The 2017 List: 13 things to bring into the new year

With some truly depressing 2017 lists out there, I want to add a couple that might actually come in handy... or at least crack a smile.

Here is the Rebel With a Pen list of what to take with you when leaping into 2017:

  1. Chocolate
  2. A solar panel
  3. A manual for communicating with racists
  4. A Canadian passport or at least least a maple leaf bumper sticker
  5. Your entire library of books
  6. Wool socks
  7. A couple of 1960s protest albums
  8. Food stockpiles
  9. A bomb shelter
  10. Your family and near neighbors
  11. A first aid kit with extra bandages
  12. Your ability to laugh in the face of disaster
  13. Your generosity of spirit when it comes to people you might feel like judging

And with some of the bizarre wish lists out there, I figured that my brand of fantasy wouldn't seem far fetched at all. Here's my wish list for 2017:

  1. I wish Donald Trump would get on TV, laugh really loud and say, "Just kidding!" And then go back to his moocher lifestyle and leave us in peace.
  2. I wish everyone in the media would suddenly realize they should actually listen to scientists. Then science and climate discussions would be at the top of the news cycle all year long.
  3. I wish oil executives would realize the Indians own that land in North Dakota and that squeezing every last drop of oil out of the sand in Texas is not going to prolong their gluttonous lifestyle for very long anyway so they might as well start thinking about long-term survival.
  4. I wish my kids would wake up January 1 and realize that bickering defeats fun.
  5. I wish the next president would declare a new New Deal consisting of building solar panels to go on every roof and a light-rail system serving the entire country.
  6. I wish all the teenage ISIS fighters would get a deep hankering to go live with their mothers and watch TV until they're forty. 
  7. I wish all bombs, missiles and munitions as well as all guns not in a safe under lock and key would mysteriously disappear on January 1.
  8. I wish someone brilliant would invent a way for writers and artists to make a living at their craft.
  9. I wish Microsoft would go bankrupt and have to sell off all of its parts to independent programmers who want to make an honest living.
  10. I wish our society would begin taxing the use of natural resources instead of the labor of the working poor and the funds would be put toward educational opportunity, urban greenspaces, rural public transit and subsidies for high quality cottage industries. 
  11. I wish a benign virus would evolve and spread among humans which deactivates the part of the brain that categorizes according to skin color, speech pattern and the appearance of a person's eyes.

With those sweet and optimistic thoughts in mind, I wish you a very happy (and peaceful) new year!

Stand with those under attack: A simple gift you can give for free

There are a lot of messages out there at this time of year aimed at getting you to give to good causes. And many of those causes really do help people--ensuring that hungry people eat, refugees receive shelter and sick people get care. 

It is very gratifying to have enough to give materially. But maybe you are not one of the people who can. Or if you do give materially, you may want to give in other ways as well.

Creative Commons image by Fdecomite of

Creative Commons image by Fdecomite of

Right at the moment, many people are feeling that the future is bleak. There is sorrow at every turn and a looming sense of potential disaster. It is easy to become pessimistic and resort to hunkering down in our own homes, hoping the storm will pass us by.

I've been feeling that way myself and fighting for inspiration in my writing. It's humbling that the answer came to me from my younger brother.  And he probably has no idea he proposed something so actionable. 

Here's how it happened. My brother said he was going to write a letter to the local newspaper. I'd heard him saying how concerned he is about the rise in vocal racism and the apathy of many others to respond. He used to be quite idealistic and recent events had brought him nearly to tears. He's also living out in a rural area that voted nearly 70 percent for Trump, so what options did he have?

I thought I knew what to expect of his letter to a local paper. He's diplomatic, but still I thought he would try to talk some sense into his neighbors one way or another.

He did a bit but he also put something else in his letter: "I invite immigrants into this community. I will protect you physically and emotionally... People of color, people who look different, act different, are different are welcome here in this valley."

I've heard many people say they want to stand by immigrants, people of color or Muslims. And that's nice and all. But mostly we are saying these things in our bubble, whether it's on Facebook or among friends. 

We're not only not persuading anyone not to be racist, we aren't even telling the people in need of support about this. But my brother hit on a good idea, a new spin on writing letters to local newspapers. Don't write to persuade people who probably won't listen to an opposing view. Don't write to officials who aren't going to change their policies.

Instead write your letters to the people who are now living with the greatest uncertainty and fear. Address them directly.

Think of Christian refugees from Syria celebrating their first Christmas in the United States while being harassed for being Arabs. Imagine a Muslim child learning to read English opening up the local paper for homework and finding your letter. Then write with that audience in mind.

Creative Commons image by the Oregon Department of Transportation

Creative Commons image by the Oregon Department of Transportation

Tell your friends and imagine a flood of such letters. 

I welcome you. I stand by you. I am a friend. I want to have people of color, people speaking different languages, Muslims, Jews, Christians, Pagans. Hindus, people of varied gender identities and people of all shapes, sizes and talents in my community. We would miss out, if you were not here. We would be poorer and our town would lack its interest and sparkle. I want you here and I will say it openly. I won't be silent if there is hate speech or hateful policies. I am sorry for these terrifying times. I, for one, stand with you. 

There are a great many of us who agree with these statements, but we mostly say them to each other. Let's say them to the people who feel excluded and attacked. Let's start a campaign of letters to our communities, rather than to officials. 

Go ahead and make it specific. Write to foreign students or immigrants or women who have undergone an abortion or people with visible and invisible disabilities or the quiet people of non-Christian faiths who repeat "Merry Christmas" cheerily without ever hearing their own holidays mentioned. 

You will touch someone deeply, almost certainly make someone's day or week. And if enough of us do it, you will also open the hearts of others who may need to look beyond their personal experience to believe in good people of every kind. It doesn't matter if you are also personally one of the people affected by the uncertainty. There is still someone out there who will be glad to hear you stand with them.

A holiday letter seems like an overly simple thing to give. But under some circumstances it can be a great gift.

And thank you for reading my writing this year. I wish you comfort, simple joy and shared love in this season.

Raising international boys: Peace soldiers not afraid to cry or care

He loves toy soldiers. He likes the swift, bracing feeling of their uniforms. He respects the steadfast pace of their tank tracks. He enjoys the tantalizing idea of their weapons.

He stands in bittersweet sorrow at the side of the road where a shrine marks the remembrance of a family for a soldier dead these seventy years--fled from an occupied homeland and lost on the eastern front. He vows that he will smite all those who harm children and invade small countries. 

Five years old and he asks me to remember to bring rubber gloves, so we can pick up litter on the way home from school. 

On the weekend we go to the grandparents and sit around the table in the kitchen where Nazi soldiers once stole the milk and left our grandfather hungry as a little boy. 

"Don't push me!" my little son sobs when his sister jabs an elbow into his middle while they wait for Grandma's soup. He clobbers her on the head with his spoon.

"Boys don't cry!" Grandpa bellows. 

The little boy stares at him with wide shocked eyes. It is possible--though unlikely--that this is actually the first time he has heard that old adage.

At our house, boys do cry and jabbing and hitting are the more serious offenses. Gritting my teeth, I handle the situation diplomatically. 

After dinner Grandma hands out gifts to the children, since we weren't here during the holidays--earrings for the girl, a nerf pistol for the boy. They are both very happy. Who am I to complain?

And yet I know that in this adopted country where we live (the Czech Republic) the chance that one's son will become a soldier and go off into a terrible war--where he may be killed or lose his sense of humanity--is minuscule. They don't understand that for American boys in families without wealth the stats are far different. He will not always be a boy here. He is a US citizen because of me and someday he will be a young man and a target for recruiters. 

I have two new teenage ESL students. More boys. They bring in an article from their English study magazine. It's about world peace. I ask open ended questions to get them using English grammar. Do you want peace? Yes. Do you think we should have a military? Well, only a very small one. If we have a small military, who will tackle an evil force such as Hitler when it comes again? The UN.

Sunglasses are cool.jpg

I do understand their perspective, but one of them is headed to the US as an exchange student in a few months. I have a talk with him about it, explaining about how Americans who study only American history see these things differently, how such well-reasoned statements can be considered highly controversial. 

Later my five-year-old is still playing with his tank and toy soldiers. He loves the sound effects of war. But when we write down wishes for the next year to put into our special wish jar, he says, "I wish all soldiers would be careful not to hurt anyone." 

And when scolded, even gently he cries. And that is okay because boys will be boys. A hug will fix it.

How do I explain the world of violence to small children? Or do they know already? Sometimes they ask the most discerning questions. I could swear they know the score all too well.

"Mama, why do presidents get to make wars?"