Washington Square

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“Where are you headed on your mission?”

In the airport security line, the sister missionary turned around to face me, pulling a lock of blonde hair off her face and behind her ear. She was in a modest black skirt with grey top. Her tag read “Sister Jensen, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

“I’m going to Montreal, and I’m so freaking excited!”

I laughed, her enthusiasm contagious. “I’m excited for you! Congratulations!”

“How about you, where are you going?”

I gave a soft, tight-lipped smile, and looked down. “I’m headed to Philadelphia, actually. I went on my own Mormon mission there nearly 20 years ago. I haven’t ever been back.”

She held up a hand for a high-five, and I gladly gave her one. “Well, heck yeah! Now you’re going back! Good for you! Gonna see all those people you converted?” She did an awkward little hillbilly-like dance, conveying her good humor.

“Ha, actually, it’s a different life now. I’m no longer Mormon, and this time I’m going back with my boyfriend.” I craned my neck, indicating the handsome fellow standing behind me in line.

Sister Jensen made a sober face. “Oh. Oh! Well, um, good luck!” She rushed off, having been called forward by the next available agent.

I was overcome by a strange sense of nostalgia. In January of 1998, I had entered this same airport in a white shirt and tie, with my own name tag reading “Elder Anderson, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” clipped to my shirt pocket. I wheeled behind me a suitcase full of clothes and toiletries, scriptures and supplies, things I would use for the next two years as I lived with strangers and attempted to convert those around me to what I believed, at the time, to be the true religion. At the time, with only two weeks training under my belt, I had just turned it all over to God, hoping he would make me successful and reward my efforts with great numbers of baptisms.

Just a few years ago, in this very blog, I took time to go through my mission experiences in several different entries. I recounted my efforts to cure my homosexuality through missionary service, my bizarre and tragic experiences with companions, my converts, and my life lessons. But here I was, prepared to actually physically go back to the city I had once lived in for nine months. Then, I was 19 (and looked 14), away from my family for the first time, full of naiveté and self-doubt. Now, I was 39, confident in my own skin and full of life experience, out of the closet and with a fantastic partner at my side. And I was beginning the trip in line behind a brand new sister missionary. The irony made me smile.

The plane ride was smooth. I got a middle seat in the 20th row, and was comfortably nestled in between my boyfriend and an elderly woman who kept hacking, complaining about not being able to smoke on the plane, and sipping on a Bloody Mary and a coffee the flight attendant had brought her. We landed in Philadelphia around 4 pm, gathered our things, and caught a car into the city without incident.

When I lived Philadelphia for those 9 months of my mission back in 1999, I stayed in Germantown, in a crime-ridden area filled with poverty, though the house I stayed in was blocked into the nicer city area where it was safe. This time, we’d be staying in an Airbnb in Washington Square, what they now referred to as the “Gayborhood”, a place with mostly safe streets, thriving businesses, and gay bars. It was sure to be a very different experience.

After checking in, the boyfriend and I went through a long walk in the area, and so much felt familiar, although the city was as different as I was. The skyline, the moisture in the air, the sheer diversity of the people around us, the long flat stretches, the century-old churches int he middle of large blocky brick buildings, the row homes, the garbage on the curbs waiting for pick-up, the people just stacked on top of each other. A million flashes of memory hit me. Trying to maneuver a couch up and down flights of narrow stairs while helping someone move, ringing every doorbell on a particular building while hoping someone would answer and invite us up to teach, tables full of counterfeit products on street corners ready to be sold, navigating busses to subways to trains in order to get anywhere. This city had been so overwhelming to me at the time, so monstrous and impossible. Now it felt both familiar and foreign, like a place I’ve been yet just like every other place, its own history and people here all along, moving forward without me.

In nearby Washington Square Park, I stood in the middle to survey my surroundings. Behind me stood a statue of George Washington behind an eternal flame, making the grave of an unknown soldier to honor those lost in the Revolutionary War. Arrayed around that were benches and tables, pathways, and trees filled with birds. And across the park, a sea of humanity. A beautiful white man with a gorgeous black woman, cuddled tightly on a bench together, clearly in love. A gay man in a pink tank talking loudly on his cell phone while walking several dogs. An older black man with a thick beard mumbling to himself as he looked into one garbage can, then the next, trying to find some treasure. An Asian man reading medical textbooks. A heavyset woman wrapped head to toe in a burka and hijab, the symbols of her religious devotion, the colors of the robes flashing black and red. A well-dressed elderly black woman with tight grey curls laughing loudly, showing half her teeth missing. A handsome man instructing a white couple on how to do burpees in the main pathway. A lithe black woman with a baby strapped to her chest watching the water spilling in the fountain.

A sea of humanity, and one that included me, a formerly Mormon missionary who once stood in this park doubting himself, yet who had now returned to see it with new eyes.

Wrong Sides of History

I believe in the fundamental goodness of people. I believe that even when people act in a sense of self-preservation for self or family, that they believe they are doing the right thing. I also know that there are individuals and organizations in the world that are fundamentally evil, that are willing to exploit, corrupt, steal, and murder to gain power. I recognize that all individuals are not part of these organizations, yet that these organizations, at times in history, influence public opinion in such dangerous and terrible ways.

As an American citizen in 2016, I sit with a sense of panic about the days ahead. This week, Donald Trump was officially put in place as the President Elect by the Electoral College of the United States. I am not the only person to be outraged and saddened by an election. I am not the first person to see progress seemingly stunted or halted temporarily. I look backwards at some of my heroes, like Gloria Steinem, who fought for the perfectly reasonable Equal Rights Amendment, tirelessly and for years, only to see it ultimately fail. (It still hasn’t passed). Abraham Lincoln had to take the country to war to end slavery, costing hundreds of thousands of lives, yet racism still exists in many forms. Malala Yousafzai only recently became an icon after being shot in the head for being a Muslim girl who wanted the right to learn, yet many Middle Eastern girls are still denied access to education.

Ultimately, we only dwell in the present. In the present moment, we experience and feel, looking backward to the past, while fearing and hoping for the future. And in the present, we justify our actions, our votes, our decisions with our present reality, and can only look back later with hindsight.

We sometimes throw around the phrase “the wrong side of history”. What that fundamentally means is there are a lot of people, looking backwards, who made decisions in their present realities, things that with a slight amount of historical perspective can no longer be understood.

Overlooking for a moment the corrupt organizations referenced above, let’s look at the individuals along the way who have been fundamentally good, who were only dwelling in their present and wanting to do so with as much ease and grace as possible, but who ended up on the wrong side of history.

Look at the bus driver who told Rosa Parks to give up her seat at the back of the bus to a white person, and called the police when she refused to.

Look at the first President of our country, George Washington, who made sure to move his group of slaves South every so often, to make sure they didn’t qualify for freedom by staying the North for too long.

Look at the county clerk in Kentucky who simply refused to give a marriage license to a gay couple, choosing jail over compromising her personal principles.

Look at the German family who turned in their neighbors for harboring a Jewish couple in their basement, afraid for their own lives if they didn’t speak up and were thus held as complicit.

Look at the young black female who turned in her older brother to the plantation owner after hearing her brother’s plans to run away, knowing that her brother would be punished, but not wanting the rest of her family to be punished after he fled.

Look at the early American settler who believed it was more humane to sterilize the Native American population, to force them to become Christians, in an attempt to save them from their own savagery.

Look at the house wife who scoffed at the Suffragettes for fighting for female equality, chanting that these women should know men were better suited for the work outside the home, that women should know their proper place.

Look at the judge who found the young man innocent of savagely stabbing a gay man who had flirted with him, believing that the gay man should have known better and not wanting to ruin a young man’s life for one moment of insane and violent passion.

Look at the woman who served lemonade to her friends and neighbors, smiling and laughing at jokes while the tree branches strained to hold the bodies of two lynched black men above them.

Look at the schoolteacher who told her students to never shake hands with a gay man or they would get AIDS, the disease God sent to punish sinners on Earth.

Look at the father who dropped his pregnant teenage daughter off at the nunnery, crying as he hugged her goodbye forever, unable to forgive her for the unpardonable sin of premarital sex.

Look at the nurse who performed her twentieth clitorectomy of the day on a five year old African child, mutilating her genitals, knowing the girl would heal and develop scar tissue and then save herself for her husband, never enjoying sex as the custom dictated, the same procedure the nurse had undergone as a child.

Look at the young small town man who stood guard at the gates of the internment camp, making sure no Japanese American citizen could escape as they might be a spy and could forever endanger American lives.

Look at the proud father who refused to share his wife’s bed after she had given birth to a third female child, forever shaming him in the eyes of the community around him, now seeking a new and worthier wife who would deign to give him a son.

Look at the teenage girl who carefully watched her classmates for signs they might be a Communist, looking over the checklist of signs given out by her school, scared that one of them might be among her.

 

My politics are not the politics of all good and decent people, I know this. Nor are my morals, my values, my ethics, my beliefs. I will not vilify someone for not wanting change, for wanting peace and security for their family, for voting for someone who stands against the things I hold dear.

But I will dwell in my present and stand firm. I will look backwards at those who sought the easy way for themselves and their families and who ended up being on the wrong side of history. I will learn from them as I view the world around me.

And I will look forward with hope, knowing that the future has yet to be written.

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Poisoned Peas: Strange Facts about Washington

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32 things you didn’t know about George Washington:

  1. George Washington received an unanimous 69 electoral votes for the office of president.
  2. He was not inaugurated until 1789, several years after the Declaration of Independence was signed.
  3. The colonies initially wanted to elect him King before creating the office of president.
  4. He did not get along with his vice president, John Adams, and gave him only minor duties. This trend has continued with vice presidents right up until modern history.
  5. George was 6 feet, 2 inches tall, much taller than the average at the time.
  6. George was a 4th generation American settler, in that his great-grandparents had settled here.
  7. While pregnant with George, his mother, Mary Ball, saw a young woman violently killed by a lightning strike while sitting at a dinner table.
  8. Remember that cherry tree story? “I can not tell a lie?” Never happened. Made up by a future biographer.
  9. George’s father, Augustine, died when George was 11. He also saw siblings die and had a house burn down.
  10. In his will, Augustine left George a plot of land and ten slaves. George owned slaves his entire life and saw them as a sign of wealth and prosperity.
  11. George worked as a land surveyor in his youth before becoming a military man.
  12. At age 16, George was swimming nude. Two teenage girls stole his clothes as a prank, but he was not amused and had them arrested. One girl blamed the other, who received the full punishment, 15 lashes on her bare back.
  13. As a young man, George contracted small pox, which left his face covered in pockmark scars his entire life.
  14. In the military, in one battle, four bullets went through George’s coat without hitting his flesh. He later said, “I have heard the bullets whistle and there is something charming in the sound.”
  15. Martha Dandridge (who grew up on a plantation) married Daniel Custis (two decades her senion) and had four children, though two died as children. Custis made a fortune before he died young, then Martha married George Washington, who inherited all of Daniel’s lands, riches, and slaves, starting him off wealthy (over 17,000 acres of land and 300 slaves).
  16. George never had biological children. He raised his two step-children, and later helped raise his grandchildren, adopting some as his own. George may have been infertile.
  17. George once wrote, “I have always considered marriage as the most interesting event of one’s life, the foundation of happiness or misery.”
  18. George was often known for being cruel to his slaves, keeping them in shacks with dirt floors and buying no clothes for the children, though this was common practice at the time. Toward the end of his life, his heart softened and he worked to keep his slave’s families together, not dividing by selling.
  19. During the War, Thomas Hickey once tried to kill George by poisoning his peas, but the housekeeper grew suspicious and instead fed the peas to the chickens. The chickens died, and Hickey was hanged.
  20. As a military leader, George often wished he was a soldier instead. He once said, “I beg it should be remembered by every gentleman in the room, that I do this day declare, with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with.”
  21. George’s stepson, Jacky Custis, died at age 28 of dysentry, leaving behind four young children. George adopted the younger two. His stepdaughter, Patsy, died as a teenager.
  22. After their victory in the War, George’s men went to taunt the British, but he stopped them, saying “It is sufficient for us that we witness their humiliation. Posterity will huzza for us.”
  23. After the war ended, George repaid his salary and expenses to the colonies without being asked, a sum totally $50,000. He was always exacting in paying and collecting debts.
  24. George had several farms, one called Muddy Hole, and a favorite nephew named Bushrod. In his will, he left Bushrod a famous cane that belonged to Ben Franklin.
  25. George posed for many paintings and sculptures during his life, holding still for hours at a time. He once said, “I am now altogether at their beck, and sit like patience on a monument whilst they are delineating the lines on my face.”
  26. George suffered from toothaches beginning in his 20s, and had all his teeth removed over the years. He eventually wore a set of false teeth, made out of a mix of hippopotamus tusks, gold, and human teeth.
  27. George and Martha had a dog named Frisk and a parrot named Snipe.
  28. A few years before his death, George had a large tumor in his leg that had to be cut out without painkillers. He was bedridden for six weeks.
  29. In 1791, George and Martha briefly moved to Philadelphia with 8 of their slaves. At the time, a law had been passed that any slaves who remained in the city for 6 months were automatically set free. George had the slaves sent back to Virginia just before the time limit was up to keep his property.
  30. In his final will, George stated that all his slaves should be set free after both he and Martha died.
  31. George died in 1799 at the age of 67. Martha died 2.5 years later in 1802 at the age of 70.
  32. In France, Napolean said of George’s death, “This great man has fought against tyranny. He established the liberty of his country. His memory will always be dear to the French people.