Tuesday, October 26, 2010

More Demoralizing

The American writer Edmund Wilson is noted for saying that "there is nothing more demoralizing than a small but adequate income."

I chuckled when I first read that. We’ve all been there -- right?  One of those times, maybe fresh out of high school, maybe when first starting a new job, maybe now, when you can pay your bills -- just barely, but you can pay them -- but after you do, you can’t afford those new shoes you’re dying for, and you know there is no way you can swing a night out with your friends this weekend unless you limit yourself to ten dollars. All night.

Yes. That is hard. And times like that help bring what’s important to life into focus. 

My dad, another notable figure, at least in my life, used to say, “When you’re dumb, you’ve got to be tough.” Sort of his mantra, in fact, and when he brandished that saying we’ll all let obligatory smiles rise. Not “bad” obligatory, as in a mask for rolled eyes, but obligatory because we knew we were being reminded that when you make mistakes, you often pay for them, and sometimes their price is very high. And yet you get through it, and then you go on, because as a human being, you have no other choice. Despite how bad it sucks, you suck it up.

My aunt died late Sunday night. Very early 50s. Her death was not expected. And she left kids. As one of those kids, or as her eldest sister, as my mother is, you have to be really tough to survive something like that.

Losing someone you love is always damned hard. It is never the right time. You are never ready, and neither are they, despite what everyone wants to believe, and knowing that our loved one felt afraid, terrified even, and would have given anything not to die is not a fact we want to know, much less dwell on. But it’s often true, and if we want to be truth-tellers, we need to acknowledge it. Be tough enough.

And now I’d like you to imagine -- or remember -- how it feels to lose someone who was too young to die, or for whom the time was not right, and whom you know did not want to die, because she repeatedly told you during those last hours, cried and pleaded and anguished and shook with fear – and then – while trying to paddle through that sucking, alligator-infested swamp of misery and grief following that leaving – while trying to garner enough strength to keep your neck stiff and your head above the putrid water – to rise above the remnants of an utterly obscene tragedy  – you learn something even worse: your deceased loved one has no burial insurance, and no one in your family has the money to pay to make final arrangements for the loved one you have just lost.

Just take a moment and think about that. Think about the horror. The shame. The guilt. The pain; the pain. The pain.

Since I can’t afford to bury Mom like she wanted, shall I just try and scrape up enough to cremate her instead, even though I know what she, as a Christian, thinks about that? If I have to, will she ever forgive me? If I have to, does it mean she won’t go to heaven?

In case you didn’t already know it, let me tell you something. Being poor is tough, even tougher than being dumb, because while you might be dumb just every once in a while, you don’t ever, not for one moment, get a reprieve from being poor. And do you know something else? Not having enough money to pay your bills is a lot worse, a hell of a lot more demoralizing, than having just enough to get by. For one, being poor is a life filled with kick after kick in the teeth – a constant shame cycle. Just one fun roller coaster ride after another.

Do I pay the electricity or do I buy meat for the kids? Do I go pick up my toddler’s inhaler at the pharmacy or put gas in the car so I can make it back and forth to work all week? Can I afford cat food and pay to register my car, or should I risk the ticket?

Yeah. One in 34 Americans reported zero income last year. (See, e.g., New Figures Detail Depth Of Unemployment Misery; Lower Earnings For All But Super Wealthy.) That’s a lot of people. A LOT. 9,039,604, to be precise. More than NINE MILLION. And how many more make more than that, earn enough to actually have to pay some taxes, but still live in homes, or apartments, where the money coming in isn’t enough to pay all the overhead? Lots. Lots and lots and lots and lots and lots. Many more millions than nine.

Yeah. And how many of those folks have insurance? Life insurance, I mean, since that’s what we’re talking about here. Since probably – I don’t know – ALL of those folks likely work in low-wage, dead end jobs if they can find work at all, I’m guessing the answer is ZERO. And when a loved one dies in one of those families, guess what?

The top 0.1% of income earners in the United States -- that's one-tenth of one percent -- had more combined pre-tax income than the lowest-paid 120 million people. Put together. You and me and everyone we could ever imagine – all the money we made last year – is less than less than a handful of people made. (See Wealth, Income, and Power, and America's Poor: Where Poverty Is Rising In America – and note that "In 2009, poverty among Americans reached its highest level in 51 years.") 

Think about it.

Are they our ruling class? Our kings and queens? More - most - importantly: What the fuck did they do to deserve that? And when did they ever work harder than I do? Sacrifice more than I do? When have they ever had to be as tough as us?

Seriously. And do they deserve to make that kind of money while family after family after family – millions and millions of Americans – cannot even afford the most basic of services for themselves?

Bottom line: Something is seriously wrong with this country. No one – no one ever, ever, ever, ever, ever – should have to worry about where the body, the remains, the soul of their beloved mother will go because they don’t have the fucking money to bury her.

It’s time to stop being dumb – to stop being demoralized. 

To make some changes.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Grasping at Shadows

Right now, at this moment, I imagine my mother cleaning. Furiously. Mop handle in hand, swiffer head prying specks of dirt from corners of the recalcitrant kitchen ceiling. One sister, the one just younger than me, my mind paints carrying the deceased squirrel her puffed-with-pride cats left in the living room for her approval between pinched fingers, tears streaming down her face, her other hand filled with the telephone into which she is speaking. The next youngest sister I see sitting in her desk chair, one or two cats on her shoulders, or the desk, or lying next to her feet as her fingers tap words into existence on the screen into which she stares, almost blankly, as if she, or it, is just an apparition. A favored blue loveseat cradles my youngest sister, I am sure, her fingers, her thoughts, lost in the fur of her newest foster, a Siamese-mix whom no one else can touch.

And me. Staring alternately at the document I’ve opened and the elderly cat lying next to the screen, a girl whose eyes drift closed when my hand finds that spot behind her ears, or when my fingers smooth the hair on her flank.

Philosophy aside, why is this moment so important?

Right now, in this fractal of time, my mother’s baby sister lies dying in a hospital in a beautiful Oregon town. Her children are with her. But her doctors cannot discover the root of her malaise, and a month has passed while she lay, waiting, for someone to cure her ill, to make the pain stop. And today – this morning – a surgery was attempted. Unsuccessfully. And now - still - she lays, conscious; conscious and waiting for the time at the end of the the two hours to two days they have given her.

It – the thought – is nearly beyond bearing.

Initially, we deal with trauma in such different ways. Every time a new stroke of lightning falls, crushes us unto the ground, we lie there until strength returns - because we have no other choice. We weep, we wail, we keen to the sky as we lift ourselves with trembling hands from the scorched earth.

And then, as we stand, we turn and flee in the safest direction.

Today, after I heard the news, I took my son with me on my hunt to try and find food my ailing cat, the one who’s in renal failure, will eat. During the drive into town, as my son played his game in the back seat, I silently cursed the cruelty of life, and of death, even as my son laughed and I watched the sun slink across the sky. I wondered why, questioned the happenstance, and doubted if we can ever know. Doubted that we can understand, because we don’t really want to. Because even if we could understand, tried to really comprehend the mechanisms, the sheer randomness of life and living, could we accept that truth?

I don’t think we’re ready to do that. But yet we need to control. To predict the future. And so we fill our time, substitute /something/ for the mawing grief that threatens to gulp us down. Because we cannot sustain that pain any more than we could survive constant physical pain, we push it aside. We act, we purge, we deflect, we cling. We intellectualize. We run and hide. And then, as the pain lessens, as those pangs twinge just enough less, we invent reasons it exists. Themes. Stories to fit it all into. We assign blame because we yearn to know how to make this badness not happen again, because if it does, we just don’t know if we can survive it again.

But as we walk, or sprint, those paths, the ones where we try to make sense of the horrors living bequeaths us, we lose the truth. We grasp at shadows, and turn our faces from contradictions. Even the really obvious ones.  

If you’re waiting for me to tell it, I’ll be honest. I don’t have the answer. Not one, not many, and certainly not all.

I am certain that we hurt. I am certain that we die. I am certain that bad things are never fair -- and that it is never the right time for them. Perhaps most profoundly, I am certain that there is no sense in things as we imagine it.

One day I hope to be smart enough to divine the answer, and brave enough to stare it in the face without the flinch I know awaits it. But I suspect that the laughter that follows that knowing will not be my own.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Politics of Fallen Embers

First, and before we begin, let me warn you that reading this may spoil parts of book one, so if you haven't yet read it, it might be better to come back after you have.

Still with me? Okay then. Here we go.

I've been plagued by twin curses for over twenty years: chronic insomnia and bad dreams when I do sleep. Long ago I learned that if I made up a story in my mind, followed it, let it fill me, pushed and prodded it into the next scene, and the next, and let it flow and blossom in my mind, the trail I followed would often lead to me to sleep, and on to dream about my story instead of the other things.

The story I started many years ago, the one I nurtured for two decades,   is the foremother of FE . But when I wrote it, and it came so quickly  when I did, it took on a life of its own. And of course, of course!, my  convictions colored it, changed it, led my characters to snort or scoff, to laugh, to stand strong (or give in), to want, to dream, and to cry, and when I finished it, and each time I reread it, I discovered that this story reveals a great deal about those things that matter most to me.

What is FE about -- really? Well, I'd say that it's very fundamentally about the absolute power of love. Not less importantly, at least to me, it's also about the capriciousness of social norms (despite our tendency to think of them as "Truth"s), and of accepting your own and others' bodies even if they don't conform to social ideals. But it's also about examining power inequities (and abuses), racial stratification, gender norms, and social and gender ideals. I would also say that it's constantly pondering ethics, and because it does, FE tries to define what it means to be a hero in any place and at any time, what it takes to become someone who finds the courage to break through the crust, and it most assuredly asserts that we're all capable of doing so -- if we're willing to pay the price.

I want to add that the stories that the slaves tell Kiera are inspired by real events, by still-living people who experienced horrifying abuse at the hands of those who had been charged with caring for them. Some I adapted from accounts told by Irish adults recounting stories of their childhoods in orphanages. Others came from women and men whom the civil upheaval in their countries had forced into refugee camps or virtual slavery in others' homes. Further, the characterizations Lady Agni spouts when Kiera asks her why the Alak slaves don't run away reflect general tenets white Americans very commonly expressed about their black slaves. I encourage you to google all of these things for yourself. We need to know, because knowing begets anger, and anger begets action, and there is, quite frankly, still so much to do.

I have much more to say, but I won't here. Not for now. Instead, I am going to close my eyes and dream another story, one that starts a heartbeat after BE - the second book - ends.

Until we meet again: sweet dreams. xx