New Project: Chapter 29

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Chapter 29

 

Wind and water are onslaughts. Each gust or wave takes a little bit more.  If I am mountain or shore, I am consumed with erosion. If I am ocean or wind, I am consumed with motion, not more.

This morning, over tea, Steve asked me, “How’s your heart?” We check in with each other by asking this question, creating a safe space for an honest answer and ensuring our communication and marriage stay strong.

I told him I felt adrift, powerless, and without a target for the emotions elicited by Trump’s election. I let him know that these feelings were affecting every part of my life and my insecurities were rearing loud and strong.

He said, “That’s because nothing’s happened yet. You’re like a tidal wave moving across the ocean. As it moves, it’s only a foot high. When it comes in contact with the shore, it’s sixty feet high and powerful beyond measure. Just wait. When you see land, you’ll know where to put your energy.”

He was right, of course. Still, I told him not to try to solve my problem. I just wanted him to know what I felt. That, in turn, made him feel insecure about us. Men fix. It’s what they’ve been trained to do. If he can’t fix me, he feels powerless. We both know this now, but that doesn’t make our reality less challenging. It just means we have more room for each other and the mistakes we inevitably make.

Later, having coffee with a new friend, I thought about the power of wind and wave, thought about what it might feel like to stop trying to be solid ground. We’ve been taught to hold on, to keep change at bay, to cement ourselves to our worlds. Perhaps this is wrong. After all, solid ground is also an illusion.

I began this book at a campfire. My husband slept in a chair, a glass of whiskey tilted precariously in his hand. I fed the fire, watched a full moon rise over a dark lake, and listened to the wind. At the time, I knew I loved him beyond words and trusted him completely, but didn’t know if I could continue to live with him. It seemed our marriage was at odds with who I needed to be.

Then I had an epiphany. I thought back on all the ways he tried to be what I needed and realized that his efforts were enough and maybe the problem was me.

At first, I worried. It’s all too common for women to assume responsibility in moments of conflict because if the problem is their fault, they can change themselves and thus elicit some “control” over the situation. I’ve done this so many times I’ve lost count and was deeply afraid that my epiphany was more of the same, but there was a blot of hope on the edge of my consciousness that suggested a new way of thinking.

Now, as this book draws to a close, I realize I have spent my life weathering a storm. This storm is all around me and every onslaught erodes part of my whole. I live in a society that says (via pop culture, religious teachings, and legal battles not yet won) that I do not belong. My gender, behavior, intelligence, sensitivity, and sexuality are at odds with the person society says I am supposed to be. I am not alone in this experience. To a degree, every single person is under assault by someone or something and we are, collectively, weathering a common storm.

We hold onto structures, norms, as though clinging to them will render us solid, immutable, intact, and whole. But we are not mountain or shore. When we understand that we are wind or wave, we realize our power lies not in remaining the same, but in changing, growing, becoming our own storm. Our calm is a caress should we choose to give it. Our righteous anger is a tidal wave forming above an unsuspecting shore.

We control only what we give; to ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities. Through creativity, generosity, and deep care, we can erode the cultural norms. To feed the fire of my love of self, husband, family, and community, I had to abdicate what I’d known and embrace something different; a quiet revolution that started like a breeze and spread through the deepest recesses of my soul.

Reject toxic love. Take responsibility for liberty and use it. Develop empathy, but realize that giving to others without understanding motives can backfire and hurt everyone involved. Know that the system is constructed with an ideology that works for all, but policies that work against the majority for the benefit of those at the top. Recognize that lack of action against those policies renders us complicit in them. Know that change happens slowly and equality begins at home.

I leave you with this: Amazing Grace is more than a song or prayer. It is a state, an experience, an act of love. Individually, we are drops of water integral to ourselves and already whole. Together, we feed the oceans that reshape shores. We tunnel through granite, carve canyons, and fell trees. It is our fluidity – not rigidity – that makes the change we seek and lets us be the people and peoples we were meant to be.

 

I once was lost.

But now am found.

Was blind

But now I see.

 

With love to you. December 26, 2016.

New Project: Chapter 28

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Twenty Eight

 

Sometimes I feel overwhelmed. The task seems daunting – impossible even. How do we change a culture? How do we combat the insidious nature of mass media, corporate control, clandestine government, fundamentalist religion, and all the mechanisms designed to ensure we police ourselves into compliancy with everything that is against our own interests and that of most of the world?

It’s easier to abdicate, medicate, and be entertained. Easier to be numb than experience first shock, then pain. And yet, once seen, the enemy of human decency and social welfare cannot be unseen. The genie won’t go back in the bottle. Knowledge is first a weapon, then the tool necessary for change.

There is no way to take down the corporate elite en masse. Conventional revolution won’t secure our common interests or ensure the needs of the many. No amount of violence, protest, or boycott is enough to stem the evil that is neoliberalism and make the world okay.

But there is a path. Knowledge and generosity can build on the existing framework, creep over it like vines until it ceases to be itself. The moment we decide to stop giving corporations, government, and the wealthy elite power over us, we empower ourselves and each other. Equality – liberty, empathy, and economic independence – is only possible through a focus on collective well being.

Some will call me a socialist or communist. I am neither. I believe in democracy with my whole being, but the democracy I envision is one where popular vote matters and where social responsibility is inherent to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. No one is immune to tragedy. Innate intelligence, talent, and skills cannot protect us from illness, the death of a loved one, or a job lost to cheap labor in foreign countries. Rugged individualism is anathema to our self interests. It ensures continued loneliness, hopelessness, and despair and remains the greatest threat to our planet. If we could all just pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, we would have done it long ago. Hillary Clinton said, “It takes a village to raise a child.” More, it takes a village to sustain itself.

Homogenization – via food and discount chains, national banks and big box stores – destroys local culture and economy while robbing us of our common humanity. Cheap is an unsustainable illusion, possible only through tax breaks for wealthy corporations, commodity subsidies, and social welfare for underpaid employees.  We pay these hidden costs and we pay dearly. While they impact our wallets, they also diminish our spirits and render us slaves to a system designed only to profit from us.

Corporations don’t care. People do. Most successful small business owners understand that business, to survive, must be relevant to the community it serves. Because of that, small businesses are vested in community endeavors, local non-profits, and local culture. Their prices may be a little higher than their corporate competitors, but that is because their costs are real. They are not subsidized by government. They have little access to low interest loans and can’t sell shares to raise cash. In addition, they can’t buy the quantities necessary to lower their cost of goods.

When we buy from them, we pay fairly for the goods and services we receive and keep tax dollars and wealth in our local communities. Big box stores seldom sponsor the little league team, local museum, homeless shelter, or food bank. They might have a charity component that gives a fraction of their income to education or research, but they’re not focused on building vibrant communities through personal involvement. Instead, they kill small businesses, divest us of our sense of community, and siphon profit away from local economies.

Government, regardless of who is elected, can’t stop them, but we can. After the 2016 election, national non-profits saw an unprecedented surge in donations. The ACLU, which raised twenty seven thousand dollars after the 2012 election, received 7.2 million in just eight days. In a rush to create a safety net against policies that might be enacted under a Trump administration, people gave what they could.

What if they had chosen to give locally instead? Could that influx of cash invigorate a stagnant local economy or provide for the underserved in local communities? Many liberals are quick to recognize need elsewhere, but fear to recognize it at home. While they pat themselves on the back and feel proud of their efforts to help the underserved, marginalized, and discriminated against, they ignore realities staring them in the face. Poverty is rampant in this country and it’s getting worse. Wealth and accompanying social services are concentrated in urban areas while rural populations are in dire need of healthcare, mental health programs, food security, and jobs. Travel the blue roads in any state and you will find shuttered downtowns, abandoned buildings, and faded signs from businesses long gone. In these communities, depression, drug abuse, alcoholism, and suicide are all too common. In fact, in rural areas child and teen suicide rates are more than double their urban counterparts, yet we continue to give our money to national agencies that concentrate their efforts in urban areas and buy from corporate giants rather than local stores.

In his article, How Half of America Lost Its F**king mind, David Wong said, “The recession pounded rural communities, but all the recovery went to the cities. The rate of new businesses opening in rural areas has utterly collapsed.

See, rural jobs used to be based around one big local business – a factory, a coal mine, etc. When it dies, the town dies. Where I grew up, it was an oil refinery closing that did us in. I was raised in the hollowed-out shell of what the town had once been. The roof of our high school leaked when it rained. Cities can make up for the loss of manufacturing jobs with service jobs – small towns cannot. That model doesn’t work below a certain population density.”

The loss of manufacturing jobs has certainly contributed to the destruction of rural economies. So have big box corporations. When a Walmart is allowed to open in a small town, it kills local business. Then, once local business is dead and there are no jobs, and no tax base with which to create them, and no income with which to support its business, Walmart does what’s in its best interest. It leaves and the town is destroyed. Every time we become dependent on one large entity for our well-being, we give away all the power we had to create and sustain local economies.

There are complex economic problems, to be sure, and I am not going to attempt to solve them here. However, we can take responsibility for much of what happens in our local economies. We can block big box stores from opening in our neighborhoods. We can raise funds to provide emergency relief and low-interest micro-loans to people facing temporary crisis. We can create spaces for local artists and crafts people to show their wares and revitalize declining business districts through those efforts. We can support local businesses that invest in the community and buy food from local farmers. Time banks are a way to trade goods and services without relying on credit or cash. There are many models that have been proven to work. Not all of them work in all locations and some towns may never recover from the damage done by big business and neoliberal policy, but we can make a difference if we start giving to each other instead of worrying about what we do or don’t get.

When I became head administrator for a local non-profit childcare agency, the organization was bleeding heavily. It operated after school programs at four elementary schools and couldn’t cover its expenses. The existing policy demanded that fundraising efforts finance all scholarships and lower tier employees be paid minimum wage. Turnover was high. Program quality was low. Enrollment was below subsistence level.

Immediately, I gave all employees a significant raise. Turnover slowed. I instituted a sliding scale payment plan and advertised heavily that no child would be turned away due to a family’s inability to pay. Enrollment went up drastically. As enrollment increased, I dedicated more time to training my staff. Turnover stopped. Enrollment hit peak capacity at the four schools and we opened additional programs at eight others. In a year, the organization’s revenue quadrupled and it operated soundly in the black. The math was simple. Instead of nine children paying $200 per week, I had twenty paying an average of $150 and increased revenue by $600 at each location. After the wage adjustment and a slight increase in cost of goods to support the additional children (but no additional labor), each site netted $400 per week and the organization netted $249,600. That allowed us to provide more financial support for those in need, open more locations, pay better wages, give free childcare to our employees, improve the quality of our product, and ensure the organization’s fiscal health.

This is not rocket science. It’s taking care of people. When we care in ways that matter, we are rewarded for our efforts. When we give people dignity and respect, they give us loyalty and support.

But efforts to support local businesses and non-profit organizations do more than improve local economies; they bolster spirits and create hope. When community comes together, individuals within that community feel less isolated and more empowered. The desperation so many feel is lessened when we share our strengths and vulnerabilities. As we build relationships, we create understanding and empathy, strengthen our ability to communicate, and develop trust. This, in turn, promotes a greater willingness to invest time, energy, and money where they matter most. When we give locally, we change local culture and become models for other communities. Little by little, neighborhood by neighborhood, our efforts creep like vines and improve the world.

New Project: Chapter 27

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Twenty Seven

 

Economics are difficult. Emotions are more so. After the election, Trump surrogates postulated that in an information age there are no such things as facts. People believe what they choose to believe and facts, in this context, are irrelevant. This is terrifying. Orwell’s 1984 posited the same thing. The Ministry of Peace was all about war. The Ministry of Truth was all about propaganda. Duck Speak was a way to minimize vocabulary to ensure a limitation of thought. Orwell was brilliant and a savant, but only because he was a student of human nature.

In a recent blog post, Seth Godin said, “The other person is always right. Always right about feelings.

About the day he just experienced.

About the fears (appropriate and ill founded) in his life.

About the narrative going on, unspoken, in his head.

About what he likes and what he dislikes.

You’ll need to travel to this place of ‘right’ before you have any chance at all of actual communication.”

Godin hits the nail on the head. I am right and so are you. Right, in spite of facts, is right. Emotional logic is far more powerful than reasoned logic. Most people, tired of hurting, will believe anything or anyone who promises to take the hurt away – even when they’re factually wrong, even when their “right” compounds the hurt.

We see this in relationships all the time. Most fights, on the surface, are stupid. But when we look deeper, they are about desire, the responsibility it entails, and the difficulty with honesty. I hurt. Something happened that triggered a response I didn’t intend and now, faced with confronting or denying it, I string together a litany of “truths” that have no basis in objective reality, but support the “feeling” I have that you injured me. The last thing I want to do is inflict more hurt. There’s enough of it in the world, but I can’t help myself. My pain screams louder than yours.

Those that would manipulate us for their own gain understand this. They feed it, dishing out tasty lumps of outrage, impotence, and “empathy” at just the right moments to ensure the outcome they desire. We eat them up, cope in all the ways we can, and believe their promises will save us because we cannot save ourselves. Their promises are shields against our fears and we believe them when they say wages will go up, jobs will be abundant, and the bank will not foreclose. Once we’ve elected them, or allowed the big box into our community, the family will get food, medicine, education, and standing in this world.

Governments and corporations play us using language that evokes emotional convictions about morality. We buy into their promise that after the event (be it corporate or governmental) the noise and lightening and wind will abate and we will finally do more than merely survive. The sky will clear and hope will loom bright as the sun. Unfortunately, the weather always changes and it is only a matter of time until the next despot, demagogue, or corporate interest decides our worth is less than theirs.

Neoliberalism is a method through which the emotional convictions of a populace are manipulated against their own interests to secure the financial interests of a wealthy minority. NAFTA was supposed to be a gem of international policy that would result in hundreds of thousands of jobs. Instead, it ensured the wealthiest fifteen percent of Mexican elites reap more than half of Mexico’s annual GDP.

Stabilization policies in Latin America – Brazil, Nicaragua, and others –were supposed to usher in democratic governments and expanding markets that would lift people out of poverty and warfare. Instead, they led to rapidly declining wages, food scarcity, and the loss of decades of social progress for the masses while securing outrageous profits for those nations’ elite and American corporations.

Under the pretense of democracy and the free market, the United States (along with other industrialized nations) has coerced, bullied, and illegally interfered with other nations to secure corporate interests on a global scale. Globalization and the pursuit of democracy, though touted as good and fundamentally necessary to secure better prospects for the world’s population, has in fact destroyed the prospects of most. We are sold a story about the free market which is fundamentally untrue. For much of the last hundred years, the free market has been controlled by governments through regulation, bail outs, and subsidies to benefit corporate interests at the expense of the working classes.

According to Noam Chomsky, since NAFTA was enacted the number of impoverished people living in rural Mexico increased by a third and, “Half the population lacks resources to meet basic needs, a dramatic increase since 1980.”

Truth matters, but it is arbitrary because it depends on one’s perspective. You and I are sitting at a table. Between us is a vase filled with roses. From my perspective, the vase has an inscription etched into the glass. There are three blooms, one fading a little, and a host of little white flowers that compliment the spray.

You tell me there is no inscription because, from your perspective, there is none. You also see four roses and a lot of green leaves. What you and I see are different. Both are real. Both are valid. I can move to your side, see what you see, and remember what I saw, but I can never see both sides at once. Neither can you. This is where empathy comes in, where it becomes essential. I must trust that what you see and describe is true. You must do the same because we are both right. The fact is, there is a vase filled with roses, little white flowers, and green stuff on the table. How each of us chooses to interpret what we see is different, equally valid, and only part of the whole. What I choose to believe about your “truth” is rooted not in observable fact, but on my emotional and physical need to trust you.

In the aftermath of the election, a group of women began to organize a million women march on Washington, D.C. There were cries for solidarity, a collective relief that something was being done, and a lot of unanswered questions. The organizers, in their rush and enthusiasm, initially called the event “The March on Washington.” Then, after some negative feedback, they changed the name. This engendered another attack by women of color who felt both names hijacked work already done by people of color for people of color.

Outrage ensued on both sides and the vitriol threatened the entire event. The name was changed, yet again, to satisfy those who felt their history absconded. Too little, too late. The damage, though unintentional, had been done. In this instance, as in most, a little ignorance and a lot of emotion caused well-intentioned people to miss important historical references. They didn’t do it on purpose, and perhaps even named the march in unconscious tribute to those who had gone before, yet they unwillingly let emotional urgency interfere with their goal.

We consistently miss historical references and the facts they reveal because emotions outweigh personal and collective experience. Solidarity and common morality trump (to use a word that is both relevant and repulsive) memory and facts. To our detriment, we would rather our fears be assuaged than face reality because we have learned to focus on what we get rather than what we give.

We are told democracy depends on compromise, that if we give a little we’ll get enough, that human rights are important, but economics matter more. After all, in a free market, all things are self-correcting. If the money flows, we’ll be all right.

The money, however, doesn’t flow, the market isn’t free, and democracy today is designed to protect property over social welfare and human rights. While we battle over American idealism and biblical reference, big government and small, rural morality and urban sophistication, we miss the crucial truth that those who make policy do so in their own best interests. The system we’re taught to revere is a golden calf. Collectively, we worship in folly at its feet, largely ignoring F. Scott Fitzgerald’s proclamation that, “The rich are different from you and me,” and voting with emotion instead of fact.

New Project: Chapter 26

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Twenty Six

 

I dropped out of college after my freshman year and came home. Washington D.C. was not the glamorous metropolis for which I’d hoped. College was less and more and too much. At sixteen, still grieving and totally broke, I was ill equipped to deal with its offerings.

I wore Levi’s and flannel shirts. My roommates wore Gap and perfume and radiant hope. They had allowances, bedding, and parents who didn’t refuse when they called collect. I played Billie Holiday and Janis Joplin. They played Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel. My world collided with theirs.

I couldn’t reconcile what I had read and believed with the homeless men and women who lined the streets. Metro escalators descended, futuristic and whistle clean, into tunnels that felt overwhelming and mildly obscene. Automatic doors on brightly lit trains slid open like mouths waiting to eat me. Whoosh of air and screech of brakes frightened me like the eyes of transient government employees who arrived quickly and worried about leaving. I drank. I smoked. I slept with boys. In the wee hours of the mornings, I climbed trees.

When I left – broken, disillusioned, and defensive – I vowed to work on a ranch, to be a woman full and free. I applied for the job on a June morning. I hadn’t saddled a horse by myself ever, so I lied to the property owner. He smiled and tucked his laugh behind a cough when I saddled the horse backward. Then he offered me the position – head wrangler at a dude ranch ten miles north of Pecos, New Mexico.

Hugh, the owner, had fled New Jersey to be a cowboy. Maybe, in my eyes, he recognized his dream. He couldn’t control the economy, the drought that dried up business and streams, or the way his wife looked at him while she sucked a candy and cleaned. He could control what he gave to me.

That job changed me. I learned to ride, to train precocious horses, to mend and care for tack. I got a puppy, a blue heeler, who helped me in the mornings when cold lay in the valley. At that hour, the horses snorted steam, pranced and ran, not wanting to get caught. I wore, again, comfortable jeans, got strong, tan, and muscled, and learned to two-step to country songs. Then, as summer waned and fall crept into the canyon, something happened.

One evening, returning from a long ride, I spotted a mare – my barnyard nemesis – lying ghost-like on the ground. Her pale, white coat glowed softly in the twilight. She was thirty, had cancer, and was spoiled rotten because my boss had raised her from a colt. She was the first horse he broke and I think she broke him, too. Something about that mare made him soften.

She wouldn’t get up. She couldn’t get up. I put a harness on her and attached a rope. I pulled, tugged, cajoled, but all she could do was roll her eyes and thrash a bit. I got my boss. He took a look, sighed heavily, and pulled a pistol from its holster on his hip. “You do it,” he said, handing me the gun.

“Do what?”

“Do it,” he hissed through tight lips. “I can’t.”

He strode away, bowlegged and limp, and I watched him until the oncoming dark blurred him into a myth. Then I looked at the mare. I hefted the heavy gun, took a deep breath, and pulled the trigger, hitting her in the head. The shot shattered the stillness like a clap of thunder. Gun smoke muddied the clean scent of pine and creek and manure. A fountain of blood spurted crimson across her white coat and pooled dark and thick in the dirt.

She screamed – horses do scream — and tried to get up. Her head flailed in every direction and I knew I’d failed them both. I shot again, aiming carefully because my fingers were trembling, and missed. Tears fell down my cheeks and I let them. The mare’s movements gradually slowed. Finally, as dusk swallowed the last of the light, they stopped.

Numb, I staggered to the ranch house and handed my boss the gun. He put a bottle of tequila in my hand. The only words he spoke were, “Go home.” Not long after, he let me go. Winter in the mountains is tough and money is quickly gone.

For thirty odd years, I have loved that man. I loved him for giving me a chance when most wouldn’t and I loved him for trusting me to give to him. Ending the mare’s life was brutal and merciful all at once. It stayed with me and I’ve known since that all suffering comes to an end. I’ve also known what giving is.

After I left the ranch, I worked a variety of jobs. At every one, someone wanted something from me that I was loath to give. Finally, after showing up for work on a cold, February afternoon to find the doors chain locked and owners who had fled without issuing my last paycheck, I knew hungry again. It is hard to find work in a tourist town at that time of year. My mother, broke herself and overwhelmed, couldn’t help. There was no safety net. I had no car, no savings, no degree and no prospects. I rationed pancakes and jelly – all I had in my fridge. Finally I found a job, wore an apron, and served burritos to high school kids. Minimum wage and very few tips.

When spring came, I found a better job working as an underage cocktail waitress. The men patted my ass, tried to pull me in their laps, and made crude comments to their friends. They did, however, tip. Generously. The tighter my clothes, the better I did. I met a man one night I thought was cute and he asked me out. Lonely and thrilling to his attention, I accepted. We left the bar where I worked and he said he needed to stop by his apartment real quick. I followed him upstairs, waited while he unlocked the door, and stepped inside. As I did, he bent me over the back of his couch, pulled down my pants, and took me without consent. There was porn playing on a large TV, the only décor in a beige bland room, and I knew in an instant that this was a setup. I laughed it off, made it okay for him, because I had been stupid and thought I deserved what he did to me.

The next year, it happened again, but worse, and I agreed to marry the man who rescued me from the resulting alcohol-fueled oblivion. He was my hero, but it turns out, heroes need victims.

These are confessions. Like you, I have more of them. I’m telling you because my life as it unfolded should never have been. At nineteen, I was the dangling comma of young sexuality, poverty, lack of formal higher education, and an ill-timed father’s death. And yet…

Here I am. I made it through okay. I achieved some things and have most of what I want. I took privilege. I clawed my way out. More importantly, at the most desperate moments, I had help.

Hugh, the ranch owner, was first. Then came Jim, the foundry owner who took pity and offered me an apprenticeship. I am the product of kindness. My life is what it is because of the generosity of good men and women who gave when they didn’t have to and weren’t trying to get. A landlord gifted me equity in a house I rented, helped me buy it, and ensured a stable future for my kids. When I lost my job after 9/11, a friend showed me how to start an art business. When my son needed private school and I had to use my savings, Steve – who I had just started dating – bought me the tool I had been saving for and thought I would have to forego. That tool made me a better artist and helped my business grow.

There are countless people in my life who gave when they could have taken, believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself, made possible opportunities when I asked, and continued to affirm my hope. Collectively, they instilled a conviction that defied the conventional narrative. I pulled myself up by my bootstraps because others believed I could and were willing to help. We’re in this together. It is not a competition or race to the top. Tragedy befalls every single person and we’re all each other have.

When push comes to shove, politics don’t matter. Instead, the dreams we share, achieve, or lose are what bind us to each other. When we focus on them, we reveal our common humanity and, as a result, survive or even thrive. Neoliberal policies would have us negate this truth. They would have us turn our attention to special interests, global concerns, and the ways in which each of us are not good enough. But, when we stick together and give to each other, we define our worth. Then we have the energy, confidence, and compassion necessary to build a better social/economic construct and save this beautiful earth.

New Project: Chapter 25

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Twenty Five

 

Milton Friedman, the godfather of neoliberal capitalism and the economist most responsible for a “Shock and Awe” policy that devastated Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s (and is, in part, why Venezuela’s economy is collapsing today) said, “Because profit making is the essence of democracy, any government that pursues anti-market policies is being antidemocratic, no matter how much informed popular support they might enjoy. Therefore it is best to restrict governments to the job of protecting private property and enforcing contracts, and to limit political debate to minor issues.” His theories are why we are in a manufactured culture war and why Supreme Court rulings like Citizens United are possible.

While his declaration may feel perverse, it is rooted in the convictions of our founding fathers, those same fathers who framed our constitution and set up a construct that doomed the vast majority of the American population to a life of struggle, inequality, and discontent.

In spite of lofty ideals espoused by our Declaration of Independence and constitution, the game was rigged before it began. Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations, arguably influenced James Madison, the “Father of the constitution.”

Smith was the first economist to suggest that the wealth of nations is measured not by how much gold and silver a nation possesses, but by its commerce and productivity (known today as Gross Domestic Product, or GDP). Although he favored division of labor and specialization because they increased productivity, he also foresaw the end of democracy “if manufacturing aristocracy should escape its confines.”

Smith’s prediction has come to pass because, as Chomsky says, “what is right for the people of the world will only by the remotest accident conform to the plans of the ‘principal architects’ of policy.” These architects, historical and contemporary, have absolutely zero reason to change policy to benefit anyone other than themselves. They never have, and the way our democracy was envisioned and enacted has ensured a continuation of oppression. The top tier of wealthily people is vested only in accumulating more wealth.

Our equality, as put forth by the constitution, is an illusion designed to keep us from revolt. It gives us a modicum of power (the vote) and the American Dream (the hype) to keep the vast majority of us under control. If, as Chomsky says, government depends on control of opinion, then it is no wonder Donald Trump ascended to the Presidency. With fake news and a multi-million dollar Facebook strategy, complete with dark advertising designed to target individuals based on their personal proclivities, Trump controlled opinion.

Mass media, even “mainstream liberal media” fed into the Trump phenomenon, giving him unlimited headlines and a narrative that underscored a systemic conviction that Hillary Clinton was flawed.

Who isn’t flawed? Certainly Donald Trump is flawed, but as a nation we didn’t care. His flaws were palatable. Hers weren’t. One of Adam Smith’s most popular quotes is, “Virtue is to be more feared than vice, because its excesses are not subject to the regulation of conscience.”

As a woman, Clinton was required to be the epitome of female virtue – a moral compass, a pure being. Consequently her qualifications and experience were unimportant. Our collective focus was on her “likeability” and we crucified her because virtue, contrary to common belief, is the exclusive province of men. Cultural standards dictate that likeable women can’t behave like them. Trump understood this and exploited virtue to his benefit.

The root of virtue is strength, masculinity, virility. It is supposed to be a particular moral excellence, but it is also valor, potency, and capacity to act. For women, however, the dictionary says virtue resides in virginity alone. How could we elect a virtuous woman? A woman who has known the thrill or tedium of a lover’s bed cannot be virtuous. A virtuous man, however, earns his masculinity by his capacity to act, by his potency, virility, and valor. The double standard is breathtaking. If a woman is to be a woman, she cannot be virtuous because virtue (beyond virginity) is how we define what it means to be a man.

Men do the dirty work – the backroom deal that’s ethically questionable, the physical violence that’s sometimes necessary, the sacrifice of self and soul for the sake of sustenance and comfort – that a woman, if her virtue is to remain intact, is incapable of doing.

Like neoliberal free market economy, a virtuous woman will redeem a man and cement his masculinity by allowing him to do what he must to achieve a desired outcome. The market will, according to Friedman and Smith, render “immoral” actions virtuous in the long run. The un-virtuous will fail. Those who succeed are rendered virtuous by the outcome they achieve. More is better.

But is it? Smith was right in declaring virtue more dangerous than vice. Precisely because it is not regulated by conscience, virtue is runaway capitalism. It is excess. It is the capacity to act in any way necessary to prove virility and potency as long as the actions occur under the guise of morality.

Morality, however, is fickle – always dependent on current cultural climate. Today’s morals have little in common with those of prior generations with one exception: Wealth and power are achieved by morally deserving men or by loose, immoral women.

The double bind insists that virtuous women are feminine (caring, nurturing, kind, and spiritual) from birth and men must consistently earn their masculinity. This conviction is a trap because no woman is truly “virtuous” and no man can be virtuous enough.

James Madison, warning about apathy toward government, said, “I go on this great republican principle, that the people will have virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom. Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks – no form of government can render us secure.”

Madison, of course, was speaking to moral virtue. He was also speaking to the very qualities that have defined American men for more than two hundred years. He spoke to the rugged individual, the man who was not afraid to challenge England to further his own prospects, the man willing to die for liberty and property, the man who was not a “Macaroni,” but one who pulled himself up by the bootstraps and made something of himself. His call for a new nation challenged the masculinity of the King’s subjects and basically cried, “Man up” to the men who would form that new nation. Like Madison, Trump promised to “man up” and called his constituency to do the same. Using morality common to certain portions of the population, he acknowledged their impotency, stoked their virility, and promised change.

“Man up,” however, is a terrible call to action. It excuses egregious, dangerous behavior, making men less than human and women merely artifact.

If we have been willing to fight for freedom before, are we not willing now? Our past battles were for someone else’s profit. Bloodshed on fields foreign and domestic never benefited the working classes. We rallied to a cry that was never ours. Freedom is easy for the Trumps of the world. It’s not so easy for the rest of us, but we can achieve it if we refuse to comply with their opinion. We control our own stories. We write the narrative. We understand the only thing we control is what we give. What are we giving when we nod our head in agreement with public conviction? What are we giving when we beg for a raise? What are we giving when we drop our prices to compete with a corporate conglomerate that kills small business and takes our money out of state?

Economic independence looks different for everybody. Some can get by with less and be happier for it. Some can open a business. There’s no right way to achieve it, but it’s possible to free ourselves a little at a time from those who would enslave us.

Recently, in response to a conservative boycott of a large department store, liberal friends rallied. Because this corporation stood up for liberal values and refused to conform to gender stereotypes, we’re all supposed to shop there. This is crazy. If we’re going to be free, we have to stop being manipulated by corporate propaganda. The rallying cry should be shop locally. It should demand that local businesses stock products that do not have a negative environmental impact or support slave labor in third world countries. It should be a cry to consume less and pay for quality over quantity.

As a small business owner, it would seem I’m rallying against my own interests, but I’m not. Chomsky says, “The social inequality generated by neoliberal policies undermines any effort to realize the legal equality necessary to make democracy credible.” He also says, “Instead of citizens [neoliberal policy] produces consumers. Instead of communities, it produces shopping malls. The net result is an atomized society of disengaged individuals who feel demoralized and socially powerless.”

If we are to be economically independent, we need vibrant communities vested in local business to secure the resiliency of our all our people – not just the most marginalized. The negative effects of income inequality are well documented. So are the benefits of strong communities.

That’s where we have to start. Social media has helped us to create online communities with like-minded people, but it minimizes real, human interaction and isolates us in the process.

Most people are fundamentally good. We have more in common than that which divides us. Politics, as manipulated by those who would have us war against each other, be damned. It’s our neighborhoods and communities that matter.

New Project: Chapter 24

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(To read the previous chapter, click here)

Twenty Four

 

In the election’s aftermath, I watched scores of Facebook friends share ways to get involved, make a difference, and organize against the threat Trump presented. I witnessed protests, attended a few rallies, and even held a town hall meeting of my own. The call to action was strong and, for me, violence sang a siren’s song.

I wanted blood, wanted it to rain red, paint our cities the color of life lost and hope quenched, wanted it to wash away our arrogance, smug surety, and fear. As rural America took stock, hoped, and prayed, I drank, ate macaroni and cheese, raged and cried and counseled others to be strong, brave, and more than me.

I said, “We need to be our best selves.”

I said, “We need to focus locally and ensure that our community is resilient in the face of unknown, but certain, change.”

I said, “Would you really not help Mrs. Johnson, though her husband died last year and she recently underwent surgery, because she voted for Donald Trump?”

And I encouraged people to get off their social media and get to work.

And yet, even as I counseled, part of me wanted it all to collapse, wanted the crumbling infrastructure of a nation bloated with its own sense of self topple so that light and air and bright new seedlings might fill gaps in the rubble and we, reborn, might wonder like children at the world we’d wrought.

Then, with the nation collapsed, perhaps we could sing an anthem not of war, racism, or dominance, but of tolerance and economic change.

 

Amazing grace

How sweet the sound

To save a wretch like me…

 

Outcomes are always uncertain. We only control one thing. All the polls and pundits, economists and scientists and generals, presidents and senators, church leaders and community organizers wave their magic microphones and spin a version of a truth that’s supposedly written in stone, but seldom concretely proved.

We’re all just guessing, hoping, and trying desperately to carve some sense of purpose and direction, to rend from chaos a calm order that defies or justifies our inevitable mortality.

Get more. Get heaven. Get money. Get property. Get married. Get peace. Get free. Get respect. Get a drink.

 

I once was lost

But now I’m found

Was blind, but now I see.

 

Trump’s election may just pull the tourniquet off our collective wounds and blood may flow before we’ve cleansed and healed them. But, and I emphasize this, we have more power than we think. All of us. We are humanity. We have more in common than what divides us. We mostly want the same things. If we can look past our culture war and into our hearts, we know we are bigger than our fears. David Hume said, “Force is always on the side of the governed.”

In his book, Profit over People: Neoliberalism and Global Order, Noam Chomsky furthered Hume’s sentiment by saying, “If people would realize that, they would rise up and overthrow the masters.” Hume and Chomsky concluded that government is founded on control of opinion, a principle that “extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular.”

Economic independence is attainable. We can free ourselves from corporate control. Over time, and through political action, we may be able to secure some protection under the law, but that’s a long way off and, again, outside our direct control.

For all intents, the democracy we knew toppled in 2016. Our two party system showed itself to be hollow. America elected its first true Independent President and that man walked all over protocol as he prepared to take office.

However, his ascendancy is not that of Nero. Rome is not yet burning. We are, if we’ll allow ourselves to embrace it, already free. We have exponential amounts of empathy. We can harness these to build a model where equality is more than promise or possibility, but it’s going to take some risk, hard work, and courage.

All over the world, micro economies prove that different models are possible. We are not locked into a neo-liberal nightmare. We can’t be. As Naomi Klein says, “We are in the zero decade.” If we don’t act soon, we won’t be talking about anything beyond basic survival and that, too, may prove tenuous. Climate change is happening. It’s real and it will be catastrophic if we don’t arrest the raping and pillaging of our world.

When I first opened my store, I tried to be the least expensive option on just about everything I carried. I scanned my products on an Amazon app to ensure I remained competitive with the giant and worried constantly that my customers would leave if they discovered better prices elsewhere.

Then, about a year in, I saw a video produced by Eileen Fischer that depicted the travesty of Fast Fashion. Until then, I had never heard the term. I didn’t know that big retailers manufactured clothing designed to only last for a little while. Shoppers could stay in front of fashion trends without doing serious damage to their budget. What most shoppers don’t know, however, is that these clothes are terrible for the world. Fast Fashion is the second leading polluter (behind oil and gas) and is the number one employer of slave labor. Fast Fashion should be a crime.

Horrified, and unwilling to be a part of something so bad, I rethought my business strategy and vowed to shop with ethics and sustainability at the forefront of my buying decisions.

Prices in my store went up. They had to. If I was to sell products made by people receiving a fair wage, working in healthy environments, and making products from sustainable fabrics, I had to pay for it and so did my customers. The average price on merchandise went up fifty percent – from forty dollars to sixty.

I told customers what I was doing and why. Most stayed with me. Some didn’t, but I have to stay true to my moral compass and it’s my job to raise awareness where I can. The choice was worth the risk. I have fewer customers who buy fewer things, but we’re all doing what we can for the planet and the increase in price covered the loss of revenue from additional sales.

I can hear some of you screaming, “Privilege!” You’re right. I have it. I didn’t always. My life, too, has been one of intersections and being white has always helped me to take risks others can’t or won’t. Nevertheless, my privilege was taken, not granted. I made my place in this world and I didn’t do it by focusing on what I got or could get. I focused on what I had to give and how, and to whom, I could give it. That is something we all can do.

Mr. Trump, welcome to my outrage

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Yesterday, the Presidential Inauguration committee tried to silence hundreds of thousands of women by blocking their ability to march and assemble at all public parks in Washington, D.C. The move is unprecedented in American history and I wonder if the protesters were people of color or veterans or any other group willing to riot, would they have done the same thing.

Listen up, Predator-elect and misogynist team.

You will not silence me.

You will not take the voice I have finally claimed.

 

You will not find me compliant

Easily manipulated

Or afraid.

 

Do you think, really, that the lack of a permit is enough to quell my rage?

Do you think I fear your rubber bullets, water cannons, or percussion grenades?

Women are not so easy to dissuade.

Perhaps we will march anyway.

 

Can you see the headlines?

The news clips?

The horror of women beaten in the streets?

 

I am not afraid of your violence. I have felt it already and am no stranger to pain.

You will not rape this country.

Not without a fight from millions upon millions of women like me.

 

We will rise. We will dream our dream and make it a reality. You will see us unleashed and feel the full fury of our outrage.

Just wait, Mr. Trump. Just wait.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Project: Chapter 23

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(To read the previous chapter, click here)

Twenty Three

 

The unthinkable happened. Our country elected hate. Watching the election returns, my body felt as if all the air had left it. Crushed. Broken. Hopeless. The work I’d done, the work of years to undo the ravages of sexual assault, the work of letting go and believing that I could have power, choices, agency disappeared in an electoral count nobody predicted. I thought I could let go. I thought I could matter. I thought the weight I bore, the scars I wore counted for something. I thought, believed, hoped, prayed that I was more than some horrible man’s judgment of me. I was wrong. In a few hours, the 2016 election affirmed every doubt, every wish for a different body, a different mind, a different mode of expression.

There was, honestly, not enough whiskey in the world for the hurt I felt. How many times would I be raped? How many times would men assert their fear and render me powerless against them? How many times would my body be worth more than my heart and mind?  What, now, did being a woman mean?

Broken. Beat down. Used. And also aging. Not a ten or an eight, but a two. Maybe. My worth dictated by a mob angry with an elite. Like I was nothing. Like my mind was nothing. Like my experience and hurt meant nothing. How was this possible? And where to go? What to do? How to fight? How to lead? How to finish this book, this work?

I wanted to curl up under a rock. I didn’t even want Steve to see me. That our country could elect this man meant everything I believed was a farce, a construct of magical thinking. What would I tell my sons? How would I go to work and open my business – a safe haven for women who hurt? What guidance or hope could I possibly offer? What strength was left to give?

The sobs wrecked my body, rendered me even more powerless. I longed for the cold of fury, but it didn’t come. A woman’s place, again, was in the home.

Donald fucking Trump. Really? Oh my fucking god. And everywhere women cringed. Democracy, it seemed, was at an end. The stock markets tumbled. The world revolted. Terrorists grinned. In one evil, dastardly night, the US of A determined my panties were in a twist

And still, despite it all, I maintain (and offer Trump’s election as proof) the only thing we control is what we give.

Writing this I felt so small, but I wrote. There is a flame. That flame is love – love  for the millions of women who feel the weight of what our country did, love for the men who love and respect women, love for the children who learned the bright hope of their future had dimmed.

Steve said, “Like after the second plane hit the World Trade Center, our world just changed and not for the good.”

How does an educated, financially successful white man comfort a wife whose pain he can only imagine? The world, really, did not change for him.

We only control what we give.

Should I have phone banked? Donated more? Should I not have been exhausted by the email pleas and phone calls?

All the polls said Clinton would win. I expected a landslide, would have been fine (mostly) with a win.

Caught in a web.

And yet, re-reading my own words and convinced of their truth, I reassert there is never a moment when we are powerless. A Facebook friend – a white, male, university professor – suggested we rise up. In my bones I know that won’t work. Again, I hear a whisper. Only in quiet revolution will we win.

We must stop seeing ourselves as victims. Trump’s election did not diminish my worth (no matter how much it felt that way at the time). It did not undo my years of work. It triggered a reaction, certainly, and his election brought me to tears, but I still stand strong.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. We will not achieve equality in this country until the oppressed cease to behave as victims of a society that does things to them. Privilege can be taken. We have the power to reclaim our nation. Our resiliency is not dependent on flexibility or adaptability. Instead, it is dependent upon the health of our relationships and our moral code.

As a society, we have been conditioned to fear the “other.” People not like us are a danger, but fear of the other breeds isolation. It severs communications, keeps us in line, and creates the problems it presumes to solve.

Fear taught women to be judgmental and prejudiced against the “other” even as it taught them to be sweet and compassionate to their own kind. Through fear, we learned women have monsters inside. The monsters are terrifying. They loom dark and uncontrollable when we feel thrilled, aroused, deeply sad, terribly angry, ambitious or just desirous of something. Women believe that if their monster gets out, it will consume them.

The monster is power. It can wreak havoc, make mayhem, even murder, but that’s not what it usually does. Instead, that monster fosters and sustains courage. It defends our families, gives us the strength to endure tragedy, and promotes our ambition. In fact, it is the monster that makes us human. What women have been taught to repress is their strength, sexuality, intelligence, agency, and anger. To unleash these, to take off the restraints, is to be fully alive, but many don’t know this. Many keep their monster locked inside.

53% of white women voted for Donald Trump. There has been much speculation as to why. Some say that women’s conditioning led to compassion for a bully. Others say white privilege and racism are to blame. Perhaps both played a factor, but I also think women who voted for Trump did it to protect this country from the monster they couldn’t contain. Hillary Clinton is the monster unleashed and therefore couldn’t be Commander-in-Chief because society dictates that powerful women are evil. If you have doubt, you need only look at history and the thousands of women burned at the stake.

For centuries, women have been taught to suppress their own power in order to stay safe. Compliance and compassion, generosity and temerity, daintiness and desirability were the qualities we had to embrace. We’ve fought this and we’ve won some victories. The very fact that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by well more than a million demonstrates the work that’s been done. However, the election crushed our optimism. Nationwide, women grieved hard. Hollowed out, directionless, and exhausted from too many tears, they formed a steady stream in and out of my store.

“What do we do now?”

“Where do we go from here?”

“How could this have happened?”

“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think I need to get a gun.”

Like me, they felt hopeless, lost, and broken.

Fear raised its ugly head, licked its slimy lips, and slithered toward us in anticipation.

Then liberals and progressive women shed the fog of complacency and gathered on social media and in the streets.

“No more,” we said. It ends today. Now is not the time for fear. It is the time for rage. Yes, rage. White-hot, laser-like feminine rage. It’s time to unleash our monsters and make concrete, positive change.

If the election of Donald Trump did anything, it woke us up, roused us from the dream of safety, and motivated us to congregate.

The election requires us to move forward with a vision of freedom or abdicate. In moving forward, we must harness the power inside us and use it to combat corporate greed, climate change, and political corruption. Listen to the monster when it speaks. Follow its lead. Reach out and embrace the “other” even if you’re terrified. Talk, listen, and discover common ground. The other’s fear is as real as yours, their future as uncertain.

We all want the same thing: the freedom we were promised to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. As a nation, we must come together in defense of freedom and the tenets it demands: liberty, empathy, and economic independence.

To achieve freedom, we must support the businesses that support our communities, spend like getting is less important than giving, and boycott the corporations that condone rape, misogyny, xenophobia, bigotry, and environmental irresponsibility because their pursuit of profit is more important than humanity and the preservation of the world.

(To read the next chapter, click here)

New Project: Chapter 22

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Twenty Two

Election Day, 2016. I woke heavy, queasy, afraid. So much was at stake. Would we, as a nation, reward tenacity and experience or hate? I couldn’t fathom the decision we faced or understand how we had sunk so low. Rather than thrill to the possibility of electing our first female president, I tried, without success, to banish dread.

Wall Street held its breath. The world waited and watched, consumed with a drama that could, if things went wrong, have a profound and lasting effect. Everything was a stake – fifty years of civil rights legislation, forward movement to combat climate change, economic security, global stability, even democracy itself was in danger. Would the great American experiment fail? Would fear and anger vanquish its quest? Would, finally, the words “All men are created equal” be laid to a sad and ignoble death? Or would sanity prevail?

I went for a run. I talked with my mom. I paced and cleaned and tried not to look at my phone. I wondered, repeatedly, if I could start drinking yet. At moments like these (and thank God they are few and far between) it is easy to feel hopeless. Powerless. Caught in a web. But we are never powerless. Never. There is always a choice, a way, a path.

I know what it is to feel trapped. I’ve lived it. I can close my eyes and be there again. I have been abused. I have been raped. I have lived poor and lonely and desperate. Once, when it was about as bad as I thought it could get, my mom lashed me with an angry gaze. She stood, stepped close and said, “Destiny, there is no bottom.”

I looked at her perplexed and she repeated her words.

“There is no bottom. You either start climbing or keep falling. You think this is the worst, but it’s not. So you do what you have to do. You dig your fingernails in and scratch your way to the surface. Bleed, cry, rage, but get moving because you’ve got three kids who need you and you can’t quit yet.”

She was right. The only bottom is dead and dead, then, wasn’t an option. It seldom is when I’m honest, but there have been times…

I know you’ve had them.

Still, we’re here. Breathing. Writing and reading. We made it through mostly unscathed, we dug in, climbed out, kept going because there’s always a choice, a way, a path out of the darkness if we’re willing.

Janis Joplin said, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” We experience freedom when we’re cut loose, left to die, floating like balloons unleashed into a wide and empty sky. Grief is freeing. So is joy. They are two sides of the same coin and both require courage and the ability to face and own the fact that we are more than we thought we were. It is from these two sources that we confront our fears, carve a path, or change the world.

On September 17, 2011 a group of people occupied Zuccotti Park in New York City’s financial district. They were there in protest. Three years prior, deregulation of financial institutions had cause the economy to collapse. Millions of Americans suffered catastrophic losses. Rather than help them, the US government decided to rescue the banks which had caused the collapse. Those at the top profited from the bailout and middleclass losses. Three years later, not much had changed. The economy was still stagnant, incomes were flat, and corporate CEOs and Wall Street bankers made millions while a significant portion of the population lost jobs, health insurance, and homes.

The protest, known as Occupy Wall Street, grew into a worldwide movement against greed, corruption, income inequality, and corporate influence on government. Then, without accomplishing much of anything, it dissolved.

Micah White, one of the movement’s co-founders, said, “Occupy was a perfect example of a social movement that should have worked according to the dominant theories of protest and activism; it was a historical event, joined by millions of people across demographics from around the world around a series of demands, there was little violence. And yet, the movement failed.”

White, who now runs a non-profit think tank that studies effective methods of protests and activism, believes the next revolutionary movement will “be a contagious mood that spreads throughout the world and the human community.”

He says, “For me, the main thing we need to see is activists abandoning a materialistic explanation of revolution – the idea that we need to put people in the streets – and starting to think about how to spread that kind of mood and make people see the world in a fundamentally different way. That’s about it. The future of activism is not about pressing our politicians through synchronized public spectacles.”

He’s right. Rioting, marches, and peaceful sit-ins are not making a difference anywhere in the world. The patterns of these kinds of protests, though emotionally compelling, are known and predictable. That makes them ineffective. Opposition knows how to handle them and the public is desensitized because it has seen so many.

We live in a magical time. Never before has the spread of news been so instantaneous. Never before have we been able to create global communities from the comfort of our homes. The indigenous protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline received almost no mainstream media coverage and yet it garnered international attention, raised millions of dollars, and attracted sympathy from agencies including the United Nations and Amnesty International.

And yet, for all the technological advances that have allowed us to communicate across vast distances in real time, we’re paralyzed. Social media lets us witness and post without compelling us to action. We can complain bitterly, join in solidarity with like-minded folks, and stream news that reflects our values. We don’t really have to think anymore. We revel in the meme and sound bite even as they stoke our fears.

Fear loomed large in my heart the day the US election threatened to erode our rights. I worried about armed insurrection and white supremacists at the polls. Would civility descend into chaos? Would violence ensue? I thought about this book and what I’m trying to do. We must challenge the status quo, but protest and riot aren’t the answer. Only a quiet revolution can change the collective mood. As we give to ourselves and those we love, we must also give to our world. We do this first by wriggling out of corporate control.

How do you spend your money? How does your money control you? Are you the type that saves or do you spend because there’s never enough? Does money define you or do you define yourself?

The answers, for most of us, are complicated. We don’t have the luxury of excess. Some live paycheck to paycheck. A $500 emergency is catastrophic for two thirds of the population and most people are one paycheck away from homelessness, though they seldom look that bleak reality in the face.

Our collective lack of economic independence keeps us bound to jobs and lives we hate. We can, however, make change. Understanding how money influences our decisions empowers us to do things differently. Quietly, softly, we can improve the ways we give and receive. In doing so, we step away from corporate control and into lives we create.

(To read the next chapter, click here)

New Project: Chapter 21

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(To read the previous chapter, click here)

 

Twenty One

 

In her book, Gender Trouble, Judith Butler says, “[G]ender is an identity tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylized repetition of acts.” In other words, we perform behaviors, gendered nuances, and physical movements over and over again until they become the basis of our identity. Women are not, by nature, the better caregivers. They merely behave that way. Men are not, by nature, more rational.

We are taught to adopt a series of attitudes and actions that determine our identity as women or men even though these attitudes and actions may have nothing to do with us. Gender identity can be unlearned. Our best, authentic selves are seldom who we were taught to be. Somewhere beyond the stereotypical definition of women and men are humans longing to be whole.

We can be deeply individual and fully free without compromising each other’s right to the same. My love of cheese does not in any way impede your loathing of it. My competence with power tools cannot emasculate a man or render him powerless. Marriage, friendships, and family need not be sick, twisted, or mundane if we are willing to do the work of embracing ourselves, giving to ourselves, and sharing us with those we love.

By taking my liberty, I granted Steve his. I couldn’t have done that had he not developed real empathy for my plight as a woman in this world. Knowing it, understanding my fears and doubts, hearing me in a way no man ever had empowered me to take a stand and finally kill the idea of romance I played like a fairytale in my head. “You belong to me, I belong to you,” is static, dead, and wrong.

Belong is a strange word. I want to belong to this community. She doesn’t belong here. Belong implies that we are either part of something or owned when, based on its etymology, the word simply means: to go along with. It turns out that belonging is a choice one makes. When we choose to go along with something or someone, we create a relationship based on that decision.

“Hey, I like that idea; I’ll go along with that,” never meant that the idea owns you, that you are part of it, or that it may exercise any form of control over you. It simply means that you’re going along — next to, in dialog with, and wholly your own. Likewise, one cannot belong to another person. One may go along with in friendship or love, but one is not a part of the other and one is never owned.

The adaptation of the word as a method of control carries the threat of ostracization and amplifies our fear of being alone. We use it to welcome, manipulate, or shame so there is always someone else to lean on, share with, or blame.

I no longer choose to belong in this way; to Steve or anyone else. Our culture, and its obsession with a twisted sense of belonging, radicalized me without my knowledge so it could use me as a weapon against myself and everyone else. However, belonging to this culture requires my consent and I now refuse to give it.

Like too many, I’ve spent much of my life trying to be someone I’m not so I could belong to a social construct not my own. I am, to paraphrase David Wong, part of a long line of history. I did not make the problems that choke our society, but I am responsible for making things better. Consequently, I must shed my desire to belong, face the fear of being shunned, and embrace the freedom I demand.

To walk along side the man I love is so much richer than owning or being owned by him. To take time for myself is to give us both the opportunity to rejuvenate, re-engage, and stay in love. To let him go, to trust he will return, gives us both the freedom to grow, love, and learn. Sharing experiences we’ve had alone keeps our conversations strong. Sharing an ever deepening frustration with the limitations imposed on all of us by a political and economic system vested only in its own survival, and that of those at the top, motivates us to do more both individually and as a couple.

Shedding gender roles means shedding gender identity. I love being a woman and the many differences between women and men, but I don’t need to sculpt myself into an object or caricature to belong. Can you imagine a world where men cry freely and women lead the charge? Where men kissing men isn’t disgusting and women kissing women isn’t porn? Where men and women share the caring, the bread-winning, and the household chores?

In her book, Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg says that if women are to occupy the “C” Suite, they must act like men. Then, when they get there, they can make changes to corporate culture that will benefit women.

This, to me, is insane. I would rather walk away from the steel towers, corporate suites, and glass ceilings. I would create a new way to be, one where women and men are free to determine their own identities and build personal, communal, and economic relationships that that are rich, diverse, and permissive.

Culture dictates that we fit in, do like those around us, and conform to ideas and beliefs that were formed to control or coerce us into performing work, maintaining the status quo, and questioning our own worth. The tenets of our culture ensure we remain insecure and thus powerless.

In the place of power, we are granted the opportunity for civic debate and the right to vote. These lure us into believing we can make change by electing some new figurehead that will embrace the values we were taught to celebrate. Instead of making change, however, we just get more of the same. Our political system has dissolved into a mockery of itself and Republicans and Democrats are waging a vicious culture war that accomplishes nothing.

It does not fix the economy, end hunger, or ensure that we, as a nation, are safe. Instead, it keeps us divided, defensive, and disengaged. As long as we’re vested in winning, vested in forcing our personal morals on everyone else, we are not clear-headed enough to challenge this new norm.

As citizens, we have an obligation to protect our freedom. We are bound, as sentient beings, to ensure that its three tenets – liberty, empathy, and economic independence – are taught, encouraged, and supported so that we have what we need to thrive, but as long as mega-corporations buy our elections and write our laws, we will be forced to compromise.

Corporations sponsor the culture war, spending countless dollars each year to distract us while they secure astronomical profits at the expense of our welfare, the planet’s welfare, and our children’s welfare.

Capitalism with good stewardship built a magnificent nation. Runaway capitalism will destroy it. It’s up to us to reexamine our convictions about how money is made and spent and how business and government enhance our lives or prove relentless. If we can free ourselves from cultural norms and develop empathy for each other, we are also capable of wresting economic independence from those who’ve made it their mission to take it from us.

Many know this. Most don’t know how. Those that do are often shackled by fear, shame, or both. The truth is all relationships can be moral and profitable. Business is no different. It, too, can be good for our individual hearts and communal soul.

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