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.
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.
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.
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…