wrote in an intriguing question about something she found in me, here on this website. I was interested in the letter you reference (that you wrote in 2002), "dependence" and "vulnerability" are spoken of as negative. I'm interested to know if your relationship with those two words/emotions/states of being has changed or grown since then.
At the time I wrote the letter Diana is speaking of, vulnerability and dependence were states I thought were avoidable. I used the words to describe, as well as I could, how the man I was partnered with, and whom I have been raising two children with -- John -- felt after realizing that a masters degree from the Kennedy School was not, as he and many working-class people might imagine, the way to stability and anything that feels like success. John is, from small town rust-belt land, a "local boy who made good" type. Or, at least, that's what he should have been, would have been, in the Hollywood version of how things turn out, and that is something I once responded to viscerally, as I sure as hell am not, and I hated my own vulnerability and dependence. I wanted to believe that there was some way out and I wanted to believe that "good people" sometimes choose those states, like Jesus to the cross, maybe, like ritual suicide, more likely. But, there was a way out, I kept telling myself.
John currently works for a non-profit, and is very much the professional at work he was not at the time I wrote that letter (because eating, healthcare, a home, all these are good things and we have found no viable way, currently, to make them happen otherwise), while at the same time, I respect greatly the huge amount of work and patient time he is committed to, not only for his family (including me) -- even if we are not always the most fun people to be with -- but also in our neighborhood where he is a dedicated transit organizer. His philosophy, which we share, is share The Work -- even with the people you think are annoying or incompetent. That, in my opinion, is more than half of The Work right there. Building solidarity. The Work he does best, in my opinion, isn't the work he supports us all with financially, though I am grateful for that too. And he, and I, are still vulnerable and dependent. We all are. It is an unavoidable state. And I have accepted that.
In Radical Homemakers
Shannon Hayes, the author, talks about the illusion many of us have that paid work is our way to stability. In the book she makes the case that a life of simplicity and community makes us more stable than a job we are dependent upon, especially with the consumption that being away from our homes for most of the day fosters as well as the vulnerability of losing our generalized skills in favor of perfecting only the specialized ones we require to do our paid work. Shannon goes so far as to suggest that we don't really need health insurance, something my own newly founded neighborhood radical homemaking discussion group dismissed as ludicrous in a world where equal health care is hardly a right, remembering our own families' sometimes life or death medical expenses.
Still though, much of what Shannon has to say strikes a chord of truth. As we watch the American industrial, corporate economy collapse and we see people losing their homes, and sometimes their minds or morality, as we watch our schools decay, we have to ask ourselves -- did our jobs make us secure? Fuck no. What is money? It's a made up thing that we have decided is the currency of our cooperation. We can choose to cooperate without it. But, of course, we will still be vulnerable and dependent -- just to a community and its judgments and culture alone, without any hope of buying our way to more liberty than our neighbor may have.
But accepting vulnerability and dependence and thinking of them as anything other than negative are different, I realize. I mean, American culture is about self-reliance. And I am very American. I can't be anything else. Are they negative?
Well, I am currently very concerned about where this whole train of thought about my own paid work is going. I mean, here I am saying, in public, that I have serious doubts that what I have been trained to do is actually good for anyone, including me, except in that I will get to eat and have healthcare and all those good things, and that's a lot. You know, I do not have a martyr complex. Not anymore. I love life. That martyr complex that so many activists, paid or not, have is ridiculous, in my humble opinion. Why would you want to save the world, to put the motivation in hyperbolic terms, if you don't have a strong desire to keep on living in it? That macho crap, or Jesus crap, one, is anti-life, and none of us are going to save anyone with it. Have you ever seen a people's movement, a successful one, that is fundamentally anti-life?
Anyway, I'm concerned. I have no desire to die and yet I feel like I'm falling into a hole and that hole is called -- Solidarity? I don't work for pay right now. I decided to go back to school, to study how to be a therapist to activists. In the meantime I've been diagnosed with PTSD. My biggest solidarity relationships are with John, my former partner and with Sam
, my former partner. I have got to find a way of reconciling myself to my own vulnerability and dependence. And surely, one doesn't have to sleep with someone at some point to have a meaningful cooperation with them, right?
In a world where solidarity is hardly the cultural norm, but mortality is the natural one, what's a true believer to do?Greg Brown
, the folk singer, says: "All this stuff about intentional community is a bunch of crap. You’ve got to need each other."
We need each other. If solidarity is what is good for the soul, as I think it is, maybe that need is a positive enough thing to say our vulnerability and dependence, when seen clearly, is positive too-- for human beings are mystical beings. As for me and my remedial humanity, I'm convinced that in the short term I'm going to have to figure things out as well as I can and try to figure them out with you, friend and reader, and strive for something better, something more real and true, for my soul and for my children's future. You'll be reading more about Sam, John, Diana, and lots of other people I love, with hyperlinks most likely, as time goes on, because, well, I love them, and that is what this is about.
My sister-in-law (dear, dear, dear)
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
"Jesus came and said 'the one and only commandment is that you love your neighbor as yourself' and the people's response was 'Wait, you mean we can eat bacon?' Now the non-converting Jews knew Jesus was crazy; they knew better than to eat bacon."
My dear former husband John winked as he said this to me last night. It is a very deep observation, even if we were eating BLTs at the time. I think about "Forgive them Lord for they know not what they do."
I'm not a theologian, and I have no idea the typical interpretation of that quote, but as the agonized dying words from a man who just spent his life trying to save the world, they are quite striking. Is he saying, as he dies, that he sees how limited, fragile, flawed and stupid we are? He tried to teach us, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." This is the man who threw out the money changers. Did he realize in the end that we're all just thinking about bacon?
Sometimes, when I see how hard my friends work to explain why war is an abomination without excuse to people who see dead babies every night on the news and only seem to stop and cry for the grown people we have sent over to do the killing -- at those times -- when the seemingly most simple truths require essays, polemics, protests...I don't wonder what Jesus would do; I think I know. Hang his head and die.
Work to change the world, even for an atheist like me, is a faith relationship with the people we love. It is an inability to enjoy life any other way. The work is never ending. I find something liberating in this thought. Our work is an exercise in love. I get great clarity from that.