THIS is what I’m doing with my life.

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Service Learning

Facts and figures fly over the iris’  of the eyes of  Jack as I serve him potatoes. He asks me if I’ve heard of the Jesuits. Though confused at his reasoning I want to answer honestly saying “I’ve heard of those proselytizing teachers, over payed priest turned popes who preach populism from the pulpit.” He smiles knowingly, like my alliteration was a code word of our conspiracy seeking society “the noble order of know nothing street poets.” I imagine in this reality my cool demeanor and nickle platted watch and rosary were all he needed to identify me. He would then ask the real question: “Do they come from Nigeria?” I think hard on their lineage and wonder if where they hail from is more definitive then how they saw hello. In all this jive talking and sly tongue walking I’ve forgotten my divine truths. I say to my brother, the honorable abbot, the divine preacher and thought tamer “Only the wise women know the origins of such fiends for only the mind of the three fold life givers can comprehend hailing and beginnings. I’d call the mother superior for consultation if only my mind’s eye could see her number written in Arabic on the Rolodex of God’s memories.”  Jack would look at me like I’m the crazy one.  Instead I smile and ask if he wants more potatoes.

Behind him Daze is laughing his raspy, sinister laugh. “Man, Chicago, you one crazy mother I tell you that.” I know it means that you doesn’t remember my name but I love when the guys at the soup kitchen call me Chicago. It has got to be my all time favorite nick names. The only other nickname that compares is when my uncle calls me “The Franchise.” Terrel comes next, muttering to herself incomprehensibly. I know not to engage her when she is talking to her ex-husband who may or not be a demon depending on if she took her medicine. I serve her and wish her a happy Tuesday though I know that, her at least, it will be anything but.

This is how I spend most mornings now. After I wake up at 6 a.m. read e-mails, check the news, meditate, try to say words of encouragement to my niece and then I walk two miles to Capital Hill United Methodist Church. The walk is generally cold and now that it is December, dark. Yet, for some reason the coldness but in my a contemplative mood that the setting moon only amplifies. Some mornings I listen to talk radio and learn about something new on the walk. Once I get to the Church I wait by the entrance with people facing homelessness as one of them pushing the door bell repeatedly. Eventually someone comes to the door and we all pile in.

I’ve learned to respect all the people who share this morning ritual. I realize we are all here to fill a need. Some of us come here to eat. Someone us are here for fellowship. Some of us are here to hear the word of God. Some are here because their lives would be lessened without service.  While I respect all you come as they are, I have a tremendous amount of admiration for the organizers. They give up a lot of time, money and energy to make this Soup Kitchen run. They remind me what is really important in life.

Because the Soup Kitchen is important to me, I get there around 7:30 and leave around 10:30. I help cook, serve food and clean up afterwards. Its a meditative experience that keeps me calm and grounded. It soothes some of the unease I feel about state of the safety net in SE D.C. It is hard for me to sleep comfortably on my sister’s couch with a full stomach when I know their are people going without food and safe place to sleep. I have very little money to name at the moment and my net worth is completely in the red but I know how much economic privilege I have that the people I see almost every morning do not. Serving each morning reminds me of that privilege and reaffirms my commitment to removing myself from actively contributing to systems of oppression. It is a process, one that I struggle with every day but I believe that I am morally responsible for the outcomes of the systems I contribute to. When I buy my food from a company with terrible labor practices I am contributing to the oppression of those workers.

The problem with constantly worrying about how you contribute to these systems is that it is almost impossible to remove yourself from them completely. How do you get what you need without buying from a less than perfect corporation? How do you find a nice place to live without contributing to displacement? The answer would be go off the grid and only use what you make yourself. Of course, you are still responsible for the violence and oppression done on your behalf. If you are in America, you property rights are upheld by the same government that sends drones around the world. Not to mention that idea that all that needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing is a compelling argument for actively ending oppression being morally superior to removing your self from those systems. Yet is there a way to do both? Can you work to end oppression completely from the outside? Could you be off the grid and walk into the city to engage in activism? At what point would you come up against the moral complication of being the perennial outsider telling other communities to how to live?

I haven’t yet found answers to these questions so I continue my commitment to “active confusion” or refusing to let my uncertainty breed inaction. I am constantly trying to improve the way in which I operate through the world, yet sometimes the constant effort to do the moral thing is hard to maintain. I compromise on my morals for the sake of ease and comfort far more often than I’d like. Yet, there are moments at the Soup Kitchen that make me feel better about my flawed commitment to justice.

The other day, a man who comes in for Breakfast asked me if I was a volunteer. I told him that I was and that I try to come four days a week. He was puzzled and said “oh, you must be a student then?” I informed him that I had graduated from college some time ago. He confusion deepened and he asked “then what are doing with your life.” I laughed, looked him in the eye and said “This, this is what I’m doing with my life.” He laughed, probably assuming that I was crazy or joking but I affirmed, if only by my own certainty in my answer for the first time in a long time. I am living my life, the best way I know how. I want my life to be defined by how I move through it, not what I do for money. I try to move through life intentionally. I try to move through life ethically. I try to move through life with a eye towards growth and increasing self awareness. I try to move through life knowing that everyone I meet has the tiniest yet most priceless narrow piece of the human experience. I am a interactive performance artist who works in several different mediums but whether I perform service, writing, organizing or labor each piece tries to understand and improve the world. That is what I’m doing with my life.

After the Soup Kitchen I walk back home. I usually make lunch and jump into writing. While I have been lax on updating this blog I have been writing for other venues a lot. I usually write until 6 and either head to an event, do some paid work around the neighborhood, edit my writing or [for a month a least] try to see the girl I was seeing. [Everything I say that I think of Forrest Gump “I see lots of girls, I sit next to them in my home economics class.] I’ve also been doing more commenting on other people’s blog’s which has been interesting and surprisingly has brought a lot of traffic to my site which I was not anticipating. So, to all you who were wondering. That is what I’m doing with my life.

As for specific developments:

I currently earn what little money I have through filling out surveys about safe and healthy housing.
I am currently working on improving my editing skills and finding my unique voice
I am recently began, enjoyed and ended a relationship with a woman. It was positive, if somewhat confusing, experience. It was the first romantic relationship I’ve pursued with my new outlook on life and after several months of thinking about my feminist allyship. It taught me, among other things, the vast difference between my intellectual understanding of how things should work and how things actually do in the real world.
I am more aggressively sending out pitches for articles and submitting articles for publication. This is the next serious step my writing saga and I am excited and cautiously optimistic.
I am continuing to apply for more conventional part-time work and am pretty pessimistic about it.
I am trying hard to make new friends here in D.C and have already met some wonderful people.
My best friends from High School are doing well. One came back from Afghanistan and the other just graduated from college. Both have been pretty exciting
I am working hard to maintain relationships with people from Chicago [even those who have now moved to SF] and am excited to from them.
I can now say that I no longer have anxiety about talking on the phone which is pretty big deal for me.
2013 will go done in my personal history as the most formative year to date!

My Problem With Equality

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Defend Equality [face]                                                                                                                                         Defend_Equality [fist]

Sometimes I forget what equality actually means. By that I mean I sometimes forget that equality is a two way street. If I treat others as I would want to be treated then I have to treat myself how I would like to be treated. I have to cut myself the slack I cut others and have to hold people to the same standards I live my life by. If I recognize that this human being in front of me is a worthwhile being with a narrow but valuable slice of the human experience then I must recognize that I too am a worthwhile human being. Equality means that while my sister is a wise, responsible pillar of support for me, she is also needs help from time to time. It means that even my father who seems almost static in his resiliency needs a break every now and then.

I am amazed at how little time I actually spend thinking about people as fully functional entities outside of the role they play in my life and how often certain people in my life are put on pedestals and seem divorced from petty concerns. As my uncle might say, I have slowly come to learn that “everybody’s shit stinks.”  Everybody worries, gets scarred, and everybody has flaws. It is as limiting and bothersome to interact with people as if “their shit doesn’t smell” as it is to assume that they are inferior. By putting people on a pedestal we refuse them room to run, exercise and grow strong. Pedestals are as limiting as chains.

I’m reminded of this more and more as I enter the dating world of new city. This means meeting and interacting not only with different women but different kinds of women. I have learned to appreciate this diversity and try to not go into each date assuming I know more than I’ve been told about them. This is complicated with a personal tendency, a waning tendency but a tendency none the less, to try and place people in some hierarchy in relationship to myself. In terms of dating this usually means that a girl is put so high on a pedestal as to be labeled unattainable or I spend an inordinate and honestly disturbing amount of time finding enough flaws for her to be brought down to a “manageable level”. I used to think that this “manageable level” was the same as equality, that in a sense I was reassuring myself that they were as flawed as me. Yet, over time I’ve come to realize that this is not the case. A manageable level is comfortably below me in some way because, as stated earlier, I have a problem with equality.

In trying to figure out exactly what problem was I was aided, ironically, by a particularly bigoted blog post. A female friend of mine, with whom I would often talk about gender with, recently sent me a blog post called “The Case Against Female Self Esteem.” I won’t post a link to it, as I normally would, because I don’t feel a need to give it more traffic but you can Google it if you feel the need.  The blog post, written by a man with a different problem with equality, makes a few main if illogical points. Most notable are that most girls have done nothing to deserve self-esteem and that vulnerability is inherent to femininity. I will look far beyond the factual inaccuracies of the post, the readily apparent projections of an emasculated psyche and out right bigotry.

The first thing that pique my interest in the post was the claim that most “girls” have done nothing to earn to self-esteem. The author goes on to explain unlike the supposedly lazy female self, a man who is “jacked” has dedicated time to his physique and that dedication is admirable. The author proves this fact by saying that no one would respects a man who sits down and plays video games all day. Women, in his mind, tend to spend their times getting college degrees in puppetry or other soft [i.e. non-STEM] degrees, working in human resources, teaching, nursing and other non-essential industries.  Thus, having done nothing of note, women have no right to self-esteem, which is earned and not inherent (a claim, if not outright dubious, at least begs proof).

What is thought provoking about this to me is how the author clearly gendered his world and proclaimed all things worthwhile are Male and all things supportive or extra are Feminine. Not to mention that my mother was in Human Resources, as was my father, and their dedication to craft far out stripped any body builder I have ever met but is an argument for another time.

Upon reading this piece I began to wonder how this author’s problem with equality compared with my own. Like the author, my world is inherently gendered. I still think of speaking about my emotions as a feminine activity. Even this blog feels slightly feminine to me. I realized in exploring that idea, that of my gendered world, that I have come to think of the world as split between Male and Female as two cooperating forces that seek balance. I don’t intellectual think this feeling has a ton of merit or truth yet it a sense of how I view the world that I have come to realize subconsciously informs my actions. The author of this blog post on the other hand seems to think of Male and Female as complementary forces, each with a specific duty and place within a specific hierarchy.

[I’m still trying to flesh out this idea of a gendered world and would love to hear any thoughts about it]

Like the author against female self-esteem, I do find vulnerability attractive. Yet, I have the sense that what I find attractive about vulnerability defers from his. There was I time when I could sympathize with the desire to be a “real man,” the type of man whom protected women, sheltered women and provided for women. I think that idea, that women have an inherent need to be protected by men, speaks to a great deal of insecurity within men. For me at least, it speaks to a need of mine to be needed. A need which itself arises from feelings of uselessness and a profound lack of self-worth. In this mind set, women become something to give me meaning and value. This either chains women into a role as tools or sets them on pedestals as tokens of self-worth and personal prowess. As I grew up and found my own feelings of self-worth in other endeavors, the need to be needed did not go away but lost a significant facet of it urgency. I eventually found that I wanted to be needed and, honestly, who doesn’t want to be needed every now and again? [Again, commitment phobia is yet another topic for another time]

As I became less insecure I became more open. I developed very strong and sustaining friendships with several women who taught me a valuable lesson: vulnerability allows for intimacy and when someone is allowing themselves to be vulnerable with you, that is as much a sign of strength and security as it is trust. While, problems with intimacy is literally a blog post for another time, I will say that it took be a while to learn the difference between when vulnerability speaks to an inherent weakness and when allowing yourself to be vulnerable in order to increase intimacy is a show of strength. I think this is so fundamental that it is a lesson that men who have learned it need to discuss more often and teach their sons.

It was not an easy lesson to learn and was not learned over night. There were a lot of times when every vulnerable statement had to be stated in the most masculine terms [droping my voice an octave, cracking my knuckles etc]  and qualified a million times over. This posturing before allowing yourself to be vulnerable not only lessens the intimacy between two people but again, speaks to insecurities that should be worked out.

Now my more mature, almost emotionally adult, self views intentional vulnerability as attractive because I have learned to value of intimacy no matter how fleeting. Intimacy allows us to see each other with our walls and guards down and I believe that we have a lot to learn from each other when we do. This intimacy is valuable far beyond the romantic endeavors that many men think off. Intimacy between two human beings is useful not only outside of the bed room but devoid of any sexual or romantic context.

For example, while in Chicago I grew very close with one of my cousins. I talked to him about every aspect of my life in an open and honest way. As I sat and listened him talk about his marriage, trouble and triumph at work and heard stories of fatherhood I learned the value of family as well as the burdens and rewards of being responsible.  The intimate conversations I’ve had with the few men I trust enough to have them have taught me a lot about what if really means to be a man; what it means to be a responsible adult for that matter with all the burdens, chains, freedom and strengths it brings.

Yet speaking to people with your guards down is inherently dangerous. The more you open yourself the more you risk. What if they don’t like what they see? In thinking about this fact, I realized that I solved this problem in a very juvenile way at first. I examined the other person for all of their flaws and gathered enough ammunition to destroy my respect for them if they wounded me. It allowed for an awkward mix of vulnerability and security. It is if instead of building a wall around my self esteem I established a nuclear deterrent. Over time I have consciously tried to build my own confidence and feeling of self-worth up enough to be open to the world without the nuclear option. I believe that that is yet another difference between my problems with equality and the problems of the aforementioned author.

I have trouble seeing anyone as an equal because it means that it would not be fair to stock up ammunition on them. This stems from the fact that if someone doesn’t like me that doesn’t make them a bad person and part of interacting with people as equals is recognizing that. The flip side is that if I show them my vulnerability as my equal I am forced to take their response to heart because I value their opinion. Again, I have to understand that, like me, they have a narrow sliver of the human experience than informs their world view. So like mine, their opinion is just that, and opinion not a statement of fact. This new world view and understanding of equality is tiresome but incredibly rewarding. I have learned so much from conversations among equals in the past few months. Even the phrase “narrow sliver of the human experience” is one paraphrased from statement a friend made during an intimate conversation.

I suspect the author of “The Case Against Female Self Esteem” would disagree with the benefits of intimacy and the basic idea that we have anything to learn from each other’s human experience. That is why spitting fact after fact about equality means nothing to people who hold fast to bigoted ideas. At the end of the day, they fundamentally deny that a women’s narrow slice of the human experience has any value.  I think this is true of most, if not all, prejudice. It stems from a refusal to accept the validity of each other’s human experience. No amount of facts and figures can change someone’s opinion of a group if they refuse to acknowledge that simple fact.

So, with no further ado, I bring you my thoughts on how to treat people:

  1. Treat people as equals.
    1. There are a lot of arguments to be made for the inherent equality of people but I’m not actually sure I agree with them. I treat everyone as an equal because it is the easiest way to learn from the human experience and the most sure way to ensure that the people in your life add real tangible value to your life.
  2. Equality is not only about raising everyone to your level, it is also about raising yourself to theirs.
    1. By refusing to deny the nobility of the least among us we cannot help but affirm our own nobility. If you can value the poise of the women asking for money to feed her family than it should be easier to stay poised when facing your own triumphs.
  3.  Our worldview is determined by our sliver of the human experience and given the vast multitude of lives that are being lived it is important to recognize that that sliver is inherently narrow. We cannot know what it is like to be an orphan because we read Oliver Twist. The most we can seek to do is gain access to the equally narrow human experience of others through honest dialog and expand our world view.
  4. Help other people.
    1. Like equality, there are a lot of arguments for helping people. Some with more merit than others. The only argument I will give is that from my experience compassion and generosity are as much muscles and tools as they are virtues. The more we utilize them, the stronger they get and the more useful they are. We will all be faced with moments where a little more patience would help get us what we want or need. Whether it is teaching a child a lesson or dealing with a difficult boss. The more exercise you have treating being with generosity and compassion the easier it will be to tap into them when it is to your advantage.

What do you think? I’d love to hear from people about their own thoughts for how to treat people or thoughts on mine. Do you also have another problem with equality?