"Bite this stick", the doctor might say as we birthed our children one-hundred years ago. The grunting, whimpering, sobbing, pleading, sweating, stinking, bleeding nudity of motherhood channeled into that sweet gag, silent, as the towels mount to soak up all of the nasty animal we are as we labor with the promise of life. Bite this stick.
To date, my most popular blog entry, which reappeared on Counterpunch this week (Of Mice and Moms), is one in which I refuse the bite the stick. It is vaguely about Mother's Day and it is, honestly, the kind of screaming that does not produce life. Birth is a channeling of the pain, down, not up into the air, pushing through it, sinking, a kind of focus that for all the animal smell, is what is truly animal. But the response from other mothers, and even fathers, people in general, to my scream was huge. I was a little taken aback. We are angry. We are sad.
Mother's Day is sad and it is unnerving because it is an insult to us. It is an insult to life. We are angry at this insult. I feel death, unnatural death, moving in for our children. It is emotional, moral and physical. And each of us is a mother's child. The facts are apparent. I have little more to add. The
facts are what we talk about very often. I do not desire to watch the executions of our children, to know the make of the bullets, the details of the poverty and the war, to seek out an argument about the temperature and humidity the day on which we sort the pieces left of the life we have tenderly worked at.
Politics and ideology leave me feeling cold. They are a game played by people who do not know what love is, far, far too often.
I have a name for what I am doing with my life. I have a few. They are the names of the children I have birthed, Mac and Ob, and the names of the other people I love. I think this is what I have in common with every other mother on Earth.
Solidarity is the principle aim of thoughtful motherhood. This is what I am here to tell you today. Give me a minute and take my hand, I want to explain what I think.
At one time the idea solidarity meant in German culture "collective debt." Over time it came to mean the individual taking responsibility for the community. Later on, during the French Revolution, it came to mean brotherhood among the underclass. Today it seems to mean some kind of interest, however vague, in the welfare of another. It means a lot of things to a lot of people. I will accept each of these definitions for now. I will accept each of these definitions because they each pivot on responsibility, a deepening of what we are each capable of feeling, saying, thinking, doing, from where we start, because of love. Love is the glue that holds a community. This is the same pivot where we find each other as mothers: responsibility and love.
There is a limit to what I can do for my sons, for anyone, so long as I do not make my love political, however. While my politics must not lose its face, in my case, the dirty little freckled face of my baby son and the deep eyes of my young man.
Some time ago a woman invented Mother's Day. Julia Ward Howe. She called on mothers to raise their sons well, to not be tools for war, as she saw happen in the American Civil War, as she assisted happening as the author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Quickly this was forgotten; the holiday progressed to honor mothers just for being mothers, not call us to solidarity. And quickly, yet again, the holiday was consumerized. And now as my sons are threatened, and as I scramble with my every ounce of life force to protect them, I will get a card this weekend, maybe with a picture of a teddy bear on it, and maybe some message from a friend about how I am a goddess, to be proud of my stretched and flabby body, as if it is that that I am most worried about as perhaps it is that that determines my personal worth to the occasional sweet talker with economic and/or social power.
I like Howe’s Mother's Day Proclamation. "Arise, all women who have hearts, Whether our baptism be of water or of tears!" Like many good words, however, I recognize that repeating them on their own doesn't make them understood enough to derive a coherent lesson or change behavior. I think, to be understood, the people in them have to be struggled with as representatives from our own inner lives, which is what they are, as our ancestors or peers. We must be willing to fully struggle with our culture, and not just mainstream culture, but our closest, most intimate cultures inside it. Howe, for example, may have been conveniently misguided in her thinking that women, in general, teach sons "charity, mercy and patience" -- traits then somehow "unlearned" -- and that moral evil is an inherently masculine capacity for which women are uniquely responsible for working their sexual or motherly magic against. And like our old mother, Howe, we might too be misguided.
I have begun to see how our idea of solidarity moved from being one of communal debt to the vague interest in another's welfare. I will not argue with the word, but the animal mother has been tamed. In a recent interview on Democracy Now long-time activist Selma James said "We are civilized by this work [of caretaking], we women...we need men to be civilized by this work...we don't want them working for capitalism...I'm talking about our working to care for others, to be with others." I agree that caretaking is transformative, in a good way, but I have a bone to pick with the word “civilized.” I have been thinking recently that actually the problem is that we are less animal than we should be. We have nothing to base a morality on. We live in the intellectual, professional, ether.
Howe saw the devastation and her politics clearly changed as a result. She became a pacifist just a few years after supporting a war, a war she supported to support justice for enslaved peoples. And while she may have admitted to friends in private correspondence the change, and to some degree her own responsibility as a writer of rousing words, not simply another mother, for its horrors, it is the Mother's Day Proclamation that is her public writing, and in it, she shares nothing of that.
The Proclamation seems to me sometimes interesting primarily as a study in how one can make the mistake of eschewing appropriate personal and communal responsibility in order to pursue a more virginal image, and an impossible responsibility, than anyone deserves or can shoulder, and do so very surreptitiously. It reminds me, really, of an aspect of modern American "progressivism," where we blame evil people (like George Bush) for doing evil things (like bombing Afghanistan and Iraq) and feel like, because we say the right words (like peace and solidarity), or even, in some cases, truly suffer in our efforts, we are among the virtuous (while we continue to bomb Afghanistan and Iraq).
How can we begin to explain, if we are serious people, serious about justice,
the constant murder of civilians all over the world in what so many of us have accepted is a series of wars about dominance? And, even without war, the abuse of workers? Poverty? Are we really so weak that we can't do better? We can see the consequences of an incomplete fight for justice -- a justice most human beings on the Earth say we want, and I believe we do, I think. Is it simply that our mothers did not read Howe's Proclamation and words like it? Is that the problem? Somehow, I think this is doubtful.
But it is in the example of their profound complication, her complication, our complication and my complication that I can learn anything, or share anything. It's never enough, I think, to just recall the facts. We must struggle with them in our deepest selves. And we must do so fully with each other. That is animal behavior evolved to a state of deep morality.
I have said before, because I am a mother and I repeat myself, that colonial thinking (for example: racism, classism, misogyny), which we all engage in to varying degrees -- in testament to our wretched inheritances -- is ultimately about denying humanity, making people, ourselves even, abstractions, ideas, not flesh and blood people. The idea we have might be violent or it may be sentimental, as our political debates speak to, but the reduction is ultimately an evil. It may be the definition of evil. Indeed, Selma James, in her 1972 introduction to The Power of Women and the Subversion of Community said wisely: “There is nothing in capitalism which is not capitalistic, that is, not part of the class struggle.”
Whiteness, for example, as a form of superiority, is kind of a new concept which came about as a convoluted result of the movement toward home ownership and suburbia after WW II (White People were once Irish, Italian, Polish...), and while race is imaginary (while racism is real), it is possible that what was once "White" culture is, in our current social context, is becoming "professional" culture. Institutional racism and, indeed, caustic bigotry remain huge issues for millions of people -- for all of us really, if solidarity is our value -- but in the United States we now have a Black president and the new MLK memorial has corporate sponsorship -- the same sponsorship that goes to making war and leaving people in poverty, and the same president who sends us into it. Whiteness, a great tool of institutional evil, is an invention of capitalism as an invention of imperialism. What other tools are there? Racism is still with us and what else is?
Our mother James continues:
"…look at the demands we in England marched for in 1971: equal pay, free
24-hour child care, equal educational opportunity and free birth control and
abortion on demand. Incorporated into a wider struggle, some of these are vital. As they stand, they accept that we not have the children we can't afford; they demand of the State facilities to keep the children we can afford for as long as 24 hours a day; and they demand that these children have equal chance to be conditioned and trained to sell themselves competitively with each other on the labor market for equal pay. By themselves these are not just co-optable demands. They are capitalist planning. Most of us in the movement never felt these demands expressed where we wanted the movement to go, but in the absence of an independent feminist political framework, we lost by default."
In a folk tale from India (my son Mac loved this one when he was about four) an unwise king does not want his naked feet to be dirtied, so he orders the earth covered in leather. This makes it impossible for the people to live, because they cannot grow food, and when it rains, it floods them out. A wiser man creates the first shoes for the king so that the rest of the world may have the life giving dirt again. The king is not confronted in this way and the people continue to live under him, though thankfully no longer under leather. These are the kinds of solutions James was referring to in the 1970s and the kinds of solutions we continue to support, as opposed to solutions based on any idea we may have of solidarity.
Mariarosa Dalla Costa joins Selma James (in The Power of Women and the Subversion of Community) in saying:
"We want...nurseries and washing machines and dishwashers, but we also want choices: to eat in privacy with few people when we want, to have time to be with children, to be with old people, with the sick, when and where we choose. To 'have time' means to work less. To have time to be with children, the old and the sick does not mean running to pay a quick visit to the garages where you park children or old people or invalids. It means that we, the first to be excluded, are taking the initiative in this struggle so that all those other excluded people, the children, the old and the ill, can re-appropriate the social wealth; to be re-integrated with us and all of us with men, not as dependents but autonomously, as we women want for ourselves; since their exclusion, like ours, from the directly productive social process, from social existence, has been created by capitalist organization."
I read a lot of self-help books, because, like many of us, I need some help.
One of my favorites is less self-help as it is a primer in skills building to solve all problems through community building. In The Abundant Community consultants Peter Block and John McKnight assert that “We are colonized by the belief that we are a diagnostic category, that we are a need, not a capacity, and that only a system, a product, a professional service can satisfy that need…the abundant community embraces fallibility and humanness.”
It is in a competent community that as human animals we will find freedom, which may not be the same as liberty. I believe this strongly and I want you to think about it with me. The allure of capitalism is that it is possible for some of us to attain a kind of liberty so long as we have the tool of capital, money, with which to pay for our power, not negotiate our relationships. This is the power of men over women, the power of Whites over People of Color. It is a power that is both coerced, on an individual level, and consensual, on an institutional level. It is a puzzle.
Block and McKnight say that:
"To reclaim the role of citizen, to go from addiction to choice, the shift will simultaneously restore vital functions to the family and the neighborhood and reconstruct the competence of the community, all of which come under assault in consumer culture."
The strategy outlined in The Abundant Community in which one may reclaim the role of citizen is, however, somewhat counterintuitively, an abundantly personal one. The properties to be attained by the authors’ ideal, fully functioning community are the giving of gifts, the presence of association (wherein the gifts of individuals are amplified), and compassion, or hospitality (which recognizes that many traditional communities are xenophobic, and otherwise phobic, as we have seen in North Carolina this past week). Their strategy has strengths, to be sure, but I find that the authors do not pay heed, in this list or anywhere in their very good book, to the political, the institutional, environment within which this movement they describe must take place. It is not as easy as making better choices. Our choices are pulled at by forces outside of us.
For some reason this has been a common pattern of weakness in our culture. That which is political is only concerned with institutional matters, while that which is personal is only concerned with the individual, the transformation of the individual usually, and usually to a happier state. It is
a kind of hyper-specialization of interest, and a hallmark of professional behavior, which is capitalist behavior, that drives the whole way we think of
our lives together.
I find it extremely problematic to find a strategy that is either entirely personal or entirely political to counter the generations of oppression and the ensuing breakdown of community that has made these intrusions more and more possible. The war we fight is everywhere as mothers, as caretakers, as maybe the last non-professional relational beings left standing in the United States, hobbling maybe, but here.
Many feminists of James’ generation fought to take women out of the home and into the workplace. This was an institutional, political, strategy not unlike inventing shoes for a king who would otherwise cover the earth in leather. Women took work outside of the home that at best is no more fulfilling than the kinds of work that the vast majority of men had and have now, which is far from life affirming labor and far from useful labor. All the while the march of colonialism became swifter as our children, now in many cases the third generation with little parental involvement, are raised almost entirely by institutions and the media, which is not only bad for the human animal they are, but which is in service to capitalism. I do not intend to be barefoot and pregnant, but I value the work of caretaking and we all need it. Caretaking should be expanded beyond the role of motherhood. That is the institutional goal, but on a personal level, feeling the weight of motherhood and demanding its respect is on my list.
Where do we even begin meeting these goals? It is all so overwhelming. Martin Luther King, before he was a corporate memorial, began his political agenda in Where Do we Go From Here: Chaos or Community with "The Triple Evils of poverty, racism, and war.”
"They are interrelated, all-inclusive, and stand as barriers to our living in
the 'Beloved Community.' When we work to remedy one evil, we affect all evils. The issues change in accordance with the political and social climate of our nation and world."
Perhaps, if we talk about it, we will identify other things, but we must talk
about it. I propose that we each pick five people with whom we are going to
determinedly interact for the next year, three on the emotionally easy side and two on the hard side, and talk. Talk all the time. Talk deeply. We must identify what is coerced and why in the life of the individual through our neighbors and remedy this through what remains consensual, how we choose to behave as organizations of people.
If it were me talking, which it is, right this second, political demands we might make as organizations of mothers, as caretakers rather, may well be Guaranteed National Income, for example, a political idea that is often scoffed at as impossible. Income is a big problem in making truly free choices on a personal level. Further, radical, organized, acts of resistance to war would address political issues we find our children and each other faced with, as Howe attempted to address in her invention of Mother’s Day. We must work to free swaths of us from the chains that prevent our connection, but like the chicken and the egg, neither the political nor the personal must be first.
Personal change may well be what is described in The Abundant Community intentionally for people do not change without connection, the more personal the better. Despots and saints, however much they are simply in the popular imagination, know this. “One man’s death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic”, Joseph Stalin famously said. Mother Teresa said something similar: “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at one I will.”
I noted recently that there is a home that you can only find in the depth of
old friends, their eyes and hands, old places, emotional and physical, in the
labor and commitment, or the memory, which has kept the bond whole. One of my favorite quotes comes from Iris Murdoch: "Love is the difficult realization that something other than oneself is real." We are not the same person. We are, however, mutually dependent and capable of doing much better by each other than we do. I am a mother and I repeat myself. I say these things all the time.
Happy Mother's Day. Really. "Arise, all women who have hearts, Whether our baptism be of water or of tears!" Arise. Take my hand. Better yet, take your neighbor's hand, assuming I am not she.
The color and quality of the light here is, I don't know, dense. I always feel like I am being pushed into myself, quieting, sinking, falling through what is me and through the floor of the Earth when I walk alone here, visiting what seem like the ruins of the civilization I was part of eons ago, like the last survivor of Pompeii, when it was I who left. This is Montgomery, Alabama.
This is where I was a teenager and where I spent my early years as a mother, the place where I worked as a projectionist in a neighborhood theater, a non-profit one screen art house, called The Capri. Alabama is where my mother's family has lived since before the American Civil War, in a small, ever flooding town called Elba, just north of Mobile.I am hardly a survivor as I burn and push through. I used to fancy myself one, feeling the need to keep on breathing through poverty and constant shaming, breathing and birthing a creature I could be proud of. The irony though is that surviving made me ashamed. And birthing is falling too.
I am walking my old walk, my first day in town, through Granny's neighborhood, which is one dead-end block of peeling paint and plastic playsets now, all the old people as dead as where the last house blocks the street that might have been connected, up toward the theater, where I will let myself in, get a soda, just as Mac and I used to, he in his little red wagon, and then I will walk back to my friend's home (where I am sleeping, drinking and bathing), by way of the ditch that always has tadpoles. I am a pilgrim this morning. I call this my Southern Haj.
I think there is a cultural connection between Arabs, Persians, and American Southerners. Our playful, sentimental, tribal, burning, sinking natures. Our grandparents being cast out of the garden of industrial, mechanized Eden, we, in horror, the children of Cain, or the bastard children of Abraham. We are the children who drink from secret springs of fortune and the falling, always the falling.
Isn't it funny, my adviser points out to me in an email exchange, that it is so in vogue to consume local food amongst the very people who have moved away from where they themselves were produced and grown? I am thinking about this. I do a lot of food shopping with Martin, my friend of going on 20 years that I have been staying with. I treasure every litte berry I pick on my walks, to eat the dirt, maybe to make my passage through the Earth easier, to put it inside of me.
There is a home that you can only find in the depth of old friends, their eyes and hands, old places, emotional and physical, in the labor and commitment, or the memory, which has kept the bond whole. We tell funny stories about each other. Do you remember when? There are hands that make the falling move faster, your mass becomes greater, and in so, the falling will disappear, you are moving so fast it looks like stillness, and there are eyes in which the horror dissipates, and this is home inside the rapid and heavy descent.
I have fallen now clear through, as I write this, back to my children and Washington DC, or rather the Maryland suburb, where we live. Driving the rural roads since I left my cousin Wes' place, having discovered a new setting on my GPS that allows me to avoid the interstate. The more things change the more they stay the same.
The drive is misty and the pushing through Tennessee is so beautiful and so worth it. The rusting church roofs set on white cinderblock squares, the mountains being swallowed by clouds and vomiting up the remains of towns. I have a Cheerwine. It makes the skin above my upper lip and my tongue a very gross, like cheap ass uncooked hotdog, shade of pink, my upper lip in a messy crescent. But I am in a car, so totally alone, and it does not matter.
I think I know now why I like to look at and touch old doll houses. They feel to me like these towns I barrel through, like the meaningful to me corpse of what used to have its own meaning.
A man at a gas station tells me to keep laughing my big raucous laugh that he overhears. Southerners are so violent.
I return to my children. I have returned to my children, with many food gifts. Ob snuggles into me. He keeps smelling me. I wrap my arms around him and I make my chest his home again, pulling him close, for the fall.
If I ever have something really crappy happen to me that enters into what is deemed relevant political discussion, do me and you both a favor: do not chant "I am Windy Cooler." Do not wear t-shirts or buttons that say this.
Take care of my kids. If you loved me, find other people who did too, and take care of each other. Try to learn something about being human, about yourself, through the relationship with me. Tell some good stories. If you did not know me, did not love me, seek out those who did. Make some sense of what happened, whatever it was that finally did me in. The options for my unjust demise are endless. Whatever it is, bear witness. Take action. But do not take my name and put it on yourself.
We are no one but who we are, but we can do a much better job of supporting other people and asking for the same.
That is what solidarity is.
One of my favorite quotes comes from Iris Murdoch: "Love is the difficult realization that something other than oneself is real." We are not the same person. We are, however, mutually dependent and capable of doing much better by each other than we do.
Actually, wait...why wait until something is deemed politically relevant by whomever it is that decides these things?
Let's learn something about each other and take care of each other now. The options for our unjust demise are endless. Let's try a little harder to be ourselves and be present to the reality of each other.
The night before our wedding, with family and friends.
"What are you going to wear? A white t-shirt with your jeans?" That's what my friend asked the week before I married John on this day in 2003. I was the kind of person who wears the same grungy crap a few days in a row, maybe even sleeping in it, because I was obsessed with organizing. Or, that is the story I told myself.
"No. I'm going to wear a dress."
"A wedding dress?"
I wore a wedding dress. I did. It was off-white. And I carried flowers. And up until I threw it at John's face a few years ago, I wore a ring that had his name inside and the date on which we were married. I have that ring now, and his ring too, in a handmade wooden box that says "I love you the way you are."
Oh, John. Life is so short and friends are few. I love you. Maybe I can say that and mean it and know what it means to love someone else because you taught me. We taught each other, maybe, because maybe that is the way love works. In the end it was you who taught me, and I who taught you, though I have said all kinds of awful things in the past about the kind of pain I was in with you too. As have you, though you were never as emotive as I.
We've been so shitty to each other, by accident mostly, and so, so good to one another too, mostly on purpose. The forgiveness between us is real and deep. There is something to be said for that.
For the rest of you, this is what I have learned from my marriage. John and I took vows on our wedding day that we wrote ourselves. They were about our commitment to the community. That's all we said. We were a work team devoted to the world. Guess what, activist friends? That did not a marriage make, and in the end, that did not a good work team make either.
We fell apart, as people. We're still picking the sharp little pieces of broken heart out of our flesh.
Community is something you don't just work for. It is a relationship. And you can't have a relationship with something as huge as "the world" or even "the neighborhood" if you don't know how to have a relationship, an intimate one, with another person, because you cannot know the reality of others without this experience. And you cannot write your own vows to the community. It is a negotiation.
In The Sibling Society
, author Robert Bly relates the story of the Hindu god, Ganesh, who, as a youth, is asked by his mother to guard her privacy as she bathes. He unknowingly is guarding her from her husband, his father, who had been so long gone he does not know him. Indeed, the father had left the family in a rage eons before because his wife, the goddess who bore Ganesh, conceived him in an act of trickery against him. In the ensuing fight between Ganesh and his father, the boy’s head is cut off. His mother, upon seeing this, is filled with grief and rage. To mend him his father takes the head of a baby elephant and places it upon Ganesh's shoulders. Bly interprets the story in terms of the damage we do to young men in our culture of libertarian ideals, leaving them without mentorship, to feel as if
they are protectors of their mothers, not themselves sheltered.
The myth is also reminiscent of the awesome, if somewhat delusional, responsibility of the activist, the deformity, and the weight of a professional head -- a non-human head -- that has colonized us, a head that does not quite fit on our very human body.Jeff Noonan wrote recently
"A future new left must be positive and constructive if it is to be anything at all. A positive and constructive new left, while mindful of the structural contradictions of capitalism, cannot treat these as a reason to not act in the present on demands that make some people's lives better but leave structural problems unaddressed in the short term. Theoretical models of wholesale alternatives to capitalism have a place, but have not proven capable of mobilizing large numbers of people in Europe and North America in ways that have effectively institutionalized real gains. Instead, the losses continue to mount. The first crucial task of an effective new left must therefore be to work out a short term agenda that builds mass support and that can be realized within existing institutions, but at the same time pushes those institutions away from their current life-blind function toward their life-valuable reason for being."Their life-valuable reason for being.
Their life-valuable reason for being.
Their life-valuable reason for being.
My friend, poet and teacher, Lee Furey, wrote in her poem Penelope
about her 20 year long relationship with another activist:I hate this movement
that has stolen you from me.
I hate it because it denies
its own love of conflict,
the beauty of imperfection
and forgiveness.I hate it because
it finds those who live in peace boring.I hate it because
I don't know where you left the guitar.
I hate it
I live on the ground.
Yeah, Lee. We all do. We all live on the ground.
" with which I am so obsessed? It was first the idea that the people over which we have the most influence are the people who know us best. Parents have enormous influence over children, for instance. Children, in my experience, also have enormous influence over parents. I was, in fact, radicalized, by the birth and circumstances around the birth, of my first son, when I was a very young woman. My love for him taught me, a child who still existed in a Victorian romantic fantasy, to look at the animal world. The real world in which even Dickens was wasted and soiled. Our poverty was physical and so was my neighbors. It was my love for him that led me to understand what we were doing to children all over the world. It's a story I tell all the time. I wanted activists to use their influence over those who love them. Our friends and families.
I was offended by, among other things, campaigns in which organizers were "parachuted" in, in "blitzes," where one goes in like a soldier, like a navy seal with a clipboard, and a rating system in which the people one meets are assigned a number based on their agreement with the leadership of the organization and their
ability to convince others to agree as well, their own leadership potential in combination with their loyalty to "the message." I was offended by having an assigned "turf," like some street dog, in which I rated others and my job was to never deviate from the recorded message. And certainly to never have real, organic relationships with those I worked with, or for, or with what seemed to me the subjects of our organizing, something like the subjects of an experiment in a mad scientist's lab. It never felt like justice. And I couldn't be convinced that even winning the goals of an organization's leadership, even though they may be sound goals in and of themselves, was truly a win in the context of the culture this kind of organizing created.
It felt like fracking
for freedom. I was never sure this was possible. Freedom and justice and love and solidarity can't be dug for like natural gas. These are not physical resources. They are spiritual.
Can you do cultural violence and in the end have the kind of community competence
necessary to keep on winning, winning something more than a 10 cent pay-raise, or a new bus, or whatever resource that community needed in that moment? It always seemed that the resource we most needed were social skills, the kind that put us in touch with each other, our best renewable resource, with which, if you are a believer in organizing in the first place, are the way we can move mountains. We are our own golden egg laying hen. When we frack for freedom, do we kill the hen?
What is the "
Talking with her a few weeks ago left me with the following pieces of thoughts.
If whiteness is kind of a new concept which came about as a convoluted result of the movement toward home ownership and suburbia
(we white people were once Irish, Italian, Polish...), and if race is imaginary (while racism is real), then is it possible that what was once "white" culture is, in our current social context, "professional" culture? I mean, look at our president, look at the MLK memorial and its corporate sponsorship
-- the same sponsorship that goes to making war and leaving people in poverty.
Is there an evil that manifests itself in many forms -- for example in institutional racism, sexism, classism -- and can it be described in some way as "the evil of whiteness?" Which is not to say the evil of people of visible European descent, because evil is not genetic and I know, for all of my white Southern culture's faults, we are not evil -- but is it the evil of washing away what is organic and real and vital between human beings? The mind numbing evil of the suburbs. The evil of washing away the soil in which we all must grow. Are our roots left naked, perhaps wrapped in a plastic boundary, like cut flowers in the supermarket? Did we once call this nudity "whiteness," and do we call it now "being professional." This is
the overall effect of imperialism and of corporatism, I think. This boundary is what has allowed slavery and what allows us now to not collapse at the opening of the newspaper each morning.
There is a children's folk story I read once, I think from India, where the king does not want his feet to be dirtied, so he orders the earth covered in leather. This makes it impossible for the people to live, because they cannot grow food, and when it rains, it floods them out. And so, a wise man creates the first shoes for the king, so that the rest of the world may have the life giving dirt again.
I am about as pale as "white people" get, and yet I am not white in color. I'm more a mixture of pink and blue. Why do brides wear white? It was to say they were pure and clean and virginal, back when our mothers were married. We still wear white to say these things even though there is little pressure in mainstream culture to be pure, as in virginal, anymore. Though the artifice remains. Why is it meaningful to us still? Why was that color -- white -- given to me to define me? To connect me to a culture of imperialism, in which my ancestor's buy-in was at one time necessary? Who must buy-in now and to what? When my former husband John once worked for HR Block as a tax preparer -- a temporary, crappy job -- I remember they were all given baseball caps as a prize at their orientation. The hats simply said "professional." Why the artifice?
Where is the power in that connotation? And what will we do for it?Well, what have we done for whiteness?
And what good did it do any of us, really?
I'm not sure I'm having a whole thought, as I alluded to, really I'm pretty sure I'm not -- but, is it possible that there is an evil that we are not getting at and uprooting that goes beyond all of its symptoms, all of its artifice? The evil that is behind imperialism and its wars, behind racism, something much deeper than the things many of us have spent our lives fighting from within the evil, separated from each other by it, even as we fight?
A new friend of mine, Maggie, a fellow student at Goddard College, is working on a project that involves both growing a good lawn this year and thinking through some sticky places in labor history and union history. And suburbia.
The Grass Harp?
I realize you probably have not. I have a peculiar love for Southern American literature, however -- considering all Southerners to be natural anarchists -- and I loved this novel immensely as a teenager. It is a story about gifts. It is a story about how one cannot take that which is precious, that which is part of someone, away from another. It must be shared freely.The scene I most remember was that of the boy, the orphaned narrator, saving foil candy wrappers all year
with his aunt and companion, Dolly, who is somewhat feeble-minded, as a person of the era would say. They save them to make twinkling Christmas gifts. Collin, the boy, remarks that what is most awful about poverty is not being able to give gifts.Perhaps that is the best definition of moral poverty and the pain it causes.
Have you ever read Truman Capote's
The Revolution Will Not Be Funded
with appreciation, nodding that yes, people of color have been fetishized by corporatized non-profits; yes, of course, we cannot trust that those who benefit from capitalism will fund any meaningful rebellion against themselves; yes, professional activists, endowed in many cases with the privileges of all other professionals, have successfully worked to change the language of justice, the manners of justice, the culture of The Work, into something not only exclusive, but something neuter at best, manipulative at worst.
But what of these professional activists? I have certainly been one. I frankly don't know any other way to make a living. I wasn't surviving very well as that teenage-mother welfare-queen I once was, back when I was not a professional activist. I sometimes re-visit a letter
I wrote to my now friend Jeff, right before I was able, for the first time in my life, to earn much of anything, acting out my rage and my love. In it I recount how I was being evicted. I am still suffering from the ill-health and emotional trauma brought on by several years of poverty and all the crap that is done to women in poverty. And I realize I was lucky to find my way out.
But that's the American Dream, isn't it? And that's the dream that people like me -- people who above all else believe in solidarity -- reject as a nightmare. It's better than starving, but we are right, because for me to get out of that horror on my own, I lost pieces of my soul, which are pieces of the soul of solidarity. I didn't work for GE or Enron though, and make big bucks. The Center for Community Change discovered the organization I worked for in Montgomery, Alabama as a volunteer organizer and I spent the next year learning how to go to conferences and sell myself to get funding, to get paid, which I needed, and for which I was grateful. But I sold myself. I went on to work for other organizations, including labor unions -- which appealed to me because of their working class rhetoric -- and most of my work was comfortable and my employers or supervisors good, kind, even passionate people. But I always saw exactly the reality I saw back when I wrote to Jeff about what professional activism meant to me in 2002. I never liked any work I was paid to do half as much as I did my volunteer work, when I was free and when I spoke from my heart and when The Work was really about my son and me and our home, and when I understood what solidarity was, even if I didn't have it. I was never as effective again as I once was, when I had few skills, and a lot of heart. And what have I earned? I am barely middle-class. And that could change. And some of these work places have been downright abusive. 18 hour days, for no apparent reason, verbal assaults, feeling as if I was being paid to manipulate the very people I was supposedly in solidarity with.
The way in which activism has been professionalized has created a new activist culture in which activists are largely acting in rebellion against families of origin, not acting to protect their families of origin, as was the older model of social activism.
This has also led to professional activists/organizers displacing neighborhood and worker volunteers through an illusion of professional dominion over the work, expertise in the work, and an expectation that if someone is getting paid, then The Work will get done -- as well as creating an environment that is, in social class, very unfamiliar and unfriendly to the old volunteer culture. Activists and organizers leave the work at a young age, to top it all off, leaving behind little skill and institutional memory in their organizations. Burn out is killing us.
And while it's not all our fault, and many of us don't know what else to do right this second, it is up to us to participate in fixing it. Because for all of our actual faults, we know better. Deep down inside us, we do. I think it's one of the main reasons we see burn out. As we mature past just being pissed at the world, we see how alienating this whole thing we are passing off as solidarity is.
Intentional, focused work in the development of healthy attachments inside activist institutions is imperative. Meaningful, transformative relationships in The Work, blurring the line between what is "The Work" and what is one's personal life in a new way, in a fully human way, grounded in love, is what I am feeling for. Not the 18 hour day "in the field". But the integration of one's relationships in all things. Not the supervisor who once told me how lucky he was that he was divorced, so he could work more, not the kid who hates all his middle-class white parents stand for because he hates them and he wants them to know it, ala All That Rises Must Converge
-- no -- not social hours that go nowhere in downtown DC, but where we are nice for a while and discuss nothing of import.
My vision is a kind of community competence that may never have existed, but which came closer to existing before the professionalization of activist work. I want, my goal is, to help create a world in which solidarity, the mutual support of humanity, to the best of each of our abilities, is our striving. I am inspired by the Catholic Worker Movement. I am inspired by the original Black Panther movement. I am inspired by what I know about myself and my neighbors and my family and all our struggles. We need each other. I want us to find a way to fulfill that need.
While there are many contributing factors to burnout, I think they are tangential to the overwhelming effects of the professionalization of activism in the last 50 years. Many of us have read