Saturday, November 26, 2011

Love, Madness, and Altruism

Sometimes, when we least expect it, the past comes calling and expects a response. Today it came in the form of a very sweet and lovely email from the youngest daughter adopted by Stanis and Ryan in the early 90's. She was barely five years old then, a shy and traumatized victim of  atrocities only war can inflict upon a sentient being still forming the basics of who she would become. For two years she refused to speak. She was Ryan's silent little ghost who followed him all over the house when he was there, and cowered under blankets in her room when he had to go out for even a few minutes. It took nearly ten years for her to feel safe without his continual presence.

Maria grew into an amazingly kind and compassionate young woman who wrote to me when she read my blog entry on Anna's 50th birthday. Ryan was Anna's brother and he died in a motorcycle accident a year ago last September. He never meant to die stupidly, but he did and he did it willfully because he was tired of his own demons, the continual gnawing inside of mistakes he thought he made, people he couldn't save, and guilt that never belonged to him but he took on as if it were tailor-made for him. I couldn't judge him for this because except for the part about the motorcycle and dying stupidly, I could write those same words about myself.

When I first heard he was gone, my first thought was for Maria, for the horror, the unfairness of it, the unspeakable nightmare of once again being the sole survivor of all those she loved. And yet, even then, through all the sadness, the incredible despair of her siblings as they made funeral arrangements for the man who gave them a new life when their old one died, she demonstrated a strength that astounded all of us. In her words, in her actions, in the self-less, compassionate way she turned her grief into a soothing hand to help the pain of others, she embodied the spirit and energy of the man who raised her. But more than anything, she reminded me of someone she never met and knew only through mine and Ryan's stories: her aunt Anna.

Maria never met Anna, and she believed the grief over her death left Ryan unable to share much about his sister. She never pressed him too hard because she knew the kind of pain that comes from such unspeakable loss. Maria lost her entire family in one cruel battle for the soul of her country. She told me she stays strong to honor them so they didn't die uselessly, a concept I think I understand but am afraid to explore too deeply. I only know I am not that strong. In spite of how painful memories can be at times, I can say with certainty I have not suffered enough to find my strength that way. I can never be as strong as this beautiful young woman who wears the love of two people I cared for very much in her eyes.

Maria told me she didn't want to hurt Ryan by forcing the memories from him so he could tell her about his sister, because there were many times when it was painful to even remember she once had another family, much less talk about them.  And like all of us when the people in our lives are still relatively young, she thought she could afford to be patient, that eventually he would be able to fill in the blanks for her about the auntie she knew only through photographs and brief slips of memory that came from Stanis, Ryan, and her two older sisters--and I also wanted to tell her, every time she looked in the mirror. She has her mannerisms, her expressions, a way of gazing at what interests her that is eerily similar to Anna. But they never met. It is a mystery I've tried to explain to myself in many ways and none of the ways end up fitting.

So she wrote to me and suggested we trade stories. I would tell her about Anna and she would tell me about Ryan because we both have holes in our memories and sometimes you just need to fill those holes in order to move forward. I am convinced that loss makes us confront all the unfinished conversations, all the words we were so sure would wait for another day, a better time and place, a more appropriate situation. Because of this, I saw it as a noble offer and I accepted.

And as I did so I thought of how I am currently writing my memories of Lydia for her daughters, and now I will be writing my memories of Anna for her niece. It makes me wonder how I ended up with so many memories that belong to other people, how I became the place others stored such valuable pieces of themselves. However, I know I am no different than anyone else in this way of collecting those we love and cherish when they are no longer with us, but we aren't able to let them leave us completely. Everyone has something to leave behind. I've learned that time and again.

We are all made up of those who came through our lives and left something of themselves behind. It can be as powerful as a life-changing experience, or as simple as it was with one person in my own life--just a scent, a certain faint memory stored in my senses  from a man whose name I never knew but whose delicious scent will be with me for life. I know nothing about him, of his life, who he loved or how he lived. We shared an elevator many years ago and he found a way to crawl into my tissue forever. Choice had absolutely no say in the matter. Why should it in anything else?

We tell ourselves it's our choice what we remember, but it isn't. Those memories don't go away. They are dormant little weasels ready to break through the ice of our consciousness when we least expect it. When I took that first crack with my ax of memory and freed the first weasel, what came out was a moment that at the time seemed so insignificant, I barely noticed it. And yet it became a defining piece of self that shaped, molded, and continues to direct who I am.

It was the first warm day in April after a bitterly cold winter. I had helped Anna transcribe the video testimony of a man whose mother survived the Nazi death camps. It was an angry, depressing session filled with his rage at all Germans. He repeated over and over again that everything Anna was doing was ridiculous because there were some things that could never be forgiven and no amount of forcing him to interact with the children of those who had committed such horrors would change that. I will never forgive!

It depressed me because Anna was German  and I knew other Germans who were kind, loving human beings. And no one was forcing him to take part in her project. He volunteered. But his rage was so total, so complete, so much a part of who he was, it was as if all those things had been done to him instead of to his mother,  and he blamed an entire country, even those who weren't even born,  for what was done to her.

In retrospect, I remember how much I focused on his anger, his inability to forgive, and how little I focused on what I felt in my response to him. I know now I went numb. I shut him out emotionally so I could continue to write down his angry words, his outbursts, the tears that were not from sadness or compassion, but a rage so deep inside him it poured out as tears.


Anna's voice startled me. She never raised it, never let on that she was angry or upset or annoyed. Anna was an even rising and falling of whatever wave existed. She rode it and didn't let it wash over her. I asked her "Don't what?" thinking I was transcribing the words wrong.

Don't do what you're doing now. Don't become them. Stay true. Always stay true.

I've thought of those words a lot in the time since. There's so much of me that always existed outside the herd that I couldn't fit in even when I wanted to. People sensed I was different and it made them uncomfortable just as their embracing a lifestyle that was mostly self-indulgent made me uncomfortable. I've differed with most people in so many ways most of my life, that I'm always surprised when I meet someone who understands my differences, perhaps shares some of them, and most certainly doesn't run away screaming and shouting phony excuses to justify their own discomfort at having to confront themselves through my view of the world.

Most of my life, if I saw injustice, I spoke up and tried to see where I could fit in, what I could do to right the wrong. If I saw someone that needed help, I offered my hand because that's what it means to be human, to care, to share the planet with other sentient beings. If I had one piece of bread and someone else had none, I had to share it because I couldn't eat it if I didn't. It would taste dry and hard and would never nourish me as much as half a piece shared.

It  has been both a blessing and a curse to go through life this way. A blessing because I met people like Anna, like Ryan and Stanis, like Lydia...the list of amazing, kind, and loving people is endless and each day it grows longer. But it is also a  curse because it's an open doorway to those who know only how to take and use and never to give or reciprocate. It's not true that I don't see them coming. It is true that I won't allow myself to sink down to their level. I stay as I am, no matter how devastating the consequences could possibly be, because I can't imagine living any other way. I don't see other ways as living. I see them as existing on the most shallow surface possible and not caring enough to live any other way. But I've learned how to protect myself from actual tissue damage. The rest of it is just things and those are meaningless to me. If they ask, I'll give whatever I have to give. No one needs to take or lie or cheat or bullshit me. All they have to do is ask and it is theirs. But they take and lie and cheat and steal anyways. That always astonishes me.

 Anna called people like that "empty souls" because everything they put in ran out on the ground without those necessary stoppers of sentient beingness in place. They failed to understand it was their own selfishness, their own greed, their own need for vengeance, their own desire to always be one up on someone else, that left them with such an insatiable hunger. It was easy to avoid becoming them. It was easy to dismiss them as not worth the energy it took to relate to them in any way.

But Anna's scorn, an emotion she rarely let loose, was reserved for those who portrayed themselves as givers, as kind and loving people, but who were so focused on keeping the give and take balanced, that it eventually became the most important thing. She saw them as always keeping score, as having an emotional balance sheet that was every bean counter's fantasy.

So to Maria, I share this important piece of who Anna was that mattered the most: if your love, your compassion, your ability to share has limits, it is not love. It is not compassion. It is not altruism. Limits are for sane people, she always told me. But to live without limits on your heart is to leave yourself open to pain, to disappointment, to betrayal. It's pure madness to live in such a way. But can you really call it living if you live any other way?

I personally can't. I have to live this way because it is who I am. Maybe people who are selfish, who are unable to give of their hearts and themselves, maybe it's just who they are and  a whole lot of us weirdos may be wrong in insisting there is a better way. Maybe for them, there is no better way. Maybe that is where their own personal evolution ends. They are like that man long ago hating people who weren't even born yet for things that happened not to him, but to those he cared about. He didn't know the important thing Anna saw in him, the thing she told me kept her going back to try again with him: he hates them not because they hurt him, but because they hurt someone he loves. As long as he can feel pain over someone else's pain, he still has his humanity intact..

It really is that simple.


Monday, November 21, 2011

Eat the Rich

The rich have always stolen from the poor. It's how they became rich. But most of the time they stole just enough to buy themselves all the wealth and privilege they needed and the rest of the world plodded along with the plumped up scraps they were given to buy food, shelter, and a sense of security.

With their own needs taken care of, most people didn't really care about the rich, other than as a sort of strange fairy godmother who might one day, in spite of all evidence against it, gift the lower beings with some of her treasure. This was a message the power elites fed to the people in shovelfuls. One day, you too can be rich like us if only...

It was that "if only" that was the killer. If only you were fortunate to be born into it. If only you were fortunate enough to marry into it. If only you were fortunate enough to learn how to steal quietly and efficiently. Money became the new holy grail, not just money but wealth, mountains of wealth so you could buy mountains of power to enable you to make even more money.

But that part wasn't talked about openly. Instead people were fed the lie that if only you worked really really hard for whatever meager pay was thrown your way, and if you went without, and if you lived like an exiled monk in a threadbare sackcloth bag and ate grass and berries, if you sacrificed everything, then wealth was within your grasp.

But of course it was a lie. You couldn't work your way to wealth. You had to inherit it, marry it, steal it, sell yourself for it. By making it nearly impossible,short of winning the lottery, most people were content with what they had and they willingly and happily shared with the elderly, the sick, the less fortunate. It's how people defined themselves and others as good people: they shared what they had because they knew how lucky they were to have more than enough.

But every so often, something comes along to upset that blissful state of ignorance where people are happy working just for things as proof they really do work hard for their money. The house, the car, the family, the vacations, the toys. There's a transition that happens when they stop being just things but instead become something that is not enough. Greed starts to filter into the formerly satisfied dream state most of the working and middle classes were content to wallow in while they filled up on cud.  But then they started to want more. They started to want power. They started to want prestige. They started to want to live in a world beyond the pretty little prisons created for them.

Greed doesn't just grow overnight. It takes root when money becomes the most important thing in people's lives because it starts to mean they can buy more things, they can buy bigger houses, more expensive cars and toys. It starts to set in when people begin to feel the emptiness of working at a meaningless job for money that lets them survive but does nothing to fulfill the dreams They just know the unhappy relationships, the shallow friendships, the tedious boredom of existence can all be fixed with more money. They wake up from their hunger and demand more.

At this point is where most people are easily manipulated by the power elite. The power pigs know how to play with the angst of not having enough. They're experts at it. It's how they became even wealthier themselves, by knowing how to play those beneath them. The more unhappy someone is with their existence, the more the message goes out that money can heal that unhappiness. Money starts to take on a new value. It becomes a mean of power and salvation. It becomes something people will do just about anything to get more of so they can ease the emptiness of their lives.

And that's the moment greed takes over. No longer do people consider such a thing as having enough to live on comfortably. Nothing is ever enough anymore. If they have extra, rather than share it as they once did, they hide it or sell it to the desperate for more than it's worth. If they have a car about to die, they know there's a poor, desperate person who can only afford to buy it.

Both the buyer and seller know the car is a piece of crap, but justification is an amazing thing. The seller convinces him or herself that the buyer is somehow at fault for being poor so they deserve to be cheated. And the poor person is so used to being cheated that they hand over the money and hope the car won't fall apart too soon and hopefully will keep driving until they can find a better job so they can buy a better car.

That mentality is how mortgages were sold to people who couldn't afford them, and then created rich people who bet on how many of those bad mortgages would go into default. Greed created an industry that basically bet on human misery. There's no going back from that. It's the total and complete abdication of anything human in the being.

So much money was being made that the pool of gullible people had to be kept stocked, so that meant formerly good and decent human beings had to be turned against each other. Suddenly it wasn't the insatiable greed of the wealthy that was responsible for people losing their jobs and homes. It was the fault of the poor, it was the fault of the middle class, it was the fault of those who now had nothing and were desperate for any kind of help to survive, whether it was food stamps or social security or health care. Those things that were nothing more than basic survival to civilized nations, became the new pariah class. It took the attention off the out of control thievery of the rich. They couldn't afford to have anyone notice how much they were stealing.

But then people started losing their jobs. People started losing their homes. People started losing their health care, their ability to survive. Houses were foreclosed on and boarded up while the poor slept in the streets. And it became their faults if they froze to death for being dumb enough to be poor.

This is the mentality that grows and is fed when fearful and stupidly educated sheeple march in the streets in support of huge corporate insurance and health care industries while they can't even afford a doctor's visit for basic care. Of course they are going to be well-funded. Of course they won't be tear-gassed or beaten. They're the property of corporate America and are needed to keep the attention off their thievery.

That's why an organic movement such as Occupy Wall Street terrifies the power elite. They desperately want to find out who the leaders are, who the organizers are, who the financiers are because the Tea Party was funded and manipulated by them and so they can't imagine anyone taking to the streets on their own.

But we are and that scares them and they will fight back. They will attack. They will lie. They will manipulate. And the way to fight back against them is to be what they are not because they can't grab hold of that. They can't fight against someone who shares their meal with a stranger, someone who reaches into their own closet to help a stranger stay warm with an extra coat they aren't using, someone who sees extra in their lives and shares it happily because they really don't need more than they have.

The power elite are afraid people will quit valuing things and start valuing each other. They are afraid people will give away their extra instead of selling it or throwing it away because that cuts into the profits of the powerful. They are afraid people will realize they don't need to own a huge McMansion and are content to live in shelter that is easy to support and maintain and leaves enough left over to help the sick, the needy, the elderly, the less fortunate. They are afraid people will become givers instead of takers, that they will see stop seeing the poor and unfortunate as the problem and instead start looking for the source of the problem.

Once the people start looking for the source of that problem, there is only one place it will lead: to the thievery that's been going on for far too long, at the theft of our humanity, of our compassion, of our generosity, and of our purpose on this planet. Once people's eyes are open they are going to demand answers. They are going to demand change. And they are going to do it as one, powerful unified voice that no amount of money can buy. That's what the powerful fear the most: people who can't be bought. People who know the real value of life is sharing with each other so we all rise up together as a unified and powerful force for change.


Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Happy Birthday, Anna

You would have been fifty today. We were ten years apart, a decade of differences that we managed to bridge because we both cared about the same things.  I've been remembering how we talked about this magical transformation then, about the party you would have, the places it would be held, the people you would invite. If you were the kind of person who suddenly overnight decided you liked parties. But I think you would have made an exception for your 50th.

It's interesting to me, as a devout Atheist, how strong your presence is in the last few weeks. I will not insult your memory by calling your presence angel or god or any of those imaginary hallucinations you detested and blamed for all the ills of the world. I completely agreed with you then and now, which is why I'm more inclined to believe I reshaped you from your ashes because I needed the purity of who you were to keep me company in what has been a confusing time for me.

Or maybe it's because Lydia's choice was taken away from her, because she wasn't allowed to exit gracefully as she planned. I wanted to fight for her. I wanted to bring up the explicit instructions she left. But in the end, I couldn't do it. I gave in to the grief of others who were with her, who spent their lives loving her. There are moments when I feel as if I betrayed her by not sticking up for her wishes. And there are other times when I think, well, maybe she waited too long on purpose. It could have been her choice at any time. Who am I to say it didn't end exactly as she wanted it to?

Maybe that's why I feel you so strongly. It's not just the whole milestone birthday thing. It's remembering how passionate you were about the right to choose anything and everything. The whole idea of someone making decisions for you was an impossibility you refused to allow into your life. I respected you for that because at the time I was still looking for my strength as a person. I was still letting others define me and my life. It was a confusing time, just like now.

You hated rich people. I always thought that was funny since you came from a very wealthy family. It seemed strange to me that you would feel so strongly about it. I envied you at times, being able to travel, to buy anything you wanted, to be able to help people and not think that feeding the hungry meant you couldn't pay the power bill. Those weren't choices I didn't think you ever had to make.

But I was wrong about you. I didn't know until your brother told me, that you had given away most of your money, that the truth was you had less than I did at the time. I didn't know the grant you said funded your project came from your own pocket, that you spent everything you had to tell the stories of war victims. I didn't know it was your money that bought all the equipment we used, all the clothing we bought for the refugees, all the deposits and rents and food supplies we filled their rented apartments with. I just didn't know.

I do remember you telling me it was a good thing I didn't have extra in my life because I would just give it away to the first person with a sad story. I wondered how you knew me so well. Now I know. You gave all yours away to a whole lot of people with sad stories. You used what you had to help a small piece of the world heal.

Maybe that's why you're so much with me now. I look around at the appalling selfishness of the wealthy, of the whiny little complaints of the privileged little divas too many of my friends raised because they thought if they gave their kids everything they wanted, they wouldn't turn on them as teenagers, that everyone would be pals forever. Now it's my friends who want to turn on their kids and are ashamed of their selfishness, of their shallowness. And all of us look to their children, the grandchildren we would have had if we had children,  instead, the ones who started the Occupy Wall Street movement, the ones who really are unselfish and altruistic and truly care about the planet more than themselves and their own needs.

But it's how we were too. We rebelled against our parents and embraced the wisdom of our grandparents. You told me once that the grandchildren would save the world and I didn't really know what you meant. I do now. Sadly, I do now. But at the same time I have hope. Yes, my dear and closest friends have children they love but don't like. It's the relationship you had with your parents and my parents had with me. It takes skipping a generation to be understood. It makes old people relevant again at a time when we start to feel like useless burdens on society. Maybe that's why my friends appreciate their grandchildren so much. They know in them is the planet's salvation. As we both often said, altruists aren't born; we need something to object to, something so foul it awakens the humanist in us and propels us to act.

I think back on one of the last conversations we had. My father had just died. You knew we weren't close, that I had run as far away from his violence as I could without leaving the country. You knew how his abuse turned me into a fearful creature who was always afraid of upsetting people because my life taught me that upset people inflict pain. We talked a lot about that, about the people I chose to surround myself with, the users, abusers, and as you said, the ones with hearts like parking meters. Those were the ones you told me to look out for because until I learned that I wasn't a bad person who didn't deserve better just because I'd spent a life time getting that message, didn't mean I couldn't one day find my strength and walk upright.

You would enjoy my uprightness these days. I still have my moments. I still don't fully trust people. But I'm working on it. I let more of my friends in than I work at keeping them out. And I've done the necessary pruning you long ago suggested would improve my life considerably. I grew strong just from that one decision.  I thank you for maybe not planting the seed, but at least providing the nourishment that helped it grow.

So happy birthday, dear Anna. I've known some amazing women in my life and you're at the top of the list. And your work lives on. You'd be happy to know that. The people you chose to take it over for you did a fantastic job. Your wish that world peace would grow from the money that came to you from sources you considered too evil to spend on yourself, have been scattered as many small seeds and they've taken root. The world benefitted from your life. That's more than many people can ever say.