Thursday, November 23, 2017

Happy Thanks-taking Day!

I enjoy the traditions of this day! The third Thursday in November is a national holiday that is secular and all-American (except for the original "Americans.") But the myth of the first Thanksgiving is dangerous. I've taught all my children the truth: the story of the Pilgrims and the Indians was made up to whitewash genocide. Just yesterday, I told Seth, who is now twelve, a version of this, and since he's autistic, we never know how he'll react. He did reportedly, say, "Happy Thanks-taking Day" to a few people, but he also, when put in a group to make as many words as possible out of "Happy Thanksgiving," added in s--t, a prank that has more to do with his fascination with cuss words than with his newfound understanding of Thanks ("giving.") 

My son(right) in first grade, 1988

I think schools are far less likely to teach the old pilgrim and Indian story now. I know our national parks and museums have begun to include truthful accounts of the invasion and genocide we prosper from. You could say: that's the past, so get over it, because we can't change it.

But Native American communities are suffering today. They are suffering from poverty, early death, and addiction at higher rates than the general population. And the opioid crisis has hit them even more intensely.

My great grandfather, J.D. Self, and three daughters. My grandmother, Agnes Self Patton, is the eldest.

My great-grandmother was a Cherokee Indian who married a white man. She died in childbirth, and the baby, a boy named after his father, died a few months later. This was in the late 1800s. He was left to raise three girls, my grandmother, and her sisters. I found the graves of my great-grandparents and the baby in the tiny town of Telford, TN, some years ago. My grandmother married an alcoholic, my grandfather, also from Telford, and the disease has run rampant through my family. 
Great-grandmother Mora Lake Self

Family systems are remarkable. Without even knowing the patterns, we repeat them. My mother died when I was five, and my father raised three children, albeit with a stepmother. I married an alcoholic, and my own sons suffered from the disease. All of this is to say that holidays are fraught with memories and sadness and pain that may be invisible to others, and incomprehensible, even to oneself. You can repress them, but grief unacknowledged will surface.

Alice Miller:

“The truth about our childhood is stored up in our body, and although we can repress it, we can never alter it. Our intellect can be deceived, our feelings manipulated, and conceptions confused, and our body tricked with medication. But someday our body will present its bill, for it is as incorruptible as a child, who, still whole in spirit, will accept no compromises or excuses, and it will not stop tormenting us until we stop evading the truth.” 

My first child, 1982.

My mother died on December 10, 1960. It took me a very long time to acknowledge that Thanksgiving and Christmas, and especially the time in-between, would never be uncomplicated. My father's only brother, a beloved uncle who played a magical role in my childhood, came to our house for Thanksgiving when I was 13 and died in his sleep that night. My father's grief was bottomless. He drank even more than he had before. He and his brother had been best friends, and had both been bachelors and sportsmen into their forties.

The Thanksgiving before we separated, my then-husband told me he wouldn't cook and he wouldn't be there, after I'd invited my family. I can't even remember why. I know he thought I'd beg him to stay home. But I went forward, and just decided I'd cook the food myself. He ended up being there, and cooking, after all. It was a cruel trick.

Because of divorce, I spent many Thanksgivings alone, or without my kids.

After I remarried, and our daughter came along, the bad holidays continued. Once, we drove to New Jersey, and brought all the makings for Thanksgiving dinner, to find that my half-sister and stepmother had decided to go elsewhere, and my sons had to eat with their father, so my husband, our daughter and I ate alone in my family home. This sort of disregard is typical in my family.

My brother lives in Connecticut, and I haven't seen him for about ten years. My half-sister in New Jersey isn't speaking to me. To be fair, I confronted her angrily in April for what I perceived as her lack of hospitality to my kids (and me.) I may not have any meals, far less Thanksgiving, at the home I grew up in. It belongs to her now.

One thought I had when I heard David Cassidy died was, "Well, he and his family will be spared another hellacious Thanksgiving." Cynical, I know. But having alcoholics in the family is worst on holidays. The apprehension about whether they will show up, and in what condition, is bested only by cumulative fear and anxiety when they don't. Texts and phone calls, excuses and late arrivals, slurred speech and bleary eyes: these are on the menu in an alcoholic family. Just recently, one of my sons told me that the holidays caused him intense anxiety. I'd never taken the time to see it from his point of view. Now, I can. I am so grateful to him for telling me.

I could go on, but you get it. And I know I'm not special. Or unique.

Last Thanksgiving at home? 2014

I actually love this day: my favorite part is the food preparation. This year, we are using lots of things we grew ourselves. I'm grateful for so much! My sons are years into recovery. One of them is in Oregon, working on a fishing boat, because he can now follow his dreams. The other one will be at our family gathering. He's a vegan, and so is my daughter. I'm healthy, and have time to write, garden, and do research.

I focus and raise up the problems of the world, because we cannot ever forget those who suffer, who are impoverished, addicted, oppressed, or disenfranchised.The world, like the body, will present its bill, already has, and we can no loner afford to evade the truth. At the same time, I can be profoundly grateful for what remains. You wouldn't fight for a world you didn't love.

I would be happy to have it called "Gratitude Day." And in our gratitude, remember all of those who came before, those who didn't make it, those who aren't here, and those who writhe in pain today:

If you are here to read this,
think of those who aren't.
Pray for them: good thoughts for those
who lost their minds, love and years
to compulsion, addiction and fears.
Think of their great sacrifice.
We recover on the bones of others.
Wrap your loving thoughts around them:
alone no more.
If you are here and recovering
your original shining true self,
a moment of silence for those driven mad
by the voices and screams of disease-
driven dreams. We walk from night to day
on a path made of the bones of others.
Hold them tightly in the warm arms of your spirit:
cold no more.
If you are here and attaining freedom,
a thousand bows for those who didn't
reach this shore and drowned in a
sea of despair: suffering no more.
We walk in freedom past cages made
of the bones of others.
They hand us the keys of desperation.
Quench their burning thirst
with the tears of your soul.
Calm their cravings. Still their minds.
Grant them peace in the dark and
lonely places below and above the ground.
Fill the gaping holes left by their deaths
with the immensity of your love.
Remember them as you sleep;
remember them as you wake.
Only a thought is the difference
between you and the bones of others.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

There But for the Grace....

Days like this, it is so good to go to the local Amish store and chat with Alfred and his daughters. It's not that the Amish are perfect or exempt from the challenges of living; in fact some things, like health care, impact them directly. They self-insure as a community, and Alfred's one son Michael (out of 8 kids) just broke his foot and had four pins put in... he told me each pin cost $700. (All things considered, I wondered if they did it without anesthesia, because it sounded pretty cheap.) But they are, in spite of their vastly increased contact with the English (only about 10% earn their living by farming now) still detached and serenely unconcerned with the turmoil and distress of modern life. It's their faith, and even if you find it absurd, you must admit that they are joyful, uncomplicated, and successful people.

Today, though, after having made that visit, and feeling I had stepped away from the ranting and speculation and finger-pointing after yet another mass shooting, a torrent of words and phrases I don't even want to get into... because it leads nowhere... and because I dispute the premises upon which it begins... something happened that left me far more disturbed, in some ways.

We live in a very small town (pop. about 200) and on my way home from the Amish store, where I bought fresh bread, nuts, kombucha made locally, chips, soap, and some items for my bnb, I stopped at the Dollar General to get something the Amish did not have. Heading to the register, I became aware of a woman with three small children ahead of me, trying to deter one of them (all girls) from fingering some candy. "Mommy can't buy that today. She doesn't have her food card.." The children were filthy, not a common sight in our rural town. People here are poor -- we have free lunches for all at our school --( and in fact, we are "poor" by common standards), but proud. We get by with loaning and borrowing, canning and freezing, stretching and scrimping. It doesn't look like a place of poverty. Yards and roadsides are clean and tidy. And kids have clean clothes and decent haircuts. So this woman, and her kids, stood out.

I glanced at her. And saw what I didn't want to. Her shoulder length hair was matted, her face as dirty as you'd ever imagine. Her stretch pants hung below her pregnant belly (the oldest of the three girls could not have been more than four) and also revealed a few inches of her buttocks. She had two residual black eyes and her nose was flat. Too flat for a white woman. Her front teeth, when she spoke a moment later, were gone.

Another woman, well dressed, with highlighted hair, swooped in and did what I'd briefly considered: Let me buy some candy for them. My treat, she said. 

It's just the money... the mom said.

Really, it's no problem at all, the lady stooped down and made sure each had two of the same, Mentos, and a round pop, so they wouldn't fight. You go on now. 

And on they went.

I was shaking as I paid my bill. This woman, a tiny saint, who knelt down to those children and said, in gestures, someone is out here who is kind and will care about you, was paying at another register, and I heard her say, That could have been me one day.

It was one of those idioms that I couldn't quite decipher; did she mean in the past, or in the future, if she hadn't escaped some situation?

That's right, I said, meaning me. Meaning, people I know, now and in the past, and people I am related to, meaning, it's not an either/or. It's just a matter of degree. There were four women in the Dollar General then. Two clerks and two customers. But a moment of understanding fell upon us that I think I have never experienced.

I had to stop three times on the four mile drive home. 

Yes, I know that there are men of color and women who are abusive. But the vast number of abusers are white men, from whoever is beating that woman so senseless that she doesn't even care if her butt is showing to the white man who just murdered and injured hundreds in Las Vegas, to our so-called President who spent days insulting and assaulting the Mayor of San Juan as she struggled to get a call for help out of her strangled throat.

God: what will it take for you to hear this prayer?

I tried to raise sons who would never demean or diminish women. I tried to raise a daughter who'd never sit still for one word of gesture that belittled or in any way impugned her.

Yet. Yet. The face and body of this poor, battered woman and her three daughters has nearly broken me, because I feel her within me. I think she lives within all of us, in the shadows, triggered so easily by the words of a domineering, narcissistic, dismissive, male (or female) and hiding there, in the shadows, where she was born. She wasn't born with us. We came into this world whole, proud, lusty, and worthy. And, just because you look "okay" doean't mean you're not on the continuum. With her.

The broken, beaten woman was born as the abused child, by stern fathers, mothers, teachers, abusive step-brothers, ex-husbands who cheated, demeaned, controlled, accused, bosses, and the shame that followed, and mocked by all the other women who I saw needed help and didn't know how to reach.

When I see her, in the flesh, it's like a ghost. I'm haunted. Pray with me.

Monday, September 25, 2017

How are you, Beloved?

Swing built by Big Daddy for Pupcake. I loved sitting in it and thinking about how strong and sturdy he made it, of her day dreams as she watched him at work... and I loved the drink holder her made for their pop! All little girls should have a dad like this. It's at the top of the hill where there's a cool breeze no matter how hot the day.

First, allow me to check in regarding Big Daddy (Benjamin) for those who read my August post. He is still in custody, and has been moved around the country numerous times. From KY to Indiana, to Chicago, to Jena, LA (remember the Jena Six?) to a facility in Texas right on the Mexico border and now back to Chicago.

Protesting Jena Six arrest 2006
With UK students

Imagine that you are his wife, Pansy Valdez, a forty-something Black woman from Springfield, KY who has rarely left the county... and who depends upon "Big Daddy" for her livelihood and that of their foster daughter, Pupcake. You're going to have to roll with me on the nicknames. So far every person I've met has one, including me. I'm "Casey's mama," and almost never Cynthia.

Pansy is beside herself. Benjamin is not a criminal nor a felon and he has been here for eleven years, they are married, and his paperwork for staying is almost complete. But he is being treated like a criminal, or worse, like an animal. Moved from place to place, indiscriminately, denied contact with his family, and proper care and attention. I'm also disturbed by the way Pansy, a Black woman, is treated by the system. In this case, Black Lives and Brown lives do NOT matter.
Legal papers

Since I wrote about their plight, I've become friends (on Facebook) with a young woman at Transylvania University who is a DACA recipient and who was the victim of a racist and hate-filled campaign by another student. He has since withdrawn, but the issue gives off the scent of having been swept under the proverbial carpet.

I heard from a young man I know here in Washington County, a college student who has also been covered by DACA. The latest earthquake in Mexico struck his home city, and he would love to go there to provide aid, but he can't because he realizes he may not be allowed to return to this country.

Knowing individuals affected by these policies is something I highly recommend. It brings a humanity and a reality to the brutal and disruptive lack of sensitivity with which families and communities are being wrenched apart. Immigrants, both legal and undocumented, have been tolerated and even encouraged in this country for decades largely because they worked hard for low wages. Blaming them for coming here to escape dangerous situations and take those jobs is worse than disingenuous. It's dishonorable. In fact, if you think long and hard about it, people from South and Central America who are primarily indigenuous people have a closer link to the people who actually once owned this country than most of us (white Europeans) do.


I detest the rhetoric of exclusion and expulsion. It goes against every instinct that I have.

But, as I started by asking, how are you? Because I think those of us who have a softer heart toward the disenfranchised, the dispossessed, the disinherited of the world are also suffering at this time. All around us walls of security and promise are crumbling, and barriers, real and metaphorical, of hate and fear are rising. We are absolutely seeing the worst of our own colleagues, friends, families, and sometimes, ourselves.

Just last week, I brought up an issue at a local meeting of Democratic Women and found myself facing an angry and defensive response. I was talking about how our small county seat had no Black teachers even though there is a significant Black population (22%). They immediately disagreed, and some of the answers were: You are wrong, the Catholic school has a Black teacher; Well, there used to be a Black teacher; and they don't put themselves out for positions.

A few days later when I spoke to my son's 7th grade teacher about the notion of using Teaching Tolerance in the classroom, he proceeded to tell me he had issues with the Democratic party and Southern Poverty Law Center (which produces the Curriculum.)

And these are the liberal and progressive members of the community!

Our friends and acquaintances of color tell us that it's been this way for them all along. "Welcome to the party. We've always known how bad it is. You finally woke up and got a whiff of the Starbucks, soccer lady." Even those of us who've spent decades contemplating and reading, writing and preaching about racism and racial justice feel hopeless and answer-less.

We feel as if we are on a ladder to nowhere or a crazy amusement park ride that the carnival barker won't stop.

I don't like football. I didn't even like it when my son played 20 years ago, but he did, and my current husband watches it, even though the jury is no longer out about CTE. It's a barbaric sport and the mostly Black players, to me. trade their health, sanity, and years of their lives for money. Fans who watch it, well... I just can't understand that. It's like gladiators. But when someone says, regarding the current controversy about athletes kneeling during the national anthem to protest killings of Black men, it's a very week argument to say, "they are paid to play.It's their job. Do that on your own time." I cringe. Indeed, they are paid to do a lot more than play.

But IMO, many of the teams came up with a reasonably creative solution on Sunday: locking arms, showing solidarity, kneeling or standing together. It was not enough for some, and too much for others. A point was made.

So, I hope your answer was, Not fine. I am not fine at all. I think it's a most important time to be not fine. I think it's ok to go on Facebook if you live way out in the hinterlands as I do, to touch base, to converse, to connect. I think we have no choice but to stay engaged and figure out, individually and collectively, with as much courage and creativity as we can muster, what is ours to do to stop this menace that grows daily and to win back our country and its place in the world.

I have put a great deal of thought into how we are much like a huge addictive, alcoholic system at this time...which, for some of us, feels almost "normal...," which is why we must keep saying to ourselves and one another, This is not normal.

To be continued...