One of the best things about Caren Jeskey's Saturday reports from Austin, Texas is that I get to discover her along with you. In the third graph of her essay today, I paused and thought, "She has kind of a Chicago female Gautama Siddhartha thing going on." Which few can say.
He dipped the big fat Philly blunt into the honey, lit it and took a long pull, his glassy sociopathic eyes fixed in my direction. I noticed their corners were turned up a bit in a menacing smile as he took a long pull. He’d brought a woman back with him after going out towards the Howard El for a nickel bag of weed. That’s all we could afford. I asked him why he brought her here, to the studio apartment off of Jonquil Terrace where we were crashing on a mattress in the closet of his 18 year old nephew’s studio apartment. I guess he was my boyfriend, this terrifying creature who was on the run from the law in Madison Wisconsin for a felony assault. The walk-in closet of a college student’s studio was the best housing situation we could line up. In response to my query he said “because she’s pretty. I wanted to look at her.” I was in my late twenties and she was younger than that and indeed very pretty. My blood ran ice cold and I wanted to scream and cry, to run out of there, but I was scared and hooked so I didn’t say a word. He passed her the blunt first, dead cold eyes smiling towards me, as if he was asking me to challenge him. I said nothing. She passed me the blunt and hot honey dripped onto my thigh, burning it and causing a scar. I barely flinched and inhaled the acrid smoke of weed mixed with a thick cigar leaf and held it in for as long as I could before slowly exhaling and finally sitting back. Now it didn’t matter who was there with us as I drifted into oblivion.
This was just a typical Tuesday for me, and the next day I was back in school at the University of Chicago where I was working on a master’s degree. I’d show up in skin tight jeans I’d gotten at the sneaker store on 53rd Street and platform boots, my hair kinky and as big as Roseanne Roseannadanna’s, fresh out of the braids I’d slept in. I’d clomp around the Mies van der Rohe building where I was studying to be a champion for the disadvantaged, with a philosophy opposite of the great architect Mies who said “I don't want to be interesting. I want to be good.” I fancied myself one of the strongest social justice advocates ever to have lived. No wonder I didn’t make a lot of friends that first year in grad school. I didn’t know how to work with others on a common goal — I was too guarded, I had too many secrets.
Having been born in East Rogers Park where dozens of languages were and still are spoken laid the groundwork for me to realize this world is full of sheltered xenophobes and that I was not one of them. At a young age, through the wise and compassionate guidance of my very liberal folks, I decided that racism and injustice were intolerable. Since childhood I made it my mission to accept everyone, to be inclusive, and to help others fight for their own rights if I could. My folks called me their very own Statue of Liberty and once commented that growing up with me in the house felt like being in the UN with the diversity of friends I brought over.
The powerful people and institutions in the world always seemed very crooked to me. People did not seem truly good. They were selfish and greedy and left others behind. I’d watch them stepping over homeless people and looking the other way as a person had a psychotic break or delusional episode on the city streets. I’d try to enjoy my privilege but often ended up feeling wrong about the safe and comfortable middle class life I was born into, so I constantly challenged it. I drank and smoked and found other escapes to avoid the deep pain and despair I felt inside. I had no idea that I was going about it all wrong and it took me years of trial and error to learn wiser ways. The answer, for me, to solving injustice or at least chipping away at it is actually living soberly. I do my best to bolster myself by surrounding myself with good people so that I can be a better cog in the wheel. Mentors ask me each night what I packed into the stream of life that day and I like to have something honest and good to share.
In her song Stolen Car, Beth Orton sings “You said you'd stand for every known abuse that was ever threatened to anyone but you.” It’s easier to help others than reach inside and be honest about your own broken parts, but if we don’t do just that we cannot feel our collective humanity. I’ve heard it said that we learn about ourselves by studying others and I am dedicated to learning about my clients and other people I come across. It’s a means of salvation. If I can know them I am not rejecting this human experience and instead I feel a part of a larger organism. As Carl Jung said “compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It's a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others.” I’ve only recently come out about my journey into sobriety and chose to do so since I see the value of authenticity. I’ve been taught that we are only as sick as our secrets. Perhaps my story will spark something in others and may even inspire them to get well themselves, or to reach out and help someone else who is suffering.
As I continue on the path of ever-improving self care — eating healthy foods, resting well, daily meditation, support with my recovery, frequent long walks and bike rides, basking in nature, and finding joy and connection with others — the world keeps looking brighter. I have more energy and clarity to pitch in, in meaningful ways. I feel fortunate that I have this luxury to take care of myself and to reflect.
I cannot shake the sense that resolving social inequity is partially my responsibility. There is gross injustice in mandating low end workers back to work while the privileged can afford to keep social distance during this pandemic but as we know, without money one does not have power or respect in this world we have created. Behaving this way is not necessary due to a dearth of resources, but has been created by those who hoard and enjoy their success as they step across the backs of others. I feel some solace when I focus on the sheer number of diverse representatives in this country who are now coming into positions of power. People whose ancestors have poured their sweat and tears into the literal fabric of our society might be downtrodden now but with the vast amount of voices ringing together they may finally rise up and be seen, heard and provided reparations. At least that’s the vision I hope to see come true. In 1909 Emma Goldman said “the history of the American kings of capital and authority is the history of repeated crimes, injustice, oppression, outrage, and abuse, all aiming at the suppression of individual liberties and the exploitation of the people.” We have always sacrificed the health and well being of our workers and other less privileged members of our society, but now how can we continue to look the other way? We cannot be cruel enough to continue to send them out into this pandemic world, can we? Emma Goldman was planting a seed that we must continue to sow together.