Guest Column: The Dark Falls

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As I was compiling the information on the last Christmas market of 2015, I happened have two encounters that served as eye openers and something to think about. The first one was listening to the presidential debate in the United States, where the candidates spent the entire time either bashing one another, being evasive to sensitive questions about dealing with pressing issues involving the environment, terrorism and Donald Trump, and coming up with a slogan “I have a plan.” What plan? A candidate says he/she has a plan even though the elections are less than a year away? Interesting.

At the same time, I ran across this story, written by Loren Niemi entitled The Dark Falls. The story was ironically published in the social network scene on the shortest day of the year, but the text provides a reader with some very sensitive topics to think about. It basically envisions the situation that we are in and we don’t know how to handle it, except to say “We have a plan.” It’s best that instead of proclaiming it to others, to read this text and then ask what plan do we have to right the wrongs of society and do they produce substance. Without further ado, here’s the piece by guest columnist Loren Niemi:

The Dark Falls

Friends,
With the darkening of the season my thoughts have turned to the shadow we know as well. And so I am warning you, or inviting you, if you chose to read this winter solstice missive that it is my meditation on race, gun violence and politics.
I’ll forgive you if this is as far as you want to go. Be of good cheer and have a happy whatever you celebrate in this festive season. For those who will take this journey with me, welcome and fasten your seatbelts, it may be a bumpy ride.
Race
When I think about race, two things come immediately to mind. The first is that it is an artificial social and political construct whose fundamental purpose it to divide one human being from another for the sake of power and profit. It is a way of creating a “them.” Those that will be separated, exploited, that will be the scapegoat for all that ails the “us” that benefit from such distinctions.
The historical fact is that it is not always about skin color, though that has been the dominate frame of the American experience. The historical fact is that science or more accurately, pseudo-science, and social science has been used to create the concept and classifications of race and justify the otherness, the inferiority of Blacks, Jews, Irish, Italians, Asians, Catholics, etc.
The biological fact is that all human DNA is descended from a common lineage regardless of skin, hair or eyes. We are the first cousins of the great apes whose best chance for survival was being organized into small cooperative groups. In my view, a very aggressive mammal that kills for sport and due to our linguistic mutations justifies that killing in the name of our God, tribe and territory.
The second thought follows from the first. Race is really about racism, about the myth of difference and the institutions of power that make difference possible. It is about the systemic and institutional, about privilege and about what is taken for granted, The very fact of which is invisible to the privileged and obvious to the dispossessed. It is as Joseph Campbell said, “when you are inside the myth it makes perfect sense, but when you are outside of it, you have to ask why would anyone believe that?”
I am White. I have been a beneficiary of the unasked for and unseen privilege that comes from being a White male in America. It is not a matter of my being prejudice or even my being biased (which is inherently a condition of being human) but rather the simple fact that the basic educational, economic, social and political structure of American life is structured to benefit me.
It is the legacy of European Christian settlement. It is the legacy of the genocide of native peoples to acquire land for settlement and resources, whether gold or furs, buffalo hide or water, for profit. It is the legacy of slavery that was the abomination that was sidestepped in the Constitution and nearly destroyed this union. It is the legacy of Jim Crow, etc. – a legacy that I have not felt the negative effects of. Read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me for an articulate explanation of how this myth plays out in the life of a man who if he were White (and therefore the beneficiary of institutional privilege) would not be faced with explaining the broken world he lives in to his son.
I never had to question the neighborhood I lived in but always assumed my parents could live anywhere they could afford. I never had to consider whether the education I got would prepare me for college, it was a given. When I applied for jobs, I started with the assumption that I was qualified and never considered the idea that my name or gender or skin color might make keep me from getting an interview. These days I recognize that my age will. Yet I know people of color for whom each of those statements is proof of my privilege and their continuing disadvantage.
From 1990-2010, I had the good fortune to be able to work extensively with communities of color and low wealth individuals. First at St Stephens, then in the Elliot Park neighborhood, then with David Hunt in Chicago, and finally with James Trice here in the Cities.
Let me say a word about working with James. Being a smart, politically savvy, and white got me hired at Children’s and Family Services to run their civic engagement/advocacy program. The first thing I did was hire James to be a part of this effort, because it made no sense to me to be another White guy telling people of color what they needed to do to better their lives. We built the program on two principles: that those most effected by poverty knew what was wrong and that policy or program change would come only if they participated in making it happen. In 2005 when we were reorganized out of CFS, we became partners working for the next five years as the Public Policy Project. It was good work focused on poverty, on equity, on framing the critical stories and messages that low wealth folks needed to share with politicians and the pubic to help mitigate prejudice and that same institutional racism that got me rather than James hired in the first place.
I often point out that there were many times that I was the only White guy in the room. What a gift that was to be in the room and to really be able listen to people of color speak directly and truthfully to their experience of oppression and denied opportunity. We worked with them respectfully to accentuate the compelling human stories that could counter the negative and frame the actions that would improve their lives and those of all low wealth people, regardless of skin color. And yet, even then, if I went with that same group to meet with a legislator or a program manager, etc. because of my assumed privilege the authority would always turn to me as the “responsible adult” in the room. And I would say, no I’m here to support these folks – they’re the ones you need to be talking to.
I can’t change the fact of my historical and institutional privilege because it is, to use a phrase, “baked in” though I can mitigate it to some degree. I can acknowledge that I do have access, education, experience and skills by virtue of that privilege and use them not to reinforce the mechanisms of oppression but to find ways to leverage small and large changes for the sake of justice. I can listen. I can ask rather than tell, I can be clear about speaking up for inclusion, for facilitating inclusion when I have the chance, for acknowledging common ground, for seeking that justice that is demanded by Occupy and Black Lives Matter.
Gun Violence
When I hear “Black Lives Matter” I know from experience the truth of that statement. You can say that “All Lives Matter” and they do but the fact is that in America if you are Black, and especially if you are a Black male, your risk of being shot by the police is exponentially higher than mine.
More than once I’ve been driving through a poverty neighborhood, a neglected and economically exploited community, and been “lit up” by the police. If I am in the car by myself, the officer comes up and asks if I am lost or where I am going as he assesses whether I am looking to buy drugs or sex. But every time I have been in the car with a person of color, the first response is his hand on the gun. It’s not even driving While Black (or Brown, Red or Yellow) it’s simply driving WITH that is the anomaly and changes the nature of the encounter. I’m not talking about something that happened once in Chicago, I’m talking many times, in Chicago, in Minneapolis, in Omaha, in Duluth, in St. Louis, in pretty much any city in America.
Why?
The core of it is fear. Fear of the “other” that lets or makes the police reach for the gun as a first response. Fear as the mechanism of racism that says to every person of color, be careful what you say or do, because you may get killed no matter what you say or do.
There was a reason the Black Panthers read the 2nd Amendment and took to open carrying shotguns, as the NRA would have us do. There was a reason why that carrying of shotguns coupled with their militancy to counter racism by building a philosophy of self protection and community work got them killed by the police in their beds.
I believe that fear and especially the fear of the loss of privilege is at the core of the epidemic of gun violence in this country. The gun is a proxy for power and the ease of acquisition, the glorification of guns as a response to conflict, has made targets of us all.
I continually wonder why the white male terrorists (calling them by their true name) that we say were mentally deranged when they shot up the movie theater or classroom, when they killed the unarmed Black teenager or shot the waitress who didn’t bring them that third cup of coffee fast enough don’t see that the source of their agony is not those beneath them but the 1% who profit from fear. At some point, someone is going to say the enemy is not refugees or the scapegoat du jour but the 400 families that control more wealth than the rest of us combined. The ones who are closing the factories and shipping the jobs overseas, who are paying lobbyists to avoid any and all taxes and the hedge fund managers scheming to skim profits off the working poor’s social security trust fund. When that happens, the gated neighborhoods and stretch limos will be targets not refuges.
It is time to stop laying the blame for murder on loners who seemed like nice quiet men before they opened fire and lay it at the feet of the gun manufacturers and the NRA who have resisted all reasonable regulation in the favor of a fear that supports the odd canard that “a good guy with a guy will stop a bad guy with a gun” until the police arrive and start shooting everyone with a gun in hand.
The second amendment says “a well regulated militia” and while the NRA and the “ammosexuals” read that to mean as many guns as you want of whatever kind, I read those same words, “well regulated” and take it to mean that Congress and the States already have the power (but not the will) to legislate sensible gun control.
From my perspective, guns should be regulated like cars. Cars don’t kill people except when they do and because they do, we mandate licensing, registration, liability insurance, and safety standards for the used material itself. This is not the confiscation that gun fetishists fear. They can still have their manhood measured by the size of their gun or the cost of their car. It is however past time for us to admit that doing so needs to carry a price that is particular to the gun owner and not to the families of the dead and wounded who are being shot with an astounding regularity.
How do we get to a sensible gun ownership?
Politics
We start by voting. Voting not only our self-interest but our collective self-interest. Voting for, not against. Voting not only in the year of the Presidential election but in the years of state and city legislative ballots. Every vote, ever time, brings us closer to the representative government we want and every time you don’t vote it leaves the determination of what will be to those that do. Frankly, given what I see from some of the electorate, I do not want to leave my future up to them.
At this point I’ll remind those who haven’t been paying attention that I am a Progressive, a Democratic Socialist in the Paul Wellstone tradition. I was for Gene McCarthy in ’68 and George McGovern in ’72. I am a nominal Democrat because the system is rigged against third parties and the last Republican I agreed with was Dwight Eisenhower.
I have little to say about Trump, other than his narcissism could well be the death of us all and yet, he is less dangerous than Ted Cruz, who might as well be a Dominionist (look it up…) or Marco Rubio, who I think is an opportunist beholden to the very corporate interests that are killing us by inches. If you support one of these guys, you’re welcome to your opinion and your vote but from my perspective they, and pretty much the entire Republican party, are addicted to fear and the power of the elites, the 1%. The party of Lincoln and Roosevelt has become handmaiden to the military-industrial complex, and the party of denial – of the real danger and cost of climate change, of the real danger and cost of inequity, of the vilification of immigrants, Muslims, women and Gays leading to bad policy and worse rhetoric. The past is done and yet, they want to recreate a past that never was.
I support Bernie. Like every politician he has his faults but the fact is that he is the one who is speaking to and about issues that matter to me. From my perspective it really is about a fundamental choice in government for the people or government for the corporations. I’m joining millions of Americans who are disappointed but not surprised with the media’s downplaying of Bernie. I do not look to NBC or MSNBC for the news, no more than I look to Fox or talk radio, for I understand that their self-interest is in bombast and fear. I’m joining the millions of Americans who are contributing small amounts to Bernie’s campaign because we want to have a stake in our future. I’m voting for him. I’m encouraging others to vote for him. It is the least I can do.
As I said, I vote in every election. My White privilege makes it easy and my sense of obligation to the common good makes it necessary.
Here’s why: I vote for President because he/she sets the tone for our posture in the world, commands the military, nominates the Supreme and Appellate Court judges. It is a big job and yet there are limits to what a president can do as the Obama experience shows us. I vote for Congress because the difference between a liberal Al Franken or a Muslim Keith Ellison and any conservative is substantial. They can support or thwart the President and of the two I’d rather support prgress. I vote the state Governor and legislative races because the difference between Mark Dayton saying let’s raise taxes on the top earners and invest in education produced a very different result than his predecessor’s policies. I vote in the city and county races because in the end the way the police patrol the street and whether they are accountable does rest with the Mayor and City Council.
To get to implementing the demands of Black Lives Matter or Indian Lives or any other lives, it does matter who sits on the Ways and Means Committee or who votes to spend X thousands of dollars providing training for the beat cops. Let’s not kid ourselves, in America, at least until the corporate oligarchy and fascism come with the flag and the cross, voting still matters, Politics at every level matters. Your opinion matters, all the more so when it is backed by your time and money. When you stand in line at the voting booth to exercise the right that others have died to secure.
Are you still with me?
All through the darkening months I have been thinking about these things and talking with folks here and there. I frankly do not care whether you agree with me. I am not going to argue these points. It is not a matter of you changing my mind or my trying to change yours. We are entitled to our opinions and to their expression. If you don’t like what I’ve said, write and post yours. It is a matter of being clear to myself and by extension to you about where I stand on these points. I write to counter fear and to own my part in the making of this American Dream.
Tonight at 10:49 Central time, the Solstice will come and with it winter. It appears that this winter will be one of the warmest on record but do not let the lack of snow fool you. That glorious interval which is winter is not only snow and cold but a season of the fallow and the well-deserved rest. It is in the dark time that we tell the stories of what matters now and the coming of the light. I use this moment to name those things that go bump in the long night, to explain the shiver and wind rattling the windows. I use this time to sit before the fire and think of all that is right with the world, to name the ones I love and if I am lucky to be able to reach across to hold their hand. This is the moment for the sniffer of cognac and a good book. The time to plot next year’s garden while eating the home canned peaches that were the bounty of this last summer’s heat. This is the time to snuggle under the covers, to spoon with your beloved.
It is all good!! The feasting and the fire, the decorated tree and the giving of presents, large and small are good, but most of all the giving time and presence.
I wish you well. I wish you time and presence. I wish you comfort in the dark and joy with the coming of the light.
Author’s Note:

Loren Niemi is innovative storyteller, poet, the author of “The New Book of Plots” and co-author with Elizabeth Ellis of the critically acclaimed, “Inviting the Wolf In: Thinking About Difficult Stories.” He is also the producer of the award winning “Two Chairs Telling” spoken word series at Bryant Lake Bowl in Minneapolis, MN. Loren teaches Storytelling in the Theater Program at Metro State University and provides workshops, presentation coaching, and message framing, brand or organizational consulting for individuals, businesses, nonprofits and government agencies around the country.

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Genre of the Week: The Right to be Heard

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As I was compiling some information for an article for the Files, I happened to run across an interesting narrative written by my aunt Patricia Enger on the need to listen to others. Many of us tend to be very talkative and not listen to what the other person says. This is especially the case with couples. However, how long can the person be silent before speaking his/her mind and provide something of benefit? Here’s a little food for thought as Genre of the Week:

 

I recently read an article about girls – 10 Words Every Girl Should Learn. “Stop interrupting me.” “I just said that.” “No explanation needed.”

I believe that many women have found themselves in situations where those words would indeed have come in handy; I didn’t need to go too far back in the memory banks to come up with the situations where those situations had happened to me.

Sadly, I also remember being shocked when my own Mother came out and said a version of that to us kids… “I am 75 years old now, and for most of my life, I have sat back and let everyone else give their opinions. I’m not sitting back anymore…I have opinions and I think they’re worth saying so I’m going to give them to you.”

We were shocked.

Those words broke my heart – I loved her so much, but I obviously didn’t know her! I just always had assumed she was quiet because she wanted to be, not because her gregarious husband and chatterbox children wouldn’t let her get a word in edgewise. And my Mother was a riot….

Just think of everything we missed because we never let her talk.

The last time I saw my Uncle, I went into his room….and I sat at his feet. I didn’t think about it – I just did it…it was the right place for me to be. And I stayed there until I left. I asked him questions that day – not everything that I had wanted to ask….the correct time for asking those questions had passed by this time in his life.

My wonderful Niece in law has an incredible gentleman as a friend – he is a well-respected attorney and was one of her employers for a number of years, but he has become much more than that to her and my Nephew…he is a treasured friend.

Last year, she and my Nephew had a Christmas party…this gentleman was there, and I found myself sitting on the floor at his feet listening to him.

Sadly – this year, he won’t be sitting in the chair, so I can’t sit at his feet…he has had some serious health problems – the correct time for me to be asking questions of him has passed as well.

So obviously, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about listening…listening to people that I should have been asking questions of and listening to my whole life, and also sitting at the feet of people that I love and respect that I don’t see very often and listening to them as well.

And something else I’ve learned – no gender or age group has a strangle-holding grasp of wisdom that the others don’t; I know that I could sit at the feet of a number of youngsters…and walk away later after learning an awful lot.

Back to that article – even though I love to listen, I am not ready to give up on contributing to a conversation – but I will always be polite…I can’t ever imagine telling someone to stop interrupting me.

And if someone does interrupt me when I’m speaking, I’ll probably just let them talk – I know that I learn more when I listen than when I talk.

However, that is my route to follow and everyone needs to find their own route…

And if it takes 10 words – more or less – to get your message across, you do have a right to be heard

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Christmas Market Tour 2015: Pella, Iowa

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Author’s Note: This stop was taken last year during the tour through the United States. Due to illness on the part of the author upon his return to Germany, the decision was made to include it into this year’s tour.  Sincere apologies for the inconvenience. 

The next stop on the Christmas tour in the US is Pella, in south central Iowa. Located 45 miles southeast of Des Moines, the city with 10,400 inhabitants was established in 1847, when 800 settlers, led by dominee Henry Scholte moved to the area to make a living. The name Pella was derived from the village Perea, where Christians found refuge during the Roman-Jewish War of 70 A.D.  Today, Pella maintains its Dutch heritage in many ways than one. One can see that with the architecture, when driving past the town square and its Dutch-style facade and its double-leaf bascule bridge spanning an artificial canal. The Vermeer Mill is the largest Dutch-style windmill in North America. The Dutch “S”, a pastry with marzipan filling that is typical in the Netherlands, can be found at the Vander Ploeg Bakery, along with other Dutch-style pastries. And when visiting the city’s two meat markets (Ulrich and Veld), one can find imported cheese and meat products from the Benelux Region (Benelux consists of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg).

And while the city is located north of Red Rock Lake, an artificial lake created in 1969 that is laden with recreational activities all year round, Pella has two important holidays that the people celerbate: Tulip Days in May and Christmas. Tulip Festival is a typical Dutch festival where tens of thousands convene for a weekend of celebrations and the crowning of the Tulip Queen.  Christmas in a Dutch setting, like Pella, on the other hand, is typically American- Christmas lights display in the city center as well as the countryside, as well as a display of Christmas trees in one house. There’s no Sinterklaas coming into the harbor by ship- how could they if the ship meets the Red Rock Dam and he has to take a truck up the road past Wal-mart and into the city? Even with his Black Peters as his helpers? 😉  A look at how Sinterklaas is celebrated (naturally on the day before St. Nicholas Day in Germany) can be found via link (here) and in the video below:

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But just because the Christmas season is more or less Americanized and makes Pella un-Dutch, does not mean a person should stay away from the city because it is not European enough nor has some European flair in the holiday season. There are many reasons to spend a few hours in this Dutch community which is anchored by three different Dutch institutes- Vermeer Manufacturing, Pella Windows and Central College, along with other Dutch-style stores. The Files has the top five places to visit during the holiday season that are worth visiting:

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  1. Vermeer Mill: Built by the Vermeer Corporation in 2002, the Vermeer Mill is the largest functioning flour mill in North America. Tours of the mill and demonstrations on how the mill works are available, but this place is a keeper for one can see how the mill works. Furthermore, as you can see in the picture above, the mill has a viewing platform where you can see all of Pella’s city center, including its famous Market Square. The Mill is part of the Museum Complex, which also features a miniature display of towns in a Dutch setting in the Interpretive Center section of the Mill. The model has existed for over 30 years, and one needs an hour to look at the details of the display.
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Grinding geers in the mill
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Winter scenery at the Interpretive Section of the Vermeer Mill

2. Historic Village: Inside the Museum Complex is a must-see attraction in the Historic Village. The Village consists of 24 buildings, many of them have existed since the founding of Pella in 1848, including the church, blacksmith shop and shoemaker. Others, such as the log cabin, one of the first built in Marion County, were brought in and restored. Even the street lamps at the complex originates from the bygone ear. Most likely gas-powered, the bulbs displayed are from the 1930s.

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One of the first log cabins in Marion County
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Vintage street light with 30s era light bulbs

Each building features a display or a demonstration, pending on which building has what. For instance, the shoemaker shop produces and displays wooden shoes, which are typical of Dutch culture. Examples and displays of these shoes, including a jumbo pair at the museum shop, can be see everywhere. Some places have displays with mannequins dressed in their Dutch apparel. The bakery offers a display and a plate full of cookies to try. And even a gallery with the displays of all the Tulip Festival dresses and a hall of fame of all the queens are a treat to see. We were welcomed with Christmas trees in the majority of the houses and buildings on display

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Dutch-style shoes after being wood-carved

3. Scholte House and Gardens: Located on Washington Street, the house is the first in Pella, being built by Hendrik Scholte in 1848 for his wife. One can see the rooms and exhibits pertaining to their lives and the history of Pella. While the house and the gardens are best seen in the spring time during the Tulip Festival as well as during the summer, the house itself has a wide display of 15 Christmas trees to see, each one has its own taste and history. While we saw the house but not the display because it was closed, a columnist visiting the house at Christmas time found the displays very impressive. Yet with the holiday season one should look at expanding their opening hours to include weekends and 2-3 more days in the week instead of only one day a week. But in either case, the house has maintained its original form and is impressive even from the business district.

4. Jaarsma Bakery and Smokey Row Café: Both located along Franklin Street, the shops are literally a block apart, but each one serves the finest pastries, bars and coffee products. The Jaarsma Bakery, located across the street from the Public Gardens, offers a wide variety of Dutch pastries, including the Dutch apple cake, almond bars and the Dutch “S”. They are excellent to take home for the holidays to share with family and friends, as we did just that.  The Smokey Row Café provides travellers and tourists alike with a wide selection of coffee with pastries to eat in a historic coffeehouse setting, as you can see in the pic below. The café is also a great meeting place for the young and old alike and has a family setting that makes a person stop there again and again.

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5. Market Square: Behind the Jaarsma Bakery is the Market Square, one of the most modern places in Iowa and one that mimics a Dutch setting, with its famous red brick buildings and Dutch facade . The square is the central point of entertainment, as the Opera House, the Cinnema, The Amsterdam Hotel and Conference Center and the Pella Showroom are all located in one block, divided by a man-made canal that is crossed by a double-leaf bascule bridge, typical of the bridges in the Netherlands. While the square is laden with flowers and other floral decorations, it would be a perfect place for a Christmas market, if city officials are willing to at least experiment with it. As Christmas markets are popular in Germany, France and the Netherlands, the city can benefit from having one at least for a couple week(end)s during the holiday season.

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After a few hours in Pella, it was time for us to move on, but not before collecting some thoughts and recollections on the city and its settings around Christmas time. Although Pella does have a lot to offer for Christmas events and places to visit during the holiday season, it is clear that the Dutch community is more focused on the Tulip Festival and other events in the summer months, which means the holiday events are like the ones in an American town: light festivals, music concerts in churches and shopping. But can you imagine what Pella would look like if they had a Christmas market in the Market Square and Public Gardens and events similar to what the Dutch have at home in the Netherlands? Could you imagine how Pella would stand out among the rest of the communities in Iowa during the holiday season? And can you imagine how it would be a big of a magnet for tourists?

Check out the photos and think about it. 🙂 ❤

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Author’s Note:  Sister column the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles did a series on the historic bridges in Marion County, including the bascule bridge in Pella, as well as historic bridges that existed over the Des Moines River before the Red Rock Lake was created in the 1960s. More on the bridges here:

Horn’s Ferry Bridge

Bridges at Red Rock Lake

Old Hwy. 14 Bridge near Cordova State Park

Pella Bascule Bridge

 

Fast Fact:  Pella was the childhood place of Wyatt Earp, the famous US marshal. All his brothers except Virgil were  raised near Pella.