Thursday, December 08, 2011

War of the Classes

Maria and I have been exchanging emails on what Anna would have thought about the Occupy Wall Street movement. On the surface, when you measure the response against how she lived her own life, how she gave away her own wealth to help others, it seems something she would have embraced wholeheartedly.

But, as I wrote to Maria today, Anna was much more complex than that. She detested simple categories and would have peeled back current events with the precision of someone peeling layers from the last onion on the planet, because she detested one class more than she detested the wealthy life of privilege she was raised in, and that was the middle class.

She believed everything about the middle class was fake and that it didn't really exist. It was an invented category to keep people working at jobs they hated,  a myth to keep them chasing a carrot on a stick that would always be just out of reach, and it forced people to live on credit to make up for the lack of decent wages and benefits they needed to support a middle-class lifestyle. It was all on the surface and there was no depth to it. It was a bridge built over someone else's dream.

I hate their perfect teeth, their boring clothes, their shallow friendships that ask only what you can do for them. I dislike their horrible little spoiled children they're inflicting on the planet, she wrote me when I asked why, as such a devout Marxist, that she detested the average person just struggling to get by.

Anna believed the middle class was actually the servant class putting on airs of superiority to hide the fact that everyone was their master, unlike the poor who knew they could always get another shit job, and if that didn't work out, they could find another one and other one. There wasn't any shortage of shit jobs, she always said, and being able to walk away from one was a freedom the so-called middle class has long forgotten existed. The middle class couldn't walk away because all that mattered to them were things and more things. They could care less about people unless those people bought them new toys that were bigger and shinier than their neighbor's toys. They were owned by their things. People didn't really matter much. They could always be exchanged for someone new if the old friend or lover didn't work out.

But she also knew it wasn't always this way, that there was a time when people could work and not need credit just to survive. It was when jobs came with union wages and benefits. The tax base was strong because  the jobs were there to pay into it. That meant roads were fixed, bridges kept in repair, and schools well-funded.

We had many discussions about this because she was the ultimate realist and saw deep through the superficial perfection of the time. Yes, it was a better time in that way, but it was also a time when racism was considered normal, women who wanted something more than marriage and a family were considered psychologically ill, and when the kind of small town mentality that festered under the guiding hand of some unholy intermediary preaching fear from the pulpit, made the churches of America the most segregated buildings in the country.

Anna was an Atheist but she truly believed Ronald Reagan was the devil because it was under his presidency that the real decay started. She had a magazine cover from one of the subscriptions her father read religiously. It was right after Reagan was elected and it had a woman in a mink draped over an expensive sports car and the headline said it was okay to be rich again. That's when the war really started. And it was a war against those who were poor, those who thought that if they worked hard enough, they could reach the mythical middle class that awaited them just beyond the horizon.

For Anna it was a war that became extremely personal. She never thought much about the source of her family's considerable wealth. She grew up with the children of other wealthy parents. She went to the private schools they all went to together. She described her early life as uneventful.

What changed it for her was an internship she did for her PhD that sent her into poor sections of the country. She didn't know poverty like that existed in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. She was ashamed for America, embarrassed that so many of its most vulnerable citizens, the young and the old, were forced to live in conditions unheard of in many parts of the civilized world.

Shortly after this experience, her grandfather died and while going through his journals and translating them, she discovered he'd been a Nazi and the source of the family wealth more than likely came from unsavory business dealings he made during the war in Germany.

You would have had to know Anna to understand how this devastated her, how completely it destroyed her emotionally. This was a woman who was kind, generous, compassionate, and didn't have a bigoted bone in her body. The realization that this man's blood ran through her own veins horrified her so much that she had nightmares of draining all the blood from her body and replacing it with someone else's. The self-hate was so thick it filled the room with her agony. Everyone was afraid she would kill herself to escape the pain.

But Anna didn't die right away.  I'm convinced it was during this time that she became an addict because nothing else numbed the pain. She went through rehab three times but each time the pain would win, the emotional devastation would keep her from being able to get out of bed in the morning. But one day she woke with a sense of purpose, a desire to make up for the harm her grandfather had inflicted on humanity. It gave her enough strength to crawl out and then spend the next two years undoing what her grandfather had spent decades putting together.

I will never know the complete list of places that benefited from her generosity, but I do know that many domestic violence shelters received anonymous donations, usually in small towns she had traveled through on one of her extended backpacking trips across America. I know that some promising, but poverty stricken young women, found themselves with hefty college funds. On a personal level, I know that a very large medical bill I had suddenly disappeared one day. She never admitted it but there was no one else who had that kind of money and wanted to just give it away without expecting anything in return.

One of the most important things she did was train a group of colleagues in Europe on how to work with children of Holocaust victims and the children of those who put them there. She believed if the hate was stopped at the children of war victims, then maybe there was hope for peace on the planet, so she worked on teaching them how to forgive, how to move on, how to stop letting the past cripple them emotionally, while at the same time never forgetting the evil that had caused it.

She was fairly controversial in her methods because she blamed wars and the hate they spawned on the greed of the wealthy and the lack of honor and ethics money inflicts on people. In this she was inflexible. She truly believed you couldn't be both a good person and wealthy because what made you good was destroyed by the greed that takes root when you have so much wealth. She said it was like drugs, that you wanted more and more and more because it was never enough. And like drugs, it made you not care who you stepped on and what you destroyed in order to get more wealth.

In the last year of her life Anna became rigidly inflexible in how she perceived the influence of the rich and powerful on the world. She refused to meet any of my friends who had trust funds or who had inherited more than a few hundred dollars  from a dead relative because she believed inheritances planted the seed of greed in them, that they would someday sprout that seed over some money issue.

The poor, she wrote me once, they forgive you not having money. They understand when you can't pay back that twenty dollars. But those little trustafarians, they'll cut the friendship off if you don't pay them back their dollar. And the wealthy, they'll make you sign a note and charge you interest and if you don't pay them back, they'll take something from you, like your house or your car. Like gangsters. Or drug dealers. Or bitter exes.

Anna did a lot of good with her wealth. She spent it well. She gave it freely. She washed the blood from it and made it work for good instead of evil. And one day, it was gone and she was living on the proceeds of her cabin she sold the winter before, in a tiny studio apartment with a computer and two cats. We had spent the winter on her final project helping women from the Bosnian war learn skills to teach them how to survive on their own after losing the breadwinners in the family to genocide. She helped children of war find homes where they would hopefully one day heal from the wounds of hate.

Maria was one of those children and when I think of Anna, I think of Maria and her sisters and countless other children. I believe Anna would be out there with the Occupy movement because there is no more middle class. There is rich and poor. There is ruling class and working class. The world she always told me really existed beneath the facade has come to pass and she would be the first one out there telling people to wake up, to take back their lives, to value each other, to honor friendships, to forgive but never forget, and most importantly to never forget the power of love because it can't be bought, it can't be traded, it can't be lost. In the end, it is all any of us ever have that truly matters.

Starry Night print
Starry Night by orsobear
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