"If I ever die Karen," I huff on a bike alongside hers, "my only favor of you is that you milk my death for all its worth for IBJ." She laughs, biking effortlessly. Everyone else is fine with sitting to bike, but since the bike is too small for me I stand and my sit bones are acting like they’ll split apart, making me feel very morbid.
"And you have to call it the Shawna-something. Not Shawna Foster. That’s not my name. My maiden name is Thompson, but that’s my dad’s name, and Foster is my husband’s. Shawna is mine, so use that," I add, between breaths.
Karen nods “Like Madonna.”
Perhaps the morbid feeling is more than the biking. I have to say bye to a place where I fit right in, like a pea cozy in its pod. It’s not that the place is beautiful. It is, but I have been to many breathtaking places - Okinawa, Nara, Guam, San Diego, Chattanooga, Notre Dame, London, Myrtle Beach, Portland, Vancouver, and Denver, to name some. And I happen to think that Nebraska is quite beautiful, with mountains of sky and epic thunderstorms unfolding on the plains. It’s the people.
The people in the office are superb, and Karen and I get along famously. More than that is also the everyday people, who seem to be used to dealing with people who are different. Who point out when someone drops something, passerby assisting with translation, people leaving their bikes unlocked if they’re in the store. There is an allure of humble grandeur. Daily I overhear conversations of people talking about peacemaking and global goodness as if it the goal of everyone in the world. These aren’t all the conversations, of course, there are still the parents telling their kids not to run in the street and the sister calling her brother in another country. I also overhear conversations in many different languages, and no one hides it.
There is no other place that has this cosmopolitan friendliness. This is what I thought the states should be and try to work for this ideal in my own work. Geneva is where you belong as a third culture kid, and as one of those, I feel I belong.
So it is hard to say goodbye to the forest, which has been in a much better mood since I offered some wine the other night. It is hard to look out the train and know it will be the last time for awhile. The last day is unusually clear, with Montblanc shining through. It’s hard to want to do anything, work or pleasure. I find myself so arrested by the thought of leaving I putter around indifferently. I saw good-bye to the trusty and outlandishly expensive shops, and get apple pie for my going away party.
I requested it be an “America” party, since I saw this trend where people outside the states play on American stereotypes for a theme. There is popcorn, chicken wings, American flags, and for some reason, no party is complete without red solo cups.
I am worried that I will be out of sight and out of mind. So I make a 3x3 grid out it A4 pages and tape it on a wall with my contact info. “NEBRASKA NEVER FORGET” I post in giant letters.
In return, they get me a Swiss Army knife with my name on it, a Swiss car for my son and a Swiss bag for my daughter. They insist I take pictures of when the kids get the gifts. I lament I can’t send them steaks when I get back home.
The music is great, and there are four kids busting a move. I perform karaoke to Sir Mix A Lot, MIA and Ylvis. True to my old lady ways, at 8 o’clock I am completely beat. And back to work. Since Karen is leaving town the next Monday, we stay for a few more hours lining things up. She has to meet with the board, USAID, funders, and UUs before she gives a talk at Harvard. The juggling is a little insane.
That night we go back to the house and I show Karen the art of Facebook stalking. The fun may never end.e
I watched a clip of Colbert trying to remain in character as he talked about anchor babies, of women in Mexico giving cannonlike births to have their children anchor them over to the other side with the umbilical cord. I didn’t laugh. I was thinking of the 3,000 dead people found up in the border of the United States and Mexico. The parts of bodies found. Of families dead in the desert.
I had stopped watching the Colbert Report years before this, and now was watching it because it was on at my brother’s house. Samuel L Jackson came on. The topic turned to racism, with Colbert denying he was racist. Jackson said something like “You sure? That anchor baby thing seems pretty f***ing racist to me.” Usually quick on his feet, Colbert paused. Maybe it was his white culture quickly rising up to feel scared anytime a white person is called racist. Or another defense - doesn’t Jackson get that this is satire? - or maybe a fart, who knows. After skipping a beat he answers in character - racist??? I’m colorblind…I don’t see color…
This was the moment when I realized why I didn’t think Colbert was funny anymore.
Comedy Central and Nick At Night were the mainstays of my adolescence. The ironic racism of Colbert wasn’t lost on me, even as a tween. I thought by watching and laughing that I was so enlightened. Satire has an important place, I think. I wouldn’t know this was racist unless he pointed it out!
It was funny as long as I didn’t know anyone actually died from stereotypes, from prejudices held by those in power.
I’ve been in the places where migrants and undocumented people languish in prison, torn apart from their “anchor babies”. I couldn’t go back to ignorantly laughing. People who had “anchor babies” are targets in a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Arizona. Some of them die from the systemic oppression of this very prejudice - crossing the desert after deportation, trying to get back to their “anchor babies” who were now orphans.
Satire is important. I think of myself as a humorous person. I didn’t watch Archie Bunker or Blazing Saddles, but I imagine the satire was done so that no one wanted to be Archie Bunker.
The problem with Colbert is that most get why it’s racist before he makes it satire. We already know that buying part of a backhoe and giving thousands of coats to Native tribes doesn’t solve the problem of having a team with a name like the n*word for native peoples. It doesn’t ridicule Snyder to pretend to be a bigger racist than he is. It gives a free pass to be harmful.
People want to be Colbert. They want to be ironically racist. Cue the kids from my generation using the n*word casually, wearing head dresses made of feathers, and engaging in whatever stereotype they felt like because: yea, it’s wrong. I’m raising awareness, yo, that this is racist, by being racist. Never getting to the root of racism, they end up as a general citizen that shoots first to “stand their ground”. Or the banker that denies a loan, a relator that shows a specific part of town, an educator that unconsciously believes only some kids are destined to make it.
It’s been said that calling for #CancelColbert is asymmetrical to its offense, that it doesn’t “build relationship”. This sounds a little bit to me like “Well, if you only say what you need to say in a nice way, then people listen!” Because Suey Park decided to call something out angrily doesn’t invalidate her critique - ironic racism to show how something is racist is wrong. Colbert’s own response that #CancelColbert focused on the Asian American insult rather than the racism of the R—skins owner invalidates the width swath of support from Native Americans and First Peoples who said that using one stereotype to help another was throwing them under the bus, and they wouldn’t have it.
Calling for #CancelColbert exposed the effect of the powerful in our society. Colbert is allowed to go around saying whatever he wants - as long as it’s funny. He gets paid to do it. People protect his entertainment. When Suey Park says it ought to be canceled, they are more concerned with hurting and silencing her than they are with learning why she wants it canceled, or how stereotypes kill. If Colbert were to ask for the Daily Show, or any other show he felt like canceled no one would care. We’d join the campaign without considering his social moors. But if someone with no power asks Colbert to do something different, they are silenced, dismissed, threatened, harassed, and laughed off. Racists and enlightened people alike rush to his defense. Apparently, Colbert’s free speech - his own television show - is more important than the lives of marginalized communities he ironically mocks.
There is a rule of thumb about boundaries: those who can not respect boundaries have an unhealthy relationship. Why is it easy to accept a boundary from Colbert than it is from Suey Park? What kind of relationship do we really have with the wealthy and with the systemically disempowered? If we are so noble in laughing at racist satire, why is it so difficult to respect the wishes of the people whose stereotypes are the subject of our laughter?
Call me shrill, oversensitive, annoying, a social justice misanthrope without a sense of humor. It doesn’t matter if it’s true - it’s silencing all the same. You’re still reacting to #CancelColbert. If I’m overreacting then why are you still bothered by it?
Offensive things aren’t offensive merely because they hurt feelings - they’re offensive because they contribute to the societal harm of marginalized groups. The end goal isn’t to get everyone to love each other, it’s to destroy power imbalances.
14 minute bike ride my ass.
These are the words I chant to myself as I trudge up champel hill to find the monument to Michael Servetus. It was nearly impossible to find precisely where it was, and after I did, google maps assured me the bike ride would be 14 minutes.
I don’t know what kind of bike google mapmakers are riding, but I bet they are 10x more fit than me.
I get pleasantly lost, this feels much better than Paris. People leave their bikes unlocked outside restaurants as they eat dinner, no one pays much attention to me as I trudge up the hill.
There are monuments everywhere. I know I’m getting close when Lombard Street and Miguel servet street intersect. I think it may be coming up on my right when, all of a sudden, there he is.
In a triangle of forlorn land stands the stone plaque bearing the injustice of his death by Calvin, a slow burning by green wood on top of his books correctly proving the errors of the trinity.
The statue of Servetus is one of defeat. The artist imagined him stripped of nobility, emaciated with torn clothes. He is seated, head cast down, hands clasped on his knee.
I hear criticism of the cross, people saying that Jesus would have never really wanted the symbol of his ministry to be his gruesome death. From what I have read about Servetus, this statue would also be an insult - the man whose shouted last words still affirmed the Unity of God. Yet, I know that the point of Jesus’ life is not the cross, but that he rose again and defeated it. I don’t believe that literally. I believe that whenever two or more people talk about him, there he is, risen again, inspiring our hearts. Servetus is not Jesus nor would he ever attempt such hubris. He is a martyr, pious to the end, believing that all God’s children could be reconciled if we used reason. I believe honoring martyrs are important. So that we honor the fact that suffer. That real people are suffering, and dying needlessly because of things they can’t change, of the things that they believe. To always focus on a triumphant manifestation of spirit ignores parts of humanity that hurts, that is broken, that is the mortal stardust we are and shall someday return.
As a gesture of respect I try to clear away the cobwebs on the statue and pull out the rotting leaves in his clasped arms. I quickly realized there is too much debris. With all the scattered statues and monuments in the city, this one seems to be neglected. Daffodils are starting to bloom, and I finish up my pictures. I think about leaving him something, but decided against it in the coming rain.
It is easier down Champel hill than up it, with a glorious bike path in front of a palace. Here is a true monument, with the city’s thought leaders, Calvin, Farel, Beze, and Knox standing a story high in marble. Smaller stone figures are on the wall, with different languages of our father inscribed in between them. This is where Servetus wanted to be, as influential as the rest. Instead, his death was his greater influence, as all of these men were repulsed by Calvin burning Servetus. His monument was put up as a symbol of reason, rather than reason in religion.
I waned down through the heart of Geneva and find a bridge that is starting to become a love-lock bridge, across from the brilliant fountain. I text my husband “I want to honeymoon here!” and ride back to the house.
It really is the small things. Now that I have the bag, my life does feel better this morning. I don’t have to carry around that sweaty backpack anymore.
Spring continues to unfold in Geneva: more trees bloom, forsynith is in its full glory, crocus are still here, and I even see a mini rosebush with open buds.
There is a much better walk now through the woods, and today I notice a small hydro generator. Downstream from it in the concrete culvert a pair of ducks swim. Tom asked me the other day about trout. He is an excellent fisherman and would enjoy these streams and lakes heartily.
The trains I am on time for they are late, and the trains I am late for are on time. That is no exception this morning.
We hear at the office that one of the activists who was just at our office has been arrested in his home country on trumped up charges of murder, along with a Catholic priest. It is to send a message to the people here who are still meeting at the UN, that their activism will have consequences when they return home.
Today it’s all about promotion of the work we’ve done. The interfaith toolkit is almost done, the program ready to go and the compelling case written. I write all day. Three concept notes, prayers, an article for my local church, blog posts for the international office and dozens of emails. Making the to-do list in the morning seems like I am standing on the edge of a dizzying height, by the end of the day, what was a cliff seems more like a chair as I am able to accomplish a fair amount on the check list. I think, I need a better system to manage all these tasks than the hodgepodge of emails and scraps of paper, but there is no time.
It touches the great overwhelming feeling I had at the Lourve; everything is so important - so nothing is important, but doesn’t get there. The province in Ratanakiri will get the funding it needs so the doors don’t close. The people in India will get the proposal they’ve asked for. Justicemakers can be tailored to reflect our work on a particular issue. The religious leaders will get contacted. The UUs will get thanked for all their support. I will see all the technology needs of our organization to get in-kind donations. The partner teaching manual will get written. The interfaith vigil will get launched. And I do register for all the conferences I’ll be attending in the next few months. It all happens.
And I will be going to the United Nations again. I get invited by the IARF to attend their sidepanel, but will the backlog and rather dumpy wardrobe I have today I decline. As I discuss with Sanjee next steps, he authorizes me for the rest of my time here at the UN, so I suppose I should dress appropriately.
While looking for the giant golden scales of justice I brought to a conference, Karen sees my pastel pink suit - what I affectionately call my Miami Vice suit. “We need you in that suit!” she says, and I wish I had remembered to pack my suits for this trip.
Kids. Scores of kids on the platform and with better security credentials than myself to get into the UN. A kid being pushed on a scooter by a mom, hands over his on the handle bar, her left hand bearing a cigarette.
There are kids everywhere today. It’s the last time I’ll try to get into the United Nations. I messed up on getting permission to the entire conference as an NGO rep and the Secretariat is kind and we agree that next time I’m invited to come, the credentials will be in perfect order.
I watch the kids float by on the train back to the office.
There is a crisis in one of the defender centers. Karen agrees to lunch with Rev. Nate Walker as long as it’s close by. I find the cottage cafe, behind the Brunswick monument in the harbor. The trees are in bloom and it’s barely warm enough to eat outside, the perfect spot for lunch.
Before lunch I decide to go into a shopette to pick up a few things. A wide-tooth comb, bobby pins, hair clip, and lip gloss. It costs $50.
Thus assortment of items would cost $12 at Walgreens, or $5 at Wal-Mart.
"That’s not the worst part," Katia, the finance manager says, "health insurance is insane. Housing is ridiculous. 4,000 - 6,000 a month for a 2 bed apartment. And that’s in Swiss Francs!"
"I remember reading that a lot of people live in France to save on grocery and housing costs. Take a train that takes about 20 minutes to get in." I had done a little research on how to be thrifty in Geneva, and that was one of the articles that turned up.
"That’s if you can stand 40% of your income taken. And that doesn’t solve insurance, they still require that you have insurance here if you work. Of course, unless you’re a E.U. citizen. Then it’s different."
We chat a bit about how kids wear out clothes and shoes so easily before I go have lunch with Nate and Karen. The cafe works out wonderfully, and we enjoy a good lunch.
Back at the office, Nate lends his expertise on congregational organizing, untangling the problem of religion and law, in addition to just being delightful company. He helps brainstorm for hours, as Karen is called back to resolve the Cambodia crisis. In addition to being a religion and law expert, he’s creative about how to put the word out; and I’ll always be grateful for his free sharing of ideas.
He shares about his incredible experience of the United Nations.
"The special rapporteur makes a statement on religious freedom and the law. Then someone else makes a statement on religion. Then all the national representatives start queuing up to make statements from their booths, and they’re addressing two different topics, and jumble on top of each other. Their statements are all about the same though - that their country is the best at human rights and religious freedom, and start finger pointing at each other."
It sounds like typical politics to me.
“I remember in highschool, I did legislative debate once,” I start, my memory triggered by what he said, “and we sat around a table and used Robert’s rules of order to argue over bills to decide which should pass and not pass. I thought this was politics. During breaks, everyone else would get up, but I’d sit at the table, preparing for arguments and fact-checking statements. (Actually, I think I played snake on my palm pilot.) A senior came up to me during one of the breaks and pointed to one of the groups of kids chatting during the break. “That’s where the real work is,” he said. None of my arguments, no matter how factual and true or even objectively superior, would get anywhere unless I got up off my butt and actually talked to people. Still hard for me to remember.”
"That’s kind of what happened at the UN," Nate nods, "at first, it was just statement after statement after statement, and total silence in between them. Then you could see groups start to form and whisper to each other, and eventually, that hum was almost louder than the statements."
"Politics isn’t done in the posturing, but in the relationships," I smile. "It seems like not much changes after high school!"
Later on I think that while the same dynamic is at play, there is a much higher level of sophistication and stakes. In highschool, we would not lose our jobs for telling the truth. Or start a crisis by being flippant. The signals for progress were crude in comparison to the diplomacy games we currently do that have helped prevent crisis and keep the peace. So posturing is necessary. I think how difficult it would be to be forced to talking points, trying to change minds about my nation to others and trying to convince my nation to change too, how I imagine the good diplomat’s dilemma.
That evening I do get to see my kids for the first time since being in Geneva. They are still excited about their visit to the Hindu temple they took the day before.
"We forgot to take off our shoes!" yells Rose, banging a stuffed fat penguin on her knee.
"And we ate stuff!" Rex joins in, playing his sister’s hair.
It is easier to hold a conversation with them at these ages, I think to myself, as they babble on and squabble with each other. My spies tells me about all the things they saw and things they’re planning to do. I tell them about the work I’m doing here.
"Do you still have fans?" I ask my daughter, who made paper fans for her class fair a few weeks ago. "Will you sell them for a buck or something? To help kids in Cambodia?"
I almost feel bad for roping in my kids, but not really. There is a province in Cambodia that is about to lose its only lawyer because they can’t afford to keep the defender center open. We need 3,000 before the end of the month. Before this lawyer, kids would have to sit in prison for nearly a decade before getting a trial. Now it was going to run back to that way. Reaching out to social networks had yielded me $145. Time was running out with only two weeks left.
"I’ll give my tooth money - that’s $300!" my son excitedly yells. He had to have both of his baby molar teeth pulled and the to other fairy felt that really raised the premium on these teeth.
Although, it just hit me now writing this post: my husband has an infection in his jaw and might have to have surgery. I realize that when I talked to him I kind of nodded and said “Oh,” and it didn’t register until just this moment. I am really disconnected from everything over there, even when I’m talking to him.