win the Senate.”

On November 4th, we knew the Democrats had held the House. And on November 7th, there were thousands of people dancing in the streets in cities all across the country and around the world: those of us who had voted for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were cheering and celebrating because we had won—more than 81,000,000 of us had hope for a better future. We had elected two intelligent, competent, and compassionate people to serve as our President and Vice President. We knew they would bring the best and the brightest with them and lead the way to ending the pandemic, rebuilding the economy, and restoring the soul of the nation.

Amidst the cheering and happiness on that day, a friend called to again wish me happy birthday and to say—at least you got two of your wishes.

True. But it wasn’t quite over. Because along came Georgia, and on January 5th, my third wish came true. The great state of Georgia elected Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff to the Senate, and now the Democrats have a majority—by one vote, but it was all we needed to relegate Mitch McConnell to the minority.

We were never able to celebrate that victory. Soon after the Georgia election results were announced, Donald Trump incited an insurrection. On January 6, 2021, we watched our United States Capitol overrun by a mob of thugs. A gang of domestic terrorists defaced and defiled the physical and symbolic center of our nation’s governing body. By the end of it, five people were dead. Our Capitol, a majestic and time-honored place, became a crime scene.

The shock of this event deepens as more information and more images are revealed. In that hyper-virulent mob, there were those who were intent on taking hostages and killing legislators, including the Vice President and the Speaker of the House.

For inciting that insurrection, Donald Trump has been impeached. He is the only president to be impeached twice. The first time, he was acquitted by Senate Republicans who allowed him to say and do whatever he wanted during the last four years. This time, he must be convicted.

If he is acquitted, he can run for and hold office again. He is also entitled to a number of benefits and perks that will be paid for by our taxpayer dollars: an annual pension of more than $200,000, $96,000 annually for staff and office expenses, up to one million dollars a year for travel expenses. Without a conviction, after he exits the White House, he will get more than $1,300,000 per year.

I repeat: more than one million three hundred thousand dollars. Every year.

All that money will be coming from you and me and all of us who pays taxes.

If he is not convicted, the American people will continue to fund a man who wants to overturn our democracy and rule by force. What he has done before he will do again. He will continue to lie. He will continue to inflame and incite the white nationalists and ignorant thugs who are ready and willing to maim and kill anyone who goes against their fascist agenda.

It will take all the Senate Democrats and seventeen Republican Senators to convict this travesty of a man. Most say that’s impossible.

There are those who may have thought my triple want wrapped in one wish was impossible. Here’s what I want you to know— when I made my birthday wish—I didn’t just make a wish.

In the visible world, I made modest contributions of money and time to the Biden-Harris campaign and then to Fair Fight and the Ossoff and Warnock campaigns.

In the realm of the invisible, I prayed. I prayed every day to win the White House, hold the House, and win the Senate. I called on my ancestors to help us. I asked them to help us once again have a government of the people, for the people, by the people.

I write this to ask you to do whatever you can in the visible world—call on your representatives in Congress, in the House and in the Senate. Sign petitions. Join others who want it known that no one is above the law: Trump must be held accountable for the crime he committed against our nation, and for the crimes he led others to commit.

And I ask you to do all you can in the realm of the invisible: if you pray, when you pray, pray for justice. Ask that we be given the Senate votes needed to convict Donald Trump. Ask for enough Republicans of conscience to uphold their oath to the Constitution. Ask for a conviction.

Let me add this: I want him convicted—I do not necessarily need to see him in prison.

Let us consign him to the golf course.

Let him be forgotten chasing a little white ball out on the green. Without one cent of taxpayer money to pay for his course fees.

Let us, together, deny Trump the right to run for any public office in the future. Let us deny him our public funds. Let us deprive him of any currency and any media that will aid his malignant hold on the domestic terrorists set on destroying our democracy.

Let’s win one more vote—to preserve and protect the Republic of the United States of America.

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What I Want for Christmas

My better half asked me if I want anything special for Christmas. Yes, I told her. I want Trump to leave the White House and never return.

I want to see Joe Biden and Kamala Harris sworn in as our President and Vice President, and I want to see them begin the work of healing and unifying our nation and building back better.

I want a Democratic majority in the Senate and a Congress that works with the Biden administration to find solutions to our problems and I want them to implement those solutions in an intelligent, common sense way.

I want fiscal help for people and small businesses and cities and states, and I want that help to be generous and abundant so that people and businesses, cities and states, can actually recover and thrive.

I want an end to the pandemic and good health for all people all over the world. I want our doctors and nurses and front-line workers to be relieved from the constant grind and trauma of trying to save lives; I want them to have time to rest and recover and—along with all those who who have worked to keep us fed and supplied and safe during this crisis—I want them to be able to enjoy their lives again.

I want our cinemas and regional and community theatres and Broadway and Hollywood to return full swing. I want everyone to be able to go to the movies again. I want all of us to gather together again to see shows and live theater and go to concerts and clubs and music events again. I want us to be able to go to parks and all the outdoor places where we play and watch sporting events and cheer for our teams.

I want all of us to be able to browse our bookstores and libraries, to wander through museums and meet one another in cafes and restaurants and pubs and eat and drink together. I want all our meeting places to be open and thriving.

I want our schools—K-12 through colleges and universities, to be open and safe for students and teachers, safe for all the people who administer and maintain our schools.

I want everyone who works to have a fair living wage with benefits and vacation days and sick days and family days and overtime if they are paid by the hour.

I want good health care available to everyone—the kind Europeans have—where people don’t ever think twice about seeing a doctor if they are injured or ill—because health care is paid for by all of us and provided to all of us.

I want to see our tax dollars go toward education and good schools, a renewed, revitalized infrastructure, and beautiful public spaces. I want our rural communities and blighted urban areas to be lifted up, cared for, tended to, so that our rural and urban citizens can have decent lives and the struggle to survive becomes a distant memory.

I want to see our nation working with other nations to solve the climate change crisis and I want us to prevent the horrendous wildfires we’ve experienced in recent years and to see our green spaces renewed and revitalized. I want bio-diversity restored and a truly unified, world-wide joining of minds, skills, and dedicated action to save and heal our planet.

I want real criminal justice reform and true racial and economic justice and equity.

I want to see an end to hunger, poverty, war, racism, injustice, greed, corruption, and tyranny.

What I want for Christmas is a new era of goodness, health, peace, and prosperity.

Yes, it’s a big ask. But this is a big universe, a vast and mysterious cosmos. Let’s ask the most beautiful ask of all – health, peace, prosperity and goodness for all of us and for our home, Earth.

“Ask and you shall receive.”

“Prove me now herewith…if I will not open you the windows of heaven and pour you out a blessing that there shall not be room enough to receive it.”

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Talking to Myself: Awake and Dreaming

Awake:
“Let’s face it: life is fatal.”

Dreaming:
“My incurable disease is art.”

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For Our Westernmost States: A Heavy Rain

In Oregon, California, Washington
We need rain now.
All the people, the animals, the trees,
all the green and all the life of this land—
our westernmost states need rain.

If you know how to pray, pray for rain.
If you can imagine, imagine rain.
A downpour in our western states,
Rain, sweet rain.

You can think. Think rain. A heavy rain.
You can dream. Dream rain. A heavy rain.
You can wish. Wish big. Big rain.
No matter the forecast; let us think rain.
I don’t know how, I only know
miracles have happened in the past,
and in our westernmost states,
we need a miracle now.

Pray, think, wish, dream, pray.
Imagine the impossible.
Ask for rain, ask for this,
sweet blessed kiss of rain,
a heavy rain, now,
for Oregon, California, Washington,
a heavy rain.

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WEARY


Originally written for my friend Marilyn’s blog Left at the Altar, you can read “Weary” below or check out this and other posts at Left at the Altar. You can also follow Marilyn at Biocentered and at 50Forte.

Yesterday, I checked in with John Pavlovitz’s blog Stuff That Needs to be Said, where I read his post “I’m Really Tired of Hatred.” Those of you who follow Left at the Altar either know John’s work or know the hatred he’s speaking of; in the news of the day it is rearing its ugly head in armed white men threatening our legislators, some of them displaying swastikas and confederate flags. In the not-too-distant past, it has shown up in crowds chanting “Lock her up!” and torch-lit men chanting “Jews will not replace us!” It is hatred that is flagrant—the most recent example of that flagrancy: two white men gunning down a young, unarmed black man out for a run on a sunny afternoon.

John Pavlovitz is tired. I am weary. Weary of waking up each day to a man in the White House who, all during his campaign for the Presidency, spewed hatred and pumped up attacks on minorities and immigrants. Do you remember that he used the word “carnage” in his Inauguration speech? That is all I remember about that speech—that one word. It is a word I associate with war, with blood and guts. But just as the gunning down of Ahmaud Arbery is a modern-day lynching, this incompetent, cruel and corrupt man in the White House has wrought a modern-day carnage on our republic.

Think of all the people who have been dismissed or demoted: scientists, diplomats, public health experts, experienced people in our intelligence corps and in our justice department—people of integrity who were steadfast in their commitment to uphold the Constitution and the rule of law.

Think of all those lives upended, the wreckage of careers destroyed and reputations maligned. Consider the loss of knowledge and experience and expertise, the loss of people who took pride in being public servants. And along with that loss, relationships with our allies and protections from our enemies have been left frayed and weakened.

I am weary of the news that our postal service is about to collapse. How has it come about that we are watching the collapse of a service so vital to our democracy that it is written into our Constitution? Article I, Section 8: The Congress shall have power To establish Post Offices and post Roads.

I actually know why there is an imminent collapse of our postal service. It can be traced back to 2006, when a Republican-led Congress that wanted to privatize our public postal service imposed certain restrictions on it, restrictions calculated to bring about its eventual demise. And three months ago, in February, a Republican-led Senate squelched HR 630, the Postal Service Protection Act — legislation meant to undo the requirements that are crippling our postal workers. O weariness that weighs me down, thy name is Mitch McConnell.

I am weary of the ignorant, egoistic, narcissistic, corrupt man in the White House: the seventy-three-year old brat who would be King. I am weary of his Attorney General William Barr, who is supposed to uphold the law of the land, but instead does the bidding of the bully-in-chief.

I am weary, deeply saddened, and astounded by an executive branch that has expanded the reach of a global pandemic, a pandemic that is sickening millions of people, killing hundreds of thousands.

Yes, I am weary. But “faith” is the first of the five words that sum up what Left at the Altar is about, and I cannot end this rant on weariness without speaking of my faith, because that flame still burns.

I pray every morning for a return to sanity and competence and honor in our federal government. I pray for excellence in leadership, and I am thankful for excellence in those legislators who represent us fairly and continue to work on the public’s behalf, thankful for the governors and mayors who are leading our citizens responsibly during a public health crisis that has brought on an economic crisis.

This flame of faith is kindled by daily acts of kindness and compassion and generosity throughout the United States. My faith is renewed in the day-to-day work of journalists who continue to report facts and ask questions. It is sustained by the people in the media who unfailingly report on and discuss and challenge the validity of the strange time we live in. I am lifted up in my faith by artists and comics who undoubtedly share my sense of weariness— artists who move me to tears with their music, comics who make me laugh and help keep me sane. My faith continues to be renewed by the activists and organizations working each day to bring an end to the many sorrows caught in the shadow of the big umbrella we know as Injustice.

Regardless of my weariness, my faith is sustained by our Constitution: “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

The words that begin our Constitution are at the core of my faith in America. As an act of faith, I have moved my copy of the Constitution from my bookshelf to a place of prominence, a place where I can see it every day and remember why I must continue to hold to the good, continue to draw strength from the actions and service of those who reflect the best in us. I am holding on to a vision of a future where I am no longer made weary. It is a future where each day we are aligned in our dedication to promote the general welfare of the American people.

It is an America made sane again.

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Less Coward, More Wilde

Submissions. My one writing imperative is: when the work is ready, send it out. AKA—submit.

Yesterday, I spent a big chunk of time prepping a submission to a literary journal. What I thought I had ready to go were four proems—the form formerly known as the prose poem. All four proems had been through the re-wringer: they had been rewritten, revised, reworked, and refined. They were definitely ready. But first, I had to write my cover letter and a brief bio.

The cover letter was relatively easy, but the brief bio was not to be dashed off. There was a four-sentence limit to the bio, and the journal wanted certain particulars included. When the four sentences with particulars had been crafted and completed, I began the copy-paste process, transferring the work from my original file to the submission doc.

As I gave each proem its own page (as required by the journal), I read through it, to be sure nothing had gone amiss during the transfer. The first two passed the test, but the next two—as I read them aloud one last time—called out to be honed again. Not the whole piece, but in each, I saw the need for more clarity in certain phrasing and description. So, more spit and polish. Actually, there was no spit involved. A lot of polish. After all, Rule No. 3 of my top three writing rules is: Rewrite. Revise, revise, revise, until it sings and you know you’re done.

I set out to submit at noon. Five hours later, I hit “submit.”

Yes, dear, it was a long hard day at work. While it’s true that I long to be like Noël Coward, who reportedly wrote Blithe Spirit in six days, I take comfort in having some kinship with Oscar Wilde, who once told a friend: “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon, I put it in again.”

Oscar Wilde in New York, 1882

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