Eating Our Own

I think the saddest thing is, as people are dying, fighting their way across the world to get themselves and their children away from unbearable situations, that we in the First World, unsure of what to do but wanting above all to avoid being implicated in the real crimes committed by our rulers, are beginning to eat our own. As happens in any revolution, and make no mistake, we are in a worldwide revolution right now, from the bloody horrors of Syria to the bloodless destruction of the lives of government workers in America, we are seeing demons wherever we look.

The truth, as many of us know, is that the demons were there all along. We long ago drank the koolaid of the cult of individuality. We are all supposedly responsible for our own situations, no matter how horribly unfair they are. We all should have known better all along, and in the rush to realize it, we are just creating more hierarchies of woe. If we point the fingers where everyone else’s are, if we share the latest atrocity and condemn it loudly enough, we will be perceived to be on the right side of history. The problem with that is, we are just shoving the new information into the same old paradigm.

I’d rather look for the angels of our better natures. Better yet, let’s start seeing people. Imperfect, fallible, but aren’t all of us? There’s no “them,” there’s only us. The only real difference between Donald Trump and our crazy uncle is that Trump has the power to do real damage. He is the raging id inside all of us that only grows stronger the longer we ignore it.

This passage in a book relating a story told to the author by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross has always stayed with me. She had this experience while visiting Auschwitz, speaking to a Holocaust survivor:

“How can you be so peaceful when your whole family was killed here?

Golda looked back at me—those peaceful eyes!—and said in the most penetrating voice I had ever heard, ‘Because the Nazis taught me this: there is a Hitler inside each of us and if we do not heal the Hitler inside of ourselves, then the violence, it will never stop.’… She told me she was working in Germany, at a hospital for German children injured during the war, the children of the Nazis who had sent her family to Majdanek. I was shocked. I asked her why. ‘How else,’ she asked, ‘can I heal the Hitler inside me but to give to them what they took from us?”… There was something in her voice that day, some invisible thing that my younger self did not consciously understand but could only feel. And it went into the depths of me and there it remains still. And sometimes when I feel the cruelty in callous and indifferent men, when I hear the velvet violence hidden in the innocuous-seeming words of a mother speaking to her child, when I see the people among us from whom the powerful have stolen the future—and the present, when I feel some rage inside me wanting to do harm because I feel so helpless that I can find no other thing to do, that teaching, in the depths of me, rises up again into awareness and I see that young woman at Majdanek and I feel her eyes looking into me and I hear Elisabeth’s voice once more and I begin to think outside the box again.”

—Stephen Harrod Buehner, Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm

This is why I won’t hate our leaders. I’ll be angry at them, I pity them deeply and I do wish them to understand their actions in all their ugliness and cruelty, but I don’t want to be them. I can’t take up many of the chants I hear at marches. I can’t join the mob with the pitchforks and torches. I am better than that.

We are better than that.

We are living in awful, beautiful, pivotal times. It falls to us to create the new paradigm from the ashes all around us. We didn’t create this mess, but we have to clean it up or there will be nothing for our children. The cult of individuality won’t serve us any more. We can’t parcel out the guilt and horror and each carry our share. It doesn’t work that way. We can’t fix our part of the world, can’t choose between condemning corporate and governmental actions or changing our diets and giving up our cars. That kind of thinking only leads to paralysis—the state we’re in now.

What we can do is the right thing, every time the choice is presented to us. We can be aware when we are not in a position to do that, and work towards changing the things that stop us. We can take ten minutes to write a letter or make a phone call and not rage that we can’t change our representative’s mind. Above all, we can vote—and then move on to he next useful thing that occurs to us. We can choose carefully at the market and the mall, bundle our errands, look for a new job if that’s what’s needed, and the list goes on. Above all, we can be gentle with ourselves and each other. This isn’t a contest, or a rush to judgment. You don’t know what that other person’s situation is, and you don’t have a right to tell them what choice to make. If a guy with a drum feels called to step in between warring groups, instead of second-guessing the situation, why don’t we do what we can to calm the whole thing down?

The dust raised by the boots of those who march to war will have to settle before we can see the path to peace.

Why Oakland Is Not Paradise

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I didn’t get to busk today. I had to sort out yet another crime-related problem. You see, in the ten years since we’ve become homeowners, we’ve been burglarized twice. The first time, I came home and caught the guy in the house. I wrested my laptop from his hands while screaming curses at the top of my lungs, and was very lucky to only be hit across the face in the process. Honestly, I didn’t notice. The police had to tell me I had blood running down my hand where he’d tried to claw my fingers away from the laptop, and my partner later noticed the bruise on the side of my face. I’d wondered how my glasses ended up across the yard…

My neighbors were no help whatsoever. One ran into her house and slammed the door. Another was home, and later told me he had heard something, but didn’t feel he could come outside to see what was going on. The third watched from across the street as I staggered out onto my porch, then turned around and walked into his house. No one called the police.

We got an alarm after that. It didn’t help. The next set of burglars ripped it out of the wall. Our neighbors were once again home, and did nothing. The police came twelve hours later, after repeated calls. We barred the windows completely after that and we take our electronics with us when we leave. Not that we have much left. We were never able to replace our laptops or the video cameras my partner was hoping to someday make a living with, times being what they are.

The cats set the alarm off last month. The police were called, and never came. We got home three hours later and had the alarm company cancel the police call. I filed a complaint against the police department and my partner talked to the neighbors. Once again, some people had been home and no one had even bothered to check, let alone call the police. Filing a complaint was all we could do, really.

Yesterday I received a bill for a false alarm. Today, I called the officer in charge of our complaint and was completely stonewalled, as I had been when I filed the complaint. They respond to calls according to a priority system and property crimes are lower priority, et cetera, et cetera. And he had no way to deal with the bill, that was something I’d have to take up with the city of Oakland.

It took an hour or so, but I found the right clerical at last, and she was very helpful. My second call had been to the alarm company to get the documentation of what had happened. All I need do is send it to her and the bill will be canceled. Between the file I made of everything I’d done, all the phone calls I had to make, and the navigation of various systems, I’m out two hours and a day of busking. I saved myself almost $100 in fines. The anger and frustration is gravy, and the fear of leaving my house unguarded every day is something I’ve lived with for the last couple of years.

The damage to Oakland is multiplied by all the other homeowners who are in the same position I am, and it is completely unnecessary. In our neighborhood, one house is probably causing most of this. Every house has an alarm on this block, and several of us have been robbed, some more than once. After the first burglary, I saw the man who assaulted me. He saw me too, the way he ducked down on his porch proved that. I did my best to just walk along as if I hadn’t seen him, but as soon as I got around the corner I called the police. After all, they had his fingerprints. I was now able to give them his address. They asked me what I wanted them to do about it. And then they stonewalled me. The neighbors at the time knew of him, they called him “skinny guy.” None of them, even those who had been robbed by him, were willing to talk to the police.

This is a microcosm of the problems that face us all today. We all know what needs to be done, we just don’t want to do it. As neighbors, we need to pay attention to what goes on. We need to check on each other and call the police when necessary. We need to act as if this is home, and as if our actions matter.

The apartment building next door had a robbery averted about four years ago. We heard the break-in and asked, loudly, over the fence, what was going on. The burglar ran. We called the police. It was simple, and it’s what neighbors do, right?

Our actions matter. Just because we can’t solve the whole problem is no reason not to do what we can. Just because we don’t have the power to change things we know are wrong is no reason not to speak up. I can’t clean the whole beach, but I pick up trash all the time. Not all of it, just some, but I leave it a better place than it was when I got there. That’s all I have to do, I only have two small hands. That’s all any of us have to do. Is what we are about to do part of the problem, or part of the solution? That’s the only question we have to ask.

I got an apologetic call back from the police officer who stonewalled me this morning. He said that the bill was their mistake and he would have it cancelled. I didn’t mention the fact that he’d told me of his powerlessness to do just that this morning. I thanked him and I am quietly planning the next step. Until we can get out of Oakland we will continue to do whatever we can to make it a better place. It isn’t about any individual police officer, it’s about a system that does not respond to the needs of their citizens. It’s about a city government that cuts services and at the same time institutes more fees and fines on their citizens. $25 a year for an alarm permit. An $84 fine for a false alarm. A $25 appeal fee to protest such a fine. And it goes on. Every crime not investigated, every neighbor who turns a blind eye when someone is hurt, when someone dumps another sofa on the corner or throws another bag of trash out of a moving car makes Oakland a poorer place.

Poor isn’t about money, not really. I was taught the difference between being short of money and being poor. I was also taught that good taste costs no more. it’s about learning to cook, about making things last and buying only what you need. It’s about reaching for the stars even when you’re living in a tagged trash can of a neighborhood. It’s about feeding your head, spending that bus ride with a library book instead of sprawling across two seats and scowling at everyone who passes. Our house may be filled with secondhand furniture but it’s also filled with a well read library. We may not be able to afford to eat out much, but the house smells of a well made stew that will provide us with lunches for the week and the chicken whose bones provided the stock is waiting to be roasted for dinner. We are wealthy, and it’s a wealth everyone can have–and should.

We’ll be leaving Oakland as soon as we are able. It’s sad, really. Our first home together was six blocks from where we live now and we’ve moved all around the East Bay since. Oakland is beautiful, a place of fine old houses and with an urban forest as diverse as the people who live within it. Lake Merritt is a jewel and the estuary that feeds it is one of the finest city birdwatching sites I’ve ever seen. But in nearly thirty years it hasn’t changed one bit, except possibly for the worse. I’m tired, and I’m not willing to invest any more of my life in this place. But I wish it well, it deserves better. All it needs are people who care, and are willing to get involved with what goes on around them.