a trail home :: authority

It all started with the “Humans of Cave Junction.” It was my first formal project to participate in the community. I would create an Instagram account (inspired by the NY original) and walk the streets of downtown CJ. I would meet people, share with them that I’m new in town and doing a little project to get to know the humans there. Ask if I might take a moment of their time for a couple of quick questions. Maybe connect with them. I’d make sure it was okay to take a picture, then let them know I’d share the stories and images online. It was a chance to create something beautiful and useful while getting to know this new community.

(You know that dream, the one where you’re in public, naked? That feeling? It stalked me all through the five weeks or so of the project. I’d been in Josephine County for months, living with and processing enough of the new experience to keep moving forward, even though the process was dissolving my sense of self, my identity. I had no position anyone could see, no role I wasn’t giving myself, nothing I wasn’t doing into being. I was also solo. While walking the streets of CJ, the breeze was wafting into some intimate places it’s never visited before in public.)

During those weeks, I met many of the humans without homes in CJ. At the park, behind the grocery store, on the streets, along the Redwood Highway. When I asked to talk, to take pictures, they all said yes. They all just gave me their time, their stories, their privacy. They gave me permission to use all of it, without a second thought. They gave me little pieces of themselves, without asking for anything in return.

I met humans in Southern Josephine County who are used to giving their power in exchange for resources to live, who often tie themselves into knots trying to show how “good” they are, how worthy of support. Authority in this culture has taught them that they are worth nothing unless they produce, unless they stand on their own two feet and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. They have been taught that addiction is a personal failing, that mental illness is a weakness. Authority has taught them that this is how things have always been and that this how they ought to be. It also teaches them that nothing ever really changes.

They have been taught that if someone does something “nice” for them, they need to show gratitude, show respect to the person giving them something, sometimes by getting on their knees to say “thank you.” They have been taught that their “bad” position is a result of their badness, their own stupid actions and decisions. They have been taught that authority is the only “good” person here because it always makes the right moves, obviously. They have been taught to obey without questioning authority and to supplicate. There is no dissenting opinion from authority here. None.

I have never shared the “Humans of Cave Junction” pictures or recordings, never did populate that IG account. It’s never felt ethical, unless I can share the benefits with the humans whose gave up parts of themselves for a little warmth. (Sure, I met their expectations: I gave them things they needed, like gloves and blankets because the only warming center in town had closed and it was about to get very cold.)

What the humans without homes gave me, though, is much more valuable: an actual understanding of the humans in the middle.

a trail home :: purge

I was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay area. I’m still a city girl, but whose home is also in the trees. I went away for a minute, into rural worlds. All the stereotypes I learned in the Bay about rural people were wrong. Every single one of them. Soon, I come back to the Bay with a point of view that I’m afraid most Bay Area peeps won’t be able to feel or even want to understand.

Before I left the Bay, I didn’t know that in the early 1970s, we annihilated rural cultures in the United States. Urban elites, academic elites, media elites. And all those urban, academic, and media soldiers, who followed the orders, whose obligations to debtors kept them locked down in positions that ate their time, their lives. Jobs that absorbed any purpose they might have had when they started. The urban cultural elite army marched by necessity in lockstep with the capitalist drive to obliterate any trace of their poor, white “country cousins.”

We purged rural people’s popular representation. We dropped our universities right down in the middle of their backyards, pushing them to the margins. We used their facilities and their labor en route to somewhere else. We ignored our rural neighbors in favor of studying international rural cultures. We talked about them in the ugliest, smallest terms possible while we dined on the fruits of their labor. We reduced their cultures to the language of economics. Rural places in the U.S. were like the nation’s “junk closets”: we shoved in there what and who we didn’t want to see, didn’t want to deal with and quickly—with some force–closed the door. Then, we went about creating our urban world next to their rural ruins.

Nearly half the U.S. population did not exist in the other half’s world. We ghosted them. The ones we shut out, the ones we ignored, the ones we belittled–their best minds took control. They began to recreate: new worlds, new stories. Not in any big, considered, planned, organized fashion, but as best they could while living in the shambles of their ignored world.

The severing of the rural limb was not painless for those who called it home. The pain, the internalized shame, and the humiliation still sear. But, unable to show that pain, a deep, hot, throbbing untreated wound now underlies their lives. And those with more resources–and with the power to understand and use rural pain—exploit these humans for own their purposes.

I’ve learned a lifetime worth of lessons in a few short years. One of the most important isn’t rural or urban, it’s human: in order to be ethical change agents, we have to understand what we hope to change. Right now, the popular information about rural people–about rural cultures–offers nothing that could nurture the kind of change that matters: relational change between humans.

The point of view this city girl brings home, however, is different.

REFERENCES

a trail home :: guns

I screamed for ten minutes. Standing in the middle of my little house in the trees. I couldn’t stop. My rage and sorrow and shock took aim. All the NRA mfs who’d met for a fund-raising dinner a few weeks before yesterday’s carnage. I screamed at them. All the scared silent white people here, who wouldn’t stand with me to bear witness. Who wouldn’t raise their voices to let the NRA mfs know that we are watching while they dine and plan. To let them know that we know who they are as their gun shops arm an unstable nation. I screamed at them. I screamed until my throat hurt. I screamed until I couldn’t breathe. I screamed so they would hear me. So they would know that I know them.

On October 2nd, 2017, I woke like the rest of the nation to the news that a white man in Las Vegas had shot and killed more than 50 people at a concert. And, in that moment, the people responsible—the people with blood dripping from their hands–were all around me.

Before moving to my new little house in the trees, I used to live in a place that used to be known for murder. Crime, poverty, gangs. Guns everywhere. The people I knew did what they could to keep the gun manufacturers’ deadly products out of their neighborhood, out of their city, their state. Votes for gun control, for background checks–to outlaw obscenely unnecessary firepower–was their way to protect themselves and their families. I understand, now, how they represent one side of a deadly tug-of-war.

The people in this world–so far away from any I knew–vote to keep their guns. There is little crime where I lived, but the poverty is like nothing I’d ever lived in. (And the isolation. Oh, the isolation.) I heard some of my neighbors, across the valley, shooting. I heard them, across the street, shooting. They shoot for fun. Because they’re bored. For something to do. To feel a little power in a place where they have none. For my neighbors there, guns are toys, a way to pass the time. These are not the army of angry armed white supremacists conjured in overheated imaginations and fed by propagandists. These are the vulnerable people they silence. These are the people in the middle.

There are others, though, whose guns are anything but toys. The ones whose high-powered, rapid-fire weapons and small explosives aim to kill, but mostly succeed in silencing those around them. The ones who believe a race war is coming, because everything in their world tells them it’s the truth. They believe the people who think they’re smarter, more educated, more powerful—the gun control people—will try to take their guns, leaving them defenseless against all the black and brown people. They prepare for an army of angry armed black and brown militants conjured in overheated imaginations and fed by propagandists. I understand, now, that this is the other side of the deadly tug-of-war.

REFERENCES

a trail home :: labor day

They’ve sped up. The resident cars that drive by. Since I spoke up, they have sped up. Considerably. Some are easily doing 50 or more – double or more the speed limit – on the street in front of the place I’ve called home for almost a year. It’s the way these humans assert what they believe is their authority. It’s a way for these humans to feel in control. It’s how they are “adults.”

I’m in my bubble now. I’ve stopped looking as an ethnographer. As a human being, I still see, still feel them.

I feel—in my body–their intentional speed past my windows while I work. I feel their flipped birds, the glares from the cars that have stopped in front of my house. They communicate to me without words: “Cover your damn windows. We don’t want to see you. We have tried to ignore you out of existence. We hate that little house and what it stands for. We don’t care what work you’ve done to rehabilitate it. We don’t care that it’s not an eyesore anymore. You have no power here.”

They tell me I’m just an untrustworthy “renter” in the intrusive absurdity of their sudden Labor Day weekend surveillance. The cars full of old white women (whose heads all turn quickly in the other direction when I smile and wave) that have twice driven into the lot of the empty rental next door. To let me know they’re here. To tell me they’re policing me. It’s the way these humans assert what they believe is their authority. It’s a way for these humans to feel in control. It’s how they are “adults.”

Making my personal peace with this place will not be easy. A trust was broken. I have to remember, though, that the place is not the problem: the place is the solution. This part of the California coast–a San Francisco Bay Area resource–has much to teach humans about how to share power, how to live, beautifully and sustainably.

I also have to remember all the lessons I’ve learned in this culture about how power moves in human relations. I’ll remember, too, that the power of this place is universal, far beyond the humans who try to control it and its native nonhuman inhabitants.

For the next two months, I will ignore the mindless humans speeding blindly past the truth.

bubble

I have to stop looking. I’m going back into my bubble. I’m drowning in data. I went into my bubble the last two months in Josephine County, too, also drowning in data. Here, I’ll begin building my bubble the same way: I’ll avert my eyes.

All my windows are uncovered, inviting the outside in. The flora and fauna of this beautifully fragile place are not backdrop—I am in them. This little cottage—a Sea Ranch holdout from an earlier age—was built to fit into this landscape. It was built with a small footprint. From simple materials. Simply. It is dwarfed by its neighbors. Its redwood shingles washed out, falling off, show the “owners’” neglect. Still, it stands, functioning, humbly–respectfully–being a part of what it inhabits.

The windows also let the humans in, the ones who walk and drive by on this main drag. (Think of me as the camera in the first half of Roma: still here, still on–experiencing, watching, and recording–after the “main actors” exit the scene.) These humans have been a part of my life for more than a year. The ones whose gait suffers an urban hangover. The ones whose walk makes a runway of the street. The ones who pretend not to see. The ones who believe they can’t be seen. The ones who disappear. The ones whose cruelty ripped the fabric of my reality right down the middle.

The dozens of other humans I’ve interacted with all over this otherwise nonhuman inhabited place. Also a part of my life. I have let them all in; I have participated. I have more than enough. Now, I let go and move on.

I stopped looking in Josephine County, too. Driving on 199. Those heartbreakingly beat up humans, the throw-away people, the ones the Northern residents scrape as far down the county as possible, into all the others trapped there, between mountain ranges. The ones who are mentally ill, the ones whose disease is addiction, the ones who walk and walk and walk up and down the Redwood Highway, from Grants Pass through Cave Junction and out to Crescent City, looking, everywhere–anywhere–for a little piece of land where they might find shelter. A place to set down the life they carry on their backs. A place maybe with a little privacy. A place to sleep. A place to feel safe, at least for a night. A place they might call home. For a minute, anyway.

I stopped looking in Cave Junction, even though we still have business. I had to; I had no choice. The bubble I made there kept me whole and healthy enough to find a trail out. Here, I don’t have to escape. Here, I don’t have to wait for escrow to close or for my last class to meet. Here, I complete the work and debrief. Here, I create closure. Here, it’s self-evident, the connections between the two rural worlds and what’s happening in bigger worlds.

One more week before the bubble seals, and preparations begin to make my way out of The Sea Ranch on a trail home.

untangled

She bought herself a chainsaw. An electric one. To cut and untangle the large dead, fallen pine from the living Monterey Cypress it fell on a decade or so ago in the yard behind the cottage. Tree work. Until she’d traded intellectual labor for physical in Oregon, she didn’t appreciate how empowering it is using her body to accomplish a task. How much physical self-sufficiency makes her strong and centered. How it shows her that she exists in the world.

Decades in academia accelerated a learned overfocus on her mind. That overdetermined intellect worked to complicate the taken-for-granted. To weave intricate arguments from the filigree of elevated language. It’s taken nearly 5 years to untangle her knotted life. She’s learned that when her life is concise, like it is now–when the treadmills and conveyers belts of schedules and projected outcomes and others’ expectations no longer glorify busy–she knows exactly where everything else ends and she begins.

She now has much of what she wished for in the middle of so many nights. She is no longer self-conscious. She can adapt to shifting circumstances like a mf. She’s learned patience. She prefers non-instant gratification. She’s cleaned out a lifetime of emotional closets. She loves her body, and it’s hers again, for her purposes. She’s not ugly anymore, inside or outside. She doesn’t front—she just is. She is becoming feeling, sporting a sparkling belt of badass intellectual tools.

She now knows the power of purpose. She now embodies the power of roused agency. Untangled, she is filled with the power of beauty.

everyday authoritarianiasm

Democracy is a big human experiment in organized power-sharing. In political literature, democracy is both an ideology and a structure. In politically abstract terms, dictatorship is democracy’s opposite.

Authoritarianism is a big human experiment in organized power-stealing and hoarding. In political literature, authoritarianism is both an ideology and a structure. In politically abstract terms, “personal liberty” is authoritarianism’s opposite.  

Everyday authoritarianism, however, is different than an abstract political theory. It exists in human relations, the everyday interactions, the mundane tasks. Living everyday authoritarianism means stealing power from other humans, on a relational level, and hoarding it. Its opposite is agency.

For instance:

  • When your professional processes are not transparent, you steal power I use to understand fully.
  • When you give me inaccurate information, intentionally, you steal power I use to make sound decisions.
  • When you take my time or expect me to use it for your purposes, you steal my power to spend it on what my family needs.
  • When you purposely exclude, you steal power I use to participate.
  • When you refuse acknowledgement, you steal power I use to connect.
  • When your cynicism leads, you steal my power to be openly optimistic.
  • When your doubt blindly stands in front of my credibility, you steal my power to access those benefits
  • When you withhold emotion, you steal power I use to engage.
  • When your fear is weaponized in my direction, you steal power I use to confidently move through the world.
  • When you pretend to know what you don’t, you steal power I use to assess effectively.
  • When you willfully ignore new information and rely on your own outdated assumptions, you steal my power to protect myself from old, poisonous ideas.
  • When you block access to resources, you steal my power to feed my life. 
  • When you refuse to say my name, you steal my power to exist.

When you steal my power, you steal my forward momentum, and my power to progress. When you steal my power and hoard it, you systematically lock down my agency. When enough power is stolen and enough humans’ agency is locked down, everyday authoritarianism supports an authoritarian state, a political culture. Gramsci had it right: we do it to ourselves.

Living democratically every day means sharing power. Living a democratic ethic means moving through the world, authentically engaged, without knowing the outcome. To live democratically is to help create the conditions for the possibility of trust, of vulnerability, of creativity in everyone you meet. To share power on a relational level is to create the conditions for the possibility of unlocking everyone’s agency.

Living democratically means that all of us can make sound decisions, we can understand fully, we are able to spend our time on our purposes; we can participate, connect, live optimistically, move through the world with self-esteem; we are able to engage fully, effectively assess situations, live without fear of poisonous ideas. Living democratically means being able to confidently drive our forward momentum. It means being able to feed our lives. It means a just human existence. It means we all share “the right to pursue happiness.”

Democracy cannot be imposed. It cannot be elected. It cannot be bought. It cannot be attained through prayer. It must be lived in bodies, in relations, in all of us. Every single day.

The good news is that relational power–agency–can be reclaimed in everyday relations. And when you show someone how to reclaim their power, they will change the world.

REFERENCES

pain is love

“How can anyone watch those images of children in cages and not be outraged?”

They can watch and support caging children and imprisoning them in camps because they’ve been taught from a very early age that some things are necessary for love. Power has taught them that, often, pain is necessary–physical pain–so they understand they’re loved. Pain, their bodies believe, also demonstrates how much power loves them. (“I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t love you,” he says as he holds your hands out of the way so he can hit harder.)

The sharper the pain, the brighter the bruises, the warmer the love.

Those children—now adults–begin a lifetime of enduring pain, of accepting it as love. Disconnecting their empathy is necessary for survival: their natural need to connect and feel other humans’ pain overloads their hurting body’s capacity to endure their own pain, to absorb the “love.”

Now, concentration camp images wake those child-adult bodies, shock them into remembering. Trigger them. They feel the pain as it comes in the form of searing recognition: they are flooded with the same feelings of helplessness and terror they see all over the faces, in the eyes, and on the bodies of those caged children.

Of themselves, they demand, in fearful anger, “Why? Why are they coming here? They have to know what’s going to happen to them! Why would they put themselves in this danger–it’s just stupid! Why?!”

Secretly, their child-self implores the doomed children to stay away: “it’s not safe for you here, he’ll hurt you. stay away. hide.”

Out loud, in the noise and heat and screaming about invaders, they shout their support: “Go home! You don’t belong here! If you’re in a cage, you brought that on yourself! There’s a legal process! If you violate it, you are a criminal and we have to imprison and prosecute you! You will destroy our country and we love our country! Locking you up is necessary to protect it!”

Pain masquerading as love kills the empathy necessary for outrage.

rally

“Hi! So, what’s the messaging for tonight? Will we reference Roger Goodell’s decision to force the players stand? Will we show the people of color here that the dems have their back? I’m so ready to lend my voice!”

She’s excited. The GP dem chair texted her with info about a big anti-hate rally. Said she could stop by the dems HQ to meet others, then head over. After the militia meeting in the park and the white supremacist posters all over town the last month, we’d finally say something, loud, so that the people who are targets in this county know we’re not passively standing by. That we have their backs. That we will stand and say so publicly. Her body and spirit cannot bear another day of silence.

She walks alongside the woman from HQ, whose pace forces her to jog intermittently.

“I don’t know!” the rapidly walking woman responds. She’s smiling, eyes forward.

“Okay! So, do we have an overall theme? A focus, maybe? The Goodell decision connects to all the stuff in town.” 

“I don’t know!” The HQ woman repeats, and she just keeps smiling and walking. Very fast. This time she also offers a shoulder shrug.

We’re coming up to the stairs of the city hall building. There are 30-35 other people here. That many people could really make some noise, get some attention, if they wanted to. Such a good turnout for this place. (A protest a few years earlier drew militia members, who stood around the 7 or 8 protestors, intimidating them into silence.) Her heart starts to rev up. The HQ woman veers off to meet up with some other folks.

She stands in front of the protestors at the second rally of her life (her first was last month in CJ). Little groups are gathered on the landing in front of the building, loosely forming a semi-circle around a man passing out flyers to them. She walks up to the man, who seems to be in charge.

“Hi! I’m Cathy! Brian texted me to join you. I’m so glad we’re all here! Can I ask what the messaging will be tonight? How we’ll do this?”

He’s probably late 60s early 70s, maybe more years. She notices now that they all have some years. Lots of white hair. That’s cool. She also notices it’s only white people. That’s par, and not so cool, but we’re in Josephine county. Whatever. She’s ready to stand alongside anyone who will publicly object to the blatant white supremacist politics inflicted on the NFL players who kneel in honor of dead black men, women, and children who have been murdered by white badge-carrying men and women.

“What do you mean” he replies. Not really a question, adding that “oh here comes the kid” tone. The “slow it down missy” tone. The “she’s just overwrought” tone. The “she’s been watching too much cable tv news” tone. She’s heard it literally thousands of times since moving here.

She smiles, trying to connect with him. She looks around at the others. “I thought we might reference Goodell, you know, and show the people of color here what the Dems and Josephine county Indivisible is all about. Maybe we could stand on the corner where all the cars are driving by. We could raise our fists, shout our support for the players, shout our support for people of color, for free speech.” She looks back at the man, hopefully, waiting.

He doesn’t respond to her. He looks at her as if she’s speaking another language, one he doesn’t understand. His face looks like it hurts his head to listen to her. He turns and starts handing flyers out again.

She notices now that they’re all just kind of looking at her, all the people with the years. As if she’s from another planet.

Her rage rises. The months and months of silence she’s been forced to endure. The disconfirmation. The wall of NO she slams into on a daily basis. She doesn’t really give a fuck what they think of her at this point. It really just does not matter.

“Isn’t this an anti-hate rally? Rallies are where people raise their voices and bear witness. Let’s raise our voices. Let’s speak truth to power, even if power isn’t listening. Because it’s good for us. Because it empowers us. Even here. Especially here! We need to raise our voices to show support to the people of color in this community. We need to join hands with them, empower them, show them we’re here. If we don’t speak up, we ought to be ashamed of ourselves as white people and Dems and Indivisible people. It’s our job to speak up!”

They look at her. They say nothing. The man passing the flyers stops a second to squint at her again, then walks with his bag of flyers to another group, away from her.

“Come on! We have a responsibility as white people in this community. We have a responsibility to speak up and support those who are targets in this community. The posters. The militia barbeque last week. We need to say something. That’s what the good guys do. That’s what Dems do. That’s what we’re about. That’s who we are!”

“Why, so we can be like them?” The woman’s disdain hits her between the eyes.

“What?” She looks around. They just stare.

“Who?” She asks no one in particular. Stares.

She’s confused. It’s like they can’t hear her words. They feel her urgency, know she’s frustrated, but it’s like they can’t see her or hear what she’s saying. Like being in a dream when you can’t run.

It is slow. As she expresses her outrage, her shame at being a white person like these people who won’t stand up for what’s right, the loose circle of groups begin creeping backwards. Like the whole loose circle is moving in the opposite direction. They are looking at her and backing up, very slowly. 

She realizes they think she is mentally ill.

why

The idea was to plant and grow better people. She knew they could change, the people here. She’d seen it first-hand. A phrase dropped here or a word placed there; an idea left lingering after an interaction. And then she would come back and hear the word or phrase used by someone who’d found it there and the whole world lit up. She could see how to get in, how to be useful. She imagined what they might be able to do with an idea or two, radically different than what they’d experienced their whole lives. Ideas that could lift human beings out of toxic actualities.

Top-down, power-scarce systems and processes isolate human beings. Education is limited and curriculum controlled by authorities. Information is also limited, often outdated, and recirculated like stale air conditioning air. Internet access is scarce, and the only company in town shuts its tower down on Sundays. Television content is served up only by Sinclair. Nothing—what they know, how they know it—is in their control. And that’s normal. It’s the way things have always been done here. 

Enforcement of top-down power traumatizes human beings. Punishment styles range in severity, but each punishment or threat relies on re-triggering the cause of the trauma: isolated helplessness in the face of overwhelming power. Enforcement threats often paralyze adults who, as children, lived in families where all the power was the father’s to use as he pleased, to punish. Childhood punishment serves to enforce authoritarian power when its trauma is re-triggered. Authoritarianism functionally recycles the trauma it creates to force human beings into compliance with top-down structures and processes. And tyrants.

“Why don’t they just stand up, speak up, take care of themselves? Why can’t they just resist? Why don’t they see how cruel their leader is? Why don’t they see he’s betrayed them? Why can’t they change their minds? They’re adults—why can’t they act like them?”

Why, indeed.