Thursday, September 22, 2016

On Letting Go

The art of losing isn’t hard to master; 
So many things seem filled with the intent 
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.  

It’s human nature to hang on. I’ve never been an accumulator of things, and I’m actively stupid about money, but that does not seem to make it any easier to let go. I made Dizzy, my dog, live too long in pain and confusion because I was too sad to let him go; delaying the sorrow didn’t make it any easier, and might have made it worse. I’ve stayed in jobs too long. I’ve lived in apartments too long. I’ve kept trying in relationships where it was obvious to everyone but me that I was wasting my time. I can look back on all these situations and see exactly where I should have walked away, but each new situation is just as hard as all the last ones were.

Last weekend I tagged along with friends to the House of Broel, a unique New Orleans structure that combines an events hall with a dollhouse museum and an exhibit of designer dresses, in a Garden District mansion that was built and expanded before The War. House tours are available by appointment only, and conducted by the home’s owner, Countess Bonnie Broel — the “Countess” is a legacy from her father, who fled Russia during the revolution.

Countess Broel is a small, glamorous, brisk woman of a certain age who distills everything that’s great about New Orleans, and possibly everything that’s great about Americans. She used to live in the House of Broel, and she used to run a couture business from its first floor. Her husband left her just before Katrina, and Katrina wiped out her business. She moved to the property’s carriage house, created a family foundation to preserve the home and its collections, wrote an autobiography and is now selling three of her dollhouses in order to protect the property after her death. She is energetic and gallant and shows no outward sign of mourning the three dollhouses for sale; she cares only that they bring in enough money to justify their loss.

The dollhouses are extraordinary. The website says they “must be seen to be believed,” and that is the literal truth. No description could do them justice. Constructed over a period of fifteen years, they are full of painstaking detail: miniature furniture, rugs, artworks, knick-knacks, and beautifully costumed figures who live imaginary lives in their rooms. Countess Broel told us that she’d begun creating the dollhouses as a project with her young son, and then become — well, she might not have used the word “obsessed,” but that’s the word that seems to fit.

The masterpiece of the dollhouse collection is a vast recreation of a Russian dacha that runs along one full wall of the second floor’s hallway, and stands at least ten feet high. The Countess said she had wanted to imagine what her father’s life had been like before he left Russia, and the result is a combination of Tolstoy and the Arabian nights, topped by an attic observatory with a tiny telescope and astrolabe.

The collection moved me, and the thought that the Countess is starting to sell it off moves me even more. The dollhouses represent so many possible lives, so many imaginary homes that are permanently luxurious and happy, never deserted and never torn apart by storms. But she seems content with her decision, satisfied with the thought of trading these precious creations for something that matters more to her.

This is what I focus on, what is directly relevant to me at this point in my life, as I too contemplate letting go of some things: what, if anything, am I trading those things for? As I let go, is it loss, or is it more like a trapeze I relinquish so I can grab on to the next one? Does letting go of one thing mean I get to keep something else, and if so, what might that be?

I don’t mean to be cryptic, only to find the universal in some specific questions we all eventually have to wrestle with. I’m grateful to Bonnie Broel and her collections for giving me a prism through which to consider them. And I wonder what my own dollhouses might look like.

Photo from the House of Broel Dollhouse Museum Gallery.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

On Homeland

It’s fifteen years today since the United States suffered its first coordinated attack on our continent. Fourteen years and eleven months since the United States invaded Afghanistan; fourteen years and ten months since Congress passed the USA PATRIOT Act; thirteen years and ten months since the creation of the Department of Homeland Security; thirteen years and six months since we started combat operations in Iraq; five years and four months since US forces killed Osama bin Laden.

My 13-year-old nephews and 10-year-old niece have never lived in a time when the United States was not at war. They have no memory of a time when you could drive past or even park in front of the White House. They have grown up in a world of metal detectors and “If you see something, say something.” See what has never been specified, nor has say what, nor has to whom.

In this new world, “what” is anything strange or other — and “strange or other” is proving itself to be the ultimate test of the American ideal.

Last month I had the opportunity to go to Belfast, and through the generosity of a friend took a Black Taxi tour of the political murals in the city’s Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods. A steel wall runs through the city, still, dividing Protestant and Catholic territory. Catholics are no longer prohibited from living on the Protestant side — but the murals, and the sectarian flags that fly on almost every lamppost, send the clear message: You are not welcome here.

As an American Catholic of Irish descent, I felt those flags as a warning.

I always knew, growing up white in the South, that the Confederate flag was offensive. But until I saw the green flag commemorating the centennial of the Battle of the Somme, and the white Ulster Banner, and the blue UFF flag, I did not understand that the Confederate flag is not just a symbol, but a message. That message is: this is our country, not yours. This is our history, not yours. You are a trespasser.

What could possibly be more un-American than that? The United States was founded as a nation whose citizens are bound not by ethnicity or any inherited attributes, not by religion, not by economic status, but by mutual commitment to shared ideals — those ideals being not only life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, but the right of every citizen to participate in government, to own property, to move freely within the country, to speak without fear of government reprisal, and to expect equal justice under the law.

New American citizens swear to “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” and to “bear true faith and allegiance to the same.” The very first amendment to the Constitution specifies that Congress “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It is literally in the DNA of our nation.

With the few exceptions of entirely pure-blooded native Americans, all of us are descended from people who chose that American ideal and were lucky enough to find welcome here — or from people who were brought to this country without their consent, enslaved, and left to survive as best they could after liberation. To pretend that the descendants of willing immigrants and the descendants of enslaved people experience the United States in the same way is delusional — but we can still move together to embrace that ideal going forward, can’t we?

Regardless of how we got here, we’re all Americans now. And being American has nothing to do with your religion or your ethnicity or your socioeconomic standard, but with whether you agree on the fundamental rights of humanity as laid out by our Constitution.

This ideal has been a beacon to the world for 240 years. If we let it be chipped away because of the actions of 19 terrorists fifteen years ago, then they won after all.