Pondering Power and Possibilities

Carol A. Hand

Do you ever begin writing without a clear message or destination in mind? Yesterday and today are like that for me. I’m still surrounded by a sea of ice permanently bonded to sidewalks and earth, watching as snow falls to add another layer to the challenge of digging out. But I’m thankful for small blessings. Yesterday, I was able to clear the ice that had frozen my front door and front gate shut. Being locked-in by weather reminds me of the feeling of powerlessness that often sweeps over me these days.

December 2016

December 2016

These feel like truly bleak times. I’ll get back to that later, after I revisit memories. Maybe the process of remembering will help me find hopeful, realistic solutions. Developing a coherent course on social justice will only be possible then…

Had I remained in the New Jersey home of my childhood, I may have assimilated and accepted American values as my own. That didn’t happen, though. Instead I spent my twelfth summer on an Ojibwe reservation with my grandmother before moving to northwestern Pennsylvania, a dreary place from my perspective then and now. My only real friends were elders in the nursing home my mother bought and administered. Despite my father’s unemployment, erratic combative behavior and profligacy, we were catapulted from the working class into relative affluence. We had a summer cottage on the Allegheny River, a 40-acre farm on top of a mountain, and a third-floor apartment above the nursing home. My mother’s business made enough profit to send me off to a private Catholic women’s college in Chicago.

I could escape small town homogeneity, believing that I would find answers and skills that might help me make a difference. I sometimes still wonder what might have been if I had stayed focused on my original goal as a chemistry and biology major – to become an ecologist. I didn’t have enough self-confidence then to overcome all of the barriers I faced and a young woman. Or perhaps it felt too much like escape from the suffering I encountered in the communities I was exposed during those college years. I spent my vacations in the hills of Kentucky, or on the Menominee reservation in Wisconsin. My evenings and weekends were spent tutoring a lovely young black student in the inner city of Chicago or hanging out with Latino youth there.

Yes, I could lose myself for hours and days trying to decipher the chemical composition of compounds. It was exciting to answer my curiosity. But I wondered if anything had really improved in the world because of this discovery. Would this path ever lead to a reduction of the needless oppression and pain I had witnessed? I didn’t think so at the time, but still I sometimes wonder.

I wasn’t motivated by the same things as the other young women at the somewhat elite Catholic women’s college I attended. Lord knows I tried to understand their worldviews. A few of my classmates introduced me to books and music that unlocked new ideas and possibilities. But many appeared to only be concerned with superficial appearances that didn’t interest me. And quite frankly, some of the stories I heard about their cruelty toward their unpopular, “unattractive” roommates was a warning to remain on the margins out of their sight. Some of their victims barely survived. It’s the major reason why I developed a strong negative bias toward privilege that has only grown over the years.

Yak-Trax in the snow - December 2016

Yak-Trax in the snow –
December 2016

Let me fast forward to the age of 24. I had dropped out of college when my daughter was born. When she was one and a half, I decided to see if it was possible for us to live a simpler communal life. With nothing but a vision, twenty dollars in my pocket and hope for what was possible, we set off not knowing what we would find. Not surprising in retrospect, I found that one cannot easily escape from the problems in the world I was trying to avoid. It’s how I became fascinated by the concept of power and it inspired me to learn about hegemony.

Because I grew up with an abusive and emotionally volatile father, I had learned to always question authority. Threats and punishment could not force me compromise what I thought was right. Witnessing the willingness of others to follow the often whimsical and foolish orders of “the leader” of the commune initially amused me. Yet I still held out hope because of the good-hearted people who held a clear vision of what we could create together by growing our own food and living simply. Despite my earlier experiences, I still saw the world from the vantage point of honest innocence and good-will, incapable of imagining that anyone would willingly harm others.

That view changed over time as I gradually rose from the outer fringes of the commune hierarchy to the buffer position between the 200 community members and the inner leadership circle. My job was to collect weekly donations from all members and purchase supplies for all of the geographically dispersed “houses.” The leadership wanted to extract every penny it could from the members.

Some members worked extra jobs and donated all they earned without taking care of their own needs. Others contributed little and made sure they got more than they gave. There were also wounded souls who might not survive under other conditions. The leadership only cared about money, not the well-being of individual commune members. Sadly, most members cared more about being accepted by the leader than about living according to their own values.

It took time for me to understand that the funds were used to support an extravagant lifestyle for a few. That’s when I left the position and returned to the periphery to see if it was still possible to build a sense of community vision. A confrontation with the leader made it clear that changing “his” community was not a viable option. So my daughter and I left. This time we had a few friends, a place to stay if we made it across the country, and $150.

We started over and I didn’t look back. I wouldn’t learn how bad the oppression really was for others until I reconnected with some of the commune members 40 years later and heard their stories about the leader’s cocaine and other drug addictions and the children and women who were repeatedly raped by the leader and his inner circle. Clearly they violated the community’s alleged guiding principles that were imposed on members – “no drugs or promiscuity.”

Five years after I left the community, I re-entered school and began another journey from the outer to inner circles of hierarchies. I even learned my own lessons about the allure and dangers of having a little power. This is where these reflections led me today.

The privileged elite in any system need buffers to protect them from “the masses.” The most gifted buffers are those who only see the good in others. But even they will ultimately realize their trust and hope is misplaced. Then, like me, they face a decision point. Either they leave or they consciously decide to compromise their own values because it’s more comfortable to settle for a small piece of the pie than it is to risk the uncertainty of starting over with nothing.

Nothing, that is, but self-respect and the knowledge that they have started over many times before. Solutions come in their own time if one is patient, resourceful, and grateful for the many gifts and memories that remain.

Eventually, spring will come. Of this I am certain, although I have no idea what it will bring. Hopefully, though, it will be warm enough to melt the ice that still remains despite continuing efforts to do what I can to remove it without harming others, the environment, or myself in the process…

A final thought occurred as I was chipping ice, much to the dismay of my forlorn little helper.

Pinto waiting patiently - December 2016

Pinto waiting patiently –
December 2016

Buffers beware. As you salivate over the possibility of eliminating yet more of the meager safety net – access to public education, health care, housing and social security, remember that you too are expendable. You may someday all too soon find yourself among us, the masses. At least those of us who don’t die off first from never-ending global wars, austerity, starvation and disease. We’re just in the way you know. We consume resources that the elite want for themselves to feed their insatiable need for power and amusing diversions to keep them from looking at empty, meaningless lives spent in gated communities. After all, they will still have a hefty prison slave population to serve their needs when we’re all gone.

…Unless we wake up, that is, and begin to work together to envision and build other alternatives in our ordinary everyday lives. Despite these dark thoughts during an icy winter stretch, I still believe there are enough goodhearted people to make that a real possibility…

***

Copyright Notice: © Carol A. Hand and carolahand, 2013-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carol A. Hand and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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About Carol A. Hand

What matters are not the titles I’ve held or university degrees I earned or the size of a house or bank account. It’s really what I’ve learned from ordinary people like me whom I’ve met along the way. They taught me to live with gratitude and give thanks for each new day.
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31 Responses to Pondering Power and Possibilities

  1. Such inspiring words, so eloquently written. 2017 will be for me, the year of positive change, motivated by you and all of the good people who touch my life.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. steelcityman says:

    I so admire your enduring nature and your philosophy on life Carol … and I love the last two ‘punchy’ paragraphs . (all of your article not just the last two para’s..) As I write this I just got a notification of how much you like my vlog …Thank you very much, I appreciate your kind words. It’s nearly midnight here so I hope you are having a grand day today…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Such a beautiful and compelling read. Discouragement comes and goes , quite possibly our whole lives, the struggle for justice, at times, seeming beyond reach. And yet, in your final words, you say what I do believe, what I must believe…
    ‘I still believe there are enough goodhearted people to make that a real possibility…’
    Reading words such as yours reassures me that this is not without foundation. Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I appreciate your thoughtful comments a great deal, Scottishmomus. Discouragement does and come and go. Some days it seems to go deeper now than in the past. But deep poetic insights like the ones you share on your blog strengthen my hope. So I thank you for that, too. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Brilliant insightful post. I am also chipping away at the ice formed around my heart as we move into even darker times, and trying to figure out my positive role in this, despite the fact that sometimes just day to day life feels like survival. Then change feels insurmountable. Despite this we must always find hope in the possible thawing of spring…at any level possible, personal, family, community, city, country, world. Best to you and your family going into 2017.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. There is always hope Carol, and hope is a good thing! 🙂 ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Sha'Tara says:

    Hello Carol. That’s a fascinating story of a life in a nutshell. And as usual, it sends me down thinking paths not of the common variety. Unlike you, I was raised in a world that says people will hurt others because they enjoy it. That’s a given that has not changed; the world situation bears this out only too well. My motto: “Expect the worst, you will never be disappointed.” Well, sadly, I have seldom been disappointed, though in rare instances, pleasantly surprised. Some people do rise above the pond scum and make it to the shore alive. I’m wondering though how your commune experience didn’t build up a new kind of thinking about collective interaction. You say, ” I still believe there are enough goodhearted people to make that a real possibility…” So, being a logical and unemotional person, by choice, I wonder what you base your belief on? Because you want it to be so? Because you know it to be so? Because you hope it could be so? Look back, honestly, over history. When have “enough goodhearted people” determined the course of events on earth? How does “never” sound? How many goodhearted people would it take to change the course of America’s current foreign and domestic policies, for example? How many to stop the Greater Middle East and North Africa wars? If you have a house built on a rotten foundation there’s nothing for it but to replace the foundation. That’s what people don’t get: that their civilization is resting on a corrupt foundation. I always use the same basic analogy: Pointing at remaining healthy apples in a box of rotting apples isn’t going to make the rotted apples healthy, it will only result in rotting the remaining healthy ones. We need to face it: man’s entire civilization is a box of rotting apples. If we had the courage to accept the truth of this, can we wipe out the old civilization and start an entirely new one? Mark my words for these are for your posterity: anything less is a complete waste of time and effort. All efforts at making this better is prolongation of the agony of entropy of an already dead system. Few are those who can accept that judgment; fewer those who can come up with a vision for a new civilization.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Sha’Tara, you are a truly gifted writer who can paint other realities with such creativity, clarity and compassion. My gifts are not the same. I have always been able to see beneath the surface appearance of things. I don’t have hard evidence to prove this, merely memories of what I have lived and witnessed. Below are two excerpts from past posts that describe a couple of these experiences.

      The first is from an essay I wrote for a friend’s blog, Jeff Nguyen, at Deconstructing Myths, Living in the Space Between Cultures.

      “My first memory as a child is so clear in my mind even though experts in brain development say it is not possible. It was my first Christmas. A February baby born on the cusp of Pisces and Aquarius, I lay in my crib as the winter sun streamed through the window. My mother and father stood on opposite sides, arguing. The personal pain and insecurities that led to their argument were so clear to me. But more compelling were the strengths and beauty I saw in both of them. I struggled helplessly in a body that could not give voice to what I saw. All I could do was cry.”

      Interestingly, the second is from a December post two years ago, Lighting a Candle for the Four Directions.

      “Yesterday, as I was contemplating clearing away some of the gifts, papers, and books I’ve accumulated over the years that fill files, shelves, walls and cupboards, I noticed the white candle that sits atop my most important bookshelf – the one that holds irreplaceable books I used to write my dissertation. Of course, like all my mementos, the candle has a story.

      “I was working as the deputy director of health and human services for an inter-tribal agency. It was not an easy job for many reasons, primarily because of the enduring legacy of colonialism that continued to impose dominant cultural paradigms on tribal communities and use divide and conquer tactics to foment conflicts between “traditional” and “progressive” tribal factions. Resolving conflict was a central part of my job, and it often put me in the middle of powerful competing interests. At a particularly challenging time, I needed to travel with one of my staff to a conference on worldwide healing for Indigenous people held in Edmonton, Alberta. The conference helped me realize I was not alone. Rediscovering the candle on my bookcase reminded me of the conference’s closing ceremony.

      “More than one thousand of us, representing many cultures and nations, stood in a circle within a large auditorium holding hands. Then, one elder walked to the center. She explained that the closing ceremony was intended to remind us that we were not alone. Because we were in a government building, we couldn’t use candles (fire ordinances prevented it), so flashlights would have to do. And then, the lights in the room went out as her flashlight went on in the center of the circle. She signaled to the four directions, highlighting one person from each of the four directions to walk to the center – first the east, then the south, the west, and the north. The representatives were all given a flashlight. As they touched their darkened lights to the elders “candle,” their flashlights were turned on. They were instructed to carry their light to the four directions and light other candles in their part of the circle. The elder explained that it would not be easy to keep the candle fires burning, but if the light went out, people could always return to the center to light them once again.

      “This morning, I realize I need to take the time to finally light the candle on my book case. It’s not the same white candle I used for a similar ceremony years later for the 40 staff who worked for the Honoring Our Children Project that included nine tribal communities. Building and maintaining multicultural, interdisciplinary teams within and across different tribal cultures was not an easy task. Providing a center they could return to in challenging times was important. But it is the same candle I used in a farewell ceremony with the graduate students I mentored during our final class together. They would all be graduating and scattering to the four directions.

      “As I lit the candle this morning, I thought of the inter-tribal staff who did astounding work, and the creative and inquisitive students I worked with over the years. I thought about my blogging friends around the world who help me realize that each of is sharing our light. And I thought about the many other people who carry light yet feel alone. May we learn to share our light and stand together for the sake of all we love.”

      Sometimes I have been able to use the gifts I see in others to help catalyze different possibilities. This past semester teaching research, I was blessed to witness it once again as students were energized by learning something that helped unlock critical thinking and new possibilities. Whether those possibilities become reality is up to each of the students. The potential has always been within them. They may not have been able to see it themselves.

      Liked by 3 people

  7. Thank you, Carol, for sharing this call for alternatives to bureaucratic, patriarchal, competitive, dehumanizing systems of human organization. Your words and those of your visitors inspire hope in a world full of temptations to do otherwise. All the best.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. desilef says:

    No wonder you are so wise. You have lived so many different lives and experienced the US at every level, exposed to every worldview – and you survived all of them!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for your kind words, Diane. It’s so good to hear from you and find out about your latest adventures on your blog. I send my best wishes and look forward to hearing more about your newest novel and your presentation. 🙂

      Like

  9. thejuicenut says:

    On reading your comment about returning to the centre and relighting a candle that has gone out and sharing with others, I looked up at my church candle in the centre of my dining table where I am sitting and I immediately felt the need to relight it. It is usually just ornamental at Christmas time, but I do occasionally light it when I want to think about those who have passed on. Recently, I have felt lost, tired, disillusioned, very sad and overwhelmed. But your post radiated positive energy and I thank you for your candour and motivating observations. Food for thought indeed. I hope your ice melts soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for your lovely comments, Chris. The beauty and depth of your comments brought tear to my eyes. May we all help remind each other of the light we carry within. Sending you hugs and my best wishes. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  10. thejuicenut says:

    Hugs are always very welcome 🤗

    Liked by 1 person

  11. underswansea says:

    Hi Carol, I read your post last night and again today. It is a difficult one to comment on. I can feel a weariness in your words which I don’t often hear in your writing. I will say this, I enjoy reading your blog for many reasons, I love your poetry and your views on social justice. You also have a wonderful sense of humour. But what I admire most is your refusal to blame. Blaming only leads to being a victim. You recognize the injustices and want to fight against them. Your writing exudes strength and independence. You lead by example. You stand up and speak for people without a voice. That is what the world needs more of. People have to let it be known to the so-called leaders that their greed, racism and dangerous decisions are NOT DONE IN OUR NAME. By todays standards me and my siblings upbringing was rough. But I wouldn’t change a thing. Your father sounds like a difficult man, but, as hard as it is to understand, he probably loved his children more than anything else in his life. Some people end up hollow. I think it is the most sensitive of people, the ones who start off with the biggest hearts, the ones who can’t live with the injustices you speak of. All the more reason to stand up and shout from the roof tops at oppression in all it’s forms. I don’t always comment but often read the comments on your posts. You are an inspiration to many people including me. Keep chipping away at the ice. It’s slow going but progress is being made. Take care. Bob

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much, Bob. I don’t have the words to tell you how much your kind and thoughtful comments mean to me. I am weary at the moment and feel powerless to change the world my grandchildren will inherit. They’re lovely gentle souls and like all people everywhere, they have a right to live in peace and be treated with kindness and dignity. I will continue to do what I can anyway because I love them and I care about the earth. But it’s hard to keep hope alive sometimes.

      It’s funny. The first draft of this post included a quote from the Tao Te Ching that often comes to mind.

      “Wise people seek solutions;
      The ignorant only cast blame.”

      I agree with your assessment – “Blaming only leads to being a victim.” Victims expect someone else to rescue them, and in this world, that’s increasingly unlikely to happen.

      I do believe that my father did the best he could. He was a brilliant man who never had an opportunity to develop his talents. And physically, he was a little guy who had to fight to survive. His childhood and experiences as Marine in the Korean War left him with deep emotional wounds. He learned to strike first to establish his dominance. Although I understood that even as a little child, I still couldn’t stand by as a silent witness to his abuse of my mother or little brother. I paid the price until I was 16 and was finally able to use my words and intelligence to put an end to his abuse. He did make me a fighter, though, but in a different way. I learned to fight to protect others who couldn’t defend themselves rather than as a way to hide my shame. It’s a tragic thing for men like my father to believe that establishing one’s dominance over others is the only way to be a “real man.”

      Your kindness has given me a good reason to keep chipping away, Bob. I’m deeply grateful. I had been contemplating whether to continue blogging or give it up. Posts and comments from friends like you make it well worth the effort.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Like clouds hiding the Sun, there seems at times no warmth in
    the world. The hot summer days will return.
    Sending love, light and warmth on these chilly holidays. May the
    New Year erase the pain of the past. with love and hugs, Eddie

    Liked by 1 person

  13. smilecalm says:

    beautifully expressed introspection, Carol!
    i wonder what hope there is for a humanity
    where our stories somehow continue keeping
    us apart, rather than bringing us together?
    perhaps the answer is already written
    as prophesies on rocks
    in the desert.
    may your new year
    be in beauty 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Tiny says:

    What a powerful and insightful post, Carol! It is easy to become discouraged when one looks at what is going on in the corridors of power and the towers of wealth, but as you say, there is hope.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. After coming across some world statistics recently, I am bound to agree with you on the attitude of the privileged. Sixty-two (62) INDIVIDUALS own 50% of the planet’s wealth! How is that even possible?! There is a tremendous amount of power in such exclusivity and a total disconnection from how the rest of the population (the other 99.999….%) lives.
    And, yet, through our sheer numbers, we do stand a chance to prevail, if we don’t allow ourselves to be separated/divided/sent to war with the “Other.” If we don’t have hope that the ice will eventually melt and spring will return, what is left?
    I wrote this post on resilience and creativity – may it warm you a little. You are not alone.
    Blessings!
    https://beautyalongtheroad.wordpress.com/2016/12/31/a-resilient-and-creative-new-year/

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Thank you for information about these glaring disparities, Beauty Along the Road. As you rightly point out, there are many more of us, we just need to stand together, not to conquer and dominate but rather to build peace and embrace all our relations.

    Your lovely post does give me hope. Thank you so much for sharing the link. ❤

    Like

  17. Ah, a post I can relate to that hits every note. I am one of the Social Security baby boomers. After the collapse of the stock market and the banks and investment companies getting billions from the government but we the investors were left broke. Actually I have an amusing story to tell you.
    Last week I received a letter from S.S. that we were getting a 3% raise, delightful right? Reading further down I was informed of the increase in Medicare payment that is deducted every month before they deposit into my bank account and the total of my check wound up to be $3.00 less than I was getting in 2016 per month. How’s that for starting the New Year. :o)
    Yes, spring will be here soon and we will all hopefully will be here too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your important comments, Patricia, and for sharing your story about Social Security, lightened with a bit of humor despite the absurdity and insults of the prevailing system of economic inequality and insecurity. I wonder if drug companies got a 6% raise? 🙂

      Like

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