Can’t Find a Better Man

The half growl/half crow of Eddie Vedder has long been a part of my own, personal war cry.  It both fed and poured out my teenage angst—my frustration with the things that were senseless, wrong, and unjust in the world, and my desire to be free from all of the pain and confusion and devastation that those things caused me.  I felt deeply.  Eddie did too.  You could sense it.  And you could echo it as you sang along.

Better Man was one of the songs that I connected with on a spiritual sort of level.  There were others.  And some even more deeply felt than this one.  But this one came to mind today, because I still feel the same angst at times.  I still know the challenges of being that one in the song—that one who can’t find a better man.

If you don’t know it … well, if you don’t know it you are either too young or too old or just plain Amish, I suppose, because Pearl Jam has been around for longer than my child has been alive (21+ years), and they keep putting out new music and touring the world with old favorites in their sets as well.  But, in case you have decided to go the way of Patrick Star and you live under a rock, I will let you know a bit about the lyrics, and the basics of the song.

She lies and says she’s in love with him; can’t find a better man.

It’s a woman, waiting alone in bed for some man who clearly sucks at being a partner.  She practices what she will say—what boundaries she will set, and what angry rant she will set forth when he finally dares to come home in the wee hours of the morning—but when he actually arrives, she pretends she is sleeping.  She keeps his failure and her misery to herself.  It feels like her fault that she chose him, and she does love him.  And somehow, they have this symbiotic, albeit unhealthy and unfulfilling, relationship that they both continue to choose.  And she echoes over and over:  Can’t find a better man.  Can’t find a better man.  Can’t find a better man.

If you’re like me, you can’t help but sing those words instead of simply read them.  They come to life in your head, in Eddie’s voice. And if you are even more like me, you remember singing those words and meaning them with so much truth that it pained you, and you weren’t entirely certain how to feel when the song came on, because the pain of the truth and the release of the singing it were also tied together in this strange way that worked so well.  Turmoil and beauty connected in a way that only the most broken of us can see, acknowledge, appreciate, and even love.

I felt Better Man so deeply not because I was in a relationship with someone at the time who mimicked the song’s poor partner, but because I was somehow already identifiable, before the terrible partners started lining up in my life and experience, with that woman.  Can’t find a better man.  Can’t find a better man.

Like a fish knows swimming is his mode of transportation, I knew that I deserved to struggle through bad partners—I would live this out, and this would be my pain.

How did I know that?

Pearl Jam, Ten, was released on August 27, 1991.  Twenty-eight years ago, I was still in high school, and I hadn’t had a “real” partner at all. I would start a relationship with my first “boyfriend” not long after this album’s release and have sex for the first time about six months later—if you could call it that … it was more like awkward penetration with mutual dissatisfaction.  And throughout that year, even though I was coming of age and starting to figure out that sexuality was even a thing, sheltered in extreme ways from all its forms and expressions, I had no concept of bad partners the way I would just a handful of years later.  Yet, before it happened I knew.  Eddie sang it the way I felt it, and I still understand it as deeply and with as much truth today.  Can’t find a better man.

Part of the challenge in my own situation, I think, is that Calvinism and the last bits of Dutch puritanism were so pervasive in my little sub-culture.  I knew, even when my conscious mind had repressed every single synapse of sexual abuse, that I was “damaged goods”, impure, unclean, sinful, tainted … you could say it a hundred different ways and it all hurt the same way.  Something in me knew that there was this stain on my reputation, according to the religious and cultural views that were held by those around me.  Of course I would not be worthy of a better man.  I was sullied by debaucherous sins.  “Good” men want “pure” women.  Obviously!

The other part of the challenge was the terrible partners that did start to line up in my life.  They only reinforced the idea that I deserved crap partners who treated me with disrespect, put hands on me in violence, didn’t give me the option of consent—either by force or by coercion and manipulation—and generally just acted like assholes.

How did I end up with this line of losers?  It’s a chicken/egg conundrum that we may never solve.  Either my low esteem attracted the sharks, or the sharks lowered my esteem until I was weak enough to pull under and drown.  But the how and why don’t matter a whole lot, unless you are an anthropologist of some sort.  What matters more is the effect, which was proving to me the stain on my reputation must be evident to all, and I am being punished for it, and given what I deserve.

I can’t find a better man.  I don’t deserve a better man.

And eventually, having remembered the abuse and having been flooded with images, feelings, flashbacks, nightmares, and all of the confusion, rage, and fear of childhood trauma returning to my memory from the deep recesses of my mind, I didn’t want better men.  I wanted dirty, dangerous men who would offer me the opportunity to use sex as a tool for inappropriate coping—reliving traumas through promiscuity and increasingly risky sex.  Better men didn’t pull your hair and pound their pelvis against your ass and call you names and do all of it while another couple had sex in the same room—the other man getting off on watching your face as you were being ridden like a bronco and his own partner looking on, infuriated that everyone in the room was focused on your pleasure and pain.  Better men didn’t pass you on to their friends after they had finished so that another could take advantage of a woman still in the throes of passion when the first man was already spent.  And I happily climbed atop another penis, grinding my pain into men as if my hips were a confessional and thrusting organs were penance I needed to endure until I felt clean again.

But no amount of sex brought me to a place where I felt clean.  I still felt undeserving of the love of a better partner. So, I settled for partners who claimed love but offered insecurities, control, abuse, lust, addiction, avoidant behaviors, and a plethora of negative and damaging behaviors that reinforced the idea that I didn’t deserve love, and a soulmate was somehow outside of my reach, while everyone else around me was allowed to find that “perfect” lover.

Can’t find a better man.  Don’t deserve a better man.  Unworthy of a better man.  Incapable of a better man.  The list of disordered thoughts goes on and on.  And the disordered thinking continues to this day.

I’m still settling for a man that needs “fixing” and babysitting and diagnosing and repeated forgiving for the same error.  I’m still not taking my own good advice, and I’m dating “potential” instead of finding a fully actualized man who exhibits the fullness of his potential in his current circumstance—he doesn’t have the potential to get his shit together; his shit IS together.  I still date men who aren’t the men I want to have and hold as lifelong partners.  And in some way, this must be tied to the idea that I don’t deserve that partner.  I cannot achieve that relationship.  I don’t get to have the better man.

Can’t find a better man.

Some part of me longs for the better man.  Some part of me has all sorts of desire for being in relationship with a loving partner who treats me with respect and equity—a person who offers me compassion and kindness and honesty and love.  And then there is this other part that cannot shake the Dutch Reformed purity bullshit that says I am not white like snow with an untouched vagina and therefore cannot find happiness with a partner who offers me those things.  The dirty of Calvinism doesn’t wash off, and the damage of childhood sexual trauma isn’t something that I can recover from with my PTSD diagnosis, so I sit in the muck of disordered thinking nonstop.  I sit in that muck and I get sucked into unhealthy relationship after unhealthy relationship, because my conscience is a liar and my good advice extends outside of myself and not inward.

The fact is, I won’t find a better man until I find the better in me.

It is here—the better in me.

In fact, good and better and best should define me.  They probably do to most others—the non-Dutch Reformed ones—who encounter me.  I’m not covered in stains, as Calvinism would have me believe, but am a woman who does now, and has always, fought for equality, love, goodness, kindness, rights for all, life, grace, freedom, justice, and all sorts of positive qualities.  I’m overflowing with love and compassion and care for others—all sorts of others, and not just those who look like, act like, and believe like I do.  There is so much better in me.  And such better deserves to be met with better.  This amazing woman definitely deserves a better man … or a better woman, as the case may be, because letting go of my early religion also let me grab hold of the truth that my sexuality is extremely fluid and not fixed.  Regardless, a better man or woman belongs in this picture.  The previous pain that Pearl Jam helped me express is not a pain that I should have ever felt, and I should always have believed that a better man or woman was waiting just around the corner for me, and we would share a beautiful life.

But I didn’t believe that.  I wasn’t taught that.  Eddie Vedder saw or knew or related with women like me, who didn’t believe that and were not taught that, and he sang our pain.  If only he could have offered a correction instead of a correlation and showed me that this wasn’t my anthem but a lie to which I was listening.  Maybe he did mean to show me that, but I didn’t see.  Instead I held the belief that this was my plight and my burden to bear.  I didn’t have people who were correcting my error or replacing that lie with the truth.  I had more and more affirmation that I was a stain and stains deserved to be tossed to the trash bin and left there with the rest of the unclean things.

Can’t find better.  Can’t be better.  Am not better—ever.  No amount of goodness can transcend the one bad thing, even when the bad thing was your victimization and far beyond your control.  Give up now, Christy, because there is no redemption here.  There is only purity and not purity here, and you are not pure.

I recently had the amazing opportunity to visit with a young woman who is living in a situation near to the one that I grew up within.  She mentioned to me an abuse that she suffered, and then said something along the lines of not letting it ruin her.  “Some people let it mess up their life.”  She said she wasn’t one of those people.  But later in our conversation tears welled up in her eyes and she told me of challenges with feeling unheard, and like her parents were not dealing with issues affecting the family, and a number of other things that I felt after suffering abuses as a child.  It is messing up her life, whether she intends to let it or not.  And part of why it is messing up her life is the same reason it messed up mine—the inability of others to find empathy, compassion, and understanding, and their insistence upon seeing the world in black and white, instead of recognizing and honoring the fact that we all live in complex circumstances and hard and fast “rules” or dichotomies of good/evil, or virgin/whore, or right/wrong don’t make sense.  Beyond not working, those strict dichotomies harm innocent people, and reinjure those who are already victimized.  They mess up lives.  They destroy lives.  They convince young girls (or boys) that they will never find a better man (or woman), because they are not deserving … because being a victim has left them stained for life—dirty, bad, and impure.

Not only do I deserve a better man than the ones that have been in my life in my history, but I deserve an amazing man or woman as a life partner.  I deserve that because I am not stained and dirty and impure.  I am an amazing woman, with talent, grace, empathy, passion, perseverance, love, and beauty that are unmatched by most.  I don’t say that to brag or because I am egotistical and narcissistic.  I say that because it is a truth that was hard to learn and needs to be remembered.  I also say it because it is something that many others need to hear and accept.

I am not impure, dirty, damaged, and stained.  I am a victim of horrific and terrifying crimes against my person.  My brain was literally malformed as a result of childhood sexual trauma that was ongoing and created captivity-like conditions, making my brain nearly identical to that of a holocaust survivor.  My hormones, my stress responses, my gut health, my brain chemistry, my bladder and bowel control, and more were harmed by this trauma, and more trauma happened as I was retraumatized when people didn’t believe my claims of harm, doctors broke confidentiality, I was forced to interact with my abuser, my family refused to allow me to speak about or address the abuse, gaslighting and victim-blaming became commonplace, violent abusive relationships resulted from my deep need for connection tied with my inability to form healthy connection due to my complex post-traumatic stress symptoms, and more.

All of this was me being victimized.  None of this was me being impure.  If there were lines that were crossed and bad things that were done they were done by my abusers, the people who didn’t listen when I cried out for help, the doctors who didn’t know how to help and didn’t refer me to someone who could, the family who refused (and still refuse) to address the issues afflicting me and us, the church that pounded the drum of purity so loudly that a young girl was shamed into silence about sexual assault and rape, the “friends” who chose to support the denial of the perpetrator and not support my claim of abuse, the people that told me to “give it to Jesus” and it would be gone who made matters worse by not getting me the help that I needed from medical professionals, and the many people who refused to give up their dichotomous thinking in the face of my pain and struggle and confusion and help ease my suffering.

But if you are one of those people, I don’t judge you, and I don’t blame you.  You were likely (and perhaps still are) stuck in a space where that black and white thinking was affecting your judgment.  You didn’t mean to wrong me, I am sure.  You didn’t know better.  And when you know better you will do better.

I hope that what I write here today will help you know better.  I hope that it will help you move toward doing better.

I don’t want a young woman to come to me and tell me her secrets because she can’t be heard in the space where she lives, just as I couldn’t be heard in the space where I grew up, and where the worst possible things happened to me.  I don’t want that beautiful woman to be holding on to those secrets until she is 40 years old, because she feels impure and shamed by a community that sees things in such black and white terms that it cannot give love to the wounded and the wronged.

I share my story, in part, to heal my own wounds.  It helps me to get it out on “paper” and to release it from the places where it has been hidden for all of these years.  But I also tell it for all of you.  I tell it so that if you are the young men and women who have also been harmed in this way, you can know that you deserve a better man, or a better woman.  You are not impure.  You have no stain.  You are perfect and pure and good.  Someone did something terrible to you.  You deserve justice for that wrong, not shame.  And if you are one who hears of a person or from a person who has been harmed in this way, listen and support that person.  Fight for justice on their behalf and be certain that they receive the aid that they need.  Never support the perpetrator because it is easier than supporting the victim.  Never place blame on the victim.  Never treat a victim as though they should carry some shame.  They do not.  They have been wronged, and they deserve better from you than what I received.

I’m dating someone now.  I’m not always certain that he is my better man.  He has a lot of challenges.  I have a lot of challenges.  It makes things volatile at moments.  But I don’t see things in black and white, and I know that he was a victim of lots of wrongs, just as I was.  So, we work at loving one another, the best way we know how.  He cares for me and he tries very hard to be the best he can for me.  And he is open, honest, and working very hard to be the man that I deserve in my life, because he knows that I am an amazing woman.  That is much more than any man has done for me in the past, so I am happy in this relationship now.  If that changes, I no longer feel tied to shame and insecurity and the idea that I am not enough, so I can walk away without reservation and seek out a better man or woman.  And that is miraculous, given all that I have been through.

I still love to listen to Vedder croon out the words to Better Man.  I still sing along with my teenage angst somewhat intact, but it is more a memory of what was than a feeling of the moment.  I know that I have a better man.  I know that I can find and that I deserve better.  I am not the unclean and impure that should be shamed.  I am the overcomer—the strong, the determined, the loving, the understanding, the one who learns and shifts and grows and fights and finds life, no matter the circumstances she is offered.  And no matter the circumstances you have been given, you can fight to overcome in numerous, amazing ways as well.

We don’t win every fight, of course.  I’m still disabled and suffer from PTSD.  I still have several family members who refuse to discuss the events of the past.  There are many who would still shame me for my actions—like having sex outside of marriage, or smoking weed to manage my fibromyalgia pain.  But what other people want to consider shameful doesn’t matter much to me anymore, because I know my heart and my intentions.  I know that I am a good person who does all that I can to promote equality and justice.  I love deeply, I seek to respect all, I honor the beliefs of others as long as they do no harm, and I work toward creating a better world in any way I am able.  That is what matters.  Lines in the sand, black and white thinking, and rules that shame and harm the innocent do not matter.  Your heart matters.  Your intent matters.

So, let go of shame, call out victim blaming, call out gaslighting, and speak your truth.  Bring evils to light and bring justice to every situation you are able.  Don’t hide.  Tell your story.  And, of course, find a better man—with or without the Pearl Jam album in the background.  (Just kidding—definitely with the Pearl Jam album in the background!!)

Thanks, Pearl Jam.  Thanks, Eddie.  And thanks to everyone who helped and still helps me to step outside of Calvinist shame and to step into the love and light of who I am over and above the victimization that I have experienced.  I am a better woman every time I take that step.

 

 

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Bully

When I was a girl, I suffered from a medical condition that made it impossible for me to maintain control of my bladder.  I had a major surgery just before my tenth birthday that corrected this issue, but up until then, I was tortured by classmates and neighbors.  I was less than ten years old, and I vividly remember one neighbor picking up a rusty nail from a parking area across the street from our homes and suggesting that “we shove this up there so you can stop peeing your pants”.  I remember the taunts of “Christy Pissty”.  I remember being isolated, depressed, ashamed.  This is what children did to me.  Children that were seven or eight years old did this to me.

Where did they learn that hatred and violence?

In the fifth grade, after the surgery and the pant-wetting had stopped, there was this girl, Tammy, (her name is not changed to protect her identity, because she was a fucking terrible person then and she doesn’t deserve my protection).  (Also, I may be spelling her name wrong, but I have no desire to remember the correct spelling of the names of those who tortured me.)  Tammy was friends with Shawn.  Shawn had been my friend for many years, because our parents were friends and we grew up together.  Tammy had the strange idea that three persons cannot be friends together.  I’ve never understood this whole “best friend” thing, and feel like there is more than enough love to spread around.  Lots of girls somehow get an impression that this cannot be true, and that they need to secure the best friend status of one other, and eliminate any competition.

Tammy convinced Shawn to run from me on the playground.  Tammy took the time to create hand drawn cards for both Shawn and I, and then to deliver the whole cards to Shawn through the Kindergarten “mail” that was teaching them how to address letters.  I received a very large package through the Kindergarten mail service.  Everyone crowded around to see what I had been sent.  It was the cards, identical to Shawn’s, ripped into tiny pieces—a pile of hatred on display for everyone in the room.  Everyone laughed and taunted me.

Where did she learn this hatred and violence?

In high school, I became a nomad of sorts.  I didn’t connect with a single group of peers, because I had grown to mistrust people.  (Shocking.)  But I still wanted friends, obviously.  And many people failed me in this stage as well.  I would hang out with a group of boys that were nice and fun to be around, so people called me a slut.  I still had the influence of Tammy.  One Sunday night, I waited by the cold, drafty window that faced the street for my friends to pick me up to go out.  They never arrived.  “There wasn’t enough room in the car” was the reason that Shawn gave.  But they abandoned me, without a word.  Shawn felt the guilt and told me the excuse, but the rest didn’t seem to care.  And somehow I had been singled out as the one who wouldn’t go along.  I was the one crying tears of pain and loss and confusion all night.

Where did they learn this hatred and violence?

I thought college would be my respite.  New friends.  New opportunities.  It was going to be new and different and better.  And it was for a few months, until I started to have memories of childhood sexual abuse.  I confided in a few people.  Those people told other people.  Those people asked friends of my abuser if he had abused me. They asked him.  He said no. (Shocking.)  And I was immediately called a liar and a fraud and all sorts of other things.  I was once more isolated and shamed and abandoned.  I had failed my way out of college by the 3rd semester.  Not only was I finding it very difficult to find and maintain healthy relationships, but the lack of support made the weight of dealing with the memories and nightmares heavy enough to break me.

Where did they learn this hatred and violence?

I proceeded to live out my pain.  Drinking, sex, drugs, harboring runaways, and finally marrying a man who was violently abusive.  He never hurt me while we were dating.  It wasn’t until a month after our wedding that I was first physically smacked—backhanded in the kitchen while I washed dishes.  But the ways that he harmed me weren’t just physical.  Cycles of abuse include manipulations that most cannot imagine.  It is more akin to a cult than a relationship.  Isolate, degrade, shame, and then, once control has been gained, violence against your person.  Getting pregnant gave me the reason I needed to leave.  I would have stayed until I died, I suppose, were it not for the fear that my child would learn to be like me, or like him.

After I left him, I continued on the path of addiction and struggle, even getting involved in a less violent, but just as controlling and unhealthy, relationship.  But even after I left this second relationship, and I worked to regain control of my own life, and to find some peace and some safety and some stability, people kept being bullies.  Church friends would judge me.  Family would challenge me.  Poverty became a reason to treat me poorly, and being a single parent became a reason to shame me.  There was always someone, somewhere actively working to harm and humiliate.  There was never a place where I was safe from harm.  I was always attacked, in some form.

Where did they learn this hatred and violence?

I’ve gotten to a point where I can mediate between the world and my heart in more effective ways.  I’ve been in therapy and on medication for a few years now, following my diagnosis of PTSD.  I’m learning to care less about the things others say and do.  I’m learning to find self-compassion and self-definition, instead of relying on others to tell me who I am and what I am worth.

I still have the occasional bully in my sphere.  It is difficult to get rid of them altogether.  There are so many who are pursuing their self-interest at the expense of all others.  There are so many who are looking at their decisions only from their perspective, and ignoring the impact that exists beyond their own interests.

Where did they learn this hatred and violence?

And it is hatred and violence to ignore the plight of others in order to gain more money or status or freedom or stuff for yourself.  It is hatred and violence to isolate, to shame, to deny equal rights, to deny basic human rights, and to ignore the pain of others.

I was raised in a conservative religious setting, and I obtained two seminary degrees, so I often default to the bible when I look to quote something that expresses the ways that actions are rooted in hatred and violence.  The Good Samaritan parable of the enemy of the harmed caring for him when his own religion and state and race abandoned him to death is one of those very easily quoted parables.  Your own interests are not good excuses for not caring for others is the basic lesson in that story.  But there are also many passages that talk about putting first the interests of the poor and the refugee and the sick and the imprisoned and a host of others who may be marginalized.  There are also many that speak to the judgment that will come down upon those who do not have love as the basis of their actions.

I often find it ironic and sad that the place where I grew up, and the people I know from my history, were often so filled with hatred and violence while they assumed they were in the role of the good Samaritan.  They thought they were the hero in the story.  But they were not and are not.  They are the villains.  They are the bullies.

Since the election the other day, there have been numerous reports of hatred and violence.  Swastikas and n-words and the simple moniker “Trump” have been graffitied everywhere from the sides of cars to the doors of prayer rooms.  Muslim women have stopped the religious practice of wearing burqa or hijab out of fear.  Children are taunting other children, with deportation or isolation or death being named as the fate of brown and black and Muslim students.

Where did they learn this hatred and violence?

They learned it by watching a bully become the president-elect of their country.  They learned it from the rhetoric they hear in the news and around the dinner table.  They learned it by watching the adults in this country make the grave error of choosing a man who spouts hatred and incites violence at every turn as their leader.  They learned it by living in a society that places self-interest above the health and vitality of the society.  We would rather burn with big screens than live peacefully with one another and share resources.

Donald Trump is the Tammy of my current situation.

The threat to end healthcare for millions is a real threat for me. I am chronically ill.  I qualify for Medicaid under the expansion required by the ACA.  I will not have healthcare if that is repealed.  And, without the other ACA requirement of insuring people regardless of pre-existing condition, I will likely be uninsurable.  I’ve had about 200 appointments and four surgeries this year.  I take 18 medications right now.  I see between two and seven doctors per week.  All of this care keeps me in a state of disability, but a rung or two up the ladder from death.  Without this care, I will drop down to the death rung.  I die.

Without food stamps, without insurance, without housing assistance, and without disability, I die.  Losing any one of them will potentially cause the loss of all others.  My life is in danger, because we (and by “we” I mean the electoral college and don’t include myself at all) elected the bully.

When I was left crying that night by the window, left behind by my “friends”, I am relatively certain that all the people present didn’t want me to be abandoned and harmed, but at least one of them did. And by following the lead of that person or persons, friends that had been such for a lifetime were lost.  The effects were devastating, and each person who went silently along in that car was responsible for my pain, because they didn’t put an end to that pain.

Taking stock of my life, and seeing the ways that bullies operate, and the ways that their actions affect others, I am trapped in a serious situation once more.  After living through all the things that I have lived through, and enduring all the struggle while another profited from my demise, I see clearly the ways that electing a bully will impact the nation.  The people who have let this go on, and who have elected a bully, are committing themselves to the ideals of bullying.  They are allowing hatred and violence to win the day, and to rule the country.

I need to ask you, are you going to be the boy with a rusty nail, or the Tammy, or the abusive husband, or the manipulator/cult leader/champion for hatred and violence?

My childhood, my teens, my adult life—every moment and every experience—could have been radically different if the people around me had not been conditioned to consider themselves before others, above others, and in control of others.  The people around me learned it by watching other people (probably their parents) adopt and embrace individualism and reject care and compassion and empathy for others.  Whether you are using the choices one makes or the color of one’s skin as the litmus test for whether you shame and isolate and judge and harm, you are doing harm.  By considering only your own interests, you are doing harm.  By leading with your fear and reactionary instincts, instead of using facts and thoughtful consideration, you are doing harm.  By voting for a bully, you are doing harm.

Where did you learn such hatred and violence?

And why don’t you seek to unlearn hatred and violence and, instead, live in love and peace?

Why do you choose to remain the bully?

 

But Some Lives Don’t

I removed a comment from my Facebook post this morning.  Its basic message was “ALL LIVES MATTER”.  I was as kind and respectful with the one who commented as I was able, but I could not leave that comment on my page.

It isn’t that I think all lives mattering is a bad thing.  I’m all for that.  I would love to see that.

The problem is I see very clearly and close-up that some lives don’t matter.  And that isn’t right, and it isn’t good, and it needs to be rectified.

I think that a lot of people miss the point of the Black Lives Matter movement, and other similar movements that are pressing for equity and safety and opportunity for those who are marginalized in our society.  The point is not that these lives matter more than the “all lives” that some use to counter these movements.  The point is that these lives already live under the oppressive and marginalizing weight of being treated like they don’t matter.

Last night I posted because I watched a young man be shot across the street.  He was a black man, living in an underserved neighborhood—my neighborhood—and he was just walking down the sidewalk when he was struck with bullets and fell to the ground.  There were lots of people out last night, on that same sidewalk on this block.  Women, children, elderly people, and young men all shared the moment.  We sprang into action.  I called for the police and an ambulance.  Several others ran to where the victim had dropped, peeling off their shirts and pressing against wounds, administering what first aid they could and keeping him conscious until help arrived.  And after the event, I posted a plea for an end to this injustice, racism, classism, and access to firearms that transforms quiet blocks on the Westside into blue-lit, yellow-tape-covered, crime scenes.

Many responded with sadness, some with shock.  One left the “ALL LIVES MATTER”.

They don’t.  They matter in the sense that I believe in equity and that humans deserve love and respect and opportunity and safety and security as humans.  They don’t in the way our society currently treats the brown and the black and the poor and the sick and the suffering.  We are treated like shit.  We are treated like our lives are not worth the air we breathe.  We are treated as though our lives mean less to others than “rights” to have entitled and privileged and unfettered space for the most white and most rich and most cis and most male and most heterosexual.  We are treated as though our lives don’t matter.

Here I will interrupt myself for a moment and clarify something.  I’m not black or brown.  I am poor and sick and queer, so I understand much of the marginalization that my neighbors experience, because I experience that too.  But my plight is not their plight, exactly.  I can pass for a normative, respected, acceptable person when I am not asking for money or ranting about the problems that disability creates.  I can simply not share with others that I am unable to work and struggling to survive.  But my neighbors can’t pass as white-bodied individuals.  And no matter what other status or wealth or purpose or good works they may have associated with them on an individual level, they are judged first and foremost by the color of their bodies.  And that judgement leaves them unsafe, disrespected, gunned down, impoverished, and more.

I live in an area where I am one of very few white people.  It took me living here for over a year to even meet some of my neighbors.  There was a suspicion that floated about me.  Why was I here?  What did I want?  Why would I not live in a “better” or “safer” area?  After all, I am white, so I should be able to easily find a place to be among the other white people.   But I am poor and disabled, so I cannot afford to live among the other white people.  And, as my neighbor so poignantly expressed last night, “None of them are buying you a house in the suburbs, are they?”

Nope.

Nobody has offered me a place to live in the relative safety that they live in.  Some will help with finances so that I can continue to eat and heat or cool my home and stay alive in my marginalized state.  Many will judge me and treat me poorly and say bad things about me to others in order to discredit my claims that the system is rigged against people like me and my black and brown neighbors.  “Lazy, free-loading, welfare queens” is how they see us—not as hard-working people of integrity who just happen to have arbitrary traits that prevent us from being valued in our society.

I stood outside and talked with my neighbors for some time last night after the shooting had happened.  We talked about how nobody wants this for themselves or the ones they love.  We talked about how a teaching career and a host of graduate degrees and the love of god and fellow humans means nothing, because we have that arbitrary trait of ours that negates all of the good, purposeful traits.

We are good people, by and large.  We are families.  We hold down two or three jobs.  We learn from a young age to appease the system at all costs, to prevent increased suffering.  We learn that even appeasing that system all the time will not necessarily prevent suffering—it might still end in us shot on the sidewalk.  It may even cause us to be shot by the people who are sworn to protect and serve us.

I’m not black or brown-skinned.  But I count myself as “we”.  I count myself that way because I have been immersed in this culture, in this neighborhood, and in this experience for over five years.  That is but a fraction of the years that these others have and will be marginalized due to arbitrary standards, but it is enough time for me to know and to feel the pain that is endured here.  Not fully, of course, but in part, I feel what those around me feel.  I hear their cries.  I listen to their stories.  I relate to their pain and fear and frustration.

I had PTSD long before I began living in a ghetto-like environment where people of color are trapped for lifetimes, and living to age 50 is a landmark worthy of parties bigger than the reception after most weddings.  But being here triggers much, because the traumas of being black surround me, even though I am white.  I’m not afraid of or in my neighborhood.  I am afraid for my neighborhood, and the people within.

Our lives do not matter to politicians or manufacturing companies or many of the police or “decent” white people living in large houses in nice areas where you don’t even lock your doors at night.  Our lives don’t come with the assurances offered to others.  Our lives are lived moment by moment, challenge by challenge, and triumph by triumph.  And we value life more than most, because we see the fragility, and we understand how quickly and without comment we can be removed from this world.

There were no news vans or helicopters last night on my block.  There were only those who live here and those paid to come here and help.  This young man was gunned down in the street, and only those who live and work here even know about it.

Sure, there might be an article on Monday about how many shootings and homicides happened in Chicago over the weekend.  But this young man may not even be mentioned specifically, and all the people with power to change the situation will pass over that article and give it over to statements including drugs, gangs, “black on black” crime, or “ALL LIVES MATTER”.  They will give it over to excuses, and not to the truth of the matter.

The truth of the matter is that we do not matter.  The sick, the aging, the black or brown, the woman in hijab, the man with prison tattoos, the person with the name you don’t know how to pronounce, the mother who has three jobs to provide for her children, the veteran on the corner with a sign and a paper cup asking for care and respect and the ability to live—we don’t matter.  And we feel the weight of that every day.  We know you don’t believe we matter.  If you did, you would change your actions and fight for our rights and stop saying that “ALL LIVES MATTER” to justify your ignorance and lack of care for the most vulnerable in our society.

If all lives really mattered to you, you would stop purchasing fast fashion to save the lives of Bangladeshi men and women.  If all lives really mattered to you, you would demand that social security support those who are disabled without years of suffering and waiting to be heard and offered care.  If all lives really mattered to you, you would be screaming at your representatives to put an end to the sale of handguns and assault weapons in our country.  If all lives really mattered to you, I wouldn’t be trying to crowdfund my existence because you would be generously donating funds or making certain that there were safety nets for those who need them in this country.  If all lives really mattered to you, you would reassess your views regarding women and birth control and safe access to abortion to make certain that you were not looking at the issue from a privileged viewpoint.  If all lives really mattered to you, you would fight for the rights of the formerly incarcerated, sex workers, and juvenile offenders.  If all lives really mattered to you, you would call for an end to the “war on drugs” and private prisons and mass incarceration.  If all lives really mattered to you, you would celebrate love between people, regardless of their gender, and use the pronouns and names that transgender or queer individuals have chosen for themselves, and stop looking sideways at men in dresses, or women with shaved heads, assuming that they are “wrong” somehow, for being who they are.  If all lives really mattered to you, you would be outraged by the oppression of, marginalization of, or limited rights of any and all people or groups.  If all lives really mattered to you, they would matter equally.

I can hug a homeless, mentally ill, prostitute on the corner and wish him a good day and ask how he is doing.  His life matters to me, regardless of anything he does or does not do.  And if all lives matter, then he should have healthcare and medication and safe housing and opportunities to make money in other ways than selling the only “capital” he has—his body.  If you wouldn’t go near such a man, then all lives do not matter to you.

If you would not sacrifice a portion of your own comforts and securities to make certain that all others had equal, or at least basic, comforts and securities, then all lives do not matter to you.

And if you cannot admit that you treat lives in a hierarchical manner, placing some lives higher than others, then you are in no position to say “ALL LIVES MATTER”.

This post is harsh.  But I won’t apologize for that, because it is necessary.

People with extreme privilege need to stop pretending at care for all lives.  Instead, all people need to care for one another in a manner that demonstrates we want a world without privileged status—we want a world where each life matters as much as our own.

I don’t see that from most of the people who say things like “ALL LIVES MATTER”.  I don’t see that from many of my acquaintances or my Facebook “friends”.  I don’t see that from most of my family members.  I don’t see that in my neighborhood or in my city or in the way that the problems we are facing are addressed.  I don’t see equity.  I don’t see lives that matter.  I look out my window and I see a sweet young man, who passes my home almost every day, bleeding on the sidewalk—shot, wounded, and not mattering much at all.

So, please, for the love of all that is good, stop pretending and making excuses and going forward without challenging the systems that are oppressing others.  Grow.  Think.  Listen.  Consider.  And then change, so that you are participating in a society that offers equal rights and equal benefit and equal status to all.

Don’t say all lives matter until you are doing everything you can to honor every single person living on this planet, and have your actions be intimately tied to the care and concern for every single one of those lives.  My guess is that following this suggestion will create a situation where only a handful of people I know—maybe less—will be able to say that all lives matter.  The rest need to sit and study and wrestle with the concepts of privilege and oppression and injustice and equity for a longer time and with more intent.

Yes, all lives matter.  But no, we aren’t treating people in that manner.  So start treating people as though they matter, or stop fucking saying that they do.

This morning the blood is washed away and people are out doing work.  The men across the street are working on fixing a car.  Next door to them is a man working diligently to rehab a house that has been boarded up for about four years.  I’m sitting in my office, overlooking the children and the young people and the men and women moving about.  We just go on.  We just keep on doing life in the best way we know how, in the midst of trauma and terror and task forces and terrible social support systems.  We are resilient and we are strong and we are good.  We keep fighting for change and working toward peace and summoning hope and praying for better situations.

Even if you don’t show us our lives matter, we know that they do.  So we live our lives, in the best possible ways we can.  Our lives matter to us.  We hang on to one another, and we work together, and we keep telling our stories, hoping the world will one day hear and respond.  Hoping one day we will see that our lives matter, that all lives matter equally, on a global scale.

May that day come soon.

 

Food Chain

I’ve watched this progression happening inside my home over the past month or so.  The container garden in my sun porch at some point brought little flying bugs into the environment.  Whether they came from the soil or from the great outdoors is unclear, but they arrived, nonetheless.  And I have tried several remedies that promise to remove the microcosmic infestation in the front window, to no avail.

But the progressive part is that as the population of the tiny insects increased, so did the incidence of spotting arachnids.  Spiders.  I hate them.  I have an irrational fear of the spiders.  I’m the Ron Weasley of the real world—freezing, crying, losing the ability to speak, and basically freaking out when a spider comes calling.

For the most part, the arachnids have been tiny, in correlation to the tiny bugs, I suppose.  So, I am coping with relative sanity.

Next have come the “creepy bugs”.  Someone once told me not to kill them, because they consume spiders, so they are apparently a friend to the arachnophobe.  But they are no friend to me, because I consider them creepy.  They look downright scary.  They are some sort of centipede, I suppose, but they have legs jutting out the bottom en masse, and they have a symmetrical wealth of leg-like protrusions on the top of their bodies.  I’m getting a shiver up my spine just imagining them for long enough to describe them.

I remember a time with my friends Nic and Adam had a snake in their second floor apartment.  We lived in the same apartment complex, and when the snake showed up in their environment, I immediately jumped into anti-snake mode.  That meant a concerted effort to trap and kill any and all mice or rats that could be present in or around my apartment.  I’m not sure how you snake-proof a home, but the concern I addressed was the food supply for snakes, not the snakes themselves.

I never had a snake in my apartment.  I did catch some mice.  And the mice were present because some lady in another building on the complex had made it her personal mission to capture and send to shelters the cats that lived around the apartments.  Had she left them be, the cats would be eating the mice, and the snakes wouldn’t move in because they would have no food supply and a potential predator in the cats.

So, as I watch this little cycle of life in my window sill, I think about where I sit on the food chain.  And by this I do not mean that I am concerned with who or what might consider me meat.  By this I mean, what threats and resources are affecting my life, and why.

I’m not high on the list as far as human hierarchy goes.  I’m a disabled, impoverished, woman.  So that is at least three strikes against me.  I’m also white and educated, so I am offered some privilege.  I suppose if we were to consider the hierarchy of my society (and several others) a food chain, I might be the spider. (Ironic, since I am petrified of them.)

I might be the one who had a few being “below” and a few “above”.  I am not in the worst position, but I am not in the best.  I assist others, but I also need assistance.  I live in this middle space, clinging to a rung halfway up the ladder.  And it gives me, I believe, an interesting perspective.  I can relate to those with more and those with less.  I can relate with the “haves” and I can relate with the “have nots”.  But there are days that I cannot relate with either—or I don’t want to.

There are days when I want to leave this underserved, loud, dirty, potentially dangerous area.  I get tired of the noise—the sirens, the yelling, the gunfire.  I get tired of the long commute to anything and everything.  I get tired of not fitting in or looking right or getting stopped by the cops because of my white skin.  I get tired of being followed by dudes yelling “damn” at my ass.  I get tired of trying to explain away how or why I live here without outing myself as poor.  And I get tired of all the other people who seize stereotypes and make assumptions about this place I am tired of being in, because despite its faults, this is my home, and there is much beauty and strength in this place.

There are days when I want to be a person with greater means.  There are times that I feel jealous of the friends with cars and homes and second homes.  There are times I want the “American Dream”.

There are more days, however, when I want to scream at the people who have all of this, and to tell them what selfish, self-serving, privileged bullshit they participate in, without even knowing.  I get tired of people who are wealthy pretending they are poor.  I get tired of people whining about the inconveniences of their gigantic remodel.  I get tired of people saying they are broke and then going out to dinner every night.  I get tired of being associated with this type of upper-middle class person just because I am white and educated.  I get tired of people assuming that I belong with the “them” while I feel like an “us”.

Frankly, it is exhausting to be in this middle space, between two worlds, because I feel like I must constantly critique and defend one to the other.  I want everyone in my neighborhood to know that there are some generous and kind, rich, white people.  I want everyone who would not desire to set foot in my neighborhood to know that it is filled with intelligent, hard-working, kind people.  I need to constantly justify all the things to all the people.

And then there is the added stress of my own situation needing to be constantly justified.  I need money.  I need help.  I need time.  I need energy.  I need surgery.  I need to make it sound acceptable to have all of these needs, or people refuse to take seriously or meet those needs.

The middle is an impossible place to live.  You can almost touch the better things, but if you reach up you risk falling back down into a worse space.  So you stay, clinging to the little that you have.  Hustling and hoping.  Wanting more but not able to live through less.  Clinging to the place where you have barely enough to survive.

If that sounds depressing, it is.

There are no questions as to why my antidepressant medication dose keeps increasing.  This rung is a depressing one.  This middle of the food chain feels like a constant threat, but also like a huge blessing.  I’m not at my worst.  But I am also not at my best.

And here we arrive at the statement “ignorance is bliss”.  Because if I didn’t know the best, or the worst, I wouldn’t feel trapped in this middle, fearful of losing my grip and too paralyzed to attempt upward mobility.  The people around me hope with an unyielding strength I have never seen before.  They keep believing in the more, in the higher rungs, and in a new and better day.  I know that the new and better day is not what it appears to be.  I know that there is just a dollar or two between rungs.  I know that there is prejudice at the top that keeps those with enough dollars to move up tumbling back down.  I know that there is abundance and that it isn’t being offered to the people on the lower rungs.  I know that if the people above would just share, the whole fucking ladder could turn on its side, leaving us with equity, and even footing, and no need to compete at the climbing.  I know that those people don’t share unless it is in their self-interest, and their dollars come with strings attached.  I know because I am in the middle.  I know because I am the spider.  I know because I have one foot in poverty and one foot in opportunity.

The proverbial food chain allows for ignorance at the bottom and ignorance at the top.  But the middle is the space filled with knowledge—frustrating, hope-stealing, anger inducing, devastating knowledge.

I know poverty and possibility.  And I am not better off for it.  I am tortured by it.

The wealth of the top is achieved upon the backs of the ones at the bottom.  We are the macrocosm of the microcosmic activity in my window sill.  We consume one and escape the other.

And I can’t stop thinking that this is wrong.  I can’t stop thinking that humanity should be behaving with a more evolved and more educated system than the insects.  I can’t stop feeling that we are very far from what we were intended to be, and that the ladder and the food chain and the striving and the inequity are all distractions from where our attention ought to be placed.  I can’t stop believing that we should be placing our attention and energy on justice—on ending the ladder.

There is this line spoken by Daenerys Targaryen, a character in J.R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire Series, that mimics the sentiment that I often put forth.  After the many powerful houses of the era are named and called spokes on a wheel, she says with great conviction, “I’m not going to stop the wheel, I’m going to break the wheel.”

In saying this, she expresses that she will not simply be the newest in the line of leaders that overtake the current system.  She is, instead, going to destroy that system.  She is going to make a new way of being possible by taking apart the system of injustice currently in place.

I’m going to break the wheel.  I’m going to break the ladder.

I’m going to create a new system, and not allow the once unjust and oppressive way of being to survive.  I’m not going to tolerate the present and hope for a better future, but I am going to smash through the present to create a new present.

What if we stopped being a glorified food chain and broke the ladder?  What if we let go of the ideas of “earned” and “deserved” things and status?  What would Daenerys do today?

WWDD: What Would Dany Do?

How do we break the wheel in our own society?  How do I stop being the spider and consuming the fly?  How do I keep the creepy bugs from chasing me?  How do we create a system that doesn’t look like the unevolved and inhumane clamoring for power and money and resources, and instead looks like cooperative and compassionate co-existence?

I’m tired of being in the middle, but I am more tired of the idea of the middle.  I’m tired of caste systems and hierarchies and patriarchy and all the other systems of oppression and power that make us predators or make us lunch, depending on the situation.

It is time to function on a higher plane.  It is time to break the wheel.  It is time to end this system and find a new one.   It is time for human beings to step outside of the food chain, and use our enlightenment for good and not for evil.

It is time to stop treating one another like meat.

 

 

Same

There is this way of speaking that has taken over much of the communication between me and my daughter, and some of my friends as well, I suppose.  We shorten things.   It just seems like a whole lot of flourish and extra syllables isn’t necessary or important.  And while, as a writer, I am a huge fan of the flourish and the big words, in life they aren’t always helpful.

So, when we are thinking, “I completely agree and have a very similar perspective on this issue”, we instead say, “Same”.

I’m in the mood for pizza.

Same.

I can’t believe the state of the world and am grieving deeply over the pain and wounding that is overwhelming millions.

Same.

I wish that I could be in La Jolla right now.

Same.

I’m overcome with grief and don’t know how to express anything clearly, but everything hurts.

Same.

Yesterday I received news of the death of a good friend of my parents.  And all day I was feeling the weight of grief.  I was feeling it not just over the loss of her life, which is definitely significant and important, but also I was mourning the loss of my own mom.  And I was drawing all sorts of parallels between the lives of these two couples and feeling for those going through what I and my family went through a year ago.

All day I wanted to reach out to the daughter of the deceased wife and mother.  But there were not words.  There weren’t words when my own mother died either.  And the platitudes and “she is with Jesus now” assurances helped not one bit.  In some cases, they did more harm than good.

So, in the evening, I finally realized that what to say was that there was nothing to say—that nothing makes that pain lessened and nothing changes the complex feelings and nothing brings back the mother that you long for now more than you ever did when she was alive.  And I reached out with exactly that: an assertion that nothing would help and that I wouldn’t pretend it might.  I offered my love.  I offered my listening ear.  And I offered my sympathies.

And she shared a huge piece of her heart in reply.

As she expressed her feelings and her struggles and her joys and her surprise and her pain, I realized that all of these long years, we have been living a parallel life.  As she spoke of her many-faceted emotional state and the journey that she had been on as her mother became sick, her father became a care-taker of sorts, and her mother passed, I could have replied with that often used, “Same”.

We were sharing a history, but doing so apart from one another.

When we were kids we played together when our parents got together.  And it wasn’t as though we didn’t enjoy hanging out, but over time, as we became old enough to not be dragged along to our parents’ social events, we stopped spending time together.  And there were times when we connected over the years—running into one another at Christmas or a special event when we were all present once more.  But those little interactions became cordial and socially acceptable, instead of times when we played with abandon or shared secrets or did all those things that come easy when you are young, but cease to be so as you grow up.

Peter Pan had the right of things, in many ways.  Growing up steals much of the honesty and joy and many of the dreams which childhood allows, and even encourages.

What was stolen from this woman and myself was the opportunity to share our similar journeys.  Until last night, we had not had the opportunity to bond over shared experience, or to support one another.  It took the death of both of our mothers to recognize one another on a path we had been walking together for years.

I’ve been thinking much today about this sameness, and this similarity, and this shared experience.  I’ve been thinking that we all felt the weight of struggles alone, and all of this time we could have been bearing them together.  I have had other childhood friends express feelings that I have struggled with: I’m not enough, I’m not good enough, I cannot compare with person X, I don’t fit in, I can’t do anything “right”, I didn’t want to treat person Y like that but wasn’t brave enough to put an end to it and went along with the crowd.   All of this time, we were all young women (and a few men) who felt alone in our struggle.  We were not alone.

We are not alone.  We are united in this struggle.

The organizer in me wants to shout from the rooftops that we need to come together and fight against our common enemy.  But the pastor in me knows that such a strategy isn’t necessarily the right approach here.  What might be helpful is for me to express continually my struggle, and to allow others the safe space to express their struggle.  Because SO MANY TIMES I find that we are coping with the same feelings, and have so much in common, and could be bearing burdens together.

I’ve said before, and will say again, that I label myself as “spiritual but not religious” because organized religion has left bad tastes in my mouth time and again.  I believe in the Divine.  I don’t name it in terms of a triune god, but I believe.  But one of the things that many religions teach, and that I think is a divine directive, is that we share in one another’s burdens—we carry the heavy shit together to make it lighter.  And for some reason the place where I grew up chants the religion like a name at a boxing match, but also chastises individuals and tosses burdens onto their backs while they whisper behind their hands at the failures of those individuals to carry the load.

It is a sick practice, really.  It is wholly other than the divine imperatives to care for and love and welcome and heal and help everyone—like literally everyone.  All of those imperatives tell us to help carry the load, not toss it on the back of another.

I broke under the weight.

So many people I know broke under the weight.

And still the weight is piled.  My daughter experienced that weight when we moved back to that area.  And I left, rather than have her live in that place and in that way where you never feel like enough and people are constantly trying to hide their brokenness by breaking the person next to them.

Today I see that we can fix this.  Today I see that we were fighting the same war, but we were all at different battle sites.  If we could have been honest then, in our adolescence, and shared how we were struggling, we could have become a powerful force for change.  We could have swept that town of gossip and lies and shaming that keep the focus off of the problems of one, only to shatter the life of another.  We could have united to bear one another’s burdens.  We could have lifted the weight and held one another up and shared a journey.

We didn’t.

But I am committed to doing so now.

The past doesn’t change when we change in the future, but it can transform in some ways.  It has the benefit of perspective, and new perspective can shed light on events, even though the events themselves do not change.  And I am ready to look at this childhood in this place with these people in a new light, and with new honesty and connection and trust.  I believe that looking at it in this way will transform not just the past, but will transform us as women and men who thought for all these years that we were alone in our struggles.  Knowing we were in it together and talking about it together in this later stage of life empowers us.  It lets us acknowledge and release the bad and lets us acknowledge and embrace the good.

And that doesn’t happen overnight.  And some events you don’t get over completely—or at least there are some I don’t think I will recover from completely.  But knowing that the burden is shared, and that I am not the only one carrying the weight of those events puts me well on the way to recovery.

So, here I am, people of my youth (and any other time period, really).  I’m standing open to receive and to offer with honesty, with trust, with grace, and with understanding the journeys—mine and yours and ours—and the events and the feelings and the burdens.  I’m here, committed to change, committed to new life, committed to carrying the weight together.

Let’s all try to open up.  Let’s try to do it before any more of our parents die.  Let’s know that the circumstances of our childhood don’t define us.  Let’s know that molds were made to be shattered in order to exhume the beauty within.  Let’s know that we don’t need “thicker skin” or to keep our business private or to hide or to hurt.  We are allowed to be—in all of our ways of being we should feel comfortable and free and alive.  Let’s stoop under the weights of our friends and neighbors and partners and brace ourselves underneath, helping to lighten the load a bit.  And when enough of us are willing to stoop down and take some of that weight, we all find relief.

Community.  I’ve studied it for a long time.  And I keep coming back to this idea, that burdens are borne together, or we are crushed.  So, in order to survive, we need to start looking at the plights of those around us and responding with the short and effective communication that my daughter and I have come to use so frequently.  Same.

There is a quote I use often, and love from Lilla Watson.  “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time; but if you are here because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

It is time for us to work together.  In my childhood community, in my current community, in my social circles, in my city, in my country, in my world, and in my universe it is time for us to work together.

It is time for us to understand that the liberation of one is bound to the liberation of all.

We can only be free when we are free together.  We can only bear burdens with all of us carrying the weight.  We overcome only because we do so together.  And we do so together because in many ways we are all on the same journey—not just in the specifics of events or feelings, but in the sense that we are all evolving and developing into a better version of humanity (or we should be, at least).

We are meant to look to the person next to us, to see their experience and their perspective and the events that shape them and to declare, “Same”.  And if we cannot do that, we will be crushed under weights we didn’t imagine would ever be placed upon our shoulders.

I think we see that in the news every day of late.

We join in sorrow over things that were caused by a refusal to bear burdens of another.  Discrimination doesn’t hurt us personally—that is the burden of the gay or the black or the Muslim—so we don’t enter the fray.  And we are seeing the results of that failure to stoop and lift with our fellow human beings.  When we don’t bear the weight together, people break.  But there are consequences felt throughout the entire community when those individuals break.  You can’t escape the aftershock of the seismic events.  So, why refuse to help hold the weight that might prevent those events?  Ignoring the problems of others doesn’t work.

We lift together, or we are crushed.  All of us.  The whole of humanity.  The entire planet.

And saying it that way makes it seem an enormous task.  But it really just starts with us listening and bearing the weight of the feelings and experience of another.  A world full of people caring about the person next to them is a world that resembles what most would see as a heaven or a paradise.

That heaven, that paradise, is achievable in the here and now.

It can happen if you open up and share your journey, and listen well to join in the journey of another.  It will happen if we simply love one another, care for one another, and bear one another’s burdens.  It will happen when we hear the struggle or joy of another and can respond with a genuine agreement.

“Same.”

 

 

 

 

Documented

Documents and documenting are serious themes in the past few weeks to months.  It is interesting to me the ways that we are forced or encouraged or inspired to document, and all the different reasons that are used to justify or explain that documentation.

I recently had to make a trip to my local office of the Chicago Housing Authority.  I had used their new online participant portal to upload requests for a rent renegotiation due to household income changes in both August and February.  In August, they denied my claim, saying I had not attached documents proving my claim—but I literally uploaded them per the instruction of the site, and had copies and receipts of all the attached information.  Last week, they claimed that I had never made a request in February, and that my mailed documents of proof (which I had mailed to avoid the same result I was met with in August) went to the wrong address (the address listed on their form and web page, by the way).  So, they claimed there was no proof that I ever applied for a renegotiation.

Not true.  I had documents and receipts a plenty this time.  There was no way I was letting the lack of documents be my downfall this time around.

So, I went into that office with an entire folder full of documents.  I brought documents proving I applied with proper documentation in August and was denied.  I brought documents proving I applied again in February, and supporting documentation that I deserved the rent adjustment at that time as well.  And, for good measure, I brought in documents removing my daughter from my household over a week before she moves into her own apartment.  All of those documents were copied and admitted and dealt with by the office manager at the office, and then she said, “Now, the only thing we are missing is two documents signed by your daughter and we can get all of this processed.”

Gaaaahhhhh!!!!

I called my daughter and asked if she would head down to the office after work to sign these added documents.  They closed at 5, and she made it there at 4:45, signed the documents, and in the next 30 days, my mailbox will receive documents that tell me whether or not I am allowed the revision in rent, whether or not they will back-date to the dates of application, whether or not I will receive a refund of the monies I overpaid due to these errors on the part of the housing authority, and a document that tells me to come into the office again and sign about 45 other documents so that they can give me documents to take to my landlord, so that he can accept my voucher sans dependent child document and let me keep living in the same home I am currently living in.

If you thought being poor was tied to laziness, you are an idiot.  I fill out as much paperwork as any doctor or lawyer I know.  I just don’t get paid for filling it out—unless you count rental assistance and food stamps as getting paid, which I don’t, because safe housing and food security are basic human rights. (A fact that most developed countries have embraced and created systems of care to ensure. But not the United States, because we are selfish, entitled brats who believe we somehow earned our privileges—in other words, ignorant assholes.)

And if you thought you heard the word “documentation” enough for a lifetime in my earlier paragraphs, then prepare to be disappointed!

There are all sorts of other forms of documentation that are tied to my disability case.  The disability system is such that you are denied the first time.  Almost everyone not in a wheelchair, nursing facility, or mental ward is denied.  That is just the way it works (inefficiently and expensively).  You acquire documents from all of your doctors, you fill out numerous assessments, you add in assessments filled out by those who know you or live with you, and then you wait for documents that say you are denied.  After the denial documents, you go find a lawyer, and they make you sign about 87 documents because you must sign disclosure statements for every lawyer who might work on your case, not just the law firm, according to the state, effectively requiring the disabled person to sign the same document 4, 5, or 6 times, depending on the number of lawyers in their particular firm.  Then you wait for the exact same assessments to arrive and be filled out another time, and collect the same medical records, but your lawyer asks you to keep them informed of any changes in treatment or diagnosis and to document your wellness or lack thereof, so you give all the paperwork you did last time, plus you begin logging your daily mood, daily function, daily tasks, and any and all changes that happen, to support your case when your redetermination is denied, and then you have to file paperwork requesting a hearing, and get back a document that says you will be given a court date in about 10 to 12 months.  Then you document changes and function and symptoms and such for a year, while you wait to bring all the information amassed in the past three years before a judge.  Who, if we have done all the things correctly, will create a legal document stating that I am, in fact, disabled.

It isn’t difficult to understand, at this point in the post, why I hate documents.  I am so overwhelmed with paper that I sometimes feel it is drowning me, and paper cuts are just par for the course in my situation.  If I don’t have any, I worry that I must have missed some paperwork that needs filling out or filing.

But yesterday I was introduced to a new form of documentation.

Yesterday, two friends came over to help me create a video for my fundraising page.  And we started by documenting things.  One suggested things that we could document, and the other started slowly, but surely, taking video and still footage of all the things.  We started with adaptive tools—the things I need on the daily to live life: special knives and peelers and openers for the kitchen, a tool to tie buttons and pull zippers, various adaptive pens and pencils and cutters (because I can’t use scissors without severe pain and injury), and more.  Then we moved on to the overflowing basket of medications and the daily pill organizers that are filled with multiple doses of many of those medications.  We also printed a copy of my next two weeks of appointments, which required three pages of paper.  And we looked up the list of current illnesses, which wasn’t complete since not all of the things are recorded in the same place, but still took almost an entire page.  Next was physical therapy and occupational therapy papers that show what exercises I am to be doing daily.  We spread them out over the floor, and as I was preparing them I dropped papers that scattered all across the living room.  My friends filmed as I sat and worked to collect and organize this pile of documents once more, and caught on camera the fact that I cannot see some of my therapists due to insurance refusals, documenting that my medical needs are sometimes not met because of money.  And by that time we were all exhausted and decided that we would need another meeting to document all of the ways that my illnesses affect my life—maybe two.

But this documentation, this mini-documentary of my daily life, being made by the son of two documentarians and his fiancé, was eye-opening and expressive of things that I hadn’t imagined.  My life is really difficult.  And there are all sorts of proofs of it.

However, the thing that was most shocking to me was that I am doing all these things.  I am doing my exercises and using my splints and walking in water to get some cardio and eating 1100 calories and none of them sugar and filing all the papers and bringing in all the documents and taking all the medicines and attending four and five medical appointments each week and stretching and meditating and coloring mandalas and doing art therapy and studying nutrition and gardening and using my paraffin bath and doing yoga and writing and more. I am doing far more than anyone might imagine, because I am doing far more than I could have imagined.

When I look at all the things that make up my life, and I am drowning in the sea of papers, and exhausted or craving chocolate or in pain, and feel insignificant and incapable, I rarely look at the proofs of all that I am doing.  I look at all the documents that show I am not “good enough”–poor and sick and lacking.  I don’t look at the documentation that shows me doing every possible thing I can do to be the most well I can be.  I get dragged down by the negative proofs and don’t even consider that there are positive proofs.

While some might not understand the life of the chronically ill person, and will refuse to believe the proofs laid out in my mini-documentary, I know that I am doing so much hard work to live my best possible life.  Whether that means I walked the dog, or I ate vegetables, or I colored for a bit, or I remembered to connect with my breath, relax my face and neck, and engage my core when feeling fearful or overwhelmed on a stressful transit ride, or I washed the dishes, or I asked for help, or I practiced new body mechanics, or I managed to finish an article or blog post, I am doing everything that I can do to live well.

My previous ideas of living well were not good ideas of living well, in many ways.  And when my focus shifted from living out my pain in ways that brought more pain to creating a life that included education and progress and sufficiency and stability, I thought that meant I was on the path to living well.  And I believed that documents like my resume and my degrees and my personal and professional references were the ones that would bring me other good documents, like the deed to a house and paystubs that showed more than three digits before that decimal point and an insurance card that I could bring to the orthodontist to receive services.

But I had it wrong.  None of those documents are proof of living well.  I know plenty of people with bigger incomes and better insurance coverage who are not living well, but are full of contempt and hatred and negativity.  I know plenty of people with lots of letters behind their name from years of education who are completely ignorant on important points.  I know plenty of people who are physically and financially well, but complain every time I see them about one thing or another in their life, refusing to see anything that has good or peace or acceptance or joy at its core and only seeing the negative.  None of those people are living well.

Documenting my life started as a project to garner support from others, by offering proofs of my need.  And, I suppose, that is still one of the goals of the project.  But, it has become much more than that for me.  It has become a proof of the fullness of my life, and the extent of my dedication and strength, as I work day after day after day to live a life of wellness—improving my body and healing my mind in any way possible.  This video will be something that shows others what dealing with constant physical and mental suffering is about, and give them a glimpse of why my financial need is great at this time, and demonstrating why I am incapable of working enough to support myself and depend upon the generosity of others.  But, for me, this video is the catalyst I needed to find self-compassion and to stop denying my tenacious work toward a life well-lived, but accept and proclaim and honor the fact that I am a warrior.

I am not weak, but stronger than almost anyone I know.  I am not lazy, but offer my body the rest it needs to heal and cope and survive.  I am not stupid, but suffer cognitive impairments due to my illness.  I am not reclusive, but work to foster and put energy toward only the best of relationships with the best and most supportive people in my life.  I am not crazy, but deal with multiple mental illnesses that affect my thinking and choices.  I am not playing the victim, but am coping with the ways that I was truly and deeply victimized by all manner of perpetrators.  I am not scared, but am learning to manage hypervigilance and overstimulation and anxiety caused by my diseases.  I am not giving up, but am fighting for every moment of every day to create the best possible life I can live with my challenges.  I am not begging, but I am placing my need before my community in the hope and the trust that provision will be offered in return.  I am not desperate, but I am allowing myself to be vulnerable and open and honest in expressing my struggles.  I am not whining, but I am telling the truth about the realities of chronic illness—and if you think that telling my truth is whining, note every time you complain about a thing, and see which of us expresses more complaint per actual struggle (I’ll bet on you, unless you are dying or also have chronic illness).  I am not lying, exaggerating, or making things up, but I am telling the harshest of realities without any sugar-coating to make it more palatable or acceptable to others.

And I know that it isn’t very palatable or acceptable to discuss any sort of true suffering in our society.  I know that we generally avoid pain, and we lie about who we are and how we are doing on a very regular basis, and we chastise or castigate or cast out any who express in their words or actions or being any hint of the lies we are telling or the avoidance we are seeking.  It is the reason we don’t make eye contact with the pan-handling person on the corner, or look down on the addict or the sex worker, or pretend that we “earned” our privileges and not that we are taking part in a system of injustice that is harming others and refusing helps for those in need.

I wonder, though, if it is possible to truly live well when we can’t look in the eyes of the homeless, or see the addict and the sex worker as our equal, and admit that we have privileges and seek to create a more just system that offers basic human rights to all people.  And I move toward an answer of “no”.  The more I identify with the least and the lowest of the society, and the more I hear people’s judgment and lies and excuses to reject my illness or my need or my deserving assistance, the more I believe that I am living well, and those others are living sad and sorry lives.

I know that I am living well.  I am putting every ounce of energy into being stronger, more able, less dependent, more mobile, calmer, more balanced, thinner, more educated, more aware, and just better than I was yesterday, and I am doing it in a way that doesn’t deny my experience, but embraces the reality with which I am faced and by which I am surrounded.  I am doing it without shame and with honesty and vulnerability.  And I am doing it in ways that recognize my privilege and stand against systemic injustices.  I am living well, and am proud to be doing so.

So, I am no longer afraid of or weighed down by documentation.  I’m learning to embrace the documents in my experience as proofs of transformation and hard work and betterment.  I’m learning to see every piece of paper as a document that shares life and fights disease and seeks equity and justice, even when those papers are also annoyingly redundant and seem ridiculous.  And I am also recognizing that every word I write here, and every thank you note sent, and every photo with friends and family and my dog, and every selfie of a new haircut, and every update or post or page that is put out by me or on my behalf or with me tagged is also documentation, and it is documenting a most beautiful life.

Bring on the paperwork, world.

Paper cuts or no, I am ready to keep on documenting and to keep on being the best and the most I am able to be.  And no matter how many diagnoses come my way, and no matter how many treatments and therapies are added to my daily routine, I am going to keep on adding documents that show a life of wellness—maybe not in my body, and maybe not in my psychology, but definitely in my spirit.

I will live life well and share a record that screams of legacy and not of lack.

Earth

My house smells like dirt.  It is fabulous.

Last night a dear friend came over and we planted veggies and herbs in pots that will live in my front room/office/art studio.  (Yes, it is getting crowded up in here.)  At least I hope they will live!  I’ve already got a great rosemary plant, a struggling mint plant, and some wheat grass that has been growing long, grassy tendrils toward the window sill, while the half away from the sill dies.  Once the grass gets uncontrollably long, I cut some off and feed it to the dog. Its purpose is solely to aid the dog’s digestion.  (The juicer hasn’t made it out for use in months. It takes too much energy to clean the thing.)

We dug in the dirt and planted seeds and navigated the challenges of filling large pots without using up all the potting mix, and we talked and laughed and repeatedly chastised the dog for eating dirt.  It was quite lovely.

And later that night, the whole house smelled of wet earth.  And it made me long for a place to call home, where I could dig up the actual earth, on the surface of the Earth, and dig my toes into that cool, dark dirt.  Something about gardening grounds you.  It ties you to this crazy ball of fire and rock and sediment that is flying around in the solar system, and it leads you to the knowledge that health and wellness and beauty and good come out of that sweet, musty, damp, dirty soil.

I remember thinking last night that it smelled like earth, like home, like life.

There are a lot of people in this world who don’t have the pure joy of the experience of gardening—of growing what sustains them and offers them beauty.  There are many more who burden under the sun and the weight of bushels of produce to offer food to the world, while they are left with little for themselves.  And then there are some farmers who grow inedible crops with vats of chemicals and strip the earth of its beauty and its life-giving nutrients, but who believe that they are those feeding the world in a noble way.  My favorite are the farmers who have recognized that way of stripping the earth is not good, and who have taken the time and the effort to create organic farms that offer a rich variety of healthy fruits, vegetables, and grains that heal bodies and sustain life and the planet.

No matter how you view food and farming, there is no doubt that food, and access to it, either fuels life or takes it from us.

This past month, I have been living on what we might call a skeleton crew of body fuels.  Because I am disabled and currently do not have income, I rely on the SNAP program for paying grocery costs.  But, for some reason, the office which hands out or refuses to offer these food benefits was “behind”, and they had (without informing me in any way) received an extension on deciding my annual re-certification of benefits.  I am usually allotted just over $300 to feed a household of 2, and that benefit arrived every 4th day of the month, in the form of automatic payment to a little plastic card in my wallet.  As you might imagine, $300 for two is usually spent in full by or before the 4th rolls around again.  So, when the state decided it needed six weeks to put my information into the computer system, instead of the 15 days that is customary, I was left with two weeks of no funds for food.  And you might think this is some strange isolated incident that happened only to me, but all sorts of families, many with babies or young children, were alongside me in the delayed food boat.  Can you imagine not being able to feed your 3-year-old, because the state is “behind” and got an extension?

I can imagine that.  There were times when my daughter was young that there just wasn’t enough in the food account, and I chose to go without eating so that she could. After all, she was developing a tiny little body and brain that needed nutrients. My parts were fully developed.  There was also a time or two where I was brought to tears because I had chosen food for myself over experiences for my daughter.  She missed her 1st grade field trip because I needed the only $5 in my account for lunch between college classes the day before.  I had forgotten to pack a lunch, and had classes from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. that day.  I needed to eat.  So, I bought a sandwich with that last $5, and I cried in my car in the school’s parking lot as I ate.  (It is a challenge to sob while eating, by the way.)  I knew that my hunger had just deprived my daughter of an experience that every other 1st grader would have.  She sat in the corner of another classroom reading and doing word puzzles for the entire day, while her class went away without her.  She cried for some time after school.  I cried myself to sleep that night.

Food security is one of the most affecting issues in the country.  Millions of people are on programs like SNAP and WIC that assist them in purchasing healthful foods.  Millions more utilize food pantries, where you often get less healthful foods, like canned corn and pasta and boxed meals.  The nearest grocery store to my home is over a mile away.  And without a car, I must take two buses or a train and a bus to get to the store, and then must be able to carry what I purchase back home on my shoulders.  I usually opt for the market that is four miles away, but requires only one bus ride and walking a half block to the bus and to the house, so I don’t collapse from the weight of my milk and beans and greens on the way home (usually).  I live in what is considered a “food desert”.  Where I can access very expensive, unhealthful foods with ease at corner stores or gas stations, but I cannot access fresh fruits, vegetables, dairy, and meats at a traditional grocery store.  And there are many more like me.

I used to marvel at the homes of friends that had a second refrigerator and multiple freezers in different parts of the house.  They were all stacked to overflowing with pizzas and casseroles and meats and ice cream.  Everything you could possibly want to eat was there for the taking … and they would stare at the food and say, “there is nothing to eat”.  That was never our family’s situation.  We gardened, so we did have a deep freezer and a row of jars in the basement after canning season, but those spaces were filled with the surplus of the garden, and not with the mounds of convenience foods and beverages that friends had at their disposal.  I remember my mom would make BLT’s for dinner and the bacon was rationed in such a way that we could have one sandwich, with 3 slices bacon, or we could choose two sandwiches and 1.5 slices bacon per sandwich.  I used to think my mom was stingy or strange in the way that she would micromanage food consumption.  As I got older, and had to navigate the world on my own, with hunger and budgets and social services and need becoming real for me, I realized my mom was just trying to make scarce resources into enough.  She just wanted to feed us all month, so she rationed our bacon, and fed us SPAM, and allowed us pizza once or twice a month.

I can’t imagine, and wouldn’t have understood, times without food in a family with five mouths to feed.  I can imagine times without food—or have actually experienced them.  And I think upon my childhood limits and the limits I have set for myself these past two weeks without grocery funds, and it is painful to have knowledge of how messed up our food system is in this country, and how the majority of farm land houses no food for people, but food for cows and seeds for more food that doesn’t feed people.  Vegetables and fruits are considered “specialty crops” and are not subsidized by the farm bill the way that seed corn and soybeans are subsidized.  Farmers are rewarded (and paid handsomely) for growing what I cannot eat.  So there are piles of rotting corn in some places in the U.S., while I have been eating cucumbers and bananas every day, because they are the most affordable fresh items at the store right now.

At times, I see advertisements about farmers and how they are feeding America.  And I usually make a strange chuckle that expresses disbelief and the ludicrous nature of that claim.  My tomatoes are from Mexico, and my bananas from an unknown tropical area.  None of the food that comes to my table can claim to proudly be grown in Iowa, where I grew up and where farmers are revered (the ones that grow the useless corn, not the specialty vegetable crops).  What they can claim is that they are feeding cows, but on $300 a month, we almost never eat beef or pork.  They can also claim to be supporting ethanol, but I haven’t a car, and ethanol costs more and more the farther you get from the Iowa fields.

So, this is a long post about food, I guess.  But it is also about the earth.  And I feel like that love of the smell of the damp earth, and the desire to have my bare toes deep in black soil says something about both food and earth.

I think we are meant to grow things.

Sometimes people argue against my friends who have chosen not to have children by saying that god told Adam and Eve to populate the earth.  But what if that is a slight mistranslation of intent.  What if the meaning behind that command was more like, “I’m not going to let you live in this lush garden that I created for you anymore, but you need to go out and grow life on the planet yourselves.”  Maybe it was the bird kicking the babies out of the nest, so to speak.  Maybe it was a command to go out and till the soil and water the plants and nourish the vegetables and fruits and create a garden of their own.  And if that is the case, then the piles of rotting seed corn, and the hog confinements, and the stripping of and polluting of the soil are all against the will of god.

Now, I’m not strictly religious at this point in my life, but I do believe in a divine presence, and I do believe that the earth, the soil, the water, the wind, the sun, and all that grows and is sustained because of them, are divine gifts.  Divine gifts that somehow arose from primordial ooze after an explosion of stardust, but gifts, nonetheless.  And right now, we are starving millions.  This cannot be what the gift was meant for.  This cannot be the way we are supposed to utilize the beauty and nourishment and life that these gifts offer.

Today I received my SNAP benefits for March.  They are two weeks late, but I can make the long trek to a market and obtain fruits and vegetables and eggs and whole wheat bread and all the things that I have been longing for in my diet the last couple of weeks.  I can stop worrying about hunger and the empty feeling in my gut when I peer into the nearly empty fridge.  I can stop subsisting on cucumbers, and actually have some avocado and beets and pineapple and maybe even some goat cheese if I budget really well.  And I want to rejoice, and I will rejoice, at this end to my deep need for nourishment.

But I can’t help but wonder, at what point the state might, once again, endanger my life by taking away my access to healthful foods, or comprehensive medical care, or safe housing, or whatever else I need to survive as a single, disabled adult in America.

So, the smell of earth in my front room/office/art studio is not just a memory and a hope of toes in dirt at a home that is more permanent and more mine than what I have been offered the past several years, but it is a reminder that sustenance and stability are not mine.  And planting herbs and vegetables is the first step to sustaining life, and perhaps the only step I can take at this time.  Because I lack agency.  Because I am poor.  Because I am not respected as a human being equal to all the other, non-poor human beings.  Because people consider poverty to be indicative of stupidity or moral depravity, and not indicative of systemic injustice and a society that discriminates against people of color, the disabled, women, singles, people without children, people with too many children, LGBTQIA+ people, Muslim people, people emigrating to the U.S., the elderly, the young, and a host of others.

And I wonder, will we ever get to a place where we are all working together to sustain a giant garden flying around in the solar system, with peace and compassion and abundance being the standard that we hold most dear and present to all?  Or, will we stay in a place where one individual has an extra fridge full of soda and beer and surplus food, and one is dependent on the state’s timetable for survival and is forbidden from purchasing beer or soda?

The sun is currently pouring in the windows, heating my skin and boosting my vitamin D, and offering life to my little seeds pressed into the dirt.  The smell of earth is still heavy and inviting and beautiful.  I imagine the abundance that could grow from these tiny pots.  I imagine a life that holds on to abundance, and isn’t plagued by a cycle of need/enough/need/enough/need.  I imagine a “someday” that holds a little home of my own with a garden where I can sink my toes into the damp, darkness and feel tied to the earth.  Grounded in the land of enough.  Grounded in my spirit and in my life, because the stress and the worry of living in a constant state of lack, and never having enough resources, is gone.  Grounded in ways that let me speak to the divine in gratitude more often than in need.  Tied to the earth.  Tied to a community.  Tied to life, instead of the fear of death.

Life.  This sunny addition to my apartment is bringing so much life.

And all it took was a bit of dirt.