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Blowin' in the Wind: An American View

by Deborah Streeter


Blowin' in the Wind celebrates and critiques America; our culture, politics, people, history, religions and landscape. We also link to our friend Ed Kilgore's daily blog 
Political Animal, for an insider's look at our political process. Both of us try to keep it brave and free, like our nation, with some humor and progressive hope thrown in.

 

 

Sunday
Feb082015

Bully Pulpit

Rev. Barack Obama let loose a few homiletic zingers this week from his bully pulpit.

“Bully Pulpit” is a phrase coined by Pres. Teddy Roosevelt over 100 years ago to describe the White House, and how it gave him access and authority to speak out on any issue. “I suppose my critics will call that preaching,” he said, “but I have got such a bully pulpit!”

By “bully” he meant jolly good! Today we might say “awesome!”  We still occasionally use “bully” this way; “Bully for you” means congratulations, good job. 

But mostly when we say bully these days it’s negative, meaning “the use of force, threat or coercion to abuse, intimidate or aggressively dominate others….especially in a setting of imbalance social or physical power.”

Depending on how you feel about Obama, you can say, “Bully for you!”  Keep it up! 

Or, if you are a right wing Evangelical Christian with a victim complex, you whine and say, “Stop bullying me.” 

I am usually in the former camp, as I was this week after his sermon at the annual White House Prayer Breakfast.

(I’m trying to be a little ironic, or sarcastic here – I hope you notice - by calling him Rev. Obama, referring to his speeches as sermons.  His critics object to him being so “preachy,” which I gather means that he tells other people how they are wrong and should do something different.  As a volunteer guide at the Monterey Bay Aquarium I am  encouraged to tell visitors about the environmental crises facing the ocean and what they can do to help.  But some of my fellow guides object, saying they don’t want to sound “preachy.”  To which I say, “Right on, preach it, sister!”  I have heard as many bad patronizing sermons as the next person, maybe more, but I still object to “preachy” as a putdown.  It just means to break open the truth in love.  That’s my sermon.)

Official White House Photo by Pete SouzaWhat appalled right wing evangelical Christians this week was this section of Obama’s brief remarks at the annual White House Prayer Breakfast

So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities -- the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends? 

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history.  And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.  In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.  Michelle and I returned from India -- an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity -- but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs -- acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation. 

So this is not unique to one group or one religion.  There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.  In today’s world, when hate groups have their own Twitter accounts and bigotry can fester in hidden places in cyberspace, it can be even harder to counteract such intolerance. But God compels us to try.  And in this mission, I believe there are a few principles that can guide us, particularly those of us who profess to believe. 

And, first, we should start with some basic humility.  I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt -- not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others, that God only cares about us and doesn’t care about others, that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth. 

Our job is not to ask that God respond to our notion of truth -- our job is to be true to Him, His word, and His commandments.  And we should assume humbly that we’re confused and don’t always know what we’re doing and we’re staggering and stumbling towards Him, and have some humility in that process.  And that means we have to speak up against those who would misuse His name to justify oppression, or violence, or hatred with that fierce certainty.  No God condones terror.  No grievance justifies the taking of innocent lives, or the oppression of those who are weaker or fewer in number.

Predictable critics like Glenn Beck and Southern Baptist leaders tried to say that the Crusaders and the KKK weren’t “really Christian,” that they had not been supported by the mainstream, that it was all in the past, that this was a false equivalency, that Obama was a disgrace to America, etc.  It was all pretty predictable, and pathetic, and embarrassing, and depressing, and annoying. 

These folks often do this fake victim thing, poor us minority Christians, why are people so mean to us?  They might have even have said they felt bullied, but they probably wouldn’t have wanted to admit Obama has more power than they do.  Glen Beck came close when he demanded the President “Stop lecturing us.  Please Mr. President, pipe down” about how bad we Americans are.

By contrast, one pastor who was there wrote that the references to Christian violence and sin were a small part of a larger talk that received a standing ovation and that the media reports were unfair distortions of a “confessional, bridge building” talk.

Another pastor wrote a good description of Obama’s remarks as a faithful example of liberal Protestant theology in the tradition of Reinhold Niebuhr. He especially noted and appreciated Obama’s assertion that faith at its center should include humility and doubt.  His critics on the right go crazy when he talks like this; to them, faith means having no doubts whatever, and that to practice humility is weak wimpiness.

If we’re looking for bullies in America it would be Cheney and his gang, backed up by this Christian right exceptionalism and triumphalism.  Obama is the anti-bully.  He’s the kid on the playground trying to reach out, find common ground, admit where he is wrong and invite conversation.  Teachers say bullies are usually insecure kids who have been deeply hurt at home (or who have watched too many Glenn Beck shows.)  They just want attention.  Ignoring them is always a good response.  That’s what I try to do.

But to Obama I say, Bully for you.  Preach it, brother.

Copyright © 2015 Deborah Streeter

Tuesday
Feb032015

Thank You, Carl and Charlie

Two remarkable American scientists died this past week, Carl Djerassi and Charles Townes.  Djerassi is called “the father of the birth control pill.”  Townes invented the laser.  They both lived into their 90’s, both lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, both were renaissance men with interests far beyond their labs and inventions. 

Inspiring men. And lucky me, I actually knew them both a little bit.

Charles TownesI met Charlie Townes in church in the 80’s.  The odds of my befriending a Nobel Prize winning physicist are pretty small, but I never imagined I would meet one in church.  But Charlie was a deeply religious man as well as a brilliant scientist.   In 1951, in his 30’s, working hard as a scientist on how to focus light waves to form what was later called a laser, he had a sudden insight on how to do it, early one morning while sitting on a park bench waiting for a coffee shop to open.  He told this story often, and always compared that flash of insight to a religious revelation.  He went on to be a bold advocate for the need for science and religion to partner and trust and learn from each other.  Charlie later won the Templeton Prize, called the religious version of the Nobel Prize, making him the only person ever to win both awards.  Except, that is, for Mother Theresa.  Pretty good company.

Carl DjerassiI met Carl Djerassi a decade earlier, in the 70’s at Stanford, where I was studying women’s studies and religious studies, and he was teaching chemistry. Well, I heard him speak a few times, as part of my women’s studies classes, about the history of the birth control pill and its implications.  I was among the first generation of women that really benefited from the birth control pill, which Djerassi’s invention of synthetic progestin in 1951 made possible a decade later.  This gave me so many choices that women had never had before in all of history; an extended period of free sexual choices before marriage, some control over the timing of my career and when I had my children, and much later, treatment for menopausal complications, which had became life threatening.  Like millions of women, I owe Carl Djerassi my choices, my children, my life.

To Charlie Townes I owe my sight and that of my husband and father and the millions of people who have had laser eye surgery.  And all of us who have used laser printers, fiber optics, space exploration and a zillion other things I don’t quite understand.

I imagine they must have met, these two creative scientist living near San Francisco.  They were both politically active, working all their lives for progressive causes.  Djerassi was proud to be on Nixon’s enemies list, and Charles was a prominent advocate for nuclear disarmament.  

Paul KleeThey had both been child prodigies, graduating from college at 19, working long and hard in both industry and academia.  And both were generous men, sharing their prize money and profits from their work with causes they valued.  Charlie donated his Templeton money to the program at our church for the homeless men and women of our region.  Djerassi was an avid art collector, especially the work of Paul Klee, and donated his large collection of Klee’s work to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.  I still remember the time in the 80’s when I first walked into the new Museum building and discovered there was a Carl Djerassi gallery filled with Klee’s art.  I have loved Klee all my life, seen his work in NY and his native Switzerland, but never in California.  I did not know Djerassi owned so many. I remember practically shouting, “My two favorite things in life – Paul Klee and birth control – thanks Dr. Djerassi!”

Both men have such great American stories.  Djerassi’s is one of the many moving American immigrant/refuge stories.  Escaping as a 15 year old Jewish boy from Vienna, he arrived penniless in NY with his mother in 1937, wrote a desperate letter to then First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt asking for help getting money for college (“I thought she was the queen of America”) which she amazingly answered, helped him get a scholarship and sent him on his way to success in chemistry.

Townes was a child of the South, where his family was active in civil rights.  1965, when he won the Nobel Prize in Physics, was the year the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  Charlis’s aunt in North Carolina knew Dr. King from her civil rights work, and told him, “When you get to Stockholm, look up my nephew Charlie, he’s getting one of those Nobels too.”  They became friends, until King was assassinated three years later.

Our denomination wanted to honor Charlie for his work on the laser and his work bridging science and religion.  In 2007 we invited him to our big national meeting and gave him the usual plaque and stage time and testimonial.  I was on the committee that helped plan it.  The honoring was part of a long evening celebration that was running late.  Charles and his wife were already in their 90’s (he died at 99.)  We finally were able to bring them on stage.  And then we let loose the final celebration – a laser light show that filled the huge sports arena where 10,000 of us were meeting.  Charles just smiled, and graciously thanked us.

No, Charles, no Carl – let us thank YOU.

Copyright © 2015 Deborah Streeter

Sunday
Jan252015

Judge Not

A state ruling last week said that California judges are no longer allowed to belong to the Boy Scouts.

Wait a minute.  I know, as I get older, that various professionals seem younger and younger, like my doctor.  But are there now Boy Scouts who are judges?  Is there a judge’s badge they can earn?

Oh, I get it, California judges can’t be Boy Scout leaders, because the Boy Scouts prohibit gay Scout leaders.  The judge’s professional code says they can’t belong to any organization that discriminates on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin or (along with 21 other states) sexual orientation.  They had given an exemption for youth organizations, but last week took that away. 

I guess plumbers or even nurses can belong to whatever groups they want in their private lives.  But judges are supposed to be trusted public servants who are impartial.  Even the appearance of impartiality can disqualify a judge.

(Having been myself a public figure for some years, a local church minister, I know the tension of private and public lives.  In a small town I was aware that what I wore on my day off, or what my children did, reflected, sadly, on me and my church.  I had to think twice about what I did or said in any setting.  But I did stand for certain beliefs and behaviors, so I understood the conflation of public and private.  Judges also supposedly stand for something.)

California’s is the largest of all the state judiciaries: 2000 judges, along with 21,000 staff members hear 10 million cases a year.  It’s the first state to make this kind of ruling on judges and the Scouts.

But this is only the latest example of public opinion turning against the Boy Scouts.  For a century Scouts, at least the Boy version, has seemed as American as apple pie.  Corporations supported the Scouts financially as a way to improve their public image. Cities gave Scouts free or discounted space.  Churches vied to sponsor a troop.

But the Boy Scouts have always banned gay scouts and gay leaders, publicly kicked them out. In the past decade or so more public pressure finally forced the Scouts last year to change their policies; gay boys could now be Scouts.   But still gay leaders would be prohibited.  All kinds of stories of beloved leaders, including moms and dads, being expelled.  Surveys show that neither conservatives or liberals are satisfied with this Salomon-like ruling; there are just two halves of the baby. 

In a sense, this so called compromise forced the hand of many institutions.  In the past year, corporations like Intel and Lockheed Martin have announced they will no longer contribute to the Scouts as long as it gays can’t be leaders.  Even Disneyland quietly stopped supporting the Scouts.  Churches have started parallel programs like Scouting for All.

(Not being a Scout type myself, I can’t quite get why these big companies supported them in the first place – was it just old boy execs, some kind of tax breaks, a way to improve your image?  Lockheed Martin is a huge military contractor. Are the Scouts sort of a pseudo military organization? No, not really, but boys will be boys…)

The California judge decision and these changing corporate policies are more dominos falling down in the long and inevitable dismantling of homophobic laws and policies.  Because of dramatically changed public opinion on gay rights, 36 states now have legal same sex marriage, and over 70% of all US citizens live in one of those states.  Last week the Supreme Court also agreed to rule this year on several of the state’s cases that still oppose marriage, hopefully producing one national ruling and right to marriage equality.

But the increasing marginalization of Boy Scouts from “favored nation” status reminds us it is not just same sex marriage laws that are changing.  In last week’s State of the Union Address, President Obama said the words “lesbian, bisexual and transgender” for the first time ever in such an address.  He said Americans “now condemn the persecution of women, religious minorities or people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.”  The words “bisexual” and “transgender” had never before come from any President’s mouth.

  • Many factors contribute to this rapidly changing landscape here in the US.
  • People know more and more LGBT people personally.
  • More LGBT people are in positions of power and influence: the law, politics, media, religion.
  • Social media has lowered the wall between private and public, work and home.

So it’s harder for a judge to rule on a gay rights case and then go home and attend a Scout meeting where they dismiss a beloved gay leader.  Still happens, I’m sure.  Three states have no laws prohibiting judges from belonging to any discriminatory groups – go ahead a join the Ku Klux Klan!   Only half of the states include discrimination against LGBT folks as one of the outlawed policies. 

But the closet door has opened a crack wider. Not only are folks coming out, but folks like judges, straight or gay, can no keep themselves in the dark. 

Copyright © 2015 Deborah Streeter  

Sunday
Jan182015

Selma

Selma is one of the greatest events in US history.

If they gave awards for landmarks and turning points in history, Selma would clean up.

But the recently released movie Selma - I was a little disappointed. 

Most critics raved about the movie, which tells the story of a few weeks in 1965 when Martin Luther King organized a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to bring national attention to the fact that blacks could not exercise their constitutional right to register to vote.

The critics' raves turned to outrage this week when the film was snubbed by the Oscar nominations.  It only received two nominations: best picture and best song.  Nothing for the impressive performances by David Oyelowo as King, Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, or Ava DuVernay the director.

Racism was the obvious charge made against the predominately old, white, male members of the Academy of Motion Pictures who nominate and vote.  Every one of the 20 actors and actresses nominated are white.  All the directors nominated were white males.  Selma is directed by a black woman.

I wrote for these pages about the Selma march and another leader of the march, John Lewis, a couple years ago, on the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, which King also organized.  These various 50th anniversaries are inspiring lots of timely books, conferences, TV shows and a few movies about the Civil Rights Era.

Timely, because many of that generation of leaders has died and many young people simply don't know that history.  A program called "Selma for Students" has raised money so that teenage students in over 20 major cities, like New York, LA, Nashville, Detroit, can see the movie free; as many as 275,000 students are eligible.

Timely also, because Republicans today are trying to take us back to the day when it was hard if not impossible for poor minorities to vote.  Many states have reduced voting hours, required picture ID and closed polling places, all a hardship on the working poor.  The Supreme Court last year ruled that racism was over and removed Civil Rights Era watchdog provisions on some communities that have been egregious violators of voting rights, mostly in the south.

And timely, and ironic, because so many people today don't even bother to vote.  In the movie we see blacks and their white allies being tear gassed, attacked by dogs and even killed by police (sound familiar?) because they want a right, the vote, that so many now say is pointless.  Our last midterm election had the lowest turnout in history, and voters were predominately older and white.  Guess who got elected to congress?

So I was glad the movie was made.  I just wish it had been better.

Too much of it felt like a soap opera, or People Magazine.  Long, SLOW scenes about the tension in the King marriage.  Panning of Coretta's pained suffering face.  Subtle references to King's infidelities - to what end?  King accusing Coretta of liking Malcom X more than him.  King's doubts and despair.

I saw another biopic this month - The Theory of Everything, about Stephen Hawking, and I had the same complaint.  Another movie about the loneliness of the great man and the long suffering of the great man's wife.  And so little about what their greatness was about.  I admire Hawking no end, and especially his persistence over his devastating disease.  But the movie told me nothing about his ideas, nothing about "The Theory of Everything."  I felt like they didn't think the audience was interested or could get it.  We were only interested in how they managed to have  children.

Likewise we could have learned much more about King's ideas, strategies, influences (one fleeting shot of a portrait of Gandhi in his home), his background, his legacy.  It was King lite, King shallow.

I have seen other biopics like this, that show just a few years, or weeks in a person's life and have it stand for or symbolize the whole career.  The very fine film Lincoln used the same style, the focus was on one legislative battle.  And Lincoln certainly also had his doubts and some marital tensions. And an unfinished life.  But Lincoln seemed to me, surprisingly, to have more dramatic tension - would the amendment get passed, who would vote for it.  It was essentially a courtroom drama.

Maybe I didn't get caught up in this movie because I know the Selma story and how it ended. I've studied it and written about it. And I've heard about it from my husband, who in 1965 was a young Unitarian Universalist minister, and one of many white clergy who answered King's call for white supporters.  He went on a chartered flight from LA with other clergy and joined the last two days of the march into Montgomery.  It was interesting to watch the movie with him.  He knew the young white Boston UU minister, Charles Reeb, who was murdered by whites during the march.  He thought the portrayal pretty accurate.

But he was probably more disappointed than I was in the film, or at least sadder.  About what hasn't changed.  And what has gotten worse.  How we were left with really no hope, we know how it ends.

I did appreciate how the film portrayed King's faith, and that of Reeb also; their faith was complex, motivating, real, unlike so much of Hollywood's mocking people of faith as stupid or hateful.  There's a great scene where King kneels in prayer and changes his mind in a bold yet vulnerable way you don't see much in American men.

A weird note on the speeches King gives in the film - they weren't his real speeches, because his estate had already given (ie sold) to Steven Spielberg and Dreamworks the rights to use the text of King's speech in some other movie and they wouldn't give that up.  So the director wrote her own versions, using the same style and cadence of King.  They were moving, but I could tell something was missing. 

OK, so on reflection I'm glad the film was made. I'm glad I saw it.  I'd encourage folks to see it.  I'd vote for Oyelowo as best actor.  (Especially since he is British, as is Ejogo and the script writer.)  I'm glad all those teenage students are seeing it.  But I wonder if we like the movie because we like the idea of Selma more than we want to have to learn about all its complexities and realities and failures.  Selma and the Civil Rights Era are more than a soap opera and King was more than a lonely doubter. 

King had a dream.  This film wasn't a nightmare.  But it was sort of a long slow sometimes boring day dream.  We needed more.  And we need someone like King today.

Copyright © 2015 Deborah Streeter

Sunday
Jan112015

Some American Responses to the Charlie Hebdo Massacre 

“I am Charlie Hebdo.”

“I am not Charlie Hebdo.”

“It’s Obama’s fault, he’s a wimp.”

“Sure it was horrendous, but what about (innumerable other examples of terror or censorship)?

“Well, if those people would just not be quite so offensive…”

“Islam is a violent religion, unlike Christianity. Christian terrorists aren’t really Christians.”

-------

Such a range of American responses to this week’s violence in Paris, from Fox News to far left. The range reflects how polarized we are as a nation about religion, violence, speech and humor.

A few examples:

1) Fox News: Another Benghazi - Obama is a liar - It’s all about us – We’re next.

The reports on Fox “News” were, as usual, less on what actually happened and more about blaming Obama, both for lax security and lying. It was like the way they have flailed the Benghazi story; why won’t the President tell the truth about what really happened (well actually, in both cases, he did), why can’t he use the word terrorism to describe the events (well actually, he did.) And why is he such a wimp? Fox’s Gretchen Carlson fanned the flames with “Keep in mind this administration is more concerned about executive actions for manufacturing and even climate control today, and releasing Gitmo detainees. We now know many of those detainees go back to join the jihad. So at this crucial moment, after a horrific attack on one of our allies, will politics continue to trump reality?...Will the United States once again be next hit (by terrorism)?”

2) Nice White Well Meaning Moderates: can’t you just tone it down a bit?

David Brooks, a smart but often smarmy right/moderate regular columnist for the New York Times titled his column, “I am Not Charlie Hebdo.” While condemning the attacks and affirming the value of free expression, he indulged in his frequent style of condescension:

"In most societies, there’s the adults’ table and there’s the kids’ table. The people who read Le Monde or the establishment organs are at the adults’ table. The jesters, the holy fools and people like Ann Coulter and Bill Maher are at the kids’ table. They’re not granted complete respectability, but they are heard because in their unguided missile manner, they sometimes say necessary things that no one else is saying.

Healthy societies, in other words, don’t suppress speech, but they do grant different standing to different sorts of people. Wise and considerate scholars are heard with high respect. Satirists are heard with bemused semirespect. Racists and anti-Semites are heard through a filter of opprobrium and disrespect. People who want to be heard attentively have to earn it through their conduct."

This reminds me of what a lot of well meaning but stupid white people are saying about our epidemic of police violence against unarmed black young men: “Well, if those black young men would just behave better, not be in suspect places, go home at night, pull their pants up, be nicer….” Kids’ table indeed.

3) Islamophobia and Religious Double Standard

Many right wing commentators almost gloated and relished what they saw as more proof of Islam’s “essential” violence. Trying to counter that lie, some scholars of religion and left wing appreciators of the great diversity within Islamic cultures reposted the results of a study done a couple years ago about American’s attitudes toward Christians and Moslems who commit violence, and our sorry double standard. 

In the study, more than 8-in-10 (83 percent) Americans said that self-proclaimed Christians who commit acts of violence in the name of Christianity are not really Christians. In contrast, less than half (48 percent) of Americans say that self-proclaimed Muslims who commit acts of violence in the name of Islam are not really Muslims. The study’s director noted that those who self-identify as white evangelical Protestants have the largest double standard:

"Among white evangelical Protestants, the gap is a staggering 47 percentage points: only 10 percent of evangelicals believe that a self-identified Christian perpetrators are really Christian, compared to 57 percent who believe that self-identified Muslim perpetrators are truly Muslim."

That statistic was born out this past week in the conservative Christian media.

4) Yes, horrible. But what about……?

Many leftish commentators mourned and condemned, but then they did the comparison exercise; why so much heat and outrage in this instance and not in others? For example, Michael Lerner, editor of the progressive Jewish Tikkun Magazine wrote:

"Why wasn’t the media] this interested in a bomb that went off outside the NAACP’s Colorado Springs headquarters the same day as they were highlighting the attack in Paris? Colorado Springs is home to some of the most extreme right-wing activists. It was a balding white man who was seen setting the bomb, some reports claim, and so the media described it as an act of a troubled “lone individual,” rather than as a white right wing Christian fundamentalist terrorist.

Few Americans have even heard of this incident.

Paris, January 11, 2015And when the horrific assassinations of 12 media people and the wounding of another 12 media workers resulted in justifiable outrage around the world, did you ever wonder why there wasn’t an equal outrage at the tens of thousands of innocent civilians killed by the American intervention in Iraq or the over a million civilians killed by the U.S. in Vietnam, or why President Obama refused to bring to justice the CIA torturers of mostly Muslim prisoners, thereby de facto giving future torturers the message that they need not even be sorry for their deeds (indeed, former Vice President Cheney boldly asserted he would order that kind of torture again without thinking twice)?"

5) Me, still in shock.

As for myself, I am still in shock, appalled, sad. A confirmed Francophile, I confess I probably am more outraged by this violence than the daily violence my own country inflicts world wide. How’s that for denial?

When I heard the news of the massacre, I happened to be reading a novel about Paris. I’m on a Hillary Mantel kick and am in the middle of her historical novel about the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety. I already had my Paris maps out to see where the Cordelier district was and where Danton and Robespierre lived. I only had to move my eye a bit from the 6th to 11th arrondissements to find the Charlie Hebdo headquarters. The plots have similar features. Parisians killing each other. Blood in the streets. People talking about being martyrs for a cause. Debates about free speech. The role newspapers play in democracy. Is this a revolution? Will Paris ever again be a place of safety?

Later that day I went to the Monterey Aquarium, where I volunteer every Thursday. I wear a badge that reads “Je parle Francais.” I was standing in the aviary and heard a woman speaking French. In halting French I said, “Je suis tres desolee pour votre tragedie. C’est incroyable et tragique. Aujourd’hui nous sommes Charlie.” I think she understood me; with tears in her eyes she said, “Merci.”

Copyright © 2015 Deborah Streeter