Living in place

Despite the fact that we are well into January, I can’t seem to let 2016 go.  A friend recently asked me, without a hint of derision, how I can justify my impulse to celebrate the past year as a personal success.  After all, I can point to no career advances or acclaim, no rousing personal achievements.  As an out-of-shape, frumpy middle-aged mom with a couple of ordinary kids who lives in a small, run-down apartment, it’s pretty hard to explain how on earth I might market anything about my life as a triumph.  My culture says that I should be wishing for more, committing to 10-step plans for our betterment rather than sitting back to revel in my mediocrity.

I suspect that part of the answer comes from the fact that this life, humble as it is, is mine.  At least in some significant ways I’ve been granted the ability to choose this gig, rather than being fully coerced by my circumstances.

There is also something to be said for life in one’s 40s – something surprisingly freeing about arriving at a point in life where one’s identity resembles a finished building rather than a construction site.  Certainly, there are still projects to be undertaken, beams to replace and rooms to redecorate but the foundation is set and the basic structure is complete.  It seems that I have reached the point where I know how to live within it’s walls, to delight in it’s graceful archways and stop fretting over the tacky brown carpeting.

But I am beginning to believe that real meaning comes from somewhere else.  It hit me when I came back from visiting my parents in the Midwest this summer and knew, somewhat to my dismay, that I was really and truly home.  It may have been the first time that I recognized just how intimate my feet are with the paths and locales of my neighborhood.  My first impulse was to compare, as so many do, the singularity of this place to the grit and conflict of the Midwest.  After all, I live in a city that has become an adjective.

But I don’t believe that story.

We have been very lucky.  I find myself in a place where I feel supported in the true sense of the word.  My kids have solid schools and good relations with their teachers and no less than 10 doors in the immediate vicinity of our house on which to knock if they need help of any kind.  Some of our immediate neighbors are the kind of people I would be grateful to meet anywhere.  The fact that several have children of similar ages to mine seems almost to good to be true. But I’m still not convinced that a strong community is a question of the right people or the right place. I think it is largely a question of commitment. And the true cost of community is time, that commodity that is so mercifully scarce for the vast majority of families.

In reality, I struggle with this place that I call home.  It is changing so rapidly that I now deeply understand the kind of fear that breeds conservatism. Add to that the fact the fact that we simply can’t afford to live here.

But I live here.  Actively.  And, though it has taken more than a decade to reach this point, this is my home. I have begun to see all of it’s problems and flaws in much the same way that I see that tacky brown carpeting.

They are mine.

A Poem on Hope

It is hard to have hope. It is harder as you grow old,
for hope must not depend on feeling good
and there’s the dream of loneliness at absolute midnight.
You also have withdrawn belief in the present reality
of the future, which surely will surprise us,
and hope is harder when it cannot come by prediction
anymore than by wishing. But stop dithering.
The young ask the old to hope. What will you tell them?
Tell them at least what you say to yourself.

Because we have not made our lives to fit
our places, the forests are ruined, the fields, eroded,
the streams polluted, the mountains, overturned. Hope
then to belong to your place by your own knowledge
of what it is that no other place is, and by
your caring for it, as you care for no other place, this
knowledge cannot be taken from you by power or by wealth.
It will stop your ears to the powerful when they ask
for your faith, and to the wealthy when they ask for your land
and your work.  Be still and listen to the voices that belong
to the stream banks and the trees and the open fields.

Find your hope, then, on the ground under your feet.
Your hope of Heaven, let it rest on the ground underfoot.
The world is no better than its places. Its places at last
are no better than their people while their people
continue in them. When the people make
dark the light within them, the world darkens.

–Wendell Berry

The personal and political of 2016

We spent New Year’s Eve in the Emergency Room.  Mr D has been sick and the experience was about as positive as any visit to the ER could be.  We were reassured that he’d be OK.  And he is, phew.

When talking with friends and family the past few days, nearly everyone has said the same thing. Sounds like you had a shitty end to a shitty year.  I know exactly what they mean by this and yet, as I reflect on this past year, I am having a hard time writing it off as merely “shitty”.  For me, 2016 was the year when the complicated relationship between the personal and political was driven home like never before.

On a personal level, 2016 was a special year.  No, there were no windfalls or spectacular achievements that I failed to write about here.  Nor was it all truffles and daisies. But this past year I came to really believe that the new road that my life began to take 7.5 years ago when g was born was the right one for me.  This was the year that I finally became competent at living the life that I’ve been working toward. A year of focusing on the things that are important. A year of simply living. In a year when the word identity was typically associated with the worst aspects of politics, I found that I have begun wearing my own in a way that has never quite felt so right.

If it had only been a normal year I’m convinced that I would be celebrating.  Or, at the very least, I would feel free to focus on all the little ways that I could make further improvements.  There can always be improvements – always a home to tidy, extra pounds to attend to and finances to improve.

But 2016 was not a normal year.  It was a year that shook me at the level of my core belief system.  It wasn’t just the ugly campaign season or the shocking electoral results. I am aware that for all my fears, and there are many, 4 years is pretty short in the grand scheme of things.  But I feel like I’ve been forced to reckon with the limits of my hopes for a world where individual actions carry real power, where dinner is revolutionary.  The reality is that, with the exception of a few power-hungry billionaires, our personal choices only amount to something significant when they are taken collectively. We can’t go it alone.

I’m not planning to abandon my road.  Not now when I’ve finally come to know it’s curves and bends well enough to really enjoy the scenery. But I wouldn’t want to live in isolation even if I could. And so, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I need to find ways to turn my efforts outward in 2017.

If only I could pretend that it isn’t awfully scary out there.

The aftermath

Ouch.

I never seriously believed that Trump could become the next president of the United States.  My shock was partly due to the fact that I live in the bluest of cities in a blue state and get the bulk of my information from liberal news media. (I have tried in earnest to read/listen to mainstream conservative news in order to understand the other side but I just can’t handle the lobotomizing effect of emotionally-supercharged, propagandist headlines that are devoid of facts or content).  But more than anything I was shocked because I was sure that this country was just too good for the Republican candidate.  And the discovery that I was wrong has left me wondering about the very viability of democratic nationhood.

The best way that I have been able to interpret the outcome has been as a metaphor for a terrorist attack.  Many people (ok, around half the country) have been so completely excluded from the orthodox channels of influence that they were willing to do something crazy, even destructive, to finally get their voices heard.  And, though many people are upset, the reality is that many people are also now being forced to listen.

I am listening.  As a coastal ‘elite’ I’m supposed to be completely cut off from the concerns of middle America but I was born and raised in the Midwest.  Much of my family lives in the rust belt.  I know something about the economy of the region and the pain that comes from living without real hope for the future.  And I am fully aware of the ways that I benefit from living in a place with the power to write its own storyline.  The Bay Area is a place where ideas can become reality and the future truly feels like something that we have the great privilege of shaping.  The prosperity and opportunity here give residents the ability to look forward. Not back.

This is my country and I want to make sense of it.  I actually believe that there are real solutions to the problems that affect the many places that are struggling. But there are so many things that I just don’t understand.  I don’t understand how people can be more comfortable paying to incarcerate than to educate.  I don’t understand how anyone believes that it is possible to feel comfortable putting a racist in power without accepting racism.  I don’t understand how anyone can take out their economic frustrations on the people who struggle to survive while providing the labor that powers most of our food system and a good portion of the construction industry.  I don’t understand how anyone can be concerned about Muslim fundamentalism without ever questioning the nature of our relationship with Saudi Arabia. I don’t understand how women can support a man whose only metric for their worth is whether or not they can give him an erection.   I don’t understand how anyone can be more concerned about what another person might choose to do in his/her bedroom than whether or not he/she has access to healthy food.    I don’t understand how anyone can assign more value to the life of a fetus than the lives of billions of people living on this planet (fine, I do understand this, but I don’t understand how such rhetoric continues to be acceptable).

Over and over again since the election I have heard people who voted for Trump tell those of us who are despairing over the outcome that we can now finally understand how they have been feeling for the past 8 years.  They seem to be referring to the comfort one gets from having someone that they can identify with in power.  But, if by chance they are actually referring to the fact that we now know what it feels like to live without hope for the future, then I fully agree.

 

The year of the pussy

I never expected that I could feel grateful for the presence of such an unsavory GOP presidential candidate.

Yet here I am.

Grateful for the outpouring, the surge of outrage and personal accounts that are stirring up so much emotional turmoil.  Grateful for the intoxicating power of collective storytelling.  Grateful for the airing of excrement so stinky that it sparked a truly important national conversation during a campaign that has so far been little more than a media circus.

But I am also a little nervous.  Nervous that we will move on to other things long before we have a chance to make any real progress.  Nervous because there is so much more to learn from this conversation.  Nervous that we won’t learn the one lesson that I honestly believe will permit us to take a giant step forward in the fight to reduce sexual assault.

That lesson is consent.

Sure, everybody knows that consent is the difference between sex and assault but I have never been more convinced that we don’t actually understand how exactly consent works or how to use it.  Listening to the rather blase’ reactions of some older women that I know, I’m reminded that power dynamics were once so skewed that women didn’t even always feel entitled to exercise consent let alone know how to do so.

While things have undoubtedly changed, we have a very long way to go. And that is partly because consent is not simple at all.  While the concept of women clearly expressing lack of consent is critical to our very safety, I’m afraid that it is mostly acceptable because it conforms to our collective comfort with a rather sanitized view of women’s sexuality.

Because beyond the power to deny consent is the power to seek it. And by that I mean women who know what and who they do want and are capable of clearly expressing it.  And that, my friends, is practically heresy.  A particular brand of heresy that most of us have been taught to shun.  And yet it is exactly by learning to reclaim this thing that is ours and doing so on terms that we learn to clearly define for ourselves and others that we have the best hope of turning hetero sex relations into something that could maybe one day resemble mutual respect.

There will always be the Trumps and Berlusconis of the world who believe that everyone comes with a price tag.  And there will always be women (and men) who are willing to plug their nose for long enough to get into the master bedroom at Mar a Lago. But I’m dreaming of a climate in which future generations will have access to sex education that delves into consent even before talk of reproduction and birth control.  A climate where every woman might get to a place of respect for her own pussy that will help her to both avoid the sexual interactions that she doesn’t want AND shamelessly but respectfully seek out those that she does.

I need to talk about race

I don’t want to talk about race.  It makes me uncomfortable, angry and ashamed.  Every single strand of truth on the subject is heavy with conflict.  Taken together it all forms a bitter tangle that is honestly more than I can handle. It also happens that I am in no position to talk on the side of struggle and have zero desire to engage in the kinds of contorted arguments that I know are aimed at nothing more than freeing my own white conscience from its burden.

I can see that I live in a nation that views the horrors of slavery as nothing more than an old fever, long since medicated by the 13th amendment and the civil rights act.  This though I can also see how fully absurd it is to think that a people can be intentionally broken, the entirety of a culture systematically destroyed, and then left, resource-less, to figure out a way to rebuild within an environment that continues to be hostile.  I can see how many people like to talk about the success of the immigrants who arrive with absolutely nothing and yet come to thrive in short order.  And I am speechless to respond to anybody who thinks that a strong culture and family ties constitute as nothing.

I can see the way that things are disintegrating around me.  I read the news.  I see the crime.  I feel the hostility.  I fear the guns.  And I don’t want to talk about it.  But there is one sentiment that I continue to encounter that I’m afraid I just can’t ignore.  It is the sentiment of deep despair that follows time and again with the words “but I just don’t know what can be done” that brought me here to do exactly the thing that I don’t want to do: talk about race.

Because there is a hell of a lot that can be done.  We could do what we should have done a long time ago: put together a real plan to rebuild a (deliberately) broken community.  And we could do this without spending an extra penny in tax dollars because those countless millions that we are spending on policing, criminal justice and imprisonment, those same millions that have done nothing to improve the situation and plenty to make it worse, could be funneled into community building.  Even just a fraction of that budget could be redirected toward schools, clinics, recreation and job training.  And we could begin right now.

But there are problems.  In order to do any of this we probably have to admit the very uncomfortable fact that none of the money that we are currently spending, whether in government programs or criminal justice, is actually aimed at strengthening African American communities.  And we have to accept that there is truly nothing that can be done that will provide results in a politically acceptable timeline.  Our current predicament took generations to create and will take generations to repair.

Nothing about this situation is easy.  And we don’t have a hell of a lot of power to affect change as individuals of any color.  But we can start by deciding that something can be done.  And we can engage in a conversation about real ways to start that doing.

And, painful though it may be, that means that we have to talk about race.

 

Four…………ever??

Dario

Mr D turned four a few weeks ago.  And this happy occasion nudged me into thinking about how much of his childhood I’ve spent looking forward to the next step.  Once he starts walking/stops napping/starts talking/stops using diapers/starts school/stops needing so much attention…………

But somewhere along the way things changed.  Right now I would do just about anything to slow this train the fuck down.  Right now I wouldn’t hesitate to hit the pause button.

It’s not that I’m judging my former self.  She was struggling to get by during what is a very challenging time.  It’s that without much notice the hard work of parenting let up just enough to allow me to access a little secret.  Somewhere in the rhythms of lunch-making and drop-offs, the early-morning music jams and late-afternoon lego sessions, I became aware that my kids are thriving. Right now. And right now I don’t really have to focus on what they might become someday or the far more terrifying question of what the world might offer them.

A walk around the perimeter of they grow up so fast can only lead you to the more difficult truths. You never know what the future holds. And most importantly, life is short.  The path forward is equal parts excitement and terror. But the secret is right there next to the the weeds poking through amid the new sprouts and the endless piles of dirty dinner dishes.

This is it.

And it is enough.

Message for Donald

If you take away the efforts to create – the poetry, art and music

If you take away the desire to understand – the science and philosophy, the exploration of self

If you take away respect for life and those who nurture it

If you take away the courageous struggle to foster civilization

If you take away the belief that we can be better than we are

There is no Great

Food Fridays – a weapon of revolution

I have been a food worker for many years, though for a long time I didn’t know it.  One of the reasons for this was that I was just a child.  It’s not that I was very young.  It’s that I was generally trusting, focused on assimilating the rules of my workplace rather than questioning them.  Doing research inside of academia, I was sure that my goal was simply to further knowledge in plant science, unquestioning of the assumptions and goals related to “feeding the world” that were cut and pasted from one USDA grant proposal to another.  I didn’t focus on the ways that academia and business function together, the ways that the worth of a line of research is evaluated in light of the needs of a corporate system of agriculture that is busy stocking our supermarket shelves.

When g was born and I felt the weight of providing a healthy diet for a growing baby, I turned into a teenager.  I read about pink slime and BPA, antibiotics and processed sugars, atrazine, glyphosate and arsenic and I decided that NOBODY could be trusted to safely feed my child.  I began to have delusional visions of growing and preparing all of our food by myself.  Through a less than perfectly stable mentally outlook, I learned a lot about the things that are wrong with our food system.  And I dressed in black with safety pins, colored my hair purple and brewed kombucha.

About a year ago I began working with a local organic farmer. Confident in my understanding of healthy soils and biological diversity, I was ready to MAKE A DIFFERENCE.  And then I started to become an adult.  I realized that it’s fine and dandy to want to do the right thing, a “thing” that is typically not difficult to understand but isn’t going to take you anywhere if you can’t also put food on your own table.  I learned about the vertiginous climb that so many fresh-faced would-be food providers are facing when they step onto the field and find that their opponent is the colossal corporate food system, an industry so large and powerful that it has decided the modern history of entire nations, including, it could be argued, my own.

Now that I’m developing wrinkles, I finally feel like I may have a decent vantage point from which to see the big picture.  The hormones have calmed but I can’t give up on all of the hopes and demands of the pimple-faced girl in the ripped anarchy t-shirt.  Now that I’m an adult I’ve thrown an apron over that shirt because I think that there is something that I can do about it all.  And that something is called dinner.

I know that it’s asking a hell of a lot of people who struggle enough just to get dinner on the table, many of whom are preoccupied with whether that dinner will actually be consumed by those who need it most, to also consider the implications of genetic technologies, toxicity profiles, carbon footprints and the treatment of agricultural workers.  Life is difficult (and costly) enough!  But if you flip that page over and recognize that the simple and obligatory decisions you make about the food you purchase can be a powerful agent for change in a thousand different ways all at once, you realize that dinner is power.

There are about a billion websites that write about the topic of food in some way.  I know this because I read about half of them on a semi-regular basis.  By joining the ranks I’m hoping to be able to use some of the time that I’ve spent obsessing about all of this over the years to help people make simple choices about what to eat.

I really do believe that small choices can have an impact.  And beyond all that idealistic nonsense, even old farts need their outlets.

 

 

Révolution tranquille*

There is a conversation that I’ve had over and over since beginning life as a SAHM.  It takes on a number of variations but they generally boil down to the same sentiment.  I don’t know how you do it. I could never!  

I’ve had this conversation enough times with enough different people to give me the impression that I don’t quite struggle with this life the way that I’m supposed to. It’s not that I haven’t experienced firsthand the agony of never-ending days with young children.  It’s not that I don’t find some of the work to be repetitive, uninspiring and exhausting. Or that I’m not forced to recognize that sometimes I don’t actually know what I’m doing.  It’s not that I’m not sorry to be missing out on a long list of things because I simply don’t have the time. It’s not even that I am unaware of the nearly nonexistent opportunities for recognition or advancement.  But I have encountered every one of those frustrations in other jobs.  So what is it that makes this particular occupation so unique in so many people’s eyes?  Why is it that I see things differently?

The real reason that I’ve been able to spend several years of my life dedicated more or less exclusively to the running of my family without losing my mind entirely is that I place a high value on what I do.  I am fully aware that raising children falls clearly into the category of work that is not valued by our society.  But I happen to think that sometimes society is an ass hole.

The reasons that I value this work so highly go far beyond the importance of keeping the next generation alive and well or even the opportunity to enhance my children’s potential for “success”. In the workings of day-to-day family life I see the relationships and decisions that establish nothing less than the foundation of culture, the guiding force behind all human endeavors.   On the best of days, I see the work that I do to teach my children to respect other living beings as my greatest contribution to the building of a society built on those principles.   When the stars align, I can see in the simple acts of  watering carrot seeds or cooking dinner my contribution to developing a better food system.  In an hour freely given, I can see how the education of our children and the institutions that provide it rely heavily on the unpaid work of those who care about them.  And in the minor accounting of extra portions for an ill neighbor, I can be part of an alternative system of health care.

This is not an attempt to weigh in on the mommy wars.  It is an attempt to weigh in on the value of work that is too often overlooked.  In reality, I don’t think that any of it should be left to any one gender or individual, biology permitting.  G and I have never seen our arrangement during the past few years as ideal and I am glad that we are working toward a set-up that provides a better balance. But I am also convinced that one of the reasons that it is not easily achieved is that we belong to a culture that doesn’t quite see things the way we do.

And I think that one of the major factors behind this difference in opinion is the fact that the majority of this work takes place outside of the capitalist market system.  Promoting a workforce that both fails to receive a paycheck AND fails to consume a number of services by performing work that could be outsourced is a recipe for reducing growth and tax revenue.  Simply put, this “pink market”** is a problem for our economy.

And yet, I would argue, a system of labor that allows people to focus on the immediate needs of their families and communities is capable of promoting social goods that the market economy simply can’t take into consideration.  And it will tend to avoid many of those negative consequences that capital economies have no incentive to address. I wouldn’t advocate for the total demise of the capitalist system, even if I thought that were a viable possibility. But I do advocate for growth of an alternative system because I think the two can function in complement.

There is a notion that the ability to dedicate one’s time toward the well being of one’s community is selfish and decadent, a domain reserved only for the very wealthy.   This criticism is not unfounded, especially given the fact that it is by necessity subsidized by the market economy.  But it is also true that outsourcing of this work depends almost entirely on low wage labor, which is a major contributor to poverty in the first place.

I know that most people see absolutely nothing revolutionary in dedicating time to snack preparation and storytelling. But it may be exactly this concept that makes it so worthwhile to me.

Just don’t ask me to find anything of value in cleaning urine off the bathroom floor.

 

 

* My thanks to the Canadians for generously “lending” me this title.

**This term doesn’t actually exist in this context and doesn’t do me any good in terms of my goal to dissociate this work with women.  But I can’t deny that it has traditionally been a female domain and the black market is the only other alternative market that came to mind.

 

 

Be my valentine

Dear February,

I am feeling the love. I know that the glorious warm and sunny days that you have blessed us with lately were not meant for my enjoyment alone but that doesn’t change the way that I feel about them.  I credit the plum trees bursting with pink blossoms and our (mostly) unrestricted airways for my genuine feelings of affection for you on this valentine’s day.

I have no choice but to hope that this early taste of spring will be short-lived, followed by plenty more much-needed winter rain, but it has lured me excitedly into the garden.  A little pruning here, a bit of mulching there, a new, roomier home for my beloved baby olive tree.

I don’t ordinarily send valentines but this year I feel the need to tell you that your efforts are not going unnoticed.

 

plum-blossoms-400x600

With love,

Slowmamma