mandala


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Our cycle of life is off. It mirrors our pursuit of knowledge. And things. It starts out slow, thin, but very present; aware, visceral, emotional, tactile, hopeful, curious, open. Full of joy, of wonder, of imagination. Then, we accumulate experience and knowledge. We collect things. We become culminations, and our limbs are collections. We become complicated. We become too big to move easily. We become comfortable and stuck in our assumptions. We feel safe and sure in our conclusions. We compare our thickness to the thinness of youth and feel secure. We know we know so much more. We’ve experienced so much more. We have become the standard. And we guard that standard as if our lives depend on it.

18: legally, we’re “adults.” We are responsible for everything we do, everything we think. We are accountable for our actions, our thoughts, our behavior. It is up to us to fix ourselves. Up to us to find the help for the damage that’s been done to us, by power. Up to us to recognize it, to see the connections to a wounded life; up to us to commit and engage and follow through on the repair process. Drowning in everything else “adult,” we reach back toward what we think we see in our younger selves, what we think we felt then, all the while having lost our connection to who we were when we started.

What if it changed? What if we started out the same, but we inclined toward returning there? Toward returning—nourished and full of experience and resources—to the place where new humans are starting, to the beginning again. What if the first half of our lives were like sand mandalas? What if when we got to the middle, we let go, blew the beauty of our lives to the wind, and turned to where we are needed? Where we are useful. Where we can offer what was never offered to us. Where we can find the beginning again. Where we can feel that joy, that wonder. Where we can join in imagination. Where we can honor and celebrate and help bring to life the dreams and hopes of being young. Again.

What if we lived there at the end?

old

It’s the old white ones.

(And you don’t have to have years to be old.)

The ones whose necks are too stiff

to turn and look at themselves.

The ones who believe that years

equal all the experience that matters.

The ones who believe they’ve learned enough.

The ones whose mercy has atrophied.

The ones who always say it can’t be done.

The ones who police the worn-out rules.

The ones who hoard and guard resources.

The ones who ride lethal assumptions.

The ones who try to crush the world into their image.

The ones whose jealousy of youth

drives them to try to kill it.

The ones who never had any real friends.

The ones the cool smart kids pushed out.

The ones who always knew they’d have to cheat to win.

The ones who believed from the start

that there isn’t enough room for all of us.

The ones who believe that “selfish”

is another word for love.

The ones who are conditioned to believe

that violence is the only thing

that Others understand.

They tell the rest of us, “We tried and it didn’t work, didn’t last. Focus on work. Focus on being a good competitor. Focus on being a good consumer. Don’t be so negative. This is the new normal. You’ll get used to it. Change is incremental. Patience, my child.”

FUCK THAT.

voces

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She’s always been a criminal. The rules never really applied to her. If she could think her way around something, she could justifiably ignore the rule. She wears this conditioned confidence like an invisible sweater, something people feel but can’t really see or understand. It does not endear her to others.

She loves to trespass. That breathless feeling of dropping from the top of the ferris wheel every time she slides under a fence keeps her hooked. That jolt of discovery, of finding a hidden spot. Of finding a presence in what’s been left behind. The wonder of the new, of the never seen, of what seems meant just for her.

She hunts for art. For voces. For underground meaning.

She finds the warehouse by accident. On a cold, wet hike along the Point Richmond waterfront. Middle of a Monday. Grey skies. She walks quickly, no running. Head up, shoulders back, direct eye contact toward the goal. She walks like she owns the place. Her breathing picks up, but she stays calm. Her heart bangs like a triphammer. Clear NO TRESPASSING signs everywhere.

She takes a controlled, casual look around. No law enforcement. No one else here, either. Weird. About 200 more feet to go before she’s in the warehouse, free and clear. A sound from her left. She lets her eyes move to see, keeping her head forward, walking steadily, with purpose. The sound was nothing.

She’s in. Her eyes adjust to the low light. And what she sees changes her life.

brothers

This is where they push the leftover people, the “problems,” the people without money or property, the mentally ill, the addicted. From the top of the county to the bottom, the leftover people are scraped, like table scraps from a picked over dinner plate. Into the disposal that is their little town in the bowels of the county. Literally no help exists for them here and they know that. It’s the way the county likes it.

Nick, Jack’s brother, knocks softly several times, hears his brother’s voice, then opens the door to the garage. She stands behind Nick, reading the warning messages scrawled on the closed door. The opening door reveals a scene that has existed since she moved to her new property; this is a condition she has lived next to for months, without knowing it. She can’t take in all the detail. It hits her in the face, the hard cold dark concrete reality. Buckets full of urine, foamy on top, line the walls. Garbage everywhere, some in weirdly neat configurations. Partially eaten food. Lots of soda cans and cups. Feces. An illuminated lamp on a small side table otherwise covered in cups and napkins and wrappers. (No drugs; Jack’s disease is mental illness and severe neglect, not addiction.)

Jack slowly, almost inexplicably stands up, his tall thin frame emerging from behind a big open umbrella lying on the concrete, which creates a little private spot where it appears he spends most of his time covered in blankets. He is wearing badly ripped fishnet stockings and ancient high-heeled strappy flip flops. A filthy short denim skirt hangs under a tee-shirt almost as long. In this hard hypermasculinist place. Jack is skin and bones, literally a walking skeleton. Nick told her that Jack has started walking into traffic again on the Redwood Highway. She hears the roar of trucks about 25 feet to their right as she meets Jack for the first time. 

During their short conversation, Jack keeps his head tilted down while his long curly hair covers his face. (Nick quietly left as soon as he opened the door. He is walking in a square now, around and around the four sides of a large manhole cover, next to the highway. He will do this for the next 2 hours. Sometimes he heads to the market in town and smiles and flaps and sings like a small bird for the shoppers going in and out of the Shop Smart. This started last month.) Jack twitches, jerks, peeks through his long curls a couple of times—eyes quickly darting up at her, then back at the floor. Jack is present, Nick is mostly not, and they are in hideous circumstances. There is no help for them here. None.

These brothers are her new neighbors. Turning away is impossible.

junkyard

shrouded sleeping shadows

darken lacey rusted hides

skins drip dark oil

staining gravel pocked soil

 

the old, the used up, the tired

the stuck, the blind, the deaf

home in their junkyard of ideas

selfishly assuming ancient power

 

they guard, police, gatekeep

they discourage, mock, condescend

they ignore, minimize, annihilate

they stand dying

 

a gold sun rises

pixilating pale pink-orange beams

that illuminate a hiding place

reflected in a dead scooter’s silver fender

 

the young sparkle under there

quietly softly luminescent

waiting for the fighting and terror and killing to stop

we live dreaming

power

Being rural poor here is a whole lot harder than not having money. Healthy relations—the very basis of being a healthy human—are mostly nonexistent. Not relationships. Those are big complicated things; they are nouns. Relations are everyday events, momentary happenings between people. Relations are verbs. We do relations, and they are the stuff that hold human existence together. The everyday authoritarianism expressed in rural relational patterns are created by top-down systems and processes. Those severe power imbalances destroy healthy human relations by dissolving human connection in a bunch of ways.

Power scarcity produces extraordinary defensive measures if you happen to have just a little. Tiny centers of power are fierce, policing what little territory’s been gained. Eye contact that excludes; lack of acknowledgement at first approach; addressing only old people by their names; no response to friendly small talk; stealing time with imposed history lessons; feigning important distractions during the conversation; intentionally slowing things down; the “you’re new here, aren’t you?” question; whatever the opposite of curiosity is. Passive aggressive warfare’s casualty is acknowledged existence. Every day. For whole lives.

It’s not just talk that’s so damaging. It’s how people are forced to relate with one another, one-on-one, in a power-scarce culture. Passive aggressive maneuvers dominate; without power, passive aggression protects intention, doesn’t give anything away. Keeps the exercise of personal agency quiet and safe from those with the power to punish.

Overwhelming power intimidates into retreat and silence. Be small and quiet around power. Don’t appear too obvious. Don’t stand out; stand out without power, get smashed. Do not take chances. Do not make yourself vulnerable. Avoid changing your mind at all costs. Do not appear weak or unsure; it is dangerous to do so. Supplicate to power, even as it offers only crumbs, grudgingly. Submit to power that demands obedience for support, dignity for care. This power-scarce orientation is second nature in this top-down rural culture—it is a pose, a posture, a way of being that’s like air. It’s everywhere, and it pushes to isolation.

Rural isolation is devastating. Connect a bunch of isolated people’s anger and fear—people whose pain and resentment keeps them company in their dark worlds–with a person who makes them a friend, who plays confidante and savior, and they will do anything for him. Anything. They will believe anything. They are not alone anymore. They have someone. They have seen the light, and now they exist in more than their own world. A friend with power who seems to listen to them, and now they affect the world, too. It’s like magic, and it changes their lives for the better. It lifts out of their ugly actualities, at least for a little while, into something that feels like belonging, like usefulness. Purpose.

The powers that be are pleased. And that is worth everything here.

 

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.