Tag Archives: politics

The Personal is Political, Part II

Betty Reid Soskin is the oldest national park ranger in the United States. She began her career as a national park ranger about 10 years ago, when she was 85. When Lisa Congdon asked her what keeps her going to work every day, Betty replied, “My first eight decades were spent collecting dots, and now I’m connecting dots. I’m in what I assume to be my final decade, and so everything I’ve ever learned, I’m using now. I’m still having first time experiences at 95. I feel like an evolving person in an evolving person in an evolving nation in an evolving universe.”

https://www.michelledowd.org/selected-works/2018/7/27/the-personal-is-political-part-ii

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The Bible – Part I

“I learned to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes. Pearls are bone marrow; pearls come from oysters. The dragon lives in the sky, ocean, marshes and mountains; and the mountains are also its cranium.” Maxine Hong Kingston

When I was eight years old, I read the King James Bible cover to cover. I did this in secret, at night with a pen light, cross-referencing, marking up passages I felt were contradictions, as if constructing a map for a prison escape.

I was traveling with my maternal grandparents, my biological father, and 70 young men across the country for 10 weeks, performing in a play called Penniless. My mother wasn’t with us, but I was held tight under the umbrella of the rules under which she had been born. She believed in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, and in Jesus Christ his only son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, and ordered by his own father to suffer under Pontius Pilate, be crucified, dead and buried. She believed, like Abraham, she was called to sacrifice her children as a testament to her devotion to our Lord. In exchange, God would bless her, and multiply her seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore; and her seed shall possess the gate of his enemies.

My mother considered her children lilies of the field, which God would provide for, in his own way and time.

I didn’t have formal schooling past the second grade, and I travelled in the margins of mainstream culture for the rest of my childhood. When I was a young adult, in college and graduate school, I often felt like I was digging myself out of an insurmountable hole. I had no context for pop culture references, had missed the songs and sounds and trends of my youth, the films and albums and actors and musicians upon which generational identities are formed. I didn’t know basic U.S. history, had never memorized the names of presidents, the years of wars, or the capitals of countries or states. All I really had was the word of God inside me. In the beginning there was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word became flesh.

Ruth, my maternal grandmother, spoke often of the seven seals of the apocalypse, so we would be prepared for the end of times. She taught me about the sixth seal, the great earthquake, the sun black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon as blood. She made me repeat to her about how “the stars of the heavens fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind.” And she asked me, when the great day of his wrath is come, how I would be able to stand. I would describe to her how “the heavens departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places. And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and rocks, fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb.”

I don’t know if I have escaped his wrath. Leaving still feels like the greatest betrayal I have ever committed.

I was taught loyalty to our clan, that my commitment should always be to my people, that “where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”

When I was a young adult and left my familial community and religion behind, all these words and images felt like useless knowledge, an esoteric burden strapped to me like a mule.

But lately, I have reconsidered the value of being raised with the Bible as the only book readily available to me. After cultivating a career, a home and a family, I recognize that reading the Bible, memorizing verses, studying the various translations, cross-referencing the gospels with a pen and a concordance, gave me a foundation for the work I do, both in and out of the classroom. 

Eventually, I left my family, but the word hasn’t left me. I carry the cadence of old English inside me. I have an ear for poetry, storytelling, psychology, metaphor, history and Judeo-Christian culture, and I have the discipline to search for slow answers in semiotics. But perhaps most importantly, the Bible taught me “to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes.”

A former student approached me this week, earnest and intense. “I’m an atheist,” he said, “but I haven’t read the Bible. Do you think that makes me a hypocrite?” I looked at him, assessed what I knew of his academic and career goals, and told him no, I don’t think a belief system is tied to a manuscript, one way or another.

He looked noticeably relieved.

“Nevertheless,” I added, “you’re a philosophy major, with a strong interest in history, politics and literature, and a Biblical context is deeply useful. I recommend you read it.”

“The whole thing?”

“Yes,” I said. “Bits and pieces won’t give you the same perspective.”

“Challenge accepted,” he replied. 

 

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politics is prayer

When I lived in Ohio for a couple of years as a kid, a tornado touched down in nearby Willoughby. Since I was from Southern California, I was accustomed to the threat of the Big One, and earthquakes still don’t frighten me, though they should. But a tornado, a spire of wind and debris shooting hundreds of miles per hour from the sky? That was terrifying. No one died in Willoughby’s tornado. I glimpsed a little corner of damage in the town. I was informed about the safety of basements.

Yesterdays tornado in Oklahoma was unprecedented. Winds hit 300 miles per hour, and a two-mile wide monster barreled down on a school. People, many of them children, are dead, and many more are injured, and others may still be trapped. I am so sorry for the families of the victims, for the victims themselves.

I know people get angry when others get political after a tragedy. But I think it is healthy to get political, so long as you aren’t exploitative (which is a fine line to walk sometimes). People should mourn and pray and love each other and do everything they can to find some comfort right now. Maybe there is nothing we can do to prevent this in the future, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, that we shouldn’t ask.

I was reading through The New York Times comment section this morning and wanted to share these two:

“I am a school psychologist for Moore Public Schools. I escaped with my life, but as I write this, I fear for my students. My heart aches for the parents who are left with the knowledge that their child died alone in the debris of not only one of the poorest schools in the Moore Public School system, but one of the the most poorly constructed.

I am angry tonight. After our recent record of devastating tornadoes and lives lost, there is no excuse for a public school in a tornado-prone area not to have been retrofitted with a “safe room” large enough to accommodate all occupants. Unlike past years when tornadoes were more of a nuisance than a threat in Oklahoma, we no longer have the luxury of scurrying to a closet or interior room for safety. Meterologists tell us unequivocally to go underground, go to a safe room, or basement, and if none of these is an option, to get in the car and drive away from the tornado.

Thanks to our meterologists, we have plenty of warning of impending tornadoes. The people of Moore had at least half an hour to an hour to get to safety. However, the children and teachers who died today had no such option. Sadly, they were forced to take shelter in the sheetrocked hallways of buildings shabbily built in the 1960s. No basement. No safe room. A death trap. Perhaps it is time to rethink our priorities and begin re-directing money toward, not only better educating our children, but keeping them safe in school–and not just from crazed gunmen.”

-Angela, Oklahoma

“This is the time for politics – politics are costing lives and livings – to suppress comments about politics is to suppress a discussion of how lives could be saved. Those of us who recognize this and press for political reason are those who are most likely to have a positive effect on future horrors. Politics has created this problem and is the only means by which it can be effectively addressed. Politics is prayer.”

-Jennifer, North Carolina

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a little bit of hope

One of my lowest points was when a potential employer asked me to remove my shoes before I interviewed with him. I thought to myself, If he asks me to remove anything else, I will leave. His office was out of his sprawling-by-New-York-standards apartment near Times Square. The sounds of traffic drifted up through the windows. It was clear by the decor and by his hair that his heyday had been in the 1980s. Many people ask you to remove your shoes before entering their homes. However, I was already seated across from him, and he was staring lasciviously at my feet. I am ashamed to admit that I slid those shoes right off. I needed this editing position for this “literary agent.” I got the job.

I have done the following jobs prior to my career, many of them simultaneously, all while attending college full-time: construction day laborer, box office attendant, dancing waitress at Denny’s, regular waitress at Applebee’s, busboy at Roy’s (a male-only job that they gave to me because I was “big enough”), front desk attendant at the YMCA, high school tutor, college tutor, sign twirler, law library assistant, regular library assistant, administrative assistant for a basketball agent, administrative assistant for a non-profit, editorial assistant to an author, literary events coordinator, online editor for application essays to MBA programs, and, yes, shady editor for shady, foot-fetish, literary agent. Within a few weeks of working for this agent, I realized he was taking cash up front from people with clearly unsaleable manuscripts, and I quit. With a few exceptions, most of the above jobs chipped away at my humanity, especially bussing tables, dancing at Denny’s, and twirling signs, likely because I had objects thrown at me regularly during the course of those jobs. I know there are worse jobs. I know there are five-year-olds digging through garbage piles for aluminum cans to recycle. I’m not feeling sorry for myself.

At the same time, it became quite clear while I was attending graduate school at an Ivy League university–very unfamiliar territory for me–that some people have very different lives, that some people travel to Thailand on their winter breaks rather than upping their hours, that some people who are not in fiction books actually attended preparatory schools and possess trust funds. That almost every rich person seems to speak French. One faculty member, not knowing my background, told me that it was nearly impossible for anyone who had attended a state school to be successful in the Ivy League. Another faculty member told me to stop working so much and focus on my writing. That would have been lovely. That would have been impossible. It became clear to me during that time that when you have privilege, it is very easy to continue to have privilege, and that this can have almost nothing to do with hard work. And doing an unpaid internship was out of the question; I needed an income. (This is a good article on that tangent.) I was at at this school because I worked hard, yes, but also in spite of it.

Just before the election, I got into a Facebook argument with some friend of a friend named Lonnie who said to me, “You are the exception.” His story was that he worked hard and that he made things happen for himself and he hates all of these “moocher” liberals who just want handouts. I told him that I had a story, too, and that I worked hard, too, but that I was also lucky and had help (like mentors and federal student loans and state tuition and scholarships), and that I didn’t consider myself a moocher, given that I had worked really really really hard. I suspect that Lonnie had help and luck, too, though he wouldn’t admit it. There is no such thing as picking yourself up by your bootstraps. We don’t do anything on our own, not completely.

I have an amazing job now, one that I love,  one that inspires me, one that allows me sufficient time with my children, and even some time to write. I am, of course, still paying down my insane student loans, but without student loans, I wouldn’t have been able to go to school either.  I would love to take complete credit for working hard and shaping my own future and all of that, but the truth is that I am simply lucky. If I had entered graduate school only a couple of years later, I wouldn’t be here. If I didn’t get all of those demoralizing part-time jobs when I was in college, I wouldn’t be here. If I hadn’t met the right combination of people who made me feel confident enough in myself to get through graduate school, I wouldn’t be here. No matter how hard I worked.

When I think about how much hustling I did between jobs and classes and homework and writing, I get exhausted. These jobs, however, in addition to the other opportunities I got, helped me get through college, and I am grateful for them. I was able to quit working for foot fetish guy because I knew there would be something else. There were jobs to be had then, multiple part-time jobs, and that is not always the case now. This past election made me feel as though maybe people realize, just a little bit, that the kind of gross inequality we have and are making worse with our policies is not a good thing, not even for the rich. I still think we need serious reform. Obama and the rest of them have been paid for. But I’m not talking about them, I’m talking about us. However heated things got on Facebook, the country voted fairly moderately. We put a lesbian in the Senate! In the states, there was marijuana! Gay marriage! Education funding! The most vocal lady-hating politicians all got booted. As difficult as things sometimes seem (side note: I really need to stop reading The Price of Inequality), this country decided to tell people like my friend of a friend Lonnie that we are not, in fact, in this alone. As a rule, I’m fairly cynical, but this gives me a little bit of hope.

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