I was preparing to leave my house for a Bastille Day party, when the news broke that tens of people had died and hundreds had been injured in a presumed terrorist attack in Nice, France–another damned attack.
As I drove to the party, I constantly tuned my radio to CNN to MSNBC to NPR to the BBC and more, trying to learn the details. I was so obsessed with the news that when I walked into the party, I was shocked that Nice wasn’t on the lips of anyone. Perhaps they hadn’t heard, I told myself. Perhaps this isn’t the proper venue for discussion of such—after all, this is supposed to be a celebration of not just France’s independence, but of new corporate offices for a major player in the publishing industry, I tried to reason.
But after I eavesdropped on a conversation regarding potential picks for vice president—at that point Mike Pence hadn’t been announced—I turned to a couple of friends and mentioned Nice. They knew the news, and one of them said he and his partner were planning on moving to Mexico City or Paris if Donald Trump is elected President. Then he said, “I guess Paris is out.”
I’d recently posted on Facebook that I longed to live in Paris. I fell in love with France in the 1980s when a magazine for which I worked sent me there on assignment. Before I left on the trip, people constantly told me, “Oh, the French hate Americans,” with the insinuation that I needed to prepare myself for hateful, rude behavior. Another person said, “But the French love Texans. Just wear your cowboy boots.”
I don’t know if what that friend told me was true—that the French love Texans. I don’t even recall if I wore cowboy boots. But I do know that I had only one free day on that trip and on that free day I struck out on my own and walked across the city. I talked to kind, generous Parisians along the way, including one tall, slim Frenchman who accompanied me for a few hours, explaining what I was seeing, as I didn’t even have a guide book. We eventually sat at a sidewalk café, where he ordered me a pitcher of Coca-Cola and a glass with ice, as he knew that Americans want ice with their sodas.
I left him at that café and continued on my journey—photographing Notre Dame, walking along the Seine, standing on the bridges of the city, watching the boats maneuver down the river, thinking of Hemingway and Piaf, and dreaming and writing in my mind. A variation of that kind Frenchman became a character in a novel I was working on at the time.
After hours of walking, I peered into a restaurant and asked if it was open. Perhaps the owners had pity on my obviously jet-lagged body, because it was far too early to eat dinner in France, but they welcomed me. I sat on one side of the restaurant eating one of the best steaks of my life and sipping an equally great red wine. The owners and their family sat on the other side, sharing dinner, as their dog slept by their table. And someway—even though they didn’t speak English and I don’t remember any of my high school French—we managed to communicate and crack a few jokes while we ate.
Smiling, I walked outside, pulled out my music player, plugged in Tina Turner, socked on my headphones, and wandered back to my hotel. I stopped again on one of the bridges over the Seine, and I looked up, just as the sun was setting behind the Eiffel Tower. As the street lights blinked on and I stared at posters for Tina’s upcoming Paris concert, I thought, “This is the best of America and the best of France all at once.”
That was one of the best days of my life.
* * *
I didn’t stay long at the Bastille Day party. I wanted to get home to the news. Around 10 PM, as I watched the local broadcast and perused social media, I spotted a Facebook post from a friend—ironically a friend who’d worked for the very magazine that had sent me to Paris—announcing that a father and son from Lakeway, Texas, had been killed in the Nice attack. At that point, she didn’t want to reveal the names. But when I couldn’t sleep at 3:30 AM and started reading the news, I saw the names—11-year-old Brodie Copeland and his father, 51-year-old Sean.
They live–lived–not far from my friend.
I drive by Brodie’s school almost every day as I go to visit my mother. And I frequently eat breakfast or lunch in Lakeway, as I did the next day. The woman who took my order was quiet until she looked in my face and said, “Have you heard …” I nodded, hoping she’d stop talking, but she continued and repeated the news. “I didn’t know them,” she said, “but …” And she couldn’t finish.
It’s just too much tragedy—across the globe, here in the United States, here in Texas. When the news of the Dallas police shootings hit the airwaves, I immediately texted a friend and asked if her son was okay. He is a Dallas police officer. He was off duty that night; some of his friends weren’t. One had passed away and another was in critical condition.
The next day, I checked on my friend again. She was worried about her son’s safety—not just his physical safety, but his emotional safety, too. I was worried about her emotional safety, too. She’s already lost one son to cancer.
Plus, my friend—who is white—raised another son who is black. I’ve wanted to ask her if she fears for his safety … in this day of rage and violence against police and blacks. But I haven’t wanted to add to her burden.
So I sent a Facebook message to a friend in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who is a white woman who lives not far from where Alton Sterling was killed and who is a former cop. I asked her how she was felt about the issues of cops and blacks. She said she was too distraught to talk about it. But her Facebook profile is a picture of her holding a black child.
Some of my black friends—all of whom are college-educated, successful in their careers, and have been leaders in their communities—have been too distraught to even be on Facebook. Let me clarify that when I say they are leaders in their communities I’m talking about their professional communities and their social communities, including in the worlds of blacks and whites. They are women I consider role models, and many of them—over the past few months and days—have been sharing with me the discriminations they have experienced and are experiencing simply because of the color of their skin.
One of them is not discriminated on her skin color only but on her faith too. She is a Muslim. I am a born-again Christian. She respects my faith. I respect hers. She stands up for me. I stand up for her. We are both Americans.
We are both Americans.
But when I read many of my other friends’ Facebook posts—people who don’t seem to think one can believe that people are discriminated against solely on the color of their skin and one can support the police, too—I know I live in a different America than my African-American Muslim friend does.
I know I live in a different America than she does when politicians call for all Muslims to be tested to determine whether they believe in Sharia law and deported if they do. (She’s American? Where would she be deported to?)
I know I live in a different America than she does when politicians call peacefully protesting African-Americans hypocrites for obeying police orders to run away from flying bullets rather than into them. (Does that mean he wanted them to disobey police orders or that he wanted the black protesters to die? And why didn’t he launch the same complaint against the white protesters who were there?)
I’m not meaning to be political here. I am trying to express my upset over the rage and hate that’s being shouted by so many these days. So many of all races. So many of all faiths. So many of all political persuasions.
I believe much of that rage and hate is due to fear. But I also know how much joy I get from being around people who are different from me. When I lived in Los Angeles, one of my best friends was an Ohio-born Muslim. He watched out for me, protected me, educated me, and encouraged me. He was what I consider a true friend. I was also friends with a publicist who was a gay Asian with AIDS. That was when AIDS was the hidden death sentence. He not only taught me about publicity and marketing, but about compassion, tolerance, and a giving heart.
I think now about my Latino hair stylist who has been living with AIDS for the past few years. He constantly teaches me about having a positive attitude and laughing in the face of death.
And in these days, when death seems all too close—84 dead in Nice, 10 of whom are children, many of whom were trampled to death, more than 200 injured—and all too threatening—as I write this, there’s a coup happening in Turkey—it’s hard to find the laughter. But as I think about the terrorists, whether they’re homegrown or overseas, and when I think about the racial and religious divides that create so much hateful talk and action, I’m going to choose to stand up for my friends. And I’m going to choose to find joy and laughter in life.
* * *
As you can probably tell, I started writing this days ago. I didn’t finish it and didn’t post it because I didn’t think I had the “right” ending. It didn’t convey what I wanted to convey. And I felt I had gotten too political. I don’t like getting political, at least not in public, because I want to do the impossible—get along with everyone.
And since the day that I wrote that I’m choosing to find joy and laughter in life, joy and laughter have been even harder to find, much less hold in my soul. Three law enforcement officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, have been shot dead by a man intent on killing cops. Another officer clings to life.
Through my Baton Rouge friend’s Facebook feed, I learned a few details on the officers’ personal lives and conditions before the facts hit the news media. Of course, what stuck with me was my friend’s repost of Montrell Jackson’s Facebook thoughts.
As everyone knows by now, Jackson was a happily married man with a four-month-old child. And he was a man who understood the points of view of black lives and the police.
The afternoon of the shootings, I sat in my mother’s home listening to the news coverage, listening to pundits jumping to conclusions, noticing that my mother and I heard completely different “facts” and messages in the words the newscasters and pundits spoke. And I thought there’s absolutely no hope for unity. We’re just too far apart, and we have no desire to bridge the gap because we’re each so solid in our beliefs that we’re right and the other is wrong …
Then I heard the President’s words about Baton Rouge … and then I read the various politicians’ words about Baton Rouge … and then I read on Twitter the hate-inducing tweets from followers of the various politicians … and the Facebook posts of friends screaming at their perceived opponents that you’re wrong, you’re wrong, you’re wrong, and I’m right, I’m right, I’m right. Each post, each tweet, each friend, and each politician encouraging more hate and divisiveness.
God, is there any hope for our nation?
Today, as I once again climbed into my car, I refused to listen to the news. I tuned in to music and suddenly understood that each person who is posting you’re wrong, I’m right doesn’t realize they’re inducing rage and hate. They only think they’re proving their point of view is the correct one.
On the way home, I did turn on the news. As always, pundits argued disrespectfully and disrespectfully talked over each other, and I realized I need to stop being self-righteous in my points of view. Rather, I need to start trying to get into other people’s minds and hearts and look at things from their points of view. What is it my mom is seeing that I’m not? Can I learn from that?
Similarly, just for a moment, Democrats, as loathe as they are to do it, must step into a Republican’s mind and heart and try to understand his fear and anger. Republicans, as loathe as they are to do it, need to step into a Democrat’s mind and heart just for a moment and try to understand her fear and anger.
Blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians, straights, gays, bisexuals, transsexuals, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, rich, poor, middle class, blue collar, and on and on, if we’d just be willing to look through someone else’s eyes—someone who is different from us … maybe …
Maybe … probably … that’s asking too much. Maybe if we could just sit down and talk to people who are different from us, maybe we wouldn’t agree but maybe we would understand and maybe that would help, because maybe we would learn that the myths we have been told and taught about each other aren’t true … just as I was told that the French hate Americans, and my experience from sitting down and talking to them in a sidewalk café or family restaurant in Paris taught me that what I’d been told wasn’t true.
But I know that’s not going to happen. We’re all too self-righteous in our own beliefs.
That makes me sad and fearful for our nation.