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

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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.