jumble of Meyer lemons on a cooktop surface

 

January has been a long month. Seriously. I know I’m not the only one saying that, and that the last two years have honestly been such a time warp in general, but it is only the 22nd day of the month and I honestly feel as though I’ve lived several lifetimes this year so far.

Last Monday I woke up with a nagging headache. Not debilitating, but pretty uncomfortable. I’m no stranger to headaches in general, since I have a very finicky neck that doesn’t allow me to sleep in certain positions or do particular tasks that most people wouldn’t think twice about. Probably once a month, I end up with a pretty gnarly headache that requires a trip to my phenomenal chiropractor to fix (she shakes her head and says, “what have you done?” in a very gentle, caring manner that reminds me I am in good good hands and puts everything back where it is supposed to be and sends me on my way). So, honestly, that’s what I figured this was. I made my way through the day with Advil and the hope that it would resolve on its own.

But around midnight on Monday/Tuesday, I started to notice that I was thrashing about in bed quite a bit and that is really unusual for me. It only took a minute before I realized I was spiking a fever – this was chills, and the headache had kicked up a notch. I knew pretty much right away that this was Covid. I stuck it out until dawn and then took my temperature to confirm, texted a friend who I knew had access to home tests, and waited.

It was a rough four days. That headache was brutal. Not the worst one I’ve ever had, but definitely second in line. I couldn’t watch tv or read or really look at much of anything. I just laid on the couch staring into space and hoping it would abate sooner rather than later. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I remembered that when I first moved here last May, this was the scenario I feared most – that I’d get sick while living on my own and not be able to really take care of myself or the dogs. I’m here to say that, like most fears I’ve ever had in my life, this one didn’t play out the way my amygdala warned me it would.

I had friends near and far texting me all day long, checking in, offering help of any kind. The friend with the home tests also brought soup, Gatorade, bottles of water, cold medicine from her own stash, and Meyer lemons from her tree. Other new local friends offered food delivery, dog walks, and just general moral support. One of my neighbors, having spotted a friend dropping off supplies at the front door, texted one night to say her husband had just made a beautiful homemade dinner – could they fix me a plate and leave it at the door for me?

I was brought to tears with each and every one of these offers, and I accepted it all (well, not the dog-walking – my dogs would no more leave me behind at the house and go walk with someone else than they would chew their own leg off). Blissfully, the headache subsided by Day 3 and I remember lying on the couch, imagining my poor, stressed brain inside my skull, sending it waves of soothing light to recover. Every little thing I did prompted a two-hour nap. The last time I was this exhausted was after giving birth to Erin and that was only because I caught the flu while I was in the hospital so I brought her home and spent the first week battling a fever and trying to recover from a 40-hour labor.

I’m still recovering, but finally not sleeping 16-18 hours a day. I am able to do a few things here and there and then lie down for a bit to rest. There is some acute sense that if I don’t go slowly, there is a real danger of setting myself back, and I can’t help but wonder how people with children at home or elders to care for or lots of work to do that needs to be done manage this. It honestly brings me to tears to think about having to make a meal for someone else or go to a job feeling such extreme fatigue. I wish we lived in a world where we believed each other when we say we need rest, where we made sure to provide space and the necessities for that to happen. I recognize my massive privilege in this – that I was able to be cared for from afar by friends and family, that I am able to put off my work obligations as long as I need to, that I have a roof over my head and a soft bed in which to recuperate. I wish that for everyone.

It is so interesting that one of the first things people ask is “where did you get it” and then “were you vaccinated?” I am reminded that we have done a really good job of framing this pandemic in the same way we frame nearly everything in this culture – in terms of personal responsibility. I know that those two questions are some attempt to insulate ourselves – if we think we can crack the code, we can avoid getting sick. But I also know there is some judgment there because that’s what we’ve been taught. If you just didn’t do X, you wouldn’t be struggling with Y. I am so much more taken by the folks who ask “how can I support you” and “what do you need?” There is a radical form of community that can be created just by asking these simple questions and I am here to tell you, it feels amazing to be the recipient of it. On Thursday night, when I was so astonished by how absolutely tired a person could feel after sleeping most of the day, my phone pinged with an incoming email. As I read something from a friend expressing her deep care for me and her fervent wish that I recover quickly and thoroughly, I spent a few minutes going back through my day and replaying all of the text messages I’d gotten from a dozen or more friends and family members, checking in, offering help, saying they were sending love, and I made the conscious decision to hold that in my head and heart as the last thoughts before sleep – the notion that I was held in deep care and love by so many people from literally all over the planet. It was magic.

I’m now a week in and my sense of taste and smell is coming and going unpredictably, I struggle to catch my breath when walking the dogs on our normal, flat, 20-minute route through the neighborhood, and I still occasionally sit down after doing something  mundane like folding a load of laundry and feel a powerful need for a nap. My sleep is the sleep of the dead – deep, strange dreams and waking up feels like swimming up from the depths of the ocean, but I am grateful for the freedom to sleep when I need to and for friends and family who text or call or email to check in and let me know they’re rooting for me. That is medicine for my soul.

 

 

empty hammock suspended between trees with a field in the distance

 Jorge Polo, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Do you believe you are held in community?

I don’t mean to ask “do you think you belong?” That is a slightly different question. Belonging is often predicated on what we do, how we appear, the way we act.

I mean, do you believe that you are held in love and care by the collective?

Do you believe it, and by that I mean do you feel it in your bones, as a solid feeling in your gut?

Do you believe you are held? That regardless of your attributes or accomplishments or identities, you are woven tightly into the fabric of community, the people who surround you, who you consider beloveds, you will not fall away?

I recently celebrated my 50th birthday and I anticipated doing so alone. Not by choice, but also not not by choice. We are, after all, in a pandemic that is still swirling around us (whether we have the bandwidth to acknowledge it as such or not). But I have also uprooted myself and moved to an entirely new town in an entirely new state, my kids all live in different cities, and I am not a fan of parties where I am the object of the celebration. Whether that is simply a facet of my personality or my parents sparked that feeling by taking me to Farrell’s at the wrong developmental stage of my childhood is up for debate, but it does persist. I am not the kind of person who appreciates public acknowledgment of my birthday by singing waiters or birthday parties with more than five people or so. But I digress…

I fully anticipated spending the day alone and I was frankly unsure how I would feel, but then a series of things happened to change that. My youngest and her boyfriend texted to say they were driving up to spend the day with me and my heart broke open a little bit. A new friend I recently met texted to ask (randomly, she swears) when my birthday is and when I told her “two days from now,” she offered to take me out to dinner to celebrate. That crack widened a bit more. Then my aunt and uncle messaged to ask if they could take me out to lunch for my birthday and I cracked wide open.

On the day of my birthday, when I was as wide open as I’ve ever been, a really magical thing happened that still makes me cry when I think about it. A group of humans – most of whom I’ve never met in person, but who have vowed to have each others’ backs and support each other no matter what – began messaging me in the larger group to wish me a happy birthday. It began with one or two and within ninety minutes, there were close to 50 notifications in the group chat. I was overwhelmed and shaky at this outpouring of sincere, loving messages. The first thought that went through my mind was “why do they care about my birthday?” The second was “they’re only doing it because one person started it and it would be weird not to add their wishes to the chat.” The third came in the form of a question, “what if they do mean it? What if they are really taking a moment out of their own busy lives to sincerely think of me, hand on heart, and wish me well?”

That was the one that brought me to my knees. What if?

I texted a friend who I knew would get it to say how scary it was to accept these birthday wishes. I told her that I imagined all of the love coming at me from these amazing, complex, brilliant human beings was weaving an enormous hammock and all I had to do was climb in and be held by it. And also, there is no graceful way to get into a hammock. None. There is always that one moment when you wonder if someone is going to laugh at the awkward way you shove your butt over first and try not to get your foot tangled in the web of it. Or that other moment when you’re not quite sure if it will stay upright or flip and knock you out onto the dirt on your ass. My friend got it. She understood, and in that moment, we agreed that we would be each other’s spotter – that when one of us wanted to climb into that scary love hammock, the other one would stand by and hold it steady until they were safely inside, resting in love and care.

If you can’t answer the question, “Do you believe you are held in community?” you are not alone. I am 50 years old and just beginning to have the barest sensation of trusting it. I mourn for the last 49 years when I didn’t know that that was what I needed more than anything else, and also, I am determined to not let any more time pass by before I start asking other people whether they feel held.

We are killing ourselves and each other because we don’t feel held. We are addicted to drugs and food, buying weapons and physically and verbally attacking each other in public because we don’t feel held. We hide behind laws and cultural standards because we don’t know what it is to hold each other – in our hardest moments and our ugliest moments and our most triumphant moments. We haven’t learned what it feels like to believe we are held even when we aren’t producing, contributing, acting or looking a certain way. And the only way we will learn is to do it for each other, to take that leap of faith and hold each other in deep respect and care. When we feel like our well-being is something the collective cares about and for, we can rest in that space and come out ready to weave our strand of the hammock. It is terrifying, I know. And it is also the only thing that is left to do if we are going to make each other’s lives better.

So tell me, do you believe you are held in community?

speech bubble with a jumble of numbers inside

How do you measure the health of a community? I’ve said this before (actually over and over again for years now), and I’ll say it again: the fact that the media and the government insist on measuring the health of our country by the economic standards they arbitrarily set is ridiculous. Absurd. Irrelevant.

The daily or monthly reports on the stock market numbers, the numbers of jobs created, unemployment figures – all of these things are designed to create a picture of a country as a set of mathematical problems and people are not math problems. People are not even story problems. Communities are made of people who have needs that have nothing to do with the stock market and the number of hours of paid work they engage in. But for the folks who need data, who say that numbers are the way we understand what’s happening, let’s go on a little journey …

Imagine for a moment if the media started reporting the number of households who struggled with food insecurity in the last month and comparing it to the month before that and the month before that.

What if, instead of “jobs created,” they told us the number of folks who lost their housing in the last quarter? Or the number of persons who remain unhoused and for how long they’ve struggled with that?

Somewhere, there have to be figures that enumerate the scores of families and individuals who have unpaid medical debt and charts that show how much that debt has grown over the years and how it has impacted the other two measures of food insecurity and houselessness.

What if the media routinely talked about those numbers, over and over again, throughout the evening newscast, at the top of the hour on NPR, and in print for folks to see? Would it move politicians to address those issues more quickly and with more urgency? Because what politicians talk about now are jobs and the stock market, and these are things that don’t translate into healthy communities. We have seen for years that a rising stock market does not mean that everyone in this country is doing okay. There are scores of people in this country who do not have money invested in the stock market, who don’t have any disposable income to invest. We know that unemployment figures don’t show the kind of information we pretend they do. People are “underemployed” for a variety of reasons, and some folks don’t even show on unemployment figures because they’ve given up looking for work – either because they can’t afford to work (yes, it’s absurd that that is a reality, but it is), they don’t have the skills employers are seeking, they’re discriminated against, or they are not able to work for a variety of reasons.

Instead of talking about “the economy,” what if we talked about people and how their basic needs are increasingly not being met? Instead of doing a “homeless count” once a year in major cities, what if we looked at the reasons people lose housing and report on those numbers every single week?

Our priorities are reflected in the kind of information we choose to seek and compile and report. And the vicious cycle that is created here is that we continue to believe that these *should* be our priorities, so we focus on them to the exclusion of the things that might actually tell us about the health of our country. It’s not a panacea, but shifting the way we talk about and measure the health of our communities might give us more of a reason to start working on ensuring that more of us are supported and stable.

I’d like to think that maybe if the media were constantly reporting on the number of people in this country who have declared bankruptcy or lost their housing or carried crippling debt from medical bills, we might find enough politicians who were willing to overhaul the system in the face of insurance company lobbyists.

Perhaps if there were an accurate picture of the number of households with members who are consistently underfed, there would be political will to change the way we support folks with SNAP benefits.

What we focus on grows. We need to start focusing on people and their struggles to survive and the things we can do to help them, help humans, not “the economy.” There is no such thing as trickle-down, except in the realm of fairy tales and rain water.

For the last six months or so, I’ve watched with increasing discomfort as social media posts telling people to get vaccinated against Covid and vilifying people who are choosing not to vaccinate fill my feed. Some of them are brief and to the point “Wear your damn mask and get your shot!” and others are full-on rants about ignorant people or angry missives that are full of sarcasm and othering language. There are folks who post polls asking their followers and contacts whether or not they’ve been vaccinated and links to videos mocking the people who choose not to, and so far, I’ve mostly resisted commenting on any of them or posting anything I think might come off as me joining the fray. Frankly, it has meant that my social media use is vastly curtailed (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing – just sayin’…)

I have remained curious about my level of discomfort, trying to tease out where it hits me and why. While it’s easy for me to agree with the observations that part of our downfall is our lack of collective consciousness, it has still been difficult to reconcile the nastiness and othering that comes with “yelling” at people to get vaccinated for “the greater good.”

This morning as I walked on the beach, part of the puzzle seemed to come together in my head, thanks to a text exchange I had with a dear friend about the horrific scenes unfolding in Afghanistan.

She texted that she feels overwhelmed with all of the crises in the world and yet she also believes that it isn’t ok to “look away.” It is so hard to know what we can do to help the people who are suffering right now in ways we can’t even imagine. I talked to her about a group I’m involved with who has spent the last seven days lighting candles, raising money, and holding vigil for an Afghani couple who is trying to flee the country. Within that group, as things got worse and worse, we had the conversation about whether what we were doing was enough. Helping one family versus an entire nation. Given that, last night, that one couple managed to get on a plane to safety, it seems that we are helping, even in some small way. But, it turns out, that isn’t even really the point, and this is where the puzzle pieces began to fall into place.

What we have done in the last seven days is build community. We have forged relationships – not only among ourselves (a group of people that are scattered across the Western world), but with this Afghani couple and their family members. We have created a space where we come together in solidarity to try and alleviate some suffering. We have helped each other when it became hard to hold that space because it triggered our own trauma and fear and, it turns out, we gave this couple hope as they sat in a hot, jam-packed airport with gunfire and violence playing out outside, not knowing whether they would manage to get on a plane or be sent back to their homes.

It is a very Western, white-people thing to want to find The Solution. To invoke power structures to identify The Problem, create Rules and Mandates, and use power to impose them to Fix It. And while this is somewhat effective, what it doesn’t do is create community. There will never be a set of mandates that will convince us that we belong to each other.

It is a very Western, white-people thing to want to find The Solution. To invoke power structures to identify The Problem, create Rules and Mandates, and use power to impose them to Fix It. And while this is somewhat effective, what it doesn’t do is create community. There will never be a set of mandates that will convince us that we belong to each other. There will never be laws or rules that teach us that we are safe with each other and that we matter to someone else. Those things don’t build relationship and they don’t cultivate safety in the way that human beings need to feel safe. We white folks like rules and power because it makes us feel safe, but that is an illusion. When we think we are in control of a situation, we tend to relax a bit, but only a bit, because there is always the chance that someone with more power will come along and knock us off kilter and take control.

When we build relationship, by truly creating spaces where we feel safe with one another, we create community and a sense of shared well-being. That is why the physicians who take the time to listen to each individual concern about vaccine risks and acknowledge the fears of their patients can often have an impact on their choices. Playing on someone’s fears can be an effective way to change their behavior short-term, but you risk another, bigger fear coming along to usurp that one you cultivated. And even if you can change someone’s behavior, you can’t change their values by scaring them or forcing them to do something they don’t want to do.

We all want to belong, to feel safe with others, and to be part of something bigger than ourselves, but you can’t mandate that. Focusing on enforcement rather than relationship is where we white Westerners have gone wrong for hundreds of years. The social media posts that mock or shame other people destroy the potential for connection, even as they rack up ‘likes’ from people who agree with them. Those likes can make you feel righteous, but they aren’t going to convince anyone to care about the collective. Caring about the collective comes from feeling as though you are an integral part of it, and that comes through kindness and curiosity and trust-building.

Fabric with the words "Absurd times call for Absurd Amounts of Love" embroidered on it

Brad Montague

I am so fortunate to be part of a group of people called the Conversation Collective. During the lockdown in 2020, the Charter for Compassion teamed up with Citizen Discourse to offer a weekly meditation and coming together of individuals from all over the world who wanted to just be together in a way that felt real and soothing and solid. I began to mark time in terms of the Thursday morning meetings and really look forward to seeing some of the same people every week and deepen my connection with them.

They have expanded the offering to twice a week and on Monday afternoon I joined the group anticipating yet another really wonderful discussion prompt and I wasn’t disappointed. Karen from Citizen Discourse asked us to take a few minutes to reflect on one or more of our most deeply held beliefs (in the style of the NPR program This I Believe) and then we broke into pairs on Zoom to share our thoughts with each other. I wasn’t going to write much, as I’ve written to this prompt before, but I pulled out a sheet of paper and thought I’d jot down a few thoughts to share with my partner. In the end, I surprised myself with what came forth:

I believe in the power of connection.

I believe in hugs as a transfer of energy and a way to show solidarity.

I believe we all know each other better than we think we do, and that when we focus our attention on love and relationship, we feel a deep resonance that is the only thing that really matters. 

I believe that fear drives us apart – away from each other and ourselves.

I believe trust leads to love and that we are safe in each other’s arms.

I believe we are more a part of the natural world than we will ever know, and when we do begin to know it, we feel safer than we ever thought we could. 

I was grateful to have the opportunity to speak with and listen to two extraordinary people about our beliefs, and when the group came back together, I was reminded why this is such a special place. Because we focus on relationship and what is important to us, because we listen deeply and honor each other’s perspectives, because we allow the full range of emotions and reactions – anger, frustration, laughter, tears, joy – this is a place for humanity and solidarity and friendship. I’ve met people from Canada and Cape Town, Kentucky and California and Portugal and the UK, and I have deepened my belief that we know how to be together with peace and love and joy just as much as we know how to isolate ourselves in fear and anger. I am reminded every single week that choosing peace and love and joy is a gift to myself and others, and this is one simple way to do it.

We belong to each other, whether we opt to acknowledge that or not. We are designed to be together, to share our thoughts and feelings with each other. We get energy from one another and hold each other up. So despite all of the other cultural messages we get about fear and independence and not burdening others with our struggles, the natural state of us as beings is to belong, to seek out others and find ways to collaborate and cooperate and be in community. It is there that we can begin to feel secure and in harmony with our natural rhythms. I am so grateful for this and other collectives that are holding me, that have welcomed me, because they allow me to remember that I am not alone. I am never alone.

The Conversation Collective is open to anyone who wants to join. Click the link to find out more if you’re interested.

The food bank is closed.

It’s Wednesday and the day when I would normally be headed out to a five or six hour shift at the food bank eight blocks from my house. But I’m not going today, or ever again, as it turns out. The parent agency shut us down last week for a variety of reasons (all of which made me sad and frustrated and angry).

Our little food bank was the smallest in the city, and it was because of our small size that we were able to be agile and flexible and make a huge difference in people’s lives, both before the onset of Covid and during. The director – the only paid employee – did the job part-time but she did it with all of her heart and soul. She was dedicated to making sure that we centered our clients, that we understood who they were and what they needed, and that we led with equity and social justice principles and treated every one of the folks we served with dignity. The rest of us were volunteers – some working two hours a week and others many, many more than that.

Because of our location, we served a diverse population of folks – Cambodian and Chinese and Filipino communities. Hispanic folks and Black folks and white folks, too. Before Covid hit, we were set up like a store and farmer’s market (thanks to the partnership we had with a local church congregation that brought us gorgeous fresh produce every Wednesday morning – things like bok choy and garlic and melon and apples and salad greens) and when we opened our doors at noon, there was a line around the block. We had homeless folks who came to us looking for ready-to-eat food (which we made sure to set aside for them; things with pop tops and plastic utensils and granola bars and boxes of raisins), and a partnership with a convenience store down the block that would allow them to use the microwave to heat up their food without asking them to make a purchase. We served many many women and children living in domestic violence shelters or transitional housing, and often set aside birthday cakes or cupcakes for special occasions. We knew our families who needed nut-free or gluten-free food, those who didn’t know how to use canned goods, but wanted frozen meat and fresh vegetables, and we worked with each individual to put together the food that they needed and wanted and would use the most.

When Covid hit, we worked hard to shift, delivering food to every household (which meant we could no longer serve homeless folks), and putting together boxes using what we got from the federal government as well as using donated money to purchase things like cooking oil and baking mix and spices to supplement. The director and I sat down every week and crafted a menu for the following week, anchoring it around one or two specific meals, after looking over what we were projected to receive in our delivery. If we saw we were getting frozen ground beef, we purchased sloppy joe mix and hamburger buns and a complementary vegetable. Egg noodles prompted us to get all the ingredients for tuna casserole. Anticipating the holidays, we stockpiled whole chickens and purchased stuffing and solicited donations of pumpkin pie for everyone. We put together boxes with snacks and made sure we gave everyone enough for multiple breakfasts, lunches, and dinners every week. And it still wasn’t perfect because some weeks we only got pork and we knew our Muslim families wouldn’t eat it; we knew our gluten free clients couldn’t eat about 30% of what we sent them. But we had no choice – we had to send everyone the same thing, and we found other ways to serve our community.

With the leftover produce and some of the random things we got from food drives and our snack supply, I put together boxes of food every week to take to the tent encampments in the neighborhood. I brought loaves of sandwich bread, peanut butter and jelly, pouches of tuna, small boxes of cereal and shelf-stable milk, and apples and bananas. We found a way to help the folks we used to help.

When we had a surplus of huge quantities of frozen meat and rice and orange juice, I called two mutual aid groups and arranged for them to meet me on the weekend and fill their cars and trucks to serve their communities. It helped us free up freezer space and made sure the food was eaten by folks who needed it. Another one of the volunteers is a pastor and he arranged for a group who makes sack lunches for homeless folks to come and get juice boxes and sandwich fixings on a regular basis.

We worked really hard to adapt to the Covid restrictions placed on us, working outside in pouring rain and wind trying to keep the food dry as we social-distanced and packed individual boxes, putting together a crew of amazing volunteer drivers who came one by one all day on Wednesday to fill their cars with boxes of food to drop at households in need, and pivoting when our delivery was late or when we got more than we could possibly store in our small facility. When we got CARES Act money and realized how restricted it was and how quickly we had to use it or lose it, we spent some time bitching about the bureaucracy and how out of touch politicians are with the needs of people in this country, and then we put our heads together to figure out how to make it work for the people we feed every week.

So when I got a text message at 2pm last Tuesday, informing me that the following day was our last day and that we needed to get rid of all the food in our storage areas (eight freezers and five refrigerators, two accessory sheds plus a 400 square foot warehouse) by the end of the day, I was stunned. In addition to the food we had been stockpiling in anticipation of another lockdown, we had 10,000 pounds of food still to be delivered that day. And all of the other groups – the homeless camps, the mutual aid groups, the sack lunch folks – they were out of luck after that, along with our regular delivery clients. The agency believed that the other food banks in the city could “absorb the need,” but they have no idea what we do or how many people we feed in any given week from our little tiny food bank. We have done a phenomenal job of feeding hundreds and hundreds of people with the very few resources we’re given, and we have done it with dedication and a bedrock foundation of love. There were always frustrating elements to the work – the times when we had thousands of pounds of dried beans and local grocery stores sent us hundreds of day-old (weeks old) pastries, but we lacked milk and fresh meat; when neighbors who were moving emptied their pantry of expired, half-eaten items and dumped them on the sidewalk with a note that said “food bank.” But because we were small, we were also scrappy.

I showed up at the food bank last Wednesday just after 7am and got to work. After planning with the director, I mobilized the volunteer crew and we all worked our tails off, sending out more boxes than we’d ever sent before, putting out the call to mutual aid groups and other organizations, stocking our sidewalk “Little Free Pantry” to the gills, crying and reminiscing and and making sure we did what needed to be done. I have never been so physically exhausted in my life, nor have I ever been more proud of a group of people who came together once a week to thoughtfully serve their community.

I have no idea how folks will get the food they need now, but I’m actively trying to bridge the gap for many of them. This scenario is a sad reminder to me that when we rely on systems like these, we will never get what we need in a sustainable way because the system will always find a way to center itself over the beings it was designed to serve. When we rely on people, we get creativity and care and things get done, but it’s always a precarious situation. The system can impose its will and shut down the ability of the people to do what they have been doing. And in systems like this, the inflection point is the worker – they are the one who carries the burden of both toeing the line that the system has created and working creatively to help the people they are trying to help. This is why teachers spend their own money on classroom supplies and work 80 hours a week while only getting paid for 40. It’s why we flexed to find ways to serve mutual aid groups and homeless folks even though we weren’t given any resources to do that work – because we as the workers knew it was important enough to us to figure it out, and as long as it didn’t ask the system for anything, they were willing to turn a blind eye. But even if they hadn’t shut us down, it was unsustainable. We were running out of resources – time, money, energy from volunteers – and the system wasn’t going to give us any more.

I am incredibly sad that this is the decision that was made, and also not at all surprised. When we continue to create systems that pretend to serve human beings but center themselves within capitalism and “business models,” this will always be the way it goes, eventually. When it becomes too hard or too expensive to continue serving people well and with dignity, the system will cut corners in order to spare itself. To be sure, I will take the lessons I’ve learned here – both about the system and about the potential of caring, committed workers – to my next endeavor, whatever that may be, with an eye toward finding better ways to help my community. Stay tuned.

PS – I DO count among my victories during my tenure at the food bank the fact that I was able to convince the agency to give every household a $50 gift card to a local grocery store inside their food delivery for the last two weeks we were open. This post from a few months ago details my thinking about this and why I wish, in all actuality, ALL food banks would close in favor of simply giving people money to purchase the food they need when they need it.

 

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?