Dear Reader: I write to better understand my experiences of life; I share with the hope that my words will touch something inside you, and together we will remember that we all walk through life with love and loss, joy and sorrow, hope and despair, faith and uncertainty.
NOTE: I will never write about upsetting details without a warning.
As Shelli’s move was getting closer, I was becoming more and more exhausted. The planning and organizing was more labor-intensive than I’d anticipated, and I’d inadvertently overcommitted myself.
Last week Tuesday evening was busy, going over final details and packing up my car: my overnight bag (I would make the long drive after work, then stay overnight at my aunt’s), strategically placed bags of snacks for those of us doing the move, toiletries for Shelli’s new apartment, a basket of goodies for her, clothing and books for her son. The refrigerator and freezer were likewise prepared with bags ready to grab and go.
Wednesday morning I got up early so I could assemble the final items, and then have enough time at work to bring perishables to the lunchroom refrigerator.
About an hour before the end of the workday my cell phone vibrated and I saw it was Shelli calling. I’d already taken my afternoon break but I put my “break” sign back on my computer and headed to the foyer. “Hi, Shelli.”
“Hi, Kjerstin. I have some bad news.”
My brow furrowed.
“I went to pick up my key for my new apartment, and it isn’t ready. They were supposed to replace the carpet, and they haven’t.” She went on to describe an apartment that was in poor condition, things not replaced that should have been, a broken sink, a shower bar not in place. “It’s just not right. I can’t move into it like that.”
My brain started working. I thought of how hard it had been, putting all the pieces together for this to happen. How one of the men helping with the move had been called in to work last-minute, and I’d had to convince him to honor his promise to help with the move and turn down his work, knowing that meant lost income for him so promising to compensate him somewhat. How none of my usual pet sitters had been available, and I had only just found someone to watch my pets overnight. How I was fortunate to be approved for the (unpaid) day off work. My aunt and uncle putting me up for a night so I could be ready to get a jump on the move first thing in the morning. The time spent finding and booking the moving truck; the time spent last night and this morning with the necessarily last-minute preparations. I simply didn’t have it in me to rally again, to put all the pieces together for this to happen on a different day. I asked her several times if she was sure she couldn’t move into the apartment the way it was; she was sure.
She talked about asking her dad if he would lend her money to hire a moving company for when the apartment was ready. She didn’t know of course when the apartment would be ready; how could she, it had already been promised once and not been ready. I just listened; I was trying to absorb everything. After one last confirmation that she had made up her mind, I told her that I’d better call off the troops, and told her that after she made a new plan she should give me a call and if I could fit it in somehow I would come help.
I cancelled the moving truck, the men helping with the move, the pet sitter, my overnight at my aunt’s. In all half an hour of work I would need to make up.
I considered that when my workday ended, instead of a several-hour, rush-hour drive to Seattle, I could drive home and relax; that was nice. But I felt deflated. Last night I felt delight as I loaded the car up with all sorts of goodies collected from friends and family: used clothes, books and school supplies for her son; a basket of toiletries for the bathroom and one of teas, chocolate and honey for the kitchen; a home cooked dinner from my parents in freezer bags for their first night in their new apartment. Now I don’t have to make the drive up, spend the day moving, drive back, or pay for the truck and the helpers; but there isn’t any good feeling anymore – other than knowing that several of us had intended to help. And at the moment that feels rather unsatisfying.
I had a friend on Facebook, someone I barely knew, but a woman with some like-minded leanings and some unique perspectives which I appreciated. However over time I noticed a trend. I would post something, and she would make a comment that was barely, if at all, related – and it was always dismal: a list of her health problems in response to my post about moving; poor people living in tents in response to a photo of a childhood camping trip; the forests burning in the SW in response to a sweet saying about learning to dance in the rain. There are so many things that I dislike about this, and at the top of the list is, these are My Posts.
I wrote her a gentle message letting her know that I have a very low threshold for bad news and asking if she could please use her own posts, not mine, for these kinds of comments. Her reply was vitriolic, attacking, and she said that if I unfriended her it was because I was afraid to hear the truth of the poverty that much of the country lives in, because I am obviously middle class. I unfriended her without reading the entirety of her diatribe.
But I felt thoroughly unsettled. She succeeded in making me feel guilty for living a middle class, privileged existence; it is true that I am among the privileged who can afford to shutter away the rampant suffering in this country.
I will not continue a friendship with someone who is insulting and acerbic, whether out in the world or on Facebook. Yet while I emphatically disagree with her approach (no true dialog starts by antagonizing and guilting), she is nonetheless right: I live by myself in a two-bedroom apartment; if something breaks, my landlord fixes it; I go to bed with a full stomach every night. The fact that I can hide from the day-to-day reality of extreme poverty, that I can choose when to acknowledge it, when to think about it, is in itself a luxury.
I had the opportunity in the early 1990’s, during my years of activism, to listen to spiritual guru Ram Dass speak in San Francisco. The following closely approximates something he said that night that really struck a chord with me:
“Many times social involvement is raised by manipulating individuals through fear, guilt and anger. By separating oneself into me and them, and sending the message of superiority and expertness, others are [guilted] into action. Sometimes feelings engendered by such tactics mobilize one into action…. [However] the focus of effective social action is on trust, honesty and mutual respect.... Effective social action calls for listening to what is on the heart of all involved as it is the heart from which the energy is derived to drive this kind of change.”
How Can I Help? By Ram Dass and Richard Gorman (http://www.creativespirit.net/learners/counseling/docu13.htm)
Because of my PTSD if I let in too much awareness of the world’s troubles, I become overwhelmed and immobilized, which serves nothing. And it is also true that it cannot be the middle class (given the horrible state of my finances I’m not sure that I am middle class, but no matter) to single-handedly end poverty. Poverty is a systemic problem, and it needs a systemic solution. Making people feel guilty because they are not also living in desperate poverty may possibly increase involvement, but that approach will not overhaul a broken system. And how can we work towards a solution if we are antagonistic towards each other? I don’t know what the answer is. But I do know that antagonism is not the answer.
It’s been a couple months since my neighbor Ginger died. I’ve been caring for the flowers left on her doorstep. Friends stop by with fresh bouquets, or balloons on her birthday; I am the one who removes the wilted and dying blossoms and the deflated balloons, the one who replaces stagnant water with fresh. It has become a ritual for me, one that I took on willingly, yet one that weighs on me and I hope will end soon.
One day last week I got home from work and immediately noticed that Ginger’s car was gone, her front door was open, and several people were milling about her apartment: finally her family has arrived. My neighbor Annie was leaving Ginger’s apartment with a bag of dog treats, and we both changed course to meet in the middle of the parking lot. She confirmed what I already knew, that Ginger’s parents and sister had arrived to go through the remnants of her life. Of course tears came immediately, so I gave myself a moment to unload the groceries from my car before heading over to Ginger’s open door. I knocked and announced myself. Two women came to greet me, by their ages clearly Ginger’s sister and her mother. They immediately wanted to know how I knew Ginger: her neighbor from two doors down. We talked a little. They were so gratified to discover how well liked Ginger had been here in Portland, so warmed by the outpouring of support and warmth they have received. They said they would be in Portland for just a few days, and only take with them items they found most dear; what they could fit in their vehicles.
I told them that friends had come by frequently to bring fresh flowers. I asked if it had been Ginger’s birthday recently; nods. I mentioned the balloons that had decorated her door. Her sister teared up. Words stuck in my throat; I put my hands to my heart and said finally, “I truly feel for you.” Her sister suddenly brightened, asked me my shoe size, and foisted upon me two pairs of good running shoes. After thanking her I wished them well and left them to their task.
I didn’t know Ginger that well. But I know something now that I didn’t know a few years ago: it is good to cry in the face of loss and grief. It is good to cry when others are experiencing loss and grief. It is a way to honor our shared human experience, a way to honor Ginger, and a way to honor her family.
The next day as I walked to my car I looked towards Ginger’s apartment. Her family had left. I detoured to where two bouquets still lingered, relocated off to the side, one with some gorgeous yellow and pink roses from my parents’ yard. I took the two bouquets from next to her porch and put them back onto it, removing the wilted blossoms. This will be my final task, then. I will care for these bouquets until the final blossom has died.
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