CONFESSIONS OF A RECOVERING RACIST

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When I was a little red-headed girl in the 1950’s and 60’s, I lived in a neighborhood in Richmond, Virginia, partially populated by black people during the day. At night they went home, most of them by the bus that stopped on the other side of the railroad tracks.

The woman who worked for my family was named Elizabeth. My father called her Miz Crute, especially when he wanted to get her going on some topic that entertained him, such as her next door neighbor who welcomed a man crawling through her window in the middle of the night.

“Oh, go on, Miz Crute,” he’d say.

Sometimes she’d say to him, “You crazy, Dr. Parker.”

Elizabeth started cleaning house and cooking for my family before I was born and stayed to clean my father’s reduced living quarters when all five children were long gone and my mother had died. By then her hands were gnarled with arthritis, but she and my dad still liked to banter.

A black man named Slim worked for my family, too, mainly trimming the vast rim of hedges that went around our property. My dad knew him from the hospital where Slim was an orderly. As our yard man, he never went into the main part of the house. He went through the garage and the basement door there if he needed to use the toilet. It was the same toilet Elizabeth used, tucked in a wooden enclosure at the bottom of the basement stairs.

Most of his work cutting the hedges was done in the slathering heat of Virginia summers. My mother put a jar of ice water out on the back porch for Slim to drink from. Elizabeth could use the glasses in the kitchen, but never, ever was it possible to imagine her using one of the toilets we used.

Of course neither Elizabeth nor Slim ever came through the front door or sat at the dining room table or in the living room. No one had to tell them the rules. It was as though we were all behaving according to some unquestioned, natural law that gave whites money and privilege. Good whites were kind and courteous. Bad whites were mean, or worse, treated blacks as equals.

Thinking of all this now is sickening.

I can list all the ways my family, especially my mother, was far less racist than most of our neighbors. My mother told me the story of one of her first memories, seeing the black chauffer who worked for her family stepping up on their long front porch in his World War I uniform, and how that planted an assumption in her head that a black man could also be a hero, equal to all the white men she saw in uniform. But that assumption got buried beneath the protocol of a woman who lived in the upper classes of southern, white society. My mother financed the education of one of Elizabeth’s nieces, a young woman with theatrical talent and promise, but in no way could she tell my father or any of her bridge club friends about that.

When I became a radical hippie chick, in the cocoon of private school and financial security, I brought a social worker I was dating and a group of black kids to swim in our pool one day. It felt very weird, scary. My father was at work. I don’t even know if anyone ever told him about it. I know that I felt righteous but like I’d done something creepy and threatening to my own well-being.

Poor little rich girl that I was, I was pretty starved for affection at home and turned to Elizabeth for some. I would walk to the bus stop with her, hang around while she worked, beg her to let me iron the napkins. She told me that when she died, I’d be like the girl in the movie “Imitation of Life” who followed her mother’s hearse in tears at the end because she’d passed for white and denied her black mother. When I visited her at her home, she told her neighbors I was her albino daughter. There were pictures of me and my siblings all over her living room. But her house was in another world – the world of the ghetto where cockroaches thrived and dogs, sickly because no one could afford a vet, were chained in the backyards.

It never occurred to me that her own daughter was neglected because of the time she had to spend looking after me and my family. It never occurred to me that her inability to read or write was a direct result of poverty and that her poverty was a direct result of racism. It never occurred to me that the ways she and Slim were treated were the remnants of slavery. It never occurred to me that the Confederate flag and Gone with the Wind, which I was enchanted with, were blatant supports for a system of racism that included slavery and lynching.

When I dated a black man, once, just to say I’d done it, Elizabeth herself snorted, “Why you want to mess around with them monkeys!” Maybe the most insidiously horrible part of racism is teaching people to hate themselves.

But we white girls at the private school loved soul music. We loved black musicians and athletes, and some of us even crossed the line and protested in the Civil Rights movement. I and a few of my hippie compatriots blew out our tenure as editors of the school newspaper with the headline “Say it Loud,” referring to the “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud” chant. We printed quotes from students about their thoughts on integrating the school. It was our first and last edition of the paper.

My activism for civil rights was patronizing more than radical. I continued going to the Country Club where Arthur Ashe wasn’t allowed to play tennis. When I made friends with a black woman whom I waitressed with at a summer job, I showed up at a Country Club function where she had been hired to work, thinking we could be friends there, while I sat with the judges and doctors who would never consider anyone with her skin color as a member. It is mortifying for me to remember her discomfort at my attempts to act like we were equals. I didn’t have a clue as to the obscenity of racism and the injustices that still linger as a legacy of slavery. I thought that fighting for civil rights was like fighting for the end of the Vietnam War and that righteousness would prevail and then we could all keep living the way we lived.

Was I willing to give up anything? Was I willing to forgo my privilege in order to make room for someone else to get their share? In theory, maybe.

My privilege comes directly from the slave trade. My ancestor, Carter Braxton, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. His plantation is still owned by cousins of mine in Virginia. This man not only bought and sold slaves; he “bred” them. And he had a son with one of his slaves. As with many of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, there are African-American descendants, but the groups that tout their connection to these forefathers are almost exclusively white, proud of their heritage – proud of their privilege, which is largely on the backs of captured human beings who were sold and used as free labor, whose children were taken from them and sold.

People don’t give up privilege or myths about their righteousness easily. Despite the evidence –  such as lynching and then outrageously skewed numbers of incarcerated and murdered black men – there’s a pretense that any unfair advantages we whites enjoyed dissipated with the Emancipation Proclamation, the passing of the Civil Rights Act and the election of a black president.

Indeed, many blacks have risen to greatness despite racism. But how many more would have done so without it?

To say that the playing field is even is bullshit. To say that a black child can all on his or her own take advantage of the same privileges as white kids, if he or she isn’t lazy and has the gumption, is bullshit. For one thing, there are a lot of people who do not want that to happen and will do what they can to stop it. That’s obvious in transparent and enraged slogans such as “Take America back.” Nostalgia about America’s past culture implicitly includes nostalgia for white privilege.

Slim and Elizabeth made a living the only way they were allowed to in my neighborhood – they worked for shit wages and endured humiliating traditions that made their inferiority an assumption. As a child, I accepted the rules that they couldn’t use our toilets or our silverware. Maybe my family was kinder than some, but so what? We could afford to be.

The truth is that we all suffer and there is a common bond that is deeper and wiser than notions about race. I unfortunately know what any mother, black or white, feels when she hears that her son is dead. But I don’t know, and never can, what it feels like to grow up being told that I don’t deserve to come through the front door. I don’t know, and never can, what it feels like to know that my kin have been slaves – property, with zero chances of realizing any potential or dreams outside of what the white culture allowed.

Without a doubt, my life had a racist foundation, including the entertainment industry that chronically depicted blacks as uneducated criminals. That effectively scared me away from liking the idea of my culture being controlled by “those people.” But reality is the best medicine for stupid people. Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry are just a few of the people whose writing heals ignorance. And I’ve experienced eight years with a black president whose class and intelligence will be sorely missed. Harriet Tubman is going to replace Andrew Jackson on the twenty-dollar bill. Now we know about her heroism and intelligence and his criminal treatment of Native Americans.

But if you are someone who wants to keep privilege or go back to a time when you could be superior without doing anything to earn it, reality will look like a threat. I want a decent world more than I want privilege, because I want people to be kind to me more than I want the responsibility and karma of unearned privilege. I want cruelty and greed to become the new victims of prejudice. I want the cruel and greedy to be told they can’t come in through the front door. There’d be quite a shuffling of people going on in that system and some serious integration.

I was inspired to write this blog after seeing Nathan East this afternoon play for free at a music store in Albuquerque He’s being honored here at a showing of a documentary about him. I’ve seen it. And now I’ve seen him. A more decent and talented human being I could not name. At the end of his presentation of awesome playing and stories about Eric Clapton and Stevie Wonder, he and his two band mates played “Purple Rain.” Shit. And then he and his big family stood on the stage pleased to get some little award in some strip mall city. He wore his superiority with amazing grace.

I am deeply grateful that my childhood is over.

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PACKING UP THE BAGS UNDER MY EYES AND HEADING HOME

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On the plane coming home from Mexico last night, I sat next to a man with whom I shared zero words. We didn’t so much as ask where the other person was going or comment on any salient aspects of our flight, such as the fact that the seats were miniature and very close to each other: if we were sitting that close in any other context, people might say, “Get a motel room.” And yet two people who have never met before and want nothing to do with each other pretend that sitting in each other’s personal space is somehow okay. Such is the modern world of travel, where personal space loses all meaning. I was too tired to even assert my rights to the one armrest I could use, which was between his and my seat next to the emergency exit on a small plane. He obviously had no compunction about using two armrests leaving me none. But I wasn’t in the mood to be petty and it was a short flight.

I understand that many strangers who sit next to each other on airplanes are nervous that something tragic may happen, such as the plane going down and the people sitting next to the emergency exit having lied about being able to handle the responsibility. (I confess that I did not, in fact, review the card in the seat pocket on which emergency exit procedures were given.) Chitchat helps travelers to stop thinking, “I may die soon.” And usually I would be amenable to making small talk with a person with whom I have absolutely nothing in common, such as a beefy man looking at football news on his iPhone who hasn’t a crumb of decency concerning the armrest situation. But when I located my seat – the one with only one armrest – and my emergency exit mate stood up to let me get to it, his vibe was clearly that I was to maintain the illusion of not existing for him, and that was fine by me, because I was sinking into a formidable pit of grumpiness.

If I had talked to that man, I might have said something like, “I never want to travel again. And it’s fuckers like you who are part of the problem.”

I don’t mind having adventures in another place, and I had been in a pretty spectacular place in Mexico, a villa with friends on the top of a hill outside of Manzanillo. During the day I played tennis, went to the beach, watched birds, ate what our personal chef made for us; at night we all played music together. By the end of the week I was exhausted.

Here’s the thing – I’m old. Having fun in a place far away from my cat now takes more energy than I have. And going through all the machinations of flying home sucks whatever energy I have left right out of me. I had no delays, or cancellations, just the usual security rituals and loud, uncomfortable venues, either in the airport waiting area or the plane itself. Children screeching, listless masses shuffling in lines and putting their shoes in plastic bins, being told to stand with my arms raised while someone checks to see if I’m carrying a gun in my bra.

But the absolute final blow, the proof that I am too old and haggard to travel anymore was the photo, now the most demoralizing aspect of international travel for me.

In some airports there are kiosks that you insert your passport into and stand in front of to have a picture taken of you when you come in from a foreign country. The photo is emitted on a piece of paper that you take up to the customs official. Phoenix has such a system. As soon as I saw those kiosks I knew that my morale was about to plummet.

If I look anything like the photo that I had to hand over to the customs official in Phoenix, I should go directly to a nursing home. For one thing, you have to look down at the camera, which anyone over sixty knows is the worst possible angle for maintaining the illusion that you’re not close to death. Seeing my sagging face, unsmiling, bitter, like someone who tells you to get off her lawn, sapped me of whatever reserves I might have had left. If my face in the photo could talk, it would have said, “I’m fucking exhausted. I’m old and exhausted.” It would not have said, “I just spent seven days in paradise.”

As you may be able to tell, I’m often not able to look on the bright side of things. Maybe if the man taking up my armrest had been friendly, had said, “Do you live in Albuquerque?” I would have stopped feeling worthless long enough to say, “Yeah. I’m going to be glad to get home to my cat.” But then I might have chatted about the beautiful beaches I went to, and the Macaw that drank out of the pool at the villa where I was hanging out with friends. Maybe I would have reminisced about the great music we played and found out that he was hoping the Packers would win and had a ten-year-old son who played the piano. It’s not like either one of us was trying to sleep. Then I would have maybe told him about how demoralizing that customs photo was and he might have said, “Yeah, but nobody looks good in those things, especially since you have to look down at the camera.”

So maybe small talk isn’t so bad. Maybe, to paraphrase Blanche Dubois in “Streetcar Named Desire,” we must sometimes rely on the kindness of strangers. Modern air travel messes with our sense of safety; strips us of our basic comforts, not to mention our cats; and is a constant violation of personal space. It’s nice in such circumstances to be in the presence of at least one kind stranger, someone, for example, who’d let you use her only armrest.

But next time I’m going to ask the fucker if he lives in Albuquerque.

 

 

 

Notes Toward Becoming a Happy Fool

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Two things are on my mind as I write this: another mass shooting in America and my oldest brother’s mental demise. There’s a connection.

When I was recently visiting my brother, who is a 78 year old retired neuropathologist, he spent most of his day in a leather recliner, watching CNN news with subtitles for the hearing impaired on a huge television screen. He suffers from an advanced stage of the hearing loss and tinnitus that I have, exacerbated by his stint in the military. He reads a lot: newspapers and the disasters therein, medical texts about brain disease, history books about wars and assassinations. He is not a happy man.

After a cherished visit with his impressive family – my sister-in-law, niece and nephew and their spouses, and two grand nieces – I came home grateful for them all but sad because my brother is so unhappy. He is afraid and angry. He has terrible anxiety about every little thing, including how the dishwasher is loaded and which prescriptions he needs to refill. And he sits in front of one global catastrophe, one manifestation of human stupidity and cruelty after another.

I was glad to get back to teaching to give me something to think about besides my brother, who when I was in fourth grade came with me to father’s night because my father couldn’t make it and who later helped me navigate a cancer diagnosis, and who now seems to have no faith in anything but disaster and his daily routine.

Coming from the same family of origin, I struggle daily to keep my head above the waves of anxiety and hopelessness that swell in our genetic make-up, not helped by the dysfunctions of our childhood environment. I’m scared that my brother is a mirror of my future as a raging and terrified elder.

And then the news of another American massacre. Maybe we all should be raging and terrified succumbing to the urge to fight or flee.

After all, the fight or flight mechanism is a part of our successful evolution. The human nervous system is wired to see and respond to threat. Anxiety was appropriate when a huge beast was charging or when something tasted bad or when one’s enemies were yelling death threats. But imagine a day when the threats come constantly in images of death and violence and messages about what will kill us if we eat it and what clothes we need to have in order to feel attractive or the tragedies that have befallen celebrities – a myriad of threats that fill our minds and trigger fight or flight to the point that we need drugs, alcohol, distractions, to give us relief. Or we go mad with fear and rage. We live through such days chronically, via our screens and earphones.

How are we supposed to feel at peace when we are implored to feel something or do something by every Facebook posting on an endless feed? What does it do to our stress level to see ceaseless news coverage about things we can’t do a damned thing about? Our fight or flight responses are on overdrive, constantly – beasts and enemies and bad tasting food times a thousand.

My brother understands the science of this and more. Always brilliant and eccentric, he basked in his life as a teacher and researcher, chairing a department in a university hospital and called on to testify as an expert witness in cases involving brain injury. A year and a half ago, he suffered a horrific medical trauma that landed him in an ICU hospital bed for over a month: a burst esophagus. Due in part to his obsessive attention to exercise and health, he survived and recovered but had to retire. For a while, he appreciated the fact that he survived and that his family’s devotion to him never wavered. But in the vacuum created by retirement, his quirkiness evolved into a blatant obsessive-compulsive disorder. Increasingly, his anxiety makes him unreachable, even hostile, to those who remain devoted to him. Family gatherings and outings are huge challenges to him and his routine. So more and more he avoids or bails on social plans, in part because of his hearing problems.

When I heard the news of the latest slaughter, I immediately thought of him sitting in his chair in front of the massive t.v. screen. I imagined him saying, “Jesus Christ Almighty! The world is going to hell.”

I don’t know how to soothe him. Neither one of us has faith that Jesus Christ Almighty is available to make things better. For him, his daily routine is a solace, until something disrupts it and he is crazed with anxiety. The routine is one of the last ideals he clings to, an illusion of control. My brother is basically a hopeless idealist, not a cynic. He truly doesn’t understand why insurance companies don’t pay their fair share of medical costs; he truly doesn’t understand why a policeman can shoot an unarmed young man sixteen times and not be indicted; he truly doesn’t understand why someone would turn an automatic weapon on people who help disabled folks. He’s a man of science, and these things are not rational. (He ran for county coroner one time because he wanted to do something about young black men dying in police custody and the lack of investigation into their deaths. The voting turn-out was meager, with the police successfully endorsing my pathologist brother’s opponent, who had no medical experience.) He is bitter, as only an idealist can be.

I want my brother to be happier. I want violence and cruelty to stop. I want people to stop saying and doing horrible things to each other.

But all I can do is turn off the screens. And try not to be a violent or cruel person or say or do horrible things to others. It’s a very, very small contribution to the world’s sanity, and I don’t always live up to the ideal. I have to work very hard to soothe my own fear and rage. To this end, I’ll be spending the next few days at an intense, no frills meditation retreat in the mountains.

Maybe I can store up enough strength and peace to get me through the next onslaught of madness. I also know that just being in the proximity of someone who exudes strength and peace is a comfort. I’d like to be such a comfort one day. It’s my old age aspiration: as my body goes downhill, I can become someone who accepts it all, enjoying fully whatever can be enjoyed, inspiring others to do the same. In this way, aging can be a process of becoming a better person than I’ve ever been, even if that means being an idealistic idiot: not up to date on the details of the latest shooting, never as smart as my brother, but maybe happier and able to connect with animals and small children.

 

 

The Karma of an Asshole: Bad Attitude toward Mental Illness

Wallace Stegner
Wallace Stegner

Mental illness is often treated like some kind of character defect or moral failure. How do I know this? Because I’ve been the asshole doing that.

I’ve stood up in front of a classroom of students deriding meds for depression as manifestations of a society that couldn’t handle sadness. My first response when a close friend committed suicide was to be pissed off at him, not understanding why he would do such a thing. And a friend of mine recently responded to someone’s suicide with, “How dare you!” Maybe it’s easier to be angry than to dip into the darkness that some people live in for too long.

Realizing that I had developed a dependency on the prescription drug klonipin was humbling. After all my disparaging remarks about people on drugs to treat anxiety and depression, I was one of them? Shit.

Then the shit did indeed hit the fan; I withdrew from klonipin and was face to face with all the stuff I’d been numbing for years, and it was not a happy face.

I fell into an anxious depression that I felt would kill me. I completely, viscerally understood how someone could really believe that the world would be a better place without them and how dying was better than feeling so awful. I understood how while external life could seem wonderful, misery persisted. I kept asking, “What the fuck is wrong with me?” And the last thing I needed to hear was “Get over it.”

Several people have gleefully shown me the viral clip of Bob Newhart telling a troubled, phobic girl to “Stop it.” The message is that someone suffering from a mental illness is annoying. She just needs to stop it. She is wallowing in some irritating angst that a decent or smart person would just stop. I think that clip is a way for nice people to say what they really feel: “I think you’re an annoying loser. Just get the fuck over it.”

There’s a grain of truth here. Talking endlessly about one’s troubles doesn’t help anyone. But pretending to be happy so that others won’t be bothered is deadly.

In the book Darkness Visible William Styron describes how he got help for his near fatal depression when he went to a mental hospital where he could finally stop pretending that he was feeling fine. He could finally be truthful to himself and those around him; he was ill. And it was a big relief and a point from which he could start to deal.

I’ve heard good folks call depressed people “Debbie Downers,” describe someone as “mentally ill” with disdain. And I probably did that, too.

Being angry, disdainful toward someone who is struggling mentally bleeds into how many old people are treated. Their dementia often angers their loved ones who respond to lapses as though the person needs to focus more, try harder, stop it. I’m sure a lot of that is fear – fear of our own mortality and frailty and of losing someone we love to a mental disease.

I would love to learn compassion without having to experience the thing I’m not compassionate about, without racking up some nasty karma for my own callous stupidity.

Some people will never get suicidal or addicted or mentally ill, just like some people will never get pneumonia or MS. Would we shame someone for getting pneumonia? Would we tell someone with MS to just get over it?

On the other hand, would it be good or helpful to talk on and on about symptoms of pneumonia or MS with friends and family? No. Nor would it be good to feel ashamed of having those symptoms.

Shame is the worst kind of suffering when put on top of an illness – any illness. I wish those who are so shocked when someone commits suicide would consider that they didn’t know how bad off the person was because he or she was ashamed to admit it.

One of the most important things for people suffering from depression and anxiety to do is to find some confidence in themselves and their ability to get better, some way to love themselves with their illness. If nothing else, we can get out of the way of such people – most importantly by not shaming them or deriding them; they’re doing enough of that stuff to themselves. We can drop the attitude that they’re just trying to get attention or that they’re weak.

Some of the strongest people I know have been through searing mental illness. I admire them, even when they have lapses.

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RAGE

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I was raised by a genteel woman who rarely, if ever, expressed her anger. She had integrity and grace, but she was exactly what Virginia Woolf called “the angel in the house,” the woman in our heads who prompts us to always be nice. Woolf claims, in her address “Professions for Women,” that this angel in her psyche had to be killed off before she could write with honesty and strength.

One thing that the angel in the house never does is express anger. That’s what my mother called “ugly” behavior. “Don’t be ugly,” she’d say to me, going along with the aphorism, “When you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

When I’m driving in my car alone and another driver pisses me off, I am not nice. I am shocked by what comes out of my mouth. For the smallest infraction, a complete stranger gets a shrieking attack of rage that he or she most likely will never know happened.

I don’t need to pay a professional to understand that this rage is not about the guy who went too slowly through a yellow light.

When I was thirteen, the subtle sexually inappropriate behavior of my father became blatant. But like so many sexually abused children, I said nothing. Instead, I became an angry young woman, focusing on the injustices of racism and the Vietnam War. With a vengeance, I started drinking and drugging and having sex on my terms. I didn’t dare express my true rage.

Once, when I was seventeen, I completely lost it while talking in the kitchen with my mother and sister. I screamed at them and pulled the tablecloth off the kitchen table, breaking things, including this cute green ceramic frog with white spots.  My rage was shocking to all of us. At the time, my mother, adored by everyone, was ill. The most important thing in my household was to protect her, even when she had not protected us from our own father.

When she called the hip Episcopal preacher to come talk to me, I did not mention to him my father’s ugly betrayal of his daughters. I was sure that if I hurt my mother with that disclosure, she would die and I would be to blame.

But my anger was palpable – rebellious, mean sometimes as I lashed out at her about everything but what was really going on: sullen teenager times ten. Just like the teens I’ve worked with at a treatment center for “troubled youth” in Albuquerque, my anger and I were seen as the contemptible problem, not the parents who were doing outrageously dangerous things with their kids.

As a grown woman,who had managed to suppress the anger, I once mentioned to my mother that my father had done something terrible to me and my sister. It was a winter day in an empty park and we were watching my four year old son playing on the roundabout. Her response was, “I know what he did and it’s not that bad.”

I can only hope that she didn’t know.

I was a coward. Even when I confronted my father about what he’d done, when I was twenty-six, I promised him I wouldn’t tell mom. But if I was always protecting her, who was protecting me?

No one. Not a fucking soul.

After seeking a protector in several failed marriages, numbing myself with all kinds of self-destructive behavior and misusing Buddhism as a path to obliterate my feelings, I made a decision to try to spend my elder years being clear about who I am and what I feel.

Clarity is not always fun. It’s raw. I am keenly aware of my anxiety now – my body’s reactions, the triggers. I am keenly aware of the tinnitus I’ve had for decades (which was in part the result of going to a rock concert by that right wing asshole Ted Nugent) but which now is at the forefront of my consciousness with a variety of sounds that sometimes seem overwhelmingly unendurable. And those sounds enrage me. They seem like a clear indication of the cruelty of the world, of how if your own parents can betray you, so can your own body.

Aging (with the hearing loss that increases the tinnitus) definitely teaches you that your own body doesn’t always do what you want it to do. It’s not something you can get over, or move on from, except when you die.

Complaining and wallowing in the fear and rage feed the misery and are just lame attempts at getting someone else to take care of one’s emotional angst. That’s not going to happen, shouldn’t happen.Stifling one’s rage causes a lot of suffering and venting anger and dumping it on others feeds self-loathing and isolation.

So, we have to face some brutal truths by ourselves and hone helpful tools, such as humor and creativity.

The past can’t be changed; some diseases can’t be cured. That may not be a nice thing to say, but it’s real. I’d rather start from “real” then get all enmeshed in “nice.” “Kind” is worthwhile; “nice” is often condescending bullshit, disingenuous.

Life is hard; the human condition is hard, for everyone, including my mother and father. Stephen Hawking seems to deal pretty well with something far more severe than tinnitus.  We don’t have to take the inevitable hardship of being alive personally. But it’s better for everyone if we don’t pretend that bad things aren’t happening. Without pretense, we can be better prepared to summon up whatever kindness we can give to each other.

The most important kindness is not to step all over or disdain someone else’s truth.

Here are some relevant lines form “Dover Beach” a poem by Matthew Arnold. They sound pretty damned bleak, but, like all good literature, make me feel less alone:

“Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

The operative words here are, “Let us be true to one another,” not “nice” – “true.” What if my mother had lived by those words? What if I live by those words?

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I’M NOT ANYTHING

kl Let’s see – I was a radical hippie chick. That’s definitely over. I was a mother; well, I will always be that in spirit but not in body. My son is no longer in the realm of labels and identities.

Okay, so I was a teacher. I’m retired now. I’m a writer, but only when I write. My published works may qualify me to say I’m a writer, but I don’t feel like one most of the time.

Here’s one label that hung on for a long time: I’m a Buddhist, yeah, that’s it – a Buddhist.

What these labels mainly give us is a connection to others. So maybe instead of saying I’m this or that, I could say, I’m connected to the world as a radical hippie chick, a mother, a teacher, a writer, a Buddhist…whatever. What we humans really want and need is connection to others in this hardship world. That’s why Facebook and Twitter and other social media have caught on like free booze for drunks.We can pretend to be somebody that we construct with carefully chosen words and pictures with others doing the same thing.

But when the identity is not genuine, has expired or has a false premise, the connection it makes eventually feels hollow, and very disappointing.

As a Buddhist I’ve hunted with various packs. I wore the costumes, recited the sutras,responded to bells, bowed to the alpha dogs. I wanted to belong and could not deny the fundamental psychological truth of the dharma. The religious aspects of institutionalized Buddhism always made me growl, but I went along with it as “mindfulness” practice.

But I just couldn’t bring myself around to the notion that sexual abuse perpetrated by various “masters” was some kind of profound teaching. And then there are the stories of women seducing teachers, attempting to have an intimate connection with the alpha male and maybe even get “dharma transmission” between the sheets.

“Dharma transmission” is one of many Buddhist concepts that have become empty of any spiritual meaning. It is primarily used to afford someone the right to make a living as a teacher, to pose as an awakened or awakening mentor on the righteous path to enlightenment. The main criterion seems to be the ability to sit in the meditative posture without moving for long periods of time. Chosen students need to at least look the part.

I know of one case of a married woman, with children, sleeping with a roshi who promised to give her “dharma transmission.” He broke his promise when he found out she was also having sex with another student.

Very, very disappointing.

Because in my opinion, Buddhist teachings are based on clear psychological insights, the bare truths about being human. As with all great insights, greedy people have corrupted them to give them the lifestyle and control over others that they want, or at least to tell themselves the stories that keep unwanted reality at bay.

And then there’s the reality of my own corrupted self.

If I were to follow the Buddhist path as I genuinely see it, I would be a nun, one of those who don’t touch money, who don’t kill mosquitos, and who only eat what others give them in their begging bowls. If I have any faith in Buddhism as an “ism,” it’s that such nuns and monks are doing the real work and getting the real benefit of letting go of attachments. It’s been my direct and relentless experience that my attachments, my selfish and desperate needs and wants, are indeed what cause me and those around me to suffer.

But I’m not going to shave my head and live in a kuti with mosquitos and a begging bowl. I’m probably not even going to spend more than a week on intensive meditation practice. I am too afraid.

It’s so hard not to be able to tell ourselves that we are something, especially when that something sounds so cool, so transcendent.

So I go back to the original point of calling myself anything, the human need to feel connected to the world. The irony is that whether I feel it or not, of course I’m connected; nothing that exists is not connected to existence.

But humans have been playing disconnection mind games with each other forever, threatening to ostracize and isolate the “bad” or “unworthy” members of the community. Even families use such threats on their members. Banishment, excommunication, or disinheritance is a heavy punishment and the dread of it coerces people into a lot of destructive behaviors: lying, buying things, getting plastic surgery, joining cults, hating foreigners, and on and on.

This intense and innate desire to be connected is one reason why aging is so dreaded. Being ill or otherwise physically unable to join in activities, not being able to hear well – these things can make one feel left out, isolated. Hence, churches seem to have a lot of elderly participants, in part because religious institutions claim to include everyone who abides by and believes in the dogma.

Wanting relief for loneliness is a huge reason to join any group, and that makes sense. But when the dogma seems like  bullshit, based on lies,one can face a choice of being alone or being disingenuous: betraying the group or betraying yourself.

C.S. Lewis wrote a brilliant essay entitled “The Inner Ring” in 1944 in which he gave advice about genuine connection. I often remind myself of the two main points he made:

“If in your working hours you make the work your end, you will presently find yourself all unawares inside the only circle in your profession that really matters. You will be one of the sound craftsmen, and other sound craftsmen will know it….”

“And if in your spare time you consort simply with the people you like, you will again find that you have come unawares to a real inside….This is friendship. Aristotle placed it among the virtues. It causes perhaps half of all the happiness in the world….”

That’s it. That’s what being somebody, as opposed to some thing,  really comes down to:

-do good work,

-be a good friend.

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So You Think I’m Retired…

 

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You know the cliché question: what one person in history would you most like to have a long talk with?

I always say, “Shakespeare, without a doubt.” That’s because I’d like to ask him if he ever dreamed his plays would still be performed to sold out crowds 400 years after he wrote them. “Writer to writer, Bill,” I’d say, “how the f—did you do it?”

But I wouldn’t wish to have lived in his time, for several reasons, including the questionable hygiene; (though Queen Elizabeth did have the first flush toilet, she had head lice and put lead based make-up on her face).

Anyway, having been born in 1952, I got to see Laurence Olivier play a haunted and brooding Hamlet and Kenneth Branagh play a truly beguiling Iago. And Zeffirelli’s Hamlet is stunning. I think Shakespeare himself would have approved of the cuts and cinematic wonders; he might have wondered why Mel Gibson’s Hamlet looked the same age as his mother played by Glenn Close. But then again, at least Queen Gertrude was played by a real woman.

Showing this version of Hamlet to my freshman English students is one of the things I dearly miss about being retired.

I taught English at a community college for over 27 years. I thought that I would never retire, that I would die on the job, maybe having a fatal stroke when yet again an entire class had failed to do the reading assignment.

Instead, I decided it was time to call it quits on a full-time schedule of students who increasingly read text messages instead of textbooks. The technological solution sold to teachers as a remedy turns out to be an insidious marketing ploy for the corporations who profit from this snake oil. Students who don’t read assignments in books also don’t read assignments on “Blackboard” or in any other form on their electronic devices.

But if they’re in class, and I manage to keep them from indulging in their addiction to their iPhones, they will watch. And if I can make Shakespeare’s genius connect to their experience, the wheels start turning and they write some pretty interesting and thoughtful essays.

Before I show Hamlet, I ask, “Do you know anyone whose mother re-married and expected her children to accept the new man as their father? Do you know anyone who hated his step-father and resented his mother for not getting how miserable he was?” A lot of students will then give examples of just such a scenario. “Isn’t it a betrayal for the mother to care more about hooking up with some new man than she does about her children?” I ask, and a heated discussion starts about such heartbreaking situations, including women who actually killed their children in order to secure their new man’s affection. They are very familiar with La Llorona, the mythic ditch witch of New Mexico, who did just that.

Then I say, “Well, that’s a key part of Hamlet, and it even gets a little weird between Hamlet and his mother.” Blank expressions ensue.

I tell my students not to worry if they don’t understand 90% of what’s being said; they’ll get the idea well enough from what they can understand and what they see. But I do give out the speech Hamlet makes about losing all his mirth and say, “This is basically a description of depression. So these themes, unlike the language, are still part of our world.” They can then write a paper comparing their experience of depression with Hamlet’s feelings that the world sucks.

I don’t know where or when these students will touch the magic of art and literature and their ability to speak powerfully about the human condition after leaving the clutches of teachers of required English classes like myself. Many of our students are looking for jobs in healthcare or engineering, not understanding that thinking about the human condition will help them excel in these fields. I like to know that I at least offered them the chance to taste the universal themes that deepen our experiences and connections with each other.

I’ve retired from full time teaching, but I have a feeling I’m going to pick up a class or two as a part-timer in the near future. And I won’t be asking for a topics course on Shakespeare or a creative writing course for students who read Kerouac. I’ll ask for a freshman English course with many students who are the first in their family to go to college, and many who have no visible interest in literature or history. I want to continue prompting essays on heroism using lessons on Nelson Mandela or the Nobel Prize winner Malala – who was shot in the head because some people didn’t think girls should get an education. Presenting an example of a girl who put her life on the line in order to read her assignments is definitely thought provoking to students who consider school to be a boring chore.

Learning can be a radical act of going beyond limitations set by one’s culture and socio-economic conditions. As a teacher, I want to serve this process. I want to share my awe for heroes like Malala, Nelson Mandela, and yes, Shakepeare. I’m not done yet.

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GETTING UNSTUCK

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I am so grateful to be prescription drug free – off of central nervous system chemical tampering, recommended by doctors, which put me at risk for mental breakdown, suicide and seizures – that I am going to write about what I learned and am continuing to learn.

First, I will very likely continue to have residual episodes of wall-clawing anxiety along with the attendant “certainty” that I cannot cope with the thoughts and emotions crawling through my body. But each time they happen, I’m a little more certain that they will go away and that my ability to cope is in fact improving.

Second, this society, this capitalistic, techno-addicted society, is the biggest challenge to my mental health. Good citizens become addicted to poison, seeking help from things that end up torturing and killing them. We so want to be loved but settle for being “liked” on Facebook that lures us in like sweet fly paper; we become addicted to television shows that promote consumerism and bleak cynicism – such as “Breaking Bad” – whose best moral lesson is that life sucks; we become addicted to little screens that display messages to us as a substitute for real human contact and as a pitiful solace for our loneliness.

Third, if you are a creative artist and you want mainstream success, check out the above paragraph for what you’re dealing with. Many artists who drooled over fame and fortune via the western capitalist market place ended up running for the hills, as J.D. Salinger did, or dying in their bathrooms of a drug overdose, as Elvis did. Does this look like happiness? Seductive as the attention and riches of mainstream success are, they do not fill the need to be loved, and like benzos, they end up atrophying your ability to deal and get what you really need.

Very few people question the very basics of our society – an emphasis on power, money and distractions, all very firmly controlled by competitive men for the most part, despite the occasional woman whose learned how to play like a man. Very few people question the assumption that mainstream medicine works, despite the blatant fact, for example, that pharmaceutical companies distribute addictive poison. The macabre concern with how to pay for this lying mess that we call a healthcare system is supporting something that not only doesn’t work, but is harmful to our health.

My father was a doctor, a fear-ridden, sexually abusive alcoholic. My mother gave her power over to this man, who could shuck and jive at the Country Club or in the operating room where he mostly performed hysterectomies. (Life is full of blatant symbolism, isn’t it?) She was gracious and beautiful and spineless, so focused on pleasing her chronically displeased husband that she neglected her children’s emotional well being, in the name of not coddling them. In this household there were no clear acts or words of affection, no sweetness and support. My father and siblings, as their way of coping with suffering, made sure that I understood how cruel and cold the world is, by their words and deeds. Their religion was cynicism, spiced with a little Episcopal Church involvement. My mother, who put aside her own life as an artist, made sure we had a nice dinner and that my father got laid, although apparently that didn’t stop him from molesting his own daughters and otherwise betraying her. I knew full well that my survival, even as a three year old, was up to me, that no one had my back, or if they did there was very likely a dagger in their fist. The fact that I was a cute little girl with curly red hair didn’t so much endear me to my family as inspire them to want to kill me or at least my spirit, and I understand they were in the same survival mode, in the same sad desperation to be safe and loved.

Thank reality for the beautiful environs of my childhood – the lawns and trees and hiding places beside rivers and streams, and for the amazing education I got in a household full of books. Thank reality for family members who make an effort to face themselves and life, for friends, for music, for literature, for Buddhist wisdom that I absorbed before the marketing of Zen in pricey retreat centers. Thank reality that I learned affection and joy from artists and radicals, the buried identities that my mother herself couldn’t help but secrete from time to time.

I’m waking up from a muffled nightmare of benzo dependency into a stark realization that I don’t have to be a part of the nightmare, or succumb to the cynical strangulation of dreams.

There is music and art and literature that do not exist solely to garner fame and fortune for some corporation or doomed individual. There are ad hoc marching bands, wall art, literary events where nothing is marketed, spontaneous songs being sung. But to hear these voices I have to be brave enough to stop numbing myself; have faith that reality is much, much larger than the screen-watching desperation of a bunch of tiny specks in the infinite and awesome possibilities of time and space; and stop listening to anyone else who thinks he (or she) knows more than I do, especially those who like to see themselves as authorities. I am a bullshit-hating, life-loving, grieving momma. No one knows more than I do about my particular version of this life. No one. No one has my intuition about what feels healthy. No one.

There are moments, which drug dependency prevented and that meditation opens up, when I am this no one. And this no one is free from my conditioning, free from sales pitches and opinions, free to be a drama queen tornado or a mote of dust, or whatever is needed at this very moment. Until I am fully blissed out in the land of no self or others, I don’t want to be a burden to myself or others. The work continues.

 

 

Hi, My Name is Kate…

 

I’m going through benzo withdrawal. (For those of you lucky enough not to know, benzos are benzodiazepines, anti-anxiety drugs such as Xanax and Klonipin.)

How I got to this point is a rambling story of fear and insomnia and health professionals who didn’t give me a clue that the miracle drug they were providing me with would eventually hook me into a world of hurt. It took a doctor that I hated for not freely renewing my prescription to make me prove to her and myself that I wasn’t dependent – only I didn’t prove that. I proved that I was too deep in to stop without falling hard. When I began to have slight convulsions, an ER doc, after years of therapists and doctors telling me I wasn’t in trouble, told me I was in serious trouble and could die trying to stop cold turkey.

I was shocked. How had this happened to me, who didn’t drink or smoke, who only wanted to be able to sleep when life exhausted me with fear? How had this happened when I refused to go on anti-depressants, not even trying the Paxil one of my doctors prescribed for me, saying I didn’t want to be on something I had to take every day?

I didn’t take the anti-anxiety stuff every day, only when I was upset and couldn’t sleep at night, or when I was traveling and wanted to calm down and get a good night’s sleep. The problem was, about two years ago I was increasingly upset. I was also increasingly traveling – to wonderful places, amazed that I had become an eager and enthusiastic trekker: to New York City, Prague, a Zen center in the Swiss Alps. I don’t think I would have been so adventurous without medication to give me the comforting notion that no matter what, I would get some sleep.

I wrote a novella based on my trip to Europe two years ago on which my personal life was becoming a painful smear in some of the most profound and beautiful places in the world. During the day, I would stand amidst the flattened sites of concentration camp barracks at Buchenwald, watch the summer sun turn Prague’s ancient walls into orange gold and meditate in a polished hall overlooking Lake Lucerne. During the night my fears would take aim at me from the edges of my experiences; and tormenting failures as a mother, a lover, a band mate, a sister, began to cock their triggers. But I had clonazepam to ward them off.

Increasingly I cried a lot. I was blissfully awed and then sobbing.

Back home, I loved my job. No matter what, I would go to work. Though I cut way back on the sleep meds when I was no longer traveling, I made sure I got a decent night’s sleep by taking a dose the three nights a week before I had to get up early.

My old doctor kept renewing my prescription; I had more meds than I needed until one day there was a shift. Somebody somewhere had started noticing that benzos were big, sneaky trouble. Doctors were being given a warning about freely providing the stuff, and people like me were getting desperate.

Desperation about having access to a drug is the first hint that maybe, just maybe, you’ve got a problem. I was incensed when a new doctor actually told me she was uncomfortable prescribing clonazepam. My therapist at the time even collaborated with me to assure her I was not addicted. And, as I said, I was going to prove it.  And to be fair, I think that the professionals who were enabling me believed that I could prove it.

As I tell my students, what’s so great about the scientific method is that it relies on evidence, not faith or myth or wishful thinking. The evidence was clear. I would either spend the rest of my life on a crazy but familiar and comforting benzo dependent roller coaster, or seek serious help in getting off of it.

I’m in the midst of plan B.  I am on the last installment of a tapering down program, taking a tiny amount every night. While my body and mind are not shivering in pre-seizure panic, this is not a comfortable time for me and I don’t know how long the discomfort will last or how much worse it will get when I am not even taking the crumbs I am now. The withdrawal symptoms are gnarly and scary, including intermittent panic, chills, sweats, stomach aches and heart pounding. My body has to relearn, if it can, how to navigate stress and fear without an outside chemical to intervene. Yes, there are moments when I feel okay, even good. And I know that my mind is clearer. And yes, there are moments when I want to say, “Fuck it. I’m going back on the stuff.”

Then I ask myself if I really want to ever have to start this process over again.

No.

There are three things that are helping me stay in this battle. One is my meditation practice. Only Zen, in my experience, provides a venue for being calm in the midst of shit while not denying the shit is happening and not even trying to fix the shit. I need that kind of reality, because the desperation around trying not to feel what I’m feeling is what got me into this fix in the first place.

Another critical help is my shrink, a bona fide psychiatrist who knows these drugs and what they are about and gave me a plan. That plan includes talk therapy to deal not just with weaning myself off the stuff but also with the original problems I was medicating.

And finally, ultimately, how could I, how could anyone, try to give up a favorite and beloved numbing device without love? I am most grateful for people who let me love them, who let this rickety soldier rest a while in their lives while waiting to see what her life can be in peacetime. Being let into the world of other people gives me the chance to forget about myself and my dramas. I’d like myself and my dramas to fade away completely, into some life of genuine connection I know is there.

I really hope I get through this, at least just to know I can.  And to any who are dealing with similar shit, I’m with you.

I’m going in. Cover me.

RADICAL SOLACE

 

There’s a lot to hate about the human condition. Ask someone who went through the holocaust; ask someone in a country that has been colonized and exploited; ask an African American who lived during the first half of the 20th century in America.  Ask a man who was put in jail for 27 years because he fought to end the racist system of South Africa’s apartheid.

Most of us in those situations would surely wallow in our victimhood, or plot revenge, or wither in bitterness or get drunk. It seems that one would be a fool to accept or forgive a world where children and people with integrity are systematically tortured and killed. What kind of idiot, a weak and worthless idiot, would respond to such a world with acceptance and forgiveness?

As we’ve recently been hearing a lot about, Mandela was remarkable in his lack of bitterness and in his call for amnesty for the white South Africans who did inhumane  things to his people, cruel and despicable things. In those 27 years of incarceration, Mandela came to a spiritual and practical realization that forgiveness was the only hope for a better life and a better world. He accepted his own imperfections along with the grandiose imperfections of the system he lived in. Then he went into action to effectively fight injustice and become the leader of the country that incarcerated him. It’s hard to be cynical in the face of this story.

Many people, some famous and awesome, have had the same epiphany that Mandela had in the midst of great injustice and hopelessness: one has to accept what is, then, with love for a cause or just for life itself, keep going.

The loudest voices today urge us to buy into extremes, to choose sides and fight hard against our enemies, self-righteously pointing to the crimes they have committed. We are terrified of capitulating to evil, and we are easily manipulated into being word warriors “against” instead of “for.” Many of us, who aren’t even victims of horrible injustice and cruelty, live in a mix of terror and anger.

That’s where African American writer James Baldwin was when he threw a pitcher of water at a waitress who told him “We don’t serve negroes here.” In that act he saw himself turning into his father, a shriveled up, bitter man who sat looking out of his window at a world he hated for what it had done with impunity to his people. Baldwin’s epiphany was that in order not to end up in debilitating and tormenting resentment he had to do two seemingly opposing things: accept the world as it was and fight with skillful passion against injustices. In Baldwin’s case he wrote powerful stories about the reality of racism, including Notes of a Native Son. .

The famous existentialist writer Albert Camus, a Frenchman born in Algeria, was horrified by the treatment of the indigenous Algerians by the colonizing French. He also risked his life fighting against the German occupation of France in the Resistance. In his books such as The Plague and The Stranger, Camus expressed a firm rejection of the use of violence and cold brutality, no matter what the goal. After WW II, he was maligned by the Left for not supporting Stalin, whose murderous rule was considered a necessary method for securing the great utopia of communism.

Camus believed that the end never justified cruel means. He believed that capital punishment, no matter how horrific the condemned man’s act was, was never the recourse of a humane society. He even pointed out the atrocities committed by the Algerians, who had depended on his unquestioning support. As a result, they, considered him a traitor, and so Camus in his later years decided that the only response he could give was silence. But his message remained in his books. He ended The Plague with a statement about the inevitable reality of “rats” and at the same time the basic duty of humans to see the beauty in life and fight against injustice with eyes wide open.

Victor Frankl wrote Man’s Search for Meaning after being an inmate in Auschwitz. He noted that acts of nobility occurred not just among the inmates, but also among the guards, a few of whom were kind and courageous in their resistance to the jobs they were given.  Frankl’s realization was that love was the deepest expression of human potential and could cut through ideologies and prejudices and regulations. Frankl basically discovered, to paraphrase Pete Townsend of The Who, that the obstacle to happiness isn’t the suppression of anger, but the suppression of love. Fierce anger cannot soothe our terrors as well as unconditional love can.

It’s difficult for people who can legitimately point to the evil committed by others to accept and forgive. It seems too much like losing, giving up, letting the bad guys win.

If the only goal is to win, then the fight will continue on an on, relentlessly, leaving us bitter or exhausted, sometimes even wanting to die.

If the goal is to alleviate suffering, then it requires seeing clearly how things are, from all sides. If we are clear, free of expectations and ideological ideals, we will be better able to act swiftly and effectively when presented with a crisis. Sometimes the only thing left to us is to learn to live with the reality that shit happens and to decide not to be that shit ourselves.

I am so glad I have read and listened to people like Frankl and Camus and Baldwin and Mandela. Such ideas and work are my refuge in the dark soul of the night when I feel sorry for myself and hateful anger for a world that seems so stupidly cruel. The self-pity and rage add to my suffering. Numbing drugs or distractions delay the suffering, even increasing it. These men’s ideas seem the most radical and effective solace: accept what is and then do what needs to be done that will not further the madness.

This is what education is all about. Reading and studying about these men did not get me a job; they got me through many dark times and supported my own crazy notion that I could let go of resentment and fear. That in the most horrific times, there is the possibility for imperfect human beings to manifest dignity and integrity and therefore be in some way free.