Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Bubble Effect (or Why I Choose the Women's Funding Alliance)

Photo copied from Patty Murray's Facebook page
I just got back from having lunch with Washington State Senator Patty Murray and Massachusetts State Senator Elizabeth Warren.  And about 2,000 other people.  Murray, known around these parts as the "mom in tennis shoes" thanks to a slight she got from one lawmaker when she dared challenge funding cuts in a local preschool program, fully embraced the classification and went on to successfully run for her school board, state representative, and is now a four-time Washington State Senator. As part of her acceptance and celebration of that title, she now holds an annual event that honors other people in our state who have taken it upon themselves to make changes that benefit others, going so far as to give them a golden tennis shoe.

This year, I was invited by the folks at the Women's Funding Alliance to join them at their table and I was thrilled to accept, given that Elizabeth Warren would be speaking.

The honorees were truly fantastic - an immigrant who lived in a housing project in Seattle, got a degree from the University of Washington in business, and headed right back to that housing project to help raise other residents up and offer them the benefit of his wisdom and experience; a young woman whose mother was killed by her boyfriend after years of emotional abuse who went on to start a campaign to teach middle and high school students how to recognize the signs of domestic abuse and step in to stop it; and a woman who took her passion and talent for training dogs and turned it into a project that pairs wounded veterans and disabled children with service dogs as well as utilizing prison inmates to help train the dogs, giving them the benefit of working with the dogs and a useful skill they can parlay into a job when they are released.  It was even more fantastic to hear Senator Murray say that the number of individuals who were nominated for these awards was overwhelming and it was difficult to choose from all of the people in our state who are working so hard for the greater good.

After the awards were given and all of the awardees spoke, Senator Warren came to the podium to thunderous applause.  She was passionate, eloquent, articulate, and spoke clearly about her three biggest priorities: equal pay for equal work, raising the minimum wage, and revamping the student loan system.  She has clearly done her research and staggered us with some of the statistics she shared, and she encouraged us to continue to support candidates who are committed to making changes that will help families pull themselves out of debt and poverty.

Honestly? I felt a little deflated.  Even though the final speaker, a local representative who was funny, concise, and had a compelling story came up to make the "ask" for donations was using the right combination of humor and prompting, I couldn't do it.  It's not that I don't support Senator Murray or Senator Warren. It isn't that I don't thank my lucky stars that I have someone like Patty Murray representing me in the Senate.  It's that I'm in a bubble.  And it is hard to imagine my dollars making the slightest bit of difference unless they transcend that bubble.

All of my federal representatives are Democrats and, for the most part, they all stand for the things I stand for.  My state's governor? Democrat. My city's mayor? Democrat. My city council person? Democrat. Even if one day one of those folks decides not to run again, because of where I live it is highly likely that a different Democrat will be elected.  That doesn't make me complacent, it just means that I doubt that my dollars make much of a dent. They're preaching to the choir. Elizabeth Warren was preaching to the choir - heck, just today the Seattle City Council was voting on a $15/hour minimum wage proposal. I'm pretty sure she's barking up the right tree, but unless I'm living in a Tea Party infested district, I have a hard time understanding how my words or actions or dollars have an impact if I give them at a luncheon like that.  Sometimes I wonder how frustrating, and yet energizing, it might be if I did live in a place where there was an entrenched, misogynistic representative and a strong Democratic candidate stepped up to challenge that person. Would I jump in with both feet to campaign and carry signs and donate? Would it feel like I was really part of some change? Would it be awesome?

As I walked away, grateful for the opportunity to have heard people talk about the good work they're doing, the shared humanity they believe in, the values I hold dear as well, I became even more committed to narrowing my focus.  If I can't make any substantive change in the way things are done at the macro level (besides what I already do, which is rant on Facebook and write OpEds for places like The Feminist Wire), then I can at least make an effort to fully support those folks who are working hard to make change more locally.  Ultimately, today's luncheon solidified my decision to continue working with the Women's Funding Alliance whose focus is on raising up girls and women in the state of Washington in a wide variety of ways, knowing that they are the key to turning lives around.  There, I know my dollar makes a difference.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Inspired to Create

Every so often, I am weighed down by my passions, or at least the things I choose to pay attention to more closely. And while I dearly love reading and listening to the radio, seeking out current information on topics that stoke that passion for me (food, reproductive rights, women's civil liberties, education, healthcare, etc.), from time to time I become weary of the complexities.

Last night our book club had a fascinating discussion prompted by the book Hunger of Memory by Richard Rodriguez. We touched on race issues, assimilation, education, and affirmative action, among other things, and it was a lively, respectful exchange of ideas that I welcomed.  In addition to some other discussions I've attended this week (not the least of which was the one prompted by my Op-Ed in The Feminist Wire), I was reminded just how complicated so many of these issues are and what it will take to begin to unravel them.  My mind is filled with Seattle's $15/hour minimum wage increase that is being hotly debated by the City Council and, it seems, every citizen and small business owner in the city and it seems that everywhere I look there are other, very complicated problems whose solutions will undoubtedly have unintended consequences.

Fortunately, I was reminded by two different things I read this week, that I can retreat in to simple beauty.  My friend Holly Goodman wrote a beautiful essay that appeared in Nailed Magazine this week that served to bring me back to my center.  Often, when I read glorious writing, it has the effect of reminding me that I am made more whole when I attempt to create, that my soul is served, no, soothed, by the simple act of creating something real and honest.

I just finished reading Peter Heller's latest work, "The Painter," which sparked similar feelings. The way he uses words, describes the natural world in exquisite terms, speaks in the honest heart-voice of his character, makes me want to write.  I remember that life is not all problems and solutions, that in order for it to be rich and immersive, we must create new, beautiful things.

What inspires you to create?

Monday, May 19, 2014

On The Feminist Wire Today

My piece wondering why, in this country, colleges and universities get to investigate sexual assaults on their own without involving the local police.

And while one of the first comments on it is by someone accusing me of wanting to strip extra layers of protection for college victims, I am most certainly not looking for that. I know our system of justice is woefully inadequate when it comes to rape, but I think it's a good start to hold all perpetrators (and those accused) of sexual assault to the same standard, regardless of where they live or go to school.  Check it out if you're interested.

And have a terrific Monday!

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Musical Memories of Dad

This banjo is sitting in the corner of my living room. For the first few weeks it was here, it sat inside its case because I wanted to make sure my head and heart were clear when I finally opened it up.  It belonged to my dad, and even though he died nearly six years ago, his wife only recently began packing up his things and figuring out what to do with them. She knew I wanted the banjo, but she couldn't find it in any of the places she expected it to be and then one day, as she lie on her bedroom floor fishing underneath the bed for a roll of Christmas wrap, her fingers bumped up against the black faux-leather case.

I brought it home, having only unzipped the case once or twice to peek inside and marvel at its pristine condition (although I shouldn't have, my dad was a Marine in every sense and took impeccable care of his things).  When I finally sat down in the living room to take it out all the way - Bubba off on a business trip and the girls away at school for the day, weak February sunshine filtering through the leaded glass windows - time stopped.  I don't remember hearing anything from inside or outside the house; no dogs barking or airplanes soaring by, no hum of the refrigerator or the dryer. Of course, that is impossible, but I felt weighty and deliberate as I gently lifted it out by the neck and the body, careful not to smear fingerprints on the shiny chrome or twang one of the strings and break the spell.  Nestled beneath the banjo itself was a songbook and instructional manual by Pete Seeger and I nearly cried out when I saw it. Dad was a huge folk music fan. We grew up listening to the Kingston Trio and The Mamas and the Papas and Dad, while he couldn't read a note of music, could hear a song once or twice and pick it out on the banjo or the guitar or the piano.  I don't recall how often it happened, but I have fond memories of sitting cross-legged in the living room in a small circle with my sister and brothers while Dad taught us "Froggie Went-A-Courtin'" and "Greensleeves" and we had sing-a-longs.  I remember his long freckled fingers with the ridged nails and knobby knuckles picking and bending the strings in perfect time as our little troupe swayed back and forth singing with great gusto.

Laying the banjo across the couch cushions, I picked up the songbook and flipped through, hoping for some handwritten evidence of Dad somewhere within. His distinctive scrawl, always in pencil, shaped by the tremor in his hands, didn't show up anywhere.  I was deflated.  I think I was looking for some message from beyond.

In the months since that day, I have walked by the banjo many times as it sits propped up in a box in the corner, neglected. I would love to learn how to play and have often thought about picking up that instruction book to give it a shot, but I'm both afraid and intrigued by what the music would do to me, what doors it might open if I do, indeed, figure out how to strum that banjo to play the folk songs of my childhood.  Occasionally as I walk past, I can smell the scent of cherry tobacco that came from Dad's pipe and I am suddenly in the middle of that living room with the green shag carpet and the gold velour couch and swivel chair, Dad leaning back with the newspaper and the pipe smoke wafting gently to the flecked ceiling. My thoughts drift to the brother we lost during that time and I quickly shut the door of my mind.

Last Friday, Bubba and I took the girls out for dinner to a place in our neighborhood we've never been before. As we sat and waited to order, I became aware of the music playing and my heart swelled.  Throughout our fantastic meal, an entire Jim Croce album played, each song in the order I remember: Time in a Bottle, Operator (That's Not the Way it Feels), Rapid Roy (The Stock Car Boy), Bad Bad Leroy Brown, You Don't Mess Around With Jim, One Less Set of Footsteps, I'll Have to Say I Love You in a Song.  The girls kept getting annoyed with me, alternately because I was singing along with the songs and because I got lost in my reverie and dropped the thread of our conversation.  I know they don't understand the pull of this music for me and the melancholy memories, but it was such a lovely warm feeling to be surrounded by Dad, laughing at the absurdity and playfulness of some of the lyrics as well as the innocence and sweetness.



Even though Dad was not a musician by trade, nor would he ever have considered that a possible career, one of his purest joys was music and it was often the one thing that we could all agree on.  The soundtrack to our summer road trips featured folk artists as well as popular music from The Doobie Brothers and The Little River Band (Dad was not a Beatles fan at all). More often than not, we would pop in an 8-track, roll all the windows down and sing together in what we thought was perfect harmony. And it turns out, it was.

Monday, May 05, 2014

Hard Lessons About Compassion

I consider myself to be a pretty compassionate person. I try hard to not react too strongly to anything without giving myself time to let intense emotions pass, and I work hard to put myself in the shoes of other people.  If I hear myself making some judgment about another human being, I can often stop myself in my tracks and try to identify what it is that I'm feeling, what might be driving that need to distance myself or put someone in a box.

Unfortunately, my compassion sometimes has limits and what I've recently discovered is that they lie pretty close to home.  There are a few people in my life that I tend to treat much differently than others and that realization stings.  For years, my dad was one of those people, but somehow I was able to move past that and develop a bottomless sense of understanding and love for him. (I wrote a little about the beginning of this process here.)

What I came to understand this morning, as I thought about the folks I have trouble having compassion for, is that they all have something pretty profound in common.  They are all people for whom I have felt responsible at one time or another, very, very responsible.  It occurred to me (well, actually, hit me in the chest like a punching bag) that my inability to have a pure sense of compassion for them was more likely the result of me not being able to have compassion for myself. Because on some level, I feel as though many of the things they have done that I have trouble with came about because of me, that I am somehow to blame for the way they are, and by distancing myself from these aspects of them, I am really distancing myself from the things I don't like about what I may have done to them (or prevented them from becoming).

You see, for me, not being able to relate to another person enough to have empathy for them is a direct result of my walling off in order to protect myself.  If I can look at someone and judge that they are "Wrong" or that they "deserve" what is happening to them, I am basically telling myself that what they are going through is nothing I will ever have to deal with. I am using my intellect to craft some imaginary world in which I get to be in control of all circumstances and contingencies and determining that this Other Person's life is so different from my own that I will never have diabetes or a child in prison or a husband who leaves me for another woman.  I am not that person.

But in this case, my ultimate fear is that I may have created "that person," perhaps by not saying enough or by saying too much, by not saying the right things or doing the right things or simply by not being who I Ought To Have Been at some pivotal moment.  And of course, none of this means that I don't dearly, deeply love each of these individuals because they are some of the most beloved people in my life. And, it turns out, I am not actually struggling with having compassion for them at all. I am simply struggling with the idea that they are individuals that don't belong to me in any way, shape, or form. Once I can begin to see them as human beings whose actions and beliefs are their own, whose lives do not reflect on my self-worth, I will be free to offer them as much compassion as I do anyone else. And then the work can begin wherein I turn it back on to myself.
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