"Old Glory" by Sally Wiener Grotta

Writing is how I process the world into story. When my fingers are on my keyboard, my brain accesses a deeper part of me where fictional characters live out their complex lives and whisper their tales to my subconscious. When I tap that area of my mind, I can create reason and beauty out of trauma, though I’m not always sure how that happens. That’s why one major driving force behind my work is that I write to try to understand what to me is unfathomable.

For instance, hate, cruelty and war might be human nature, but they don’t make sense. Why would any individual or group want to expend precious time and resources on something so self-destructive? Life is too short, too jam-packed with responsibilities, pleasures, needs, hopes, and perhaps, if you’re lucky and you work at it, love. And yet, people waste their lives hating, hurting and killing each other. Some even appear to get pleasure from acts of cruelty, I guess to prove that they have a modicum of power over another’s life. It boggles my mind, trying to understand why. The pain of it slices through to my inner self.

So, I write fiction, poems and essays to try to dig my way through my discomfort and confusion over what I’m told is simply how human beings are built. In my novels and short stories, I create characters I learn to love and, as part of the process of crafting a tale, I encourage them to do nasty things to each other. After all, isn’t that the nature of a story? Eventually, I come to a point of understanding, not of humanity itself, but of my characters and what drives them. If I do it right, I also end up with more questions than answers. If the story really gets to the heart of things, then I can I hope I’ve succeeded in engaging readers so that they too start asking questions. The best is when a story inspires an ongoing dialog that might help us search together for a path out of the morass, away from the evil and pain we cause each other.

All this, which is always on my mind, became a point of focus for me tonight. After a day and a half of riding an emotional rollercoaster over the invasion of our Capitol, I decided to sit at my keyboard to try to write my way out of this dark cycle of fear and anger, disgust and distrust, and too many other negative feelings that I don’t like having. If nothing else, it’s a waste of my time and destructive to all that’s important to me about who I am.

I remember when I heard a breaking news story about the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. I was devastated. I think it was the first time in my life that anti-Semitism became real to me, became something so very personal. I ran crying to my father and told him, “I hate them. I hate them because they make me feel hate. I don’t want to hate, Daddy. It hurts too much.”

I remember the incident, but the quote is from my Dad’s retelling. I can imagine how his heart must have broken to know that his daughter’s innocence had also been murdered that day.

That was the turning point in my life when I understood that people existed who wanted to kill me – Sally Jean Wiener – just because I’m Jewish. Not just me, but my parents, my sister, and others who I loved. Sure, I knew about Anne Frank and the Nazis and Hitler. But they were so long ago, not in my lifetime, not in my safe world where my mom and dad protected and loved me.

Today, looking at the news footage from yesterday’s invasion of the U.S. Capitol Building by American-born Nazis, seeing the pictures of their swastikas and Confederate flag… I can’t even finish that sentence, because the rollercoaster of emotions takes over. I was devastated, sad, frightened, angry, and to a certain extent, grieving for what was destroyed yesterday and by the four and half years leading up to it.

Then a Facebook friend explained to me what the acronym on some of the terrorists’ t-shirts meant: 6MNE. I can’t and won’t write the definition, because it’s pure evil. Suffice it to say it was a reference to the six million Jews killed in Hitler’s concentration camps.

I don’t cry easily, especially when bullies want to see my tears. But I cried tonight. I felt the hurt of a child discovering how much others in this world want her dead, but want her to feel pain first. Not just me and mine, but anyone who’s different from them, especially people with dark complexions or foreign accents or differently shaped eyes or, heck, I don’t know all the stupid criteria they use for their violence and cruelty.

Then realizing I was allowing them to victimize me, that I was giving the bullies exactly what they wanted – power over me – I started to hate them.

“I don’t want to hate, Daddy. It hurts too much.

Last week, a dear friend told me about her 97-year-old mother who was hospitalized for Covid. A highly intelligent woman who has been a do-er all her life, she kept asking to go home, saying, “What can I do so they’ll let me go home?” I laughed, because I recognized myself in her. I’m not a passive individual. If something is wrong, I need to figure out how I can try to fix it. (I’m happy to say that my friend’s mother is now home. She did the one thing that needed doing; she got better.)

Now, I’m asking: what can I do with this hate? What can I create out of it to make it go away? Or as the child I was used to ask her parents, “What can I do to make it better?” (Actually, what I would say is “Make it better, Mommy, Daddy. Help me make it better.”)

I know there’s no easy answer to make what happened on Wednesday better, because it’s been brewing for far longer than yesterday and today, far longer than four and a half years, even far longer than this country has existed, though it is the original sin that has tarnished the United States of America since its beginning.

Ever since humanity left the savannah to form communities and cities, then states and countries, we have been stratified into “us” and “them.” Well, now that I think about it, even on the savannah, when we were small family groups hunting and gathering, fear of the “other” defined who “we” were. I understand that in many early languages the word for “us” can be translated as “human,” while the word for outsiders can be translated as “animals.” It’s far easier to accept killing animals than humans.

But with the establishment of so-called society, this differentiation among people was layered in as foundational strata. Look, think or sound different, pray to the wrong God or in the wrong manner, have an alien culture or another skin pigment – it didn’t matter what the separation points were, people would find something to look down upon, so they could feel superior, solidify their control, and use or kill the “other” as they saw fit.

I have a glimmer of hope that we may have begun the process of making things better by the simple fact that we now recognize how poorly we’ve done in the past. I’m not naïve. Nazis will always be there, posturing and preening, hating and hateful. Nothing we can do will change that horrifying fact. But it’s time to drive them and the heritage that helped to form them back into the fringe shadows where they have less power over us.

Yes, I recognize the irony that the very differentiating that I feel is at the heart of our troubles I am now using to divorce those Nazi terrorists from “us.” Well, as long as they espouse cruelty, destruction and murder, they are not welcome onto our savannah.

It’s late on Thursday night, and I now seem to have gotten off the rollercoaster of spiraling emotions. So writing to try to understand has helped me make it through this nightmare evening. Not that I have answers, that will take years of struggle with our lesser selves. But I’ve freed myself from the hold those bullies want to have over me. They won’t change who I am or what matters most to me.

What’s more, I wonder if maybe those terrorists who stormed our Capitol did us a favor. Yesterday, the alien invasion that science fiction has been warning us about for decades has descended on us. They sacked our House of Representatives, trashed the corridors of U.S. democracy, even sat on the thrones (well, the desk chairs) of the powerful. And yet we live; they didn’t beat us down or destroy us. Just as importantly, we are now formulating the questions we need to ask ourselves and each other. Perhaps now we can develop the necessary dialogs that will help us do better at humaning.


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