21 Steps

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The soldier’s gait was careful as he took his 21 steps, clearly rehearsed, from one side of the black mat to the other. His legs seemed to move on their own as his torso and head remained rigid with perfect posture. His footfalls were exact, measured and thorough. He stopped at the other end of the mat, clicked his heels together ceremoniously, and held his gun over his shoulder. After several seconds, he turned his body to the side, shifting his weapon. And shortly after, that, he took another 21 steps to the other side.

I watched the soldier for a dozen or so minutes and felt the solemnity of his position, the exactness of his duty. The entire scene was picturesque and the atmosphere was heavy with the responsibility of it all. The pavement around him shone in the light rain, and I could see his reflection perfectly in it. He marched repeatedly in front of one stone tomb, a single monument to the tragedies and consequences of war. The hillside rolled out from there beautifully, with dense dark trees, now leafless as they awaited snowfall, to the grey expanse of sky beyond.

The walk to the Tomb through Arlington National Cemetery had been haunting. The perfectly manicured rows of white graves, lost soldiers remembered by names, ranks, and dates etched in stone. President John F. Kennedy, First Lady Jackie Kennedy, and two of their children were buried just yards from this site, a speech of his captured in stone around him as a small flame burned eternally over his grave. Hundreds of graves stretched in every direction, as far as the eye could see, through sloping hills and valleys.

I had heard of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier prior to this, but I had never known much about it. The Tomb contained just a few remains, the bodies of randomly selected unidentified soldiers, American casualties of war from World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Viet Nam War. These four bodies, brought to America to represent all of their fallen soldiers, and entombed here.

The tomb guards have been here on vigil since 1948. With their polished uniforms of black coat, black hat, black sunglasses, shining boots, blue pants with yellow stripe, devoid of rank to show respect, gun placed carefully on shoulder, the guards constantly patrol in shifts, day and night. They patrol in heat, in rain, in snow, and in high winds. They patrol on Christmas and Thanksgiving and New Years and the 4th of July. They patrol when tourists gather to watch them, and they patrol in the dark of night, standing constant respectful vigil. The position of tomb guard is highly revered within the army, and requires its own intensive training. When the guards here are not standing vigil, they are performing other duties, such as acting as honor guards at military funerals. They work consistently, and rotate through their shifts, in this honorary and ceremonial position of valor, standing over the unknowns.

I scrolled on my phone, curious about many things, learning that the first African American guard had patrolled starting in 1960, and the first woman guard not until 1997. As I read about how the guards had chosen to remain stationed even during hurricane level weather a few years back, I grew distracted by a few women next to me, laughing and chattering lightly. I looked up to see them, mildly frustrated by their disrespect, when I saw the guard take two steps off of the black mat and change his stance. He faced the women without looking directly at them, and spoke loudly. I can’t remember his exact words.

“The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a place of silence and respect!”

He paused for a moment, then took his 21 steps to the other side, where he began his vigil again. My heart was pounding nervously at the intensity of the moment. The women immediately quieted down and stood respectfully. Minutes later, I heard the man speak once more, when a child, who had been mimicking his march and movements for several minutes, leaned his body on the railing. Again, the man stepped off the mat and spoke, this time more softly. “Do not lean on the railings.” A further phone search said the guards only spoke when people were breaking the rules of the area, and that when people tried to cross the barrier, the guards could take action.

The rain picked up in intensity as a loud clock chimed a dozen times nearby, each chime resounding with weight over the cemetery. At the hour turned to noon, two more men carefully joined the guard on the mat and completed a classic changing of the guard. At one moment, when all three men turned to face the Tomb, and the commanding officer quietly raised a hand in respect, I got chills down my spine.

I walked away from the Tomb after that, thinking about the men standing guard and the men memorialized inside. I wondered who they were, where they were from, what their families were like, what legacies they left behind. I wondered if DNA technology now could take their genetic markers and find their families and identify the soldiers, and I wondered if this could be done for all of the rest of the lost, providing closure to families decades later. I wondered if it ever would.

I thought of war and atrocity, and when war is for the right reasons. I thought of political battles, and men with their guns. I thought of mothers worrying over their soldiers. And I drew strange comfort from the fact that I knew, here forward, that guards would be standing over the men in those tombs, every hour of every day, for years to come.

a message to white people who are tired of talking about hard things

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This election matters to me. For many reasons.

Candidate one: a woman. A woman who is respected in many countries all over the world as a powerful and effective and respectful leader. A woman who has been called the most qualified candidate in American history. A woman who is a strategist, with a multi-ethnic team at her side, who runs on causes of social justice. And a woman who is being torn to shreds by her home country’s media (on one side) over scandals and lies and secret plots, all things that have been willfully overlooked in nearly every other presidential candidate across time.

And Candidate two: a man. A narcissistic, egomaniacal billionaire who avoids paying taxes, who marries super models and then cheats on them, and who refuses to pay people for the work they do for him. An overweight 70 year old man who has insulted basically anyone who is not rich and white and what he considers pretty: the handicapped, the overweight, women, veterans, the elderly, the mentally ill, the refugee, LGBT people, Muslims, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and nearly every other ethnic group. A man described as the least qualified candidate in American history.

I mean, look at their very campaign slogans. Her: Stronger Together. An invitation for everyone to work together, share, invest, and build, celebrating everyone. His: Make America Great Again. An invitation to forget the progress of recent years and go back to a time when white men could go back to being comfortable as white men, and where everyone else knew their places.

From even some of my closest loved ones, I keep hearing these bizarre arguments and frustrations about the election. Things like “I just want it to be over. I’m tired of them hearing about these things. I’m tired of people being mean to each other.” And “I get that Donald Trump is gross but I don’t trust Hillary. She is so dishonest.” And “I’m not voting. It doesn’t matter what the outcome of this election is. It doesn’t have any impact on my life.” And “I wish we could go back 50 years when things were easier and happier.”

These comments aggravate me to no end for many reasons, and they tie directly in to why the election matters so much to me in the first place. Every one of my personal values is on the national stage. Rape culture and gender equality. Systemic racism and its impact on minority groups. LGBT rights and teen suicides. Christian privilege and the hate speak about other religions or belief structures. Gun violence without sanction.

People in privilege have a habit of being faced with unpleasant topics, and then getting tired of hearing about them. “Okay, okay, I get it, women get raped. Let’s teach women how not to get raped. Now can we please stop talking about it?” “All right, I understand, prisons are disproportionately full of black people. But black people commit more crimes, so they should stop doing that. Let’s move on.” “I got it, another gay kid killed himself. But suicide isn’t just about sexuality, he must have been mentally ill. Did you see the Voice last night?”

And that is the very essence of privilege! You get to stop talking about it! Because it isn’t staring you in the face every day! If YOU were getting raped, if YOUR paycheck was less than your coworkers, if YOUR loved ones were being attacked by police, if YOUR son was pushed toward suicide, if YOUR family were being called rapists because of their last name… if it was you, and everyone around you just shrugged and told you to stop bringing it up, would you stand for that?

The very fact that it is 2016 and we are still having arguments about whether or not racism exists, that people are still learning what rape culture is, that children are putting guns to their heads because churches and families say they don’t fit in, and that a country that was founded on freedom of religion is debating entire religions from crossing the borders… I just can’t wrap my brain around it. It infuriates me.

Also, fifty years ago, things were not that great! That was the middle of the Civil Rights movement, with the country still coming out of the segregation era! Gay people were being sent in for shock treatments, and women were expected to housewives!

And if you are longing for the politicians of previous eras, well, stop white-washing your history. First of all, ALL of them have been white men. And NONE of them are beyond corruption. John Kennedy colluded with the mafia. Ronald Reagan ignored the AIDS crisis. Bill Clinton lied to the public about his affairs. And George Bush lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Life was only better back then because you didn’t have to talk about hard things, not until you were forced to, and then you started to pay attention. Years later. (Have you ever heard of Selma? Stonewall? The Suffragettes?)

Our government has long been dominated by white men who shrug off things that don’t bother them directly. I remember legislation in Idaho years back, when a group petitioned that the locally named Squaw Canyon should be renamed because ‘squaw’ is an incredibly offensive words to Native Americans. The local white government officials shrugged off the legislation, saying it would be inconvenient and that it didn’t bother enough people. These are the attitudes that exist in every corner of American government, in every state and county and city. The simply cannot be the basis for our government decisions any longer.

It is long past time we had a representative government, filled equally with men and women, black and white and Latino and Native and Asian, Christian and Muslim and atheist, gay and straight and transgender. Our government should reflect every shade of human diversity.

And for those of you who are sick of seeing difficult things talked about, and shrug it off with an annoyed muttering about ‘political correctness’, well, you may have the luxury of not being impacted by the topics you seek to avoid. But you don’t get to avoid them just because they make you uncomfortable.

Because for the rest of us, it’s part of our daily lives. And our primary problem? It isn’t so much the sexism and racism and homophobia and Islamophobia, etc, that you get tired of hearing about. Our primary problem is your unwillingness to do anything about it because it makes you uncomfortable.

And for every topic you have grown tired of, there are a dozen more that haven’t yet hit the media at those levels: limited treatment options for the mentally ill, the violent murders of transgender women of color, Native American land rights, human trafficking, the real truth about poverty and homelessness, and on and on.

So woman up, open your ears, listen, and do the right thing. Then maybe we’ll quiet down a bit. Maybe.