My neighbors across the street lost their house to fire a few days ago and one, an elderly woman, lost her life. Two other neighbors have been displaced because we share walls in our neighborhood, and they share walls with the house that burnt. It took about 20 minutes for most of this to happen. Flames came from the roof. I was home with my six year old. It was horrible.
The following day news reporters came to interview the occupants of our court. What do we have to say? It was horrible? I refused to be interviewed because it felt like participating in tragedy porn to say anything. Other people came and took photos of the shell of a house, where our neighbor had died, on their cell phones. I have no idea why.
And then there is the part where most of the rest of us, people who are really quite close and live together well, did not truly know the people in the home that burnt. They were very quiet. We do not know how to help and the house is a daily reminder of this.
There is helplessness in this and some grasping of a lesson and just pain, which varies from person to person.
Reading A Wrinkle in Time with Ob, my six year old, I was reminded of 1 Corinthians 1:27, "God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong." The moral of the book Ob and I are reading, again and again, is of course, that love saves and love is growth and that love is a shared experience.
My task this New Year is forgiveness, as an expression of love, I have decided, for my shaming in love. As I re-read so much of my writing I have noticed this tone of confidence in my ability to love, a tone of always on the brink of new life, or growth, an end to strife. For example, read what I said about my divorce a year ago, six months ago. Catch me now on a bad day and hear some colorful language about the situation, my intense distress, my fears. Forgiving people who have hurt me, and in so forgiving myself for being weak, or for hurting them, because I have been through some process that I thought ended in mutual understanding, is a common theme in my struggle to love. I want to love. But, in some conflicts, I do not behave in a loving manner. Not when I am treated in a less than loving manner and the emotional stakes are high. And are not the stakes always high when you are open to love, actual love?
Sometimes, I have learned through hard experience, you just have to accept that you will never understand why this and why that, and that there will never be an appropriate apology, or maybe one that stays true and sticks, and no, you won't turn into a butterfly and start all over like nothing ever happened, and other people will because amnesia often follows atrocity, but the only thing left to do is forgive. In the darkness even, so you, in all your completeness and memory can go on living. You turn the other cheek because the blow did not kill your humanity and you still own that head. You forgive because other people need you to and because you are whole and in the forgiveness you claim again yourself from a void. It is not the wisest, best way to live. It is not the same thing as shared love. But it is sometimes the only thing to do, in your confounded shame.
It is an act of redemption from the degradation you have suffered. It is not forgetting. I want to honor the relationships with people who have been important enough to put a few holes in me. Forgiving the holes, with or without the important person who put them there, always ends the same way: scar tissue. But scars are not open wounds and we live on, changed, but we live on, and that is the point. It is very hard to do otherwise and keep yourself whole.
If you say that money is the most important thing, you’ll spend your life completely wasting your time: You’ll be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living, that is, in order to go on doing things you don’t like doing — which is stupid! -- Alan Watts
We are always saying things like this like we are having an original thought. It is a good question: "What if money was no object
The truth is, however, that Watts, whom I enjoy, is a little off, as so are we, because he does not imagine community and mutual service in this. He imagines, however, "getting a good fee" eventually, for one's passion, and that does not happen for most of us.
Certainly, that is what I wish for myself, at the least of what I wish. But I actually wish for something more than getting a good price for all of what I am because I know it will not happen for most of us, most of us will not get a good price, and we are not livestock either.
We will also not get what we desire, not really, not with a one dimensional view of what it is that we desire -- usually to do a task, not for what reason do we do the task -- for what human reason? You like to bake? Why? Whom will you feed? And this applies to people, like me, passionate about Big Ideas, like justice and peace. Who is that for?
Nor will the passionate be self-supporting, as a class, such as we are, in a one dimensional view of the economy in which we exist. Human beings are, in the end, only as good as we agree we can be. It is very hard to be significantly more wise, kind, productive and so on than our social agreements allow for, and not be suicidal, which is no good. And yet, the paradox is that we each must push that nearly suicidal boundary with steady will and talk and talk and talk our way to possibilities that honor life.
What if money was no object? That is a much bigger question than the one we usually answer when we ask it.
This is not one of my usual blog entries, not that I make blog entries all that reliably anymore. I write on Facebook more often, and indeed, this is an extension of that. One of these days I am going to make a tumblr account. It may be the mix of features I like.
It's election day, 2012. Ob, age six, says he is voting for Mommy. I might let him write it in, in fact, when I take him to the polls this evening. For the record, as I like to say, if it were me, I would vote for Jill Stein
, but my son's protest, a statement of his values in a culture that perverts all of our values in the pursuit of strategy, might be just as good as mine. A council of caretakers, maybe? Not just his Mommy? I'll talk to him about it while we stand in line for an hour.
I swear, I get grouchy sometimes. I keep calling it my stinky old man side. But you know, it's because I care, I am disappointed, I know we can do better than a choice between a sweaty psychopath and a charming, but also anti-life, candidate for our "leader." Even our servant. And I keep asking myself why this is so hard, not what the institutions are made of to make it hard -- I see that just as well as many of us do -- but what in the world makes us keep them.
I've been accused of being "no fun" and "intense" before, by people who, frankly, mainly say "oh well" and move on, unencumbered by memory or connection, the burden of words and ideas and feeling. Maybe I am. Oh well. I throw good parties too. I just get like this sometimes. Stinky old man Windy.
Well, then, here's my soundtrack for this cold election day:
First of all, God's Song
. This song really strikes me as being about false faith, not a critique of true religious behavior: our focusing on the idea of God (or what we are comfortable treating as God), like a fetish, and not on our behavior, our responsibility to each other. Mac says that when he catches me listening to this, watch out. Election day, 2012, brings it on.A Few Words in Defense of Our Country
speaks for itself, I think. And it is wicked funny. Bitter laughter on election day 2012.I Just Want You To Hurt Like I Do
No one steps up to the plate to provide a soundtrack for a mood quite like Randy Newman. For me this song captures a kind of short sightedness that I see in our culture, and so, in ourselves then. It, to me, captures just as much of the bashing of the poor as it captures some liberal pseudo-Buddhist tendencies, as well as the often felt permission of the victim, something all of us are, to be narrowly self-focused and cause others pain, perhaps usually out of sheer thoughtlessness as much as entitlement.
And, in finality, My Life is Good
. Yeah, narcissism. Oh well, right? "Rand, how would you like to be the boss for a while?" Ha!
Elections depress me. I get all grouchy in a melancholy sort of way. I think it is harder to block out the vapid public debate about human lives. It reminds me of Christmas. Like it's this special time that we set aside in an ocean of banality, when we focus on what matters, but, bad as that is, we don't really. There is an unreality to it. I feel outside of my body. I will be glad when this thing is over.
I like myself better when I am not always being asked to talk in terms of electoral politics, not the values of our everyday, real lives, to embrace the people at the playground, my family, and talk about what we are really thinking about on common ground, with respect.
Attachment is the defining characteristic of the human soul. Disturbances in this are, by our nature, violent to what we are. They break us, make us sharp around the edges, until the edges are ground down smooth by time, or by chaotic churning; until they don't have teeth to cut through flesh anymore, but don't fit together, with the other broken bits, either.
May you and I simplify our moral lives and act to the best of our judgement with full vulnerability and integrity to this precious essence of humanness. Perhaps in the oven of our collective broken bits we can be made into something fragile and elegant that will hold water once again. We will never be the same. But we may be something.
I am ruminating today on how much I am looking forward to school starting up again for Ob, my six year old son, because of how deeply I enjoy my time with other parents picking up their kids after school; how meaningful, powerful, and frankly, political, much of that time is.
Most of us are women. One is a grandfather and one is a stay at home father, married to the only woman he ever dated. We are very different people, religiously, in age, in personality, in class background and country of origin, to some extent, racially. We talk about everything and we have a huge impact on each other's lives.
We jokingly call ourselves, after the suggestion of one of us, a poet and homeschooling mother, the "Playground Coven." I usually write for activists, and I am doing it here, despite myself. I think of us sometimes, in that light, as a kind of Bughouse Square
We argue and comfort one another about racism, god, marriage and divorce, and abuse in our lives; we correct and guide each other's children, away from the street and also into confronting new ideas. We talk about everything that matters with humor and with seriousness. If I had a full-time job that took me away, this time would be the time I missed most. I feel like this time is some of the most productive in my life.
I almost never go to any big activist things anymore. I dropped out of professional activism years ago, something I have written much about, but even the rally and the scrappy Leftism eventually went too. I have stopped thinking that one day I will be a therapist and work with activists, primarily, but I have begun to think of myself as a future therapist and writer who deals with solidarity, building it into all of our lives, not just the people who use and often misuse the word. I am done with the narcissism and infantile blaming, the incredible level of anti-life culture often expressed as misogyny and workaholism. Just so done.
I suspect that the revolution will not be snarky, boastful, vain, pig- headed, belligerent, dismissive, or just plain anti-social. Ideas are nice, but decent manners and kindness are what make them go anywhere far.
My awesome friend Laurel sent me a great and timely essay
on this theme today. In it Jonathan Matthew Smucker says "Americans have literally been migrating into values-homogenous social spaces since at least the late 1960s. We have been rearranging our lives to surround ourselves with people who think a lot like we do — phasing out folks who don’t share our opinions and tastes. We’ve chosen our neighborhoods, religious congregations, civic and political organizations, the cultural spaces we frequent, and our friendship circles so that we can experience our worldview reflected back to us and minimize dissonance."
I disagree with Jonathan slightly, in that, while people who call themselves activists have withdrawn to highly specialized sub-cultures, they have done so, not by minimizing dissonance, but by surrounding ourselves in it. We are wrapped in a whirling cloud of loud and wretched rage, clinging to one another briefly even, often only to strike and bite. I almost feel like example is unnecessary to back this claim. But I will be asked, probably with teeth gnashing, for one.
I will skip all the examples from my own life this time and move to a macro-example. Factions are a big one, but they are too easy a target. "Identity politics" is one worth chewing on. We fight about them. Damn, we fight about whether or not to fight about them. But what are they about? They come down to affection, fidelity, respect: basic, basic social skills key to ending oppressions big and small. People need and want to be heard. Is that not what we all know to be true? What else are we doing all this important work for?
The people who inspire us inspire us to think well and feel deeply. No big social organization has ever been built on the shoulders of people who cannot even be charming, much less build real relationships.
I certainly love many people who disagree with me and may be offended that I feel this way, that will feel like I am picking on them -- and I would like to keep them in my life, and I will be saddened if that is impossible. But I just cannot keep putting myself into the middle of a culture that is so nonsustaining to me as a mother and a whole human being, because I have needs too, to be a functioning person. The more I say it, the more I mean it. I want something real from my life and want to give something real to others.
My activism is to raise my children thoughtfully, to loyally live with the people I love, meaningfully and politically, and to speak that message as it develops, to share myself and hear others.
Portrait of young me and baby Mac by Mac Cooler-Stith
It occurred to me that I am yet to blog on the ongoing book project, Peace Play
, which has occupied my older son and me this year.
My life right now is an experiment. My life has often been an experiment, insisting for instance that I was going to be a paid organizer in Montgomery, Alabama after having a baby (which I insisted in the first place I could do and that I could raise that child) and not a pot to piss in at a very young age. Everyone told me to go do something sensible, like become a secretary, to give in to the circumstances. But oh no. Not Windy. And I became a paid organizer. And I have raised that child. What I learned from that experiment was that I didn't want to be a paid organizer, even though I believe in organizing. I left that as paid work. And I learned that mothering and caretaking is a transformative occupation our children, our friends and neighbors, thirst for.
What I really believe is that my politics start with my children, my closest friends, my neighbors, and radiates out into the world from these roots. I think this is the case for all of us, the radiation of relationships into the broader world. To prioritize these relationships is key to my work. To talk about it is to make it a set of lessons others can share in. But damn, it is hard to live in a capitalist economy and be resisting it responsibly too. There are frightening obstacles that I face.
I am in school. Eventually I will be trying to make a living in a more traditional way, as a therapist. My older son will be a young man by that time and my younger one will require less access to me. But, now, and later, it will be projects like this book in which I see myself reaching out, organizing organically in an organic world.
So, Mac and I are going to transform this book into a ebook subscription. I wrote about our evolving thoughts about the project in the "updates
" section of our Kickstarter page. I'm going to let them stand for any lessons others can take from that version of my experimental life.
We expect to have a new campaign for the ebook of Peace Play ready by September.
I now own a polka dot bathing suit. And I wear the thing several times a week. This is big news in my world. I am afraid of water because I have a phobia about having my air cut off and I have all kinds of issues around my physical self, just being uncomfortable in the space I take up, in certain social situations. Wearing a normal bathing suit in public has really been such an awkward thing for me. Readers of this know I have PTSD.
But this summer I swim laps -- with a swim belt, sure -- and in a fun bathing suit. I even dress and undress in the women's locker room. Big stuff for me.
It's been a hard year, last summer to this one, but not the hardest. It has been one of huge personal growth. This won't sound like "personal growth" at first but I suffered a very traumatic end to a very traumatic romantic relationship at a time when I was already the most emotionally vulnerable I have ever been. Just a bunch of ground Windy. Also, totally different relationship: the divorce that John and I had been planning, which has been so difficult, for years, really did come to its fruition and we finally started living apart (because we could finally afford it) after dating other people while living in the same home with all our hurt about our marriage still bubbling up long after it was over. Crazy stuff that no one should do to anyone else. But we were all radical about it (most of the time) and, well, we survived, and somehow (read: competent therapy and lasting, committed good will and a sense of responsibility) are probably better people for it now. And the living apart was scary at first too. I have been food insecure. I have been truly poor with a child. I also know all too well what being a mother makes me: vulnerable. I wanted my space and I didn't want it. My newer partnership was often quite bad for me, by circumstance as well as by the intrinsic nature of it, but I didn't want to admit it fully. Only people who have been through a divorce with children can possibly understand the terror. But -- it's done now, and frankly, I am glad for it. And I think John is awesome, even if I don't want to be married to him. Nor he, I.
I keep reflecting on this in awe. I've stopped using anti-depressants, which I really had to be on for around 18 months during what can only be described as a breakdown, long overdue but probably, I think, brought on by the stress of being constantly re-traumatized by the nature of my stress in important relationships while trying to accomplish hard things in my vision of political work and raise my children well.
The person I was partnered with during this period tried to get me to stop taking the medication because I was a "different person" on it. I wasn't, though I was not as easy to trigger, and I was still plenty vulnerable. Medication, friends, sometimes needs to be a part of your life if you find yourself crying in a Target for no apparent reason, avoiding even telling your best friends what you have done, or what you have allowed to be done to you, this time. And then you can stop using it too. I have not used the prescription in about two months now. I still get moody sometimes, but boy, moody is nothing compared to the hell I have lived through: the crying, the not being able to think, to work, to really take care of myself and make good decisions.
I write. I do good work. I'm about to graduate after being debilitated with emotional illness for almost two years. I enjoy my children. I don't take crap, but I don't-take-it in what I hope is a pretty friendly, open way - that I am comfortable with, that I am refining by the week. I swim and sometimes I let my face get wet. Once you accept that you have to float, there is a lifeguard and friends, and polka dots are just fun, moving through the water gets easier.
It's a crazy world. Sometimes you get crazy too. And then the good world makes you good again. Crazy.
The subject this hour is my blog. In addition to someone being obsessed with the search term "Windy Cooler and divorce" and its variations (yes, whoever you are, I have PTSD and John Stith and I are getting a divorce and yes, we genuinely remain friends and family -- and yes, we worked very, very hard at establishing this; thank you for asking), the Mother's Day piece
where I just rant and rant for a while is still getting passed around. It is still the most popular thing I have ever written.
It took me about 10 minutes and it was pure primal scream. Not very thoughtful. Funny and on point, it came from the heart; but it is my most popular piece of writing? What do I think about that?
I'm trying to make a living here, eventually. Maybe I should write more stuff like that?
I have noticed too that the political writers that we most like are the people who tell us, in great detail, what to be angry about, what to foam at the mouth about, the people who, honestly, after my experiences with the American Left, I now associate with basement dwelling Star Wars fans that always have something to say about the posters of women on their walls. Always looking at a flawed world as if they are outside judges of it. Sometimes these people are funny. Sometimes they are a little dull or disorganized. But always the message is "Whoa, Look at that! Now, look at that! Now, look at that! Blame! I can point out who to blame!" You can't focus long enough on all the things they are pointing to do little more than scream with them, like Beaker on the Muppets. Meep!
I am very comfortable with anger. I used to think what made people mediocre, lacking in verve and political and personal get up and go, was a lack of healthy anger. Not sure this obsession with meeping is an example of healthy anger though. Sometimes you have to vent to get to a solution. But the point is to get to a solution.
This kind of ongoing, unrelenting narcissistic anger is just as destructive to human potential as ongoing, unrelenting narcissistic positivism. There is a reality we are all interacting with, that we are, in fact, that we have made and we are making together, that we are responsible for and to. That is responsible to each of us.
We are the world we are trying to make. It is made. And it is being made now by each of us.
An acquaintance of mine, Carlos Martinez
, asked on Facebook today a question worth repeating. And so I will."Only a fool would let an enemy educate his children" (Malcolm X). Here we are, in the heart of the 'first world', with all the benefits of science and technology at our fingertips, and yet we look to the enemy for education, entertainment, security, fuel, food, healthcare and pretty much everything else. I guess that makes us pretty foolish. We are totally dependent on a system of oppression and exploitation, a system that we face almost entirely as individuals, given the breakdown of community that has taken - and is taking - place. How do we build a movement for change without rebuilding communities and without taking back some power over our own lives?
The day before this I read the following, from Howard Zinn: To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places - and there are so many - where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don't have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory. (You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A personal history of our times, p. 208. )Musing. Musing. Cleaning house, getting ready for a child's birthday party, mailing a friend a gift, and musing.
Josh and Jeff
We've known Joshua since she was seven years old. Mac, Ob and I attened her Bat Mitvah and traditional wild middle-school dance after-party yesterday. The text of her father, Jeff's, advice to his daughter at the observation that a child, his child, is becoming an adult child follows:
Congratulations to the Joshua Rose!
You may wonder why I sometimes call you THE Joshua Rose. Actually, I got that from you, when you were a little tot.
I used to make up lots of games for us to play, and you always had fun playing them. You knew that I made up the games. Once, after we had been playing a game for a while, you wanted to switch roles. You said, “Now let ME be the daddy, and YOU be the Joshua Rose.”
Well, part of Jewish culture is being good at the game -- the game, writ large. (I’ve always wanted to use that phrase, “writ large”!) Being good at the game means being good at playing by the rules. So there are a lot of Jewish lawyers, doctors, accountants and so on.
But at the same time, part of Jewish culture is QUESTIONING the rules. History shows much Jewish participation in the labor movement, civil rights movement, and other activism for empowerment.
You have had fun questioning the rules, and not just when you were a little tot. You may remember the day that you were TRULY enthusiastic about going to school. Unfortunately, there has only been ONE such day. That was the day that you were going to circulate a petition demanding that the school reverse its decision to lengthen the school day. The petition was successful, but your enjoyment came from your participation, before you knew the outcome.
So, in the great tradition of Jewish culture, may the Joshua Rose continue to have fun playing by the rules -- and have even more fun changing them!
Being an adult involves many things, maybe even wild dance parties. Maybe.
Commitment to the common struggle of being human is the most important, however.
Jeff has spent his parenthood stressing this to his daughter in word and example.
Mazel Tov on a job well done. It is gratifying to see our children grow into true adulthood.
Jeff Schmidt, in addition to being the father of Josh, is a long-time education activist, living in Washington DC. He is the author of Disciplined Minds.