curving path with tall orange logs on either side with Japanese writing and a lantern hanging from the ceiling

Torii path with lantern at Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine. Photo by Basile Morin

Americans love a shortcut. I’m not sure how it became wedged in our culture so deeply, but there it is, and it plays out in so many different ways that end up hurting the collective.

It’s definitely a human trait to want to avoid the hard work and the arduous journey and find a way to leap right to a more comfortable place, but I think it’s important for us to assess the cost of these short-term fixes so we can determine whether or not they are actually helpful in the long run.

For months and months we’ve been pinning our hopes on a vaccine for Covid-19, hoping that it will release us from the new reality we’ve been living with masks and hand-washing and decreased opportunities to go to the movie theater and restaurants and have big celebrations with our beloveds. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, but in the absence of other things we could have been doing to mitigate the pain and suffering so many people have endured in the meantime, it speaks to our overriding desire for instant gratification. While other countries have managed to strongly limit the spread of disease by supporting their citizens with basic needs and universal health care, we have been over here railing against the virus and the leaders who dare to make difficult choices for us all (without actually supporting individuals and communities as they implement those measures). We are here clamoring for a series of shots that will keep us from having to actually build communities that can withstand catastrophe.

But it turns out there really is no substitute for actually giving a shit about each other.

Time and time again we look for systemic solutions, policy changes, and “leaders” who will create innovative new technologies to serve the masses, all while disregarding the basic, bedrock fact that our American culture isn’t built on caring for each other and uplifting community.

A vaccine won’t save us. To date, while the vaccines that have been approved have shown to prevent vaccinated individuals from developing an illness from the virus (if they have both shots), it is completely unknown whether they will keep the vaccinated individual from carrying the virus and transmitting it to others. Meaning that, because there is no way every single individual in your vicinity will receive the vaccine for a number of reasons, if we are to prevent spread of the disease, we will still have to practice the same social distancing and protective measures we have been living with for most of 2020. And people who can’t have the vaccine because of their health status will be at increased risk the more that others go back to “business as usual,” forcing them to even more severely curtail their social activities.

It will take years to know what the effect of these vaccines is on individuals and the collective, so what are we going to do in the meantime? Looking to other countries whose culture is more about belonging to each other, we can learn how to mitigate some of the devastating effects of this disease on community. Much of the upset about small businesses closing has to do with people losing their ability to pay rent and eat with any sort of regularity. We can fix that. There is enough money. We have enough money to test people often and accurately, we have enough money to ensure that health care workers have the proper equipment. We have enough money to ensure that landlords and tenants are taken care of and nobody loses their home. We have the resources to feed and house every single person in this country while we wait to learn more about how best to develop medications to fight Covid, what effect vaccines will have, and why some people don’t get sick from this virus while others are impacted heavily.

It’s a choice. The choice isn’t between whether or not to put kids back in physical school buildings. It’s not a choice between the economy or individual health. It is a choice between doing the hard work of making sure that every single person is as cared for on a basic level as they can be and pretending that there is some magic bullet out there and all we have to do is find it.

There is no magic bullet. There is only us. And, I’ll say it again, there is no substitute for actually giving a shit about each other.

image of a multicolored compass

Alvesgaspar, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Some people begin their year with a specific word in mind that grounds them and serves as a compass of sorts. It’s not something I’ve ever done with any regularity, and I doubt I’d have been able to really intuit one in January that would have been accurate in any way, but now that we are nearly at the end of this year, I can look back and see that most everything I did and thought about and experienced this year boils down to relationship.

It seems odd, given that most of my time has been spent without the physical presence of loved ones and the work I have done is remote and facilitated by technology. Neither of those things seems particularly conducive to creating relationship, but I have learned more about the power of connection this year and focused on the qualities of relationship that are most impactful more than I ever have in my life. I have spent time deepening my relationship to myself and trying to rebalance the wisdom I receive from my head with the wisdom held in my body through meditation and a rage ritual. I have created connection with local communities to offer assistance and I have witnessed the awesome power of mutual aid groups. I have considered how so many of our public systems are failing us and begun to realize that the only way to counter those failings is through relationship.

I joined with others across the globe every day at the same time for 30 minutes for 100 days in a row to say a lovingkindness meditation for all beings. I didn’t know the vast majority of the others at the beginning of the 100 days, but since then, we have formed virtual support groups to help each other with everything from motivation to get off the couch and shower to grieving the loss of loved ones with humor and grace. I joined a weekly Zoom meeting hosted by Charter for Compassion and Citizen Discourse that also gathers people from across the globe. Every Thursday we journal for a few minutes, have individual conversations about things like ritual, legacy, and what community means, and come together as a group to deepen our relationship to compassion and humanity. I have met people with whom I share text messages and emails and our connection is no less real and tangible because it was formed online.

The most recent conversation we had was around our own personal compass – what drives us, where are we headed. And while each of the individuals on the call had a different perspective and way of answering that question, we agreed in the end that the common thread for us all was connection of some sort. And because our conversations often delve into the philosophical, we also explored the notion of a compass. It occurred to me that it is important to note that a compass is useless in a vacuum – meaning that it only works within the context of the electromagnetic pull of something bigger, something grounding (in this case, the Earth). And so while each of us may have our own compass, the principle on which it exists is that we are all connected to something larger that helps guide us. We can, of course, choose to stick that compass in our pocket and go off on our own path, but the quality of guidance is always present and available to us. And because it is available to each and every one of us, we are necessarily connected, whether we acknowledge it or not.

I say often that human beings are designed to be in relationship. Our biological systems work more efficiently when we are in trusted relationships and suffer in isolation. Students who have supportive relationships with their teachers learn better. Elders who are ill heal faster and have less pain when they are surrounded by loved ones. So while I mourn the lack of physical contact with my beloveds and desperately miss the coffee dates and hiking adventures with friends, I have also deepened my definition of what relationship is – relationship to myself and my physical body, relationship with my community, relationship with people I’ve never met in person – and come to understand the power of letting those connections evolve over time. I have explored what it means to have healthy boundaries that are temporary in order to repair harms and what it looks like to shift my definition of a mother-child relationship as my daughters become young adults and want a different kind of bond with me that is no less elemental or meaningful than it ever was – it’s just different.

While there is much to be sad about this year – the loss of my mother and the missed adventures I had planned and the cancelled book tour among them – I can look back on the last 12 months and see what I have gained in stretching my understanding of this most basic need for connection and community in my life. Like the grounding of the Earth to my compass, relationship and connection are always available to me so long as I recognize them as an elemental part of my existence. Here’s to unexpected lessons that help us all thrive. May 2021 bring more wisdom and insight to us all.

Picture of a tall, slender, lit Christmas tree in a living room

This time of year always means I think about capitalism more than I normally do. And this year has been one where I have been more acutely aware of capitalism than ever in my life, so you might imagine that my brain is pretty full right now.

I love this time of year because I often spend it poking through local shops for hours, hoping to find fun, quirky little things to tuck inside my kids’ Christmas stockings. For some reason, over the years, stockings have become my ‘thing,’ and it often means that the contents spill outside of the knitted socks and have to be carried to the girls with two hands. As a kid, our stockings were filled with walnuts and hazelnuts (that we took great delight in using the nutcracker to shell and then discarded shortly afterward), mandarin oranges, and, on a good year, an entire book of Life Savers rolls. I have strayed far from that tradition, to be sure.

Whether it was designed cleverly or just worked out that way, there is a reason capitalism has deep hooks in us that take effort to remove. But for me, the first step in that unhooking is an honest evaluation of how capitalism is antithetical to health and well-being.

Screen shot of the Cliffhanger game on The Price is Right

As a system, capitalism was sold to us as something sustainable, and it is ridiculous that we believed it. There is no way anything can grow and grow without ever hitting a wall – it will either consume all of the resources around it or collapse on itself or both, which is what I think we are experiencing right now. We are led to believe that the stock market can keep hitting higher highs, that businesses can increase their profits year over year, and that we can make more money every year if we just work hard enough. Like any system, growth can happen to a point, but there is nothing that can grow forever, and human beings weren’t designed to grow and grow and grow without rest.

Capitalism is the opposite of health and well-being because it forces us to value things that are external – more shoes and clothes, a bigger paycheck, a new car every few years. But external values are things over which we have no control – we could get downsized or fired tomorrow, those things we buy can fall apart quickly, the housing market can explode so that we’re not able to afford our home anymore. Capitalism taps into our basic human need for security, but it doesn’t provide it – in fact, it keeps us constantly searching and believing that we will never truly be secure unless we are earning more and spending more. Capitalism also taps into our basic human need for autonomy, but that, too, is an illusion. Sure, we get to make choices about where we work and live and the things we buy, but only to a point, because under this system, we are never truly in charge of our own lives – not if the things we value are external.

Capitalism is also something that keeps us in fear. It relies on workers being expendable and interchangeable, which means that we as workers are always competing with each other ever so slightly more than we are cooperating. And because fear is a barrier to relationship, it means that we can’t ever hope to truly build strong, sustainable networks or communities under capitalism. Capitalism is threatened by unions (read: relationship), and relies on workers believing that they need to constantly fight to do better, be more visible, climb over their co-workers. It sells us the illusion that it’s possible to continually make more money, achieve more success, get a better position, but the slots at the top narrow so rapidly that it’s impossible for that to be reality.

Capitalism gave us disposability because it relies on it. Single-use items mean that we are constantly needing to purchase replacements. It’s not an accident that Apple comes out with a new version of the iPhone every single year, each with a slightly new set of features. That’s by design – businesses need us to want the newest thing in order to make their sales goals. Capitalism is just another one of the systems that has successfully adapted to center itself over time so that the most important thing is capitalism. It’s why we talk about “the economy” in every political debate, it’s why we fight to send our kids to a “good college” so they can get a “good job” that pays well enough for them to buy cars and homes and trips and clothes. It is why boards of directors are fearful of poor sales and offer dividends to shareholders. It is why wages are kept artificially low and we have no universal healthcare. Capitalism is so all-encompassing that non-profit organizations have bent to its rules, insurance companies are not in the business of taking care of people’s health but are vitally interested in their own profits, school systems have formed their curricula around the kinds of things that will ensure kids get into four-year colleges rather than focusing on learning skills and cultivating passions. There are many systems in this country that are powerful and broken, but capitalism is the one steering the ship, and we all just keep shoveling coal into the steam engine.

Two people walking together on a cobblestone path

Like all systems, I am reminded that the antidote to capitalism is relationship. When we can fight the urge to live in fear and build strong, connected communities, we can begin to release ourselves from the grip of capitalism. Capitalism is the reason so many people in the US are going hungry, and new systems (food banks) won’t fix it. If they could, they would have done so already. But relationship helps. The dozens of small, community-based mutual aid groups in my area alone that have mobilized to cook meals, deliver food, raise cash, and source items for people in need are combating food insecurity better and faster than bureaucracy ever could (even as they fight bureaucracy in order to do the work they do).

Building authentic relationships rooted in trust and love takes time, to be certain. It takes effort and a willingness to examine our fears and biases and tendency to see other people as competitors. We have to be willing to be a little bit afraid or at least a little uncomfortable, and forge ahead, knowing that relationship and community are what truly meet our basic human needs for safety, security, feeling valued, and having an impact. When we build communities whose values are intrinsic, we are necessarily reinforcing the belief that all of us are important, none of us is disposable, and that there is enough to go around so long as we cooperate. Living under capitalism means that millions of people go hungry while billions of pounds of food goes to waste. It means that business executives make and hoard more money than they could ever use while other people live on pennies a day. It means that workers spend dozens of hours a week doing jobs they hate because it is the only way they can feed their families and keep their health insurance.

Unions don’t threaten the health and well-being of companies or executives, they threaten to upset the imbalance of wealth between workers and executives. When the biggest argument against any sort of pay increase or new benefit for people is that it “costs too much,” we have become far too focused on money. If we are more concerned with the stock market rising or falling than we are about people living on the streets in cardboard boxes and the hours’ long lines at food banks, we have succumbed to the lure of capitalism to our detriment. It is true that money is necessary to survive, but only because we made it that way. It is possible to do things differently.

When we are in relationship with one another and really rooted in the values of community, dignity, respect, and safety for all of us, the values of capitalism begin to fall away. I don’t have to fear you or be in competition with you if I trust that our connection is about both of us being well and cared for. Systems like capitalism rely on hierarchies – someone has to be “in charge” and then there are layers of folks beneath that, all with an assigned ‘worth’ in the form of pay. Relationships suffer under hierarchies. If I think that I am more important or worthy than you, we will never have an equal, honest, loving relationship. But when we can build communities that acknowledge that we all have things to offer the group and that we all deserve to ask for support where and when we need it, there is no scarcity, there is trust, and there is safety.

Capitalism falls apart when we aren’t competing with each other for jobs, for goods and services. Capitalism falls apart when we acknowledge abundance. Communities thrive with a belief in abundance. The truth is, there is enough to go around, but we have built a world view that doesn’t acknowledge that. We have built economies that rely on scarcity to drive up the cost of goods so that those at the top of the hierarchy benefit, and when the cultural values are about having an abundance for yourself, the notion that any one of us could find ourselves rolling in piles of money or sitting in a house whose garage is full of more cars than we can drive is seductive. Even though the vast majority of us will never attain that, because we’ve been taught that that ideal is achievable if we just work hard enough, we hold out hope. But we all know people who work hard every day and are nowhere near owning their own home.

Capitalism is rooted in individualism, which means not only that we have to compete with each other, but that we feel as though our failures are our own and not the way the system is designed. We blame ourselves for not working hard enough, for not finding the right mentor, for not having the right college degree. We resolve to try harder, get more financially literate, get more connections on LinkedIn.

Ultimately, it is only in relationship where our most basic psychological needs are met. And in a world where the material goods are plenty, it is relationship that threatens capitalism the most. Talking to each other about our respective rates of pay, our experiences with toxic workplace culture, and our ideas for how to band together to create more support for all workers begins to erode the scarcity mentality. When we come together in relationship and our psychosocial needs are met, we might discover that buying more things isn’t really all that soothing after all. We might discover that the system is set up for the sake of the system and that it doesn’t really care about us or the environment. We begin to acknowledge that capitalism is designed to make us believe that there will never be enough, and we begin to realize that human beings can’t thrive in a system where we are forced to always strive for more and compete with each other more than we cooperate.

So while I will continue to carefully select gifts for my beloveds this time of year (and probably spend more money than I ought to), I will also do my part to build community, to strengthen relationships, and to help those around me acknowledge their worth outside of their employment or the size of their paycheck. I will fight against the tendency to value things that the system tells me I should value and I will put my energy toward dismantling this broken system that holds so many hostage and erodes our connections to each other.

blue background with image of light blue cartoon dog in profile sitting and holding it's head with an anxious expression on it's face

https://giphy.com/gifs/regret-oh-man-arrepentido-kD59Y2omlC44mOqS7v

I don’t know anyone who isn’t feeling at least a strong undercurrent of anxiety right now. Even if they can’t name it, there is a vibe, an energy going around. I’ve been asked by nearly everyone I come in contact with how I’m planning to handle Election Day – am I worried, will I watch the news, pay attention to social media, or steer clear and find some way to self-soothe.

I attended a group meditation on Sunday evening and one of the messages that came through in response to someone’s concerns about how to “show up” and respond this week, how to prepare for the unknown, was really profound. The meditation was led by Doctora Rosales Meza, an indigenous healer, and she said, “If you are waiting for something to happen in order to decide what to do, you’ve already given away your power.”

She’s right.

If, instead, we find a way to ground ourselves in what we know about who we are, if we set an intention to act from that place of love or compassion or what we feel about our own purpose, then there is no moment of decision. We show up the same way we show up every single day because that’s who we are.

We also talked about energy, and how destructive things feel right now, and how we can choose to only recognize destructive energy, or we can acknowledge that there is also an opportunity to create right now, to make something from the ashes, in the void that is left behind by those things that have broken apart. And I was reminded of something I teach adolescents as part of The SELF Project curriculum: namely that energy simply is. It cannot be created or destroyed, it can only move, and it moves in accordance with the environment it exists within. Meaning, that it has no preference, and it is us that assigns it “positive” or “negative” qualities, that push or pull, channel or shape it. We can stand squarely in its path or step out of its way, we can harness it to create something new or to dismantle or destroy something.

So what do I know about myself? What is important to me about me? How have I shown up, not only this year, but for most of my life? I value curiosity, courage, advocacy, listening, learning. I use my voice and my actions to make change in my immediate community wherever I can, with the intent of creating relationship. And it is in this, it seems, where my “marching orders” lie: I can continue to show up to support relationship, to remain open to new information and see where the barriers are to community. That is what I can offer, that is where my power lies, and I’m not giving that away for anything.

How are you choosing to show up? Where do you need support from others? How can I help?

photo & caption credit @jenlemen

Food is my love language. Or, more precisely, feeding other people is how I show my love and affection for them. There is nothing I love more than a house full of people that I can cook for and with, or sitting down to a table with those I adore to share a meal that I’ve provided or paid for. It makes my heart sing.

Which is why it makes sense that nearly five years ago, I responded to a call for volunteers at my local food bank – the smallest one in the city that serves a population of unhoused folks, women and children living in domestic violence shelters, and members of the community at large.

Like many food banks, pre-Covid19, we were structured much like a grocery store or farmer’s market. People came on foot, by bus, or private car to shop for items on our shelves and from the fresh produce we received once a week thanks to the generosity of a local church congregation.

Like many food banks, our funding was a mix of private donations, state funds, and federal funds – a complex system of receiving surplus food from the USDA, deliveries from the state non-profit that serves all food banks in Washington, purchasing items to fill in the gaps with cash we got from private patrons and fund-raising events. We served a particular slice of the community, many with unique needs. Folks without homes came to get food that doesn’t require refrigeration (or a can opener). Folks from Asian communities particularly preferred the weeks when we had bok choy and garlic on offer. Many of the women in the shelters had a desperate need for diapers and feminine hygiene items and were delighted when we had birthday cakes or cupcakes to help their kids celebrate special occasions. Larger households took whole chickens or bags of flour, while single folks living in shelters with just a mini-fridge and a microwave preferred frozen meals and a half-dozen eggs to bigger portions. It wasn’t perfect by any means – we often had a surplus of dried beans and received strange items that didn’t sell in traditional stores or sixteen cases of soda would show up at once – but we were able to stretch our donor dollars to fill in the gaps and donate huge bulk items to shelters that cooked communal meals for their residents.

But since March, it has become increasingly clear that this system is irrevocably broken and it is my strong opinion that food banks, on the whole, will never be able to meet the needs of our communities. It is time for a new solution and it will require a lot of courage and creativity and a willingness to dismantle the incredibly complex and wasteful system we have created over the last 50 years. I want to be absolutely clear that this is not an indictment of the food bank with which I am affiliated or, frankly, any food bank or volunteer or paid staff at all. This is an indictment of the system we have created that is not capable of rising to this moment in history in a way that is consistent with social justice. Let me explain:

In our county alone, during the pandemic, the number of households seeking food assistance from food banks has more than doubled. Unfortunately, because individuals are not allowed to visit food banks to choose the food they need for their particular circumstance, that means food banks have to prepare boxes of food for everyone and deliver them. In March, we scrambled to figure out how to make that happen, sending out a checklist to our regular clients and personalizing boxes for them. Needless to say, this didn’t last long. It took us hundreds of hours to go through our entire inventory, pick items off of the shelves and put them in boxes, label them, and ensure that they got on the correct delivery vehicle. It was simply impossible to do that for every client we had. And the clients who had no address to deliver to were simply unable to get food from us.

Within weeks, we had pivoted to making hundreds and hundreds of the same boxes so that everyone got the same mix of things. We were still working hard to ensure that we filled the gaps – soliciting donations of sandwich bread from Franz Bakery (who absolutely came through and delivered 200 loaves of fresh white bread every single week for months on end), purchasing oatmeal packets and cans of chili to supplement our boxes, and continuing to receive fresh produce every week – but the deliveries that came from Food Lifeline were simply what they were – we couldn’t control what we got. And this meant that during Ramadan, the only fresh meat we got for weeks on end was pork. One week, it meant that we received 400 5# cans of baby corn – one for each household. That is a bowling-ball-sized can of baby corn, for every single client. The following week, that huge can was filled with mandarin oranges and the week after that, it was green beans. If I am Muslim or Jewish and I don’t want pork to even cross the threshold of my home, I’m out of luck when I get that box of food. If I live in a shelter with just a mini-fridge for storage, once I open that giant can, what do I do with the remaining food? It will take up half the space in my refrigerator.

By April, the state of Washington was spending $5.5 million per week supporting Food Lifeline. The National Guard was enlisted to deliver food to area food banks and work in FL’s warehouse, and King County had agreed to use their Access buses and drivers to deliver the food to our clients. Everyone was trying to make this work. Where we previously had volunteers one day a week, because of the increased workload and social distancing needs, we now had folks there three days a week and we were still behind. And as someone with celiac, I often packed boxes with the realization that, were it my family this was going to, we would have to discard at least half of the items we received because we would get sick if we ate them. At one point, we had a caseworker at one of the shelters call us and essentially drop out of the program because the amount of wasted food was building up in their common areas and it was untenable. The boxes we sent simply had too much food or the wrong kind of food for their residents (I’ve never tried to cook a whole chicken in a microwave or on a hot plate, have you?)

At some point, Food Lifeline decided that they would pack boxes for all of the food banks and simply deliver them to us. They had the National Guard, after all, and the feedback they were getting was that it was too much work for each individual food bank to make up these boxes. But the boxes still came with items that were not useful to so many people, and we ended up supplementing with toilet paper and bread, pancake mix and fresh produce. We were still working three days a week to get food to our families, and as things opened up, the Access buses went away – leaving us to put out a call for volunteer drivers to deliver food to hundreds of clients. Unhoused folks were still not able to get food from us because of Covid19 restrictions.

I became increasingly frustrated. I am not an expert on every nuance of the program. As I said before, it is incredibly complicated. Food Lifeline gets shipments of food from the USDA and passes them on to food banks. That food ranges from meat and dairy to canned and frozen goods and it is often in massive quantities (in my understanding, it’s surplus food that can’t be sold – often from crops that the federal government subsidizes despite the fact that there isn’t a big enough market for them). In addition, they order food from other sources and then each food bank is offered an opportunity to order those items to be delivered along with their regular shipment – these are things like rice and applesauce and juice, and they cost us, but it is often a race to get them before they’re sold out to the bigger food banks. Our numbers changed every week, so often if we ordered 200 of the prepacked boxes, by the time we got them the following week, we actually needed 208, or maybe there were ten too many and we had to figure out how to store the extra. Every week, we either had some households that didn’t get emergency boxes, or we had trouble finding space in our refrigerators and freezers for the surplus food.

I began thinking about the waste in this system. At one end, there is someone packing up the food items from the USDA program on to trucks to ship it to every state. That is time, effort, and gasoline, from the packing to the driving to the unloading of the trucks. At the other end, there are folks dismantling those packages, storing and/or repackaging them in to smaller boxes (called Emergency Boxes during Covid19), putting them on trucks, and driving them to individual food banks. That is time, effort, and gasoline. At each individual food bank, there are folks unpacking those trucks, opening every box, supplementing the items, stacking them, and putting them in individual cars for delivery to shelters and households. That is time, effort, and gasoline. And at the very end, if you open a box that contains items you can’t eat (and many honestly ended up redonating back to their local food bank – I can’t tell you how many times that happened), what is the cost of the hundreds of hours of time people spent moving and packing that food and the gasoline it took to get it from Point A to Points B, C, and D, and the toll it takes on the planet in terms of carbon emissions? And who benefits from this system working this way?

If the goal is to help people who need food, we are doing it wrong.

As this is all happening, local restaurants and grocery stores and farmer’s markets are suffering, too. And the obvious solution seems to me to be giving people money to buy the food they need. Not only does that reduce the amount of wasted time, effort, gasoline and food, but it would enable these folks to have the flexibility and dignity of getting their own needs met. If my six-year old is having a birthday, I can use some of that money to get a cake. If I need formula for my baby, I can buy it with that money (because I guarantee you food banks are not getting formula from the feds or the state right now). And, in doing so, I can support my hyperlocal economy – the shops in my neighborhood, my local farmer’s market. I can even order takeout one night if I’m overwhelmed and tired from a long day of work and helping my kid navigate online school.

With the current system, every household gets the same thing. So if I’m a 67-year old single person with hypertension and diabetes, I get the same items and the same volume of food as a household with seven people. There is no way to individualize the boxes, and what happens to the extra food? Anecdotally, I can tell you it either gets thrown away or donated back to food banks. Both of which are a complete waste of the time, effort, money, and gasoline that it took to get it to the client.

I have spoken with two county council members, written op-eds that were either ignored or rejected, and vented to my fellow volunteers and friends and family about this for months. People are horrified and then they shrug. What’s to be done? It’s a huge system. We can’t change it.

The other reaction I get is one of discomfort with my proposed solution: What if you give people money and they don’t spend it on food?

I believe that is a cop-out. If you have ever been hungry or unsure of where your next meal is coming from, you may get how scary that is, how elemental the need for food is. If you’ve ever been tasked with providing for loved ones and you couldn’t figure out how to feed them, you may have a hard time being cynical about giving people money for food.

Also, so what? If some people choose not to spend that money on food, that is their choice. The amount of money we would need to give to people to feed themselves is a drop in the bucket compared to what we spend nationally and locally packing, transporting, unpacking, repacking, transporting, unpacking, repacking, and transporting food to food banks and people in need. And we still aren’t reaching everyone (remember, unhoused folks don’t get food delivered to them during the pandemic). So even if a tiny bit of that food aid money is wasted on a few individuals who buy other things, it is nothing compared to the state-sanctioned waste that is happening right now every day in this current system.

And if I think about the kinds of things that aren’t food that people could use this money for, frankly, I’m fine with it. If someone needs tampons or diapers or ibuprofen or cat food, they should be able to buy those things. Why do we think we deserve to scrutinize poor people’s shopping lists when we would never do that to anyone else? I guarantee you I’ve got neighbors whose spending on alcohol went up exponentially during the last six months, but I’m not going through their pantry casting judgment on them for eschewing fresh produce and whole foods in favor of Entenmann’s and Kendall Jackson. It’s. None. Of. My. Business.

And don’t give me “they’ll buy drugs.” If we simply increase the SNAP benefits, add money to folks’ EBT cards, offer those programs to unhoused people and others who haven’t hit the threshold before, that’s not an issue. Last I checked, you can’t go in to your local pot shop and get a few grams with your EBT card.

I will say again, I am not an expert on the system and how it works. I am certain that it would take a great deal of effort to dismantle this system and some folks would lose their jobs. But the vast majority of folks who are involved with food banks in this country are volunteers and if they are like me and the goal is to make sure people are fed, then they won’t mind at all. The waste and inefficiency I have witnessed over the last several years and the fact that we still aren’t helping people get the food they need when they need it is overwhelming. We can’t just throw more money in to the system and hope to solve the problems – we have to put money in the hands of those who need it and I promise you, the effect in each local community would be enormous.

I am so proud of the work we are doing to help our community and I dearly love all the folks who work their butts off every day within this broken system. I have no beef with them – it’s the system I want to see go away.

If this speaks to you, please share it with folks you know. All comments must be respectful, productive, and relevant or they will be deleted.

small stream bordered by lush greenery and dappled sunlight

Every once in a while I have these moments of absolute clarity about how traumatized we all are. How unhealthy is it that we are all expected to just keep getting up, working, helping our kids learn online, networking on LinkedIn and pretending like things are ok? There are children in cages. There are women in ICE custody who are being sterilized without consent. There are entire towns burning to the ground, millions of people on unemployment, hundreds of thousands dead from a virus. There are more storms forming over the ocean right now than ever before, and some areas on the West Coast of the United States are going on week four of air that is unsafe to breathe.

And yet, farm workers are out picking crops, college students are diligently logging on to their Zoom classes, and we are posting about November 4 as though it will be some magical day that will bring about a sea-change. If the culmination of so much pain and loss and collective grief doesn’t get us to pause, what will? I’m not talking about a General Strike (although, I’d be all in favor of that as a way to manage this), I am talking about the natural, physiological reaction human beings have to grief and loss, which is to slow down, absorb, feel the feelings, set aside what is not important and basic. We aren’t doing that. We aren’t giving ourselves the space to process the waves of trauma.

We are continuing to push forward, sometimes as a defense mechanism so that we don’t have to face the suffering, and other times because we know that the systems we have created will punish us for stopping to tend to ourselves as whole human beings. We have gotten so good at gaslighting ourselves – pretending as though what is most vital is to just keep going – that our bosses and landlords and parents don’t have to do it to us. We have swallowed the hook of capitalism that says that productivity will save us, that if we just put our heads down and keep working, “things will sort themselves out.”

I’m here to say that, even if things do sort themselves out, we will come out the other end of this traumatized and wounded and badly in need of rest and healing. What would it take for everything to stop for a bit – no school, no work that isn’t essential – so that we can nurture ourselves and our loved ones? What would it be like if we all took a week to just be in this overwhelm, to really settle in our minds and bodies around what is important, what our true basic needs are, and only focus on that?

What I know is that the thing that would feel best to me right now is to gather all of my beloveds in my home and cook for them. Play games and laugh and dance and nap. Walk the dogs and look at the trees turning color and sit around the table with a warm meal and the knowledge that we aren’t missing a damn thing out there in the world. That everyone else is doing the same thing with their beloveds, and if someone needs to cry, there are shoulders available. If someone needs a cuddle, there’s a sweet dog or little human there to sit with. And while that’s not possible on so many levels, even just imagining it calms my body and mind a bit.

What would it be like if we could all be honest with ourselves and each other about how damn hard this is, how scary and painful? What would it feel like to know that we are held in love by people we trust, and that whatever we feel is Real and True? That’s the world I want us to emerge in to. When the smoke clears and the rain and wind stop and the virus is vanquished, I want us to create a place where collective trauma is acknowledged and honored and rest is deemed more important than work.

Image Description: tent encampment in the plaza of a Federal Building

 

Nearly once a week a “discussion” erupts on my local NextDoor site in regards to homelessness (or, more accurately homeless people) in Seattle. My neighborhood is a mix of upper-income, middle-aged white folks in single family homes and younger, mostly white folks in townhomes that are rapidly gentrifying the area, with some families who’ve been here for generations thrown in. Mostly, those folks who have lived in this area for a long time are people of color, as this is the neighborhood where, historically, Black people were redlined to. (Yes, I am one of the gentrifiers, and that is something I grapple with quite a bit).

It happens like this: someone posts an angry or disgusted rant about homelessness or tent-camping in public parks getting “out of control,” the same five or six people chime in with questions about where these folks ought to be living instead, given the lack of housing and shelters in the city, and fifteen or twenty others clap back with comments about crime or garbage or needles and encourage the “libtards” to open their own homes to “these people.” It devolves from there, and it only ends because people get tired of having the same back-and-forth. At some point, another person will post something similar about a different area of town or an encounter they had with an unhoused person and it starts all over again.

In other cases, I have read stories of people really struggling with basic needs on social media, written by friends and acquaintances in an effort to highlight the challenges so many families are having, and read comments by folks who accuse them of fabricating these stories just to create division. Other commenters pile on, asking if the original poster did anything to help or were they just co-opting the story to make themselves look good.

Why do we do that? Why do we deflect and make these experiences about things they aren’t about? Instead of talking about the overwhelming numbers of people who are unhoused, we argue about “hygiene” or “cleanliness” or property values of homeowners living nearby. Instead of sitting with the knowledge that there are so many among us who can’t afford food or medication or are one disaster away from being unhoused themselves, we fight with each other about the veracity of these stories or yell at folks for not doing something Right Now.

Discomfort. I think that’s what it comes down to – who is able to sit with discomfort and who isn’t. It is incredibly painful to witness another human being suffering or struggling, and when it shows up in our own neighborhood, we can’t simply turn off the television or walk away. If you live across the street from a place where people have erected tents and are living without running water or enough food, it’s hard to shut it out. It takes courage to be a witness to suffering and to really acknowledge that the folks who are struggling are human beings who deserve care and comfort.

The city of Seattle created something they call “Find it, Fix it” for citizens to report issues that the city needs to address. It was designed to address infrastructure problems like potholes or stop signs that fell over or are obstructed by trees, but increasingly, it is being used by citizens who don’t like homeless people living in their neighborhoods. A few days ago, another resident of my neighborhood posted on NextDoor, imploring folks to flood the Find it, Fix it voice mail with concerns about a tent encampment in our area that just keeps growing. When I pointed out that tent camps are populated by people, not “it,” I was predictably met with the same arguments – the garbage, the needles (minus any evidence that there actually is any drug activity happening), the loud arguments coming from that area at night. One commenter wrote about loud arguments he heard coming from the tents at night, saying they frightened him because he was sure violence was imminent. But, I asked, if you were sitting out on your back deck relaxing and you heard your (housed) neighbors having a loud argument, would you feel unsafe? If not, is that because they are housed? Are you only frightened by people having public arguments who don’t have the privilege of being in a home they rent or own?

It is uncomfortable to admit that there are people who don’t have enough. It is more uncomfortable to witness it. The whole NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) paradigm isn’t about solving the problems our cities face, it is about making sure we don’t have to see it. The assertions about property values and cleanliness are thinly veiled attempts to say that some people are more deserving of comfort and care than others are. When we blame unhoused people for being unhoused, we are more able to see them as people not worthy of the same comforts we have. When we begin to believe that they are somehow fundamentally different from us, we are more likely to be afraid of them and imagine them to be unpredictable or somehow dangerous. When we blame poor people for being poor, we are divorcing ourselves from any responsibility to them as humans, as members of a community. We are assuming that their actions, their choices, have rendered them outside of the collective we belong to, and diminishing the reality that their basic needs are not being met and they are suffering.

But when we choose to witness the suffering of another as an equal human being, as a member of our community, we have to be able to sit with all the fear and sadness that brings up. My friend Nicci said the other day, “being a witness to suffering is much different than suffering with suffering.” Until we have practice acknowledging that someone is struggling and holding compassion for that without deflecting, we are simply suffering, whether we realize it or not. Sometimes we turn that suffering in to anger and resentment toward those people, and sometimes we try to deflect that in to action, to try and “fix” it. Our brains are so good at finding ways to keep us from feeling that it takes practice, and vigilance to learn to be a witness and sit with the discomfort. That doesn’t mean we can’t act, but the more we learn to be compassionate witnesses, the more likely we are to center the individual people in our search for solutions. This isn’t deflection, it’s transformation, it’s metabolizing our empathy and compassion to find ways to act that serve those who are suffering.

It’s the deflection that seeks to push the pain out of our visual range that is harmful, because it denies the humanity of others and our connection to community. We don’t get to be selective about the communities we belong to, no matter how hard we try. The fact is, we are all connected whether we like it or not. That is being shown every single day in a myriad of ways. I see posts from people about their struggles with family members who hold completely different political views than their own, anecdotes about others who were surprised to find that someone they wouldn’t normally choose to associate with was able to help them in some way, people who have to rely on others for assistance. We are all part of a community, like it or not.

I truly believe that most of the people who get indignant about homelessness and poverty are people who, if they really let themselves acknowledge what they’re feeling, are empathic. I think that the coping  mechanism they’ve developed to deal with the (very real) discomfort of witnessing suffering is anger and blame and if they allowed themselves to put that aside and really feel what they feel when they see a person who is unhoused or needs help with basic necessities, they might begin to feel more connected, and more empowered. I think that the instinct to share our views and feelings on social media is an attempt to build community, to ask others to validate our feelings and be witnesses for us, but ironically, it almost always devolves in to an argument about those who are suffering rather than an invitation to really witness what they are living with.

 

My uncle said something last night that struck me and it fits in with so much of what I’ve been chewing on mentally. He said, “we aren’t a society, we are an economy. We aren’t citizens, we’re workers.” He said it ironically, as he and two of his sisters and I were railing at what passes for health care in the United States – at how we commoditized it and made it a business instead of a way to meet the basic needs of human beings in our communities. 

And then this morning, Nicci sent me a Marco Polo (seriously, folks, I’m addicted to this platform and the way we can record videos for just one other person and instead of a dynamic, ongoing conversation, we have to really listen to the other person in earnest, hear their thoughts and ideas, and sit with them before formulating a response) that, among other things, made me think about my parents’ generation and how they were taught (indoctrinated?) to believe that they had to be in service to something bigger, and how that was noble, and desirable, and that martyring one’s self to that larger thing (Capitalism and “Democracy”) was not only expected but lauded. 

But, hear me out: a collective, a community, is only as healthy as its individual parts, and my parents were taught that they ought to eschew their own health and well-being in order to be of service to something else. And if they did a good enough job, they’d get a pat on the head and a pension and Capitalism and Democracy would live on through their efforts. And so my dad went to Vietnam and fought for “Democracy” and came home broken broken broken. And my mom quit teaching and stayed home to raise  children and held on to her marriage with this broken broken broken man in service to her religion, her society (raising “good” children and all that), her country (as if). I know for a fact they both had dreams and passions and I also know that they sublimated those things out of a sense of duty. I know that they weren’t able to ask the question, “What would make me happy?” From time to time, when either of them was particularly tortured and unhappy, they were able to ask, “what would make this suffering stop?” – but  they never saw their own well-being as something that would serve the collective. 

I once heard Gloria Steinem say “if you want to have something at the end of your journey, you have to have it all along the way.” She went on to explain that if we’re looking for joy or a sense of purpose, we have to have experienced it as we go, or else we’ll never be able to recognize it or appreciate it once we get “there,” wherever “there” is (for the record, I don’t think there is a “there” there). But at least one entire generation of people were taught (indoctrinated?) that what they wanted in the moment wasn’t important. They could plan for retirement, to have “joy” and an opportunity to relax and indulge your passions and interests at that point, but until that time, you had to be of service

But a healthy collective is made up of healthy individuals. A peaceful collective is made up of peaceful individuals. The thing we are working for has to also benefit us in some tangible, meaningful way. I’m sure my parents both believed that Capitalism and Democracy would benefit them, but only inasmuch as it prevented other horrible things from affecting them – things like Communism and Socialism, lawlessness and anarchy and amorality. But I can tell you that, while my parents lived fairly comfortable, middle-class lives and they remained safe from whatever demons were out there, for the most part, neither of them got to enjoy their retirement. My dad died at 65 from an aggressive form of cancer (brought on by, you guessed it – his time in Vietnam) and my mom was forced into retirement by Alzheimer’s. Neither of them got the chance to travel or pursue a passion or reap the benefits of their efforts on behalf of That Larger Thing. 

So what if we flip this on its head? What if we teach a new generation of young people that grounding themselves in who they are, what they want, where their natural talents lie, and serving that is serving the collective? What if we teach them that, the stronger and more peaceful and purposeful they are, the more they are able to connect to others with clarity and compassion? And that those connections are what actually serve the collective? What if we don’t place the emphasis on some external thing that needs them to be/act/work a certain way, but instead look at what they need in order to act from a place of security and abundance? What if we make sure that they have what they need (food, shelter, access to the education they choose, health care, a supportive community and family) and know know know that this is what the foundation of our strong collective resides on? 

The kind of service my parents’ generation was built on required more individuals to constantly replenish the ones that burned out. It was this hollow shell of Capitalism and Democracy with worker bees propping it up and it ran on volume so that when some of the bees got sick, others could rush in and replace them. But building our communities from the inside out, ensuring that each individual who is part of it is healthy and has what they need, means that we have a solid core from which to draw our collective well-being. While I spent most of my life saying I wanted to be “of service” and believing that that was an incredibly noble thing, I now think it is important for us to examine exactly what it is we think we’re “in service” to. If what we really want to be is part of a community of care that honors all of us, then our work lies in making sure we are clear on our purpose and passion, that we are able to ask for what we need when we need it and offer our support to those whose needs can be met by us. Taking care of ourselves and being able to recognize our talents and gifts as well as knowing what joy looks and feels like along the way is how we serve the collective. 

 

I deleted Facebook from my phone two weeks ago and my nervous system is thanking me for it. I also decided to only go check the site once a day from my computer, in the morning, to make my way through the notifications, see what my friends and groups are up to, and maybe post a link to something I wrote, before logging off and leaving it for the next day. 

Since my divorce two years ago, I’ve felt lonely. (Actually, I was lonely long before then, but that’s not worth getting in to right now). Increasingly, I used Facebook as a way to connect with other people, to the point where I found myself checking it dozens of times a day. If I posted something and nobody commented or responded, I was frustrated, and conversely, when someone remarked on a post of mine or responded to a comment I left, I was elated. I felt that dopamine surge with glee. 

I will admit to some fear of letting go of Facebook. In the last several years, I’ve secured writing work almost exclusively from groups I belong to, and I am honestly worried that I will miss seeing opportunities if I don’t check the site more than once a day for five minutes. But I’d be lying if I said I feel good about supporting the platform itself and all that it stands for – capitalism, exploitation, curated news feeds, manipulation. 

Today, in a conversation with a friend, I was finally able to articulate what it is that I’m discovering about Facebook and, to be honest, other social media platforms as well. They are transactional, but they masquerade as relational. And my work, my passion, centers on the power of relationship and how transformational it is if we really engage in it with intentionality. 

To be sure, I am able to use social media as a way to  keep up with my cousins who live two states away – seeing photos of their kids and hearing about the things happening in their lives. I am kept informed of important events in the lives of friends who live far away and able to celebrate those things with a group of other friends online. But that’s not relationship. 

When I post something on Facebook, it is the equivalent of me standing on a stage with a bullhorn, proclaiming my opinion or telling folks about some idea I have. While, in general, they are free to comment, I don’t have to choose to engage with them, and often the comments aren’t inviting that kind of exchange – they are simply an acknowledgment. That’s not relationship. That’s a transaction. 

I have created relationship with folks I met online, but the connection was made offline – either in person or via email or FaceTime or, increasingly, Marco Polo. And in relationship, we are able to learn about and from each other, engage in conversations that are deep and also sometimes superficial and goofy. The communication is not performative in any way because there isn’t an audience and I think that’s important. I can talk to people about racism or what it means to struggle with trauma without voyeurs, and in relationship, I can make mistakes. I can say something and have the other person take a step back and let me know that maybe what I said was insensitive or even inappropriate and, without all of the rest of my Facebook friends looking on, I can take that information in and use it to learn. 

I do believe, and have for a long time, that the way we will make this world a better place is through relationship. It is not by “fixing” systems or forcing outcomes, but by engaging in conversations with each other on a very human level where we are allowed to be imperfect, grow, make mistakes, and hold each other accountable. It will take time and a willingness to be present, to pay attention, to suspend judgment, and to show up in our local communities. It involves us taking a leap of faith to connect with other people and let them decide whether or not to invite us in to relationship, or to invite others in to relationship with us. It is the stuff of every day life – seeing someone struggle to carry all of their things and offering to help shoulder the load, volunteering at a neighborhood organization for no other reason than there is a need to be met and we have the resources to help meet it, striking up a conversation with the neighbor while we are both out sweeping the walk. When we strengthen those connections with other people, we begin to see them as part of our community, and when we center those relationships in our lives in a way that feels foundational, it is harder to see other people as stepping stones to our own personal success. 

The post I wrote in April about systems centering themselves is part of this idea. When we center relationship, there is no way we can choose to disadvantage individual people in order to serve the “greater good.” Because the greater good relies on all of us being ok, and we are not ok. There are too many of us who don’t have shelter, or enough to eat. There are too many of us who are not safe, either in our own homes or out on the streets. And when we can create communities of care that are rooted in relationships, real, authentic, dynamic relationships where people have affection for each other, support one another physically and spiritually and emotionally, and see each other as vital to our own well-being, we will be on our way to inviting new systems to be born – systems that are grounded in the mutual exchange of ideas and love rather than transactions that serve some but not all. 

I am really struggling today.
And, it’s not about me.
But also, it is. There is a way in which I have to fit in to the community, be in relationship with others, and help push solutions forward.
Even saying the word “solutions” feels weird. As if there is a set of (elusive) criteria or steps out there to take that will make all of this turmoil and pain better once and for all. 
Bullshit.
I watch conversations ebb and flow online with interest. There are white women I know who are really digging in and learning; reading and talking with one another and exploring ideas they’ve never explored before. I heard a story the other night about a white woman at a protest who asked a Black woman what she should say to “get it Right.” 
I understand the desire, the question, and I also know somewhere deep down in my bones that this isn’t about “getting it Right.” There is no “it” and there is no “Right.” This isn’t some box we can check – yup, read these seven books, had these important discussions, watched this documentary, I get it now. 
Not that it’s not important to read and talk and watch the documentaries – it is. It is part of our unlearning, our acknowledgment that the education we received was whitewashed and carefully curated to present a particular viewpoint and make us all feel good about the trajectory of “history.”
But I think what it comes down to – what it always comes down to – is relationship. Doing your own work is vital, but not in the context of becoming woke or enlightened or saying you “get it.” It’s important so that you can show up and be better in community, be in relationships that are honest and evolutionary. Going to anger management courses as someone who is abusive to others isn’t useful as a philosophical exercise. You have to embed the learning in to your bones, commit to using it as a way to build connections and practice new ways of being in relationship. It isn’t enough to say you showed up and learned the things. You have to be willing to imagine a new way of being, and that requires shedding the old way, practicing over and over again until the new ways become more natural than the old ones, and doing it in the context of relationship. 
The consent decrees and DEI training and de-escalation trainings police officers adhere to aren’t meaningful unless on some human level they are changed and they show up in a different way. And that’s hard to do because relationships suffer under power differentials. Community isn’t built, doesn’t thrive when all parties aren’t accountable to the same set of principles. When the goal is power, the end result can never be a healthy relationship. And we have raised generations and generations of men to believe that what makes them men is the fact that they reside in power. All of the things we teach boys about being men are really about maintaining power – not showing emotions that seem vulnerable, not admitting to mistakes or being unsure of answers, the importance of being a “provider” … We even teach women and girls that the way to be treated better is to be more like men, to “Lean In”. Power destroys relationship. But when you’ve been taught that power is the thing you’re supposed to be seeking, that you deserve to possess, the notion that you might have to relinquish it in order to be part of a healthy community is a tough pill to swallow. This is why some (mostly men) in authority try to twist it to say that that healthy communities include power dynamics – someone has to be “in charge.” But that is a lie. When we set up systems where only certain people or groups get to have agency and they aren’t held accountable in relationship to those they wield power over, that isn’t being in charge. That is holding up supremacy. 
Watching what is happening in Portland is a powerful reminder that the desire for power is so much a part of who we are that it is destroying us. Not only are there armed militia men without identification grabbing citizens off the streets and detaining them without Miranda rights, or pressing charges, or due process of any kind, but the discussion online about who should be front and center in the protests, whose voices should be heard, who deserves to be featured in the stories is about power, too. 
Folks maintain power through fear and I’m sad to say I’m scared right now. I am scared that there are so many willing soldiers in Trump’s army that will show up, rescind their humanity, and brutalize and scare peaceful protestors with impunity. I am sad that our government is willing to spend vast sums of money on “crowd control” tactics that are classified as war crimes by the UN but not spend our resources to supply our hospitals with the things they need to keep people alive in a pandemic, give money to families to buy food and pay rent. 
I tend to be an optimist, and today I’m finding it hard to be optimistic. Being in relationship with one another is the one thing that keeps us alive and thriving, and we are destroying relationships every day. 
It’s not about being a “good person” and doing your own work. (I almost wrote “it’s not enough to be a ‘good person’ and do your own work” but I checked myself because that makes it sound like there is some “enough”. DAMN! Even our language is tailored toward the idea that there is some binary Right/Wrong, Enough/Not Enough.) We have to act and exist within relationships that are dynamic and evolutionary and messy. We have to learn better and then DO better, not by checking some box or posting something online, but by engaging, by talking to people and listening to them and really doing the messy interactive stuff of relationship. I wrote last time about boundaries and how I think we can use them as tools to further relationship, deepen accountability, and become more connected to other people. I’m really beginning to think that is the goal and the thing that will make all our lives better – a willingness to overcome our fear of fucking up, an acknowledgment that community is worth the uncertainty and messiness of really connecting with others, and a complete dismantling of the idea that there is some end goal that we all need to aspire to. It is so damn tempting to think that The Answer is out there and we just need to find it, check all the boxes and find all the little fruits along the way until we get “there.” But there is no there there. There is only right now, and the choice of whether or not to do the next thing that will strengthen our connections with those around us. Showing up to learn and have conversations and center the well-being of those connections is what will move us in to a place where we begin to feel as though we are all important. 
I listened to an interview with Resmaa Menakem yesterday and he implored us to talk to each other, build a culture of care, of learning, of acknowledging the trauma we carry and that we are inflicting on each other, and passing on to our children. I cringed when he said he thinks it will take a concerted effort to do this for “seven to ten years” before things will change significantly. But if we don’t start now, we are only continuing to do harm. If there is such a thing as “getting it right” that is where it starts: putting in the effort to learn and listen, showing up willing to make mistakes and relinquish power or authority, being in the chaos and mess of interacting with others for real, and doing it all from a place of love, grounded in the sincere belief that community is created when everyone is honored, respected, and cared for. 
I’m in. Are you?