Sunday, November 22, 2020

Princess of Hades

The clock oozes to 2:59, I pick up my ball of string. 

We enter into the mind labyrinth. 

It is dark, but I join Minotaur with ease. He has been waiting. 
A gentle kiss. We walk softly down the corridors and I hum the impulses of my mind. How I long to tip the dinner candles onto the table cloth, watch that destruction lap up the balcony, the life outside, the sea, the sky. I tell him he was the one I always loved the best.

Lady C droops on her throne. Shrouded in veils, as untouchable as cloud matter. She is the object of so much fear, hatred, despair. Misunderstanding makes her melancholy and increases her power. She is the hapless child of a monarchy, unable to abandon her role before her time is up. Each brazen lover that comes before her grows tired before the night is through. They turn away, but she cannot. She follows silently, helplessly faithful, head bowed. Daughter of Medusa, her charms are a strange version of her mother's before her. She is quiet, so quiet, pale to the point of invisibility. Those who look her in the face and show her respect are spared, but those who turn away are turned to stone in their beds, unable to breath alone. 

Cappella Sansevero

Lady C is not spiteful or discerning. She is from another world, the contours of her touch a mystery to the world above her. Who can dethrone her? None can tell, we do not know. She is my friend. I do not fear her, though I fear forgetting her. 

Tonight, as every night, Minotaur displays a banquet. There are two delicacies beneath glistening steel domes. One contains the luxury of hope, one the expectation of chaos. Night after night, I sink my teeth into the flesh of darkness because it is more manageable. It falls off the bone like butter, marinated in a full bodied flavor of familiarity. 

Minotaur, sweet Minotaur. How I wish you could cross the threshold of the labyrinth and come with me into the light. Together we could take the string and bind together love and anarchy. Instead, without you I feel

A match lit in my stomach, nowhere to grow
Quiet shame of the haves
A finger cut while cooking
A novel finished painfully
A tension wire between contentedness, freedom, rest
Listlessness, anxiety, maybe laziness
A heatwave
The corners of my mouth move up imperceptibly
When people say, see you in May
I don't think you will  

Conceptualized April 2020 

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Into the Eye of the Needle

Living in the time of Corona has transformed my perspective on money. 

My regular life, and that of my family - school, work, socializing, volunteering - ground to a halt for 5 months. Our income was up in the air, but our expenses also decreased. I didn't start my car for 3 months. It still feels miraculous (I mean truly divine) that through this experience I've become less concerned with having money. 

I've spent my entire life worrying about not having enough money. Since being adults, Jonas and I have never earned enough income to transcend the poverty bracket in California. I've long suspected that the only people who say "money can't buy happiness" aren't poor. I've always been incredibly careful with money out of fear. We have small savings, but not enough for a down payment on a house and monthly expenses. 

In March of 2020, there suddenly seemed no better use for savings than to use them for what we needed and share anything we could. All the long-term plans I had for money didn't seem so important. Having everything that we needed and the privilege to adjust our work schedules wasn't lost on me.  

Meanwhile, migrant workers with no legal status have no access to government assistance. Workers who kept jobs at businesses that remained open were at far higher risk but paid less than those who were furloughed or laid off and got stimulus money. In our city, households in which all adults are in-person workers have to choose between leaving children home alone, paying for childcare or risking group childcare, or quitting a job, all of which could result in financial ruin and homelessness. 

Many people wanted to be helpful to others in the beginning of the pandemic, and it was wonderful to see. There were varying degrees of success with help. We watched as some celebrities became more laughable than enviable. It didn't look like a privilege so much as a tragedy that anyone could be so delusional about how most people experience uncertainty. It was clear that even their money didn't shield them from loneliness or fear. For a moment, it was easier to stop glorifying the lifestyle of apparent ease and fun that we think extravagant money will bring. 

Heads Might Roll 

People laugh every time I make this comparison, but the early days of Covid19 made me think of the French Revolution and how much I wanted to take care not to be an aristocrat while other people were starving. When times are desperate, I want to be sure that people come to me knowing I will share food, not come for me because they know I have food that I'm not sharing. Certainly the rancor toward Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has increased as he's not only insulated himself from "the masses", but directly profited by exploiting them. Any desire I had to be fabulously wealthy is no longer appealing in this light.

I'm not going to attempt to define wealth. Wealth is relative and about perspective, in addition to numbers. Thanks to many aspects of 2020, I consider myself unmetaphorically wealthy, and I didn't used to. How we calculate wealth is deeply dependent on our social beliefs about money and work. 

What is the purpose of money? Try and answer this for yourself, right now. 

Money, to me, has largely been about security. I've focused much of that thinking toward the idea of home ownership and reliable vehicles. I would like not to feel conflicted about every purchase. If I were to achieve my desired sense of security, then I think money would be about comfort and enjoyment. I dream of a variety of vacations. Perhaps I could buy craftsman level decorations for my dream home. 

Much of my thinking about work has supported my ideals about money. For a long time, I not only accepted, but venerated a capitalist model. Capitalism is "industry privately controlled for profit". To "profit" essentially means to create wealth. I liked the idea that I could find work that I enjoy and profit from it to shape the lifestyle that I envision. But when my priorities shifted, my thinking about money and work also changed. 

I am not suggesting that a proper alternative to capitalism is state-controlled profit, but rather that the model of work for the sake of wealth accumulation is immoral. Poverty in the United States exists in part because of the for-profit model. Most workers do not make enough money to be able to afford the price of goods or services, including housing and healthcare. The profits of the businesses that are underpaying workers goes toward business owners or shareholders to increase their personal wealth. This is greed - workers are exploited for the personal gain of owners or shareholders. 

Economics for Feral Housewives

Beyond compensating workers appropriately for their labor, the model of operations used by non-profit organizations holds potential beyond its current manifestations. Non-profit companies are organizations whose ultimate purpose (in theory) is to improve people's wellbeing. By contrast, a for-profit company's ultimate purpose is to create wealth for its owners. One could argue that wealth contributes to the well-being of the owners, but as I'm going to seek to illustrate, unchecked wealth accumulation on the part of owners is detrimental both to workers and ultimately to the owners themselves.

My brother in law Andrew Sears currently works for a Fortune100 for-profit company, and previously ran a variety of non-profits. He wrote the following section via text in response to my questions. 
If my for-profit employer makes $100 in revenue and spends $50 in expenses (including labor), it has $50 left. It can invest $50 back into building the business or it can distribute $50 among its owners (shareholders) pockets. Even if it invests back into the business, the goal of that investment is to increase the value of the business which increases its stock value, which increases shareholder wealth. Investors in for-profit companies give money expecting to receive more money in return as the company grows. 

Now consider a nonprofit hospital. It gets $100 in revenue through donations and patient payments. It spends $50 on expenses (including labor) and has $50 left. The hospital doesn't have shareholders to pocket $50, so the $50 is invested to improve the services the hospital provides. Investors in nonprofits (charities or individual donors) give without expectation of return but as in investment in positive social impact. 
Why don't we replace capitalist structure with something akin to non-profit organizations? To continue with the Fortune100 analogy, Andrew asked: 
Would you donate money to my employer without any expectation of return just so we could develop software that will never be of interest or use to you? It's unlikely. We generally only donate money to causes we care about deeply, and that doesn't describe most of the for-profit business world. But businesses need money to grow. Thus, capitalists devised a system in which people (investors) were incentivized to give money to businesses (invest) because they can expect a reward (return on investment). To replace this system, we'd need to think of alternative ways for businesses to get the money they need to grow. 
Having run a (very small) business myself, I understand the necessity of profit. Sometimes I would purchase a book for 10c and resell it at market value, say $10.00. Sometimes my profit was hundreds of times what materials had cost me. That profit went toward expenses: packaging materials, postage, new stock, and to some degree the operation of a car and internet without which I couldn't have a business. As a one-person business operation, all leftover profits went to my bank account, where I used it for all the regular stuff: bills, groceries, things I wanted, gifts. Whatever wasn't spent was savings. I don't know if this is a perfect analogy since I wasn't making enough profit to generate personal wealth, but my tentative answer to "how should businesses get money to grow, if not through the investment structure", is that if the demand for a service or product isn't high enough to generate enough profit to grow without additional investment, maybe it has reached it's natural size already. 

If your business produces enough profit to support your needs, is further growth not just pursuit of wealth? If the demand for a good or service is beyond the ability of the owner to meet, an employee or partner is introduced and the additional revenue coming from increased productivity goes toward  increased labor. When wealth (unallotted profit) is introduced into the equation, I think the balance between work and profit begins to derail. Rather than create class disparity or inflate demand for a product, unallotted profit should play a positive role in society. 

Most of us own things that we don't need. This isn't wrong in itself, but unclear (or immoral) priorities fuel rampant consumerism, and capitalism feeds on consumerism. Any model of business only survives if the demand for its goods or services is sustained. For example, I know that I pay much more for my iPhone than it costs to make it, both in parts and labor. But I'm still willing to pay that price because of the value I place on what it provides for me. In essence, I support Apple's profit margin with my dollars, even though I'm in conflict with the implications of that profit. 

What would it take to change that? The demand for iPhones at their current price would have to shift, either from a boycott or a comparable lower-priced alternative that drove demand for iPhones down enough to cause a decrease in price. Consumers have more power to cause good change than we typically harness in economics. 

It's very difficult for those in poverty to make morality-based decisions about purchases if they have the option to buy products that are cheaper due to the exploitation of whoever harvested or made those products. Convenience and price keep Amazon the behemoth that it is, but the speed and cost at which those items are available are only possible because of the labor of a host of poorly-paid, poorly-cared for workers. In this way, capitalism again traps the poor - you only work an Amazon warehouse job if you don't have a better paying, less back-breaking option. 

What if society's values demanded that profit go to workers first (the profit-sharing model, or ESOP, does exist, but isn't common), and then either into the improvement of goods and services or to common good; medical research, food equity, affordable housing, sustainable farming, reforestation, disaster relief, etc. (Look up @healthcareforthepeople2020). Basically, why don't we cut out the monetary advantage of ownership and shareholding? At some point, a good or service ought not to need more capital to improve it. There is always room for invention and innovation, but consumers have the power to choose what direction they want for innovation. Is money better spent on a yearly redesign of the exteriors of luxury cars or in testing how to power a jet with non-pollutant energy? We should use "exploration" money for things that are truly value-added and put the rest back into our communities. 

The Land After Capitalism

Not to get too far ahead of myself, but if profits went primarily to laborers and social improvements instead of owners or shareholders, I see 3 major benefits. First, workers would be more like partners in their places of work. The profits of their labor would sustain them comfortably and wealth disparity between owners and workers would diminish. Moreover, seeking wealth through stock ownership would be irrelevant if you made that same money from your job. Of course, many wealthy owners and stockholders don't work at all (in which case their wealth becomes morally obscure, at best), but more on that later. 

The second benefit would be that many systemic societal dilemmas like homelessness and hunger could largely be addressed through profits feeding into the public sector, even if some members of society will never be able to "pull their own weight" in terms of labor. Some mental health issues would be alleviated by better economic standards, and those who are chronically ill could at least get decent, consistent support and care from healthcare workers who themselves were economically secure. 

Third, a private-profit funded approach to social wellness ought to drastically decrease taxes. If business profits were invested in social betterment, there would be little need to pay the government to perform the same services. Our government doesn't seem to be very good at it, anyway. Society could also choose what was really beneficial to itself which I believe would exclude international land-grabbing and nuclear warheads. Land-grabbing for oil or other natural resources has always been about increasing wealth. Imagine focusing energy and money into your own society instead of robbing someone else's or even returning what has been robbed. It's practically revolutionary

So much corruption - political, environmental, economic, social - is rooted in a quest for money. 2020 has lifted the veil on that more than ever and has made it that much clearer to many Americans that part of the reason they don't have enough is because of deliberate theft. It's hard to keep viewing America as "good" for us or to us. Capitalism has a net benefit for a precious few, and it's not the workers. 

If a non-profit model based society sounds like a communist utopia or democratic socialism or marxist economics, maybe it is. As this funny video points out, what existed before capitalism was feudalism, and feudalism disintegrated and was replaced over a period of several hundred years. It is extremely unlikely that we will see capitalism replaced in our lifetime. Actualizing the non-profit model means giving up the for-profit model, and historically, that's not popular with those who are profiting. So really what I'm trying to do is explain to you how I want to change my money habits and work toward moral, social benefit. And if you see any merit to it, maybe you will change one tiny habit too. 

The Misery of Midas 

The pitfalls of the for-profit model deepen when there is great disparity between workers and bosses, such as Jeff Bezos and the warehouse worker, or property owners who extort renters. Exploited laborers naturally want a better situation, and capitalism beckons us toward the lifestyle of the owner - perhaps if you break your back for long enough, you can gain the power and money and ease that allows you to yacht around while your employees suffer to increase your wealth. 

Many of us want(ed) that life, but we don't stop to think of how unlikely it is or what it requires of us and others to get there. No one becomes a billionarie because they worked harder than everyone else. If hard work was in a direct ratio to wealth accruement, as we so often say that it is, field workers would be very wealthy. Jeff Bezos doesn't worker harder than his employees,  he robs them. What's more, Bezos' money has long since passed being of service to him. He could not even spend 200 billion dollars on himself if he dedicated the rest of his life to shopping. When I'm not feeling disgusted at his ill-gained billions, I feel sad for Jeff Bezos. I wonder if he knows what he's lost. 200 billion dollars can buy caviar, and I hope he enjoys that, but it can't buy community, trust, or happiness. Insulation from poverty is also insulation from those who are in it, and that takes a massive toll on one's morality, no matter how much you make.

What does it benefit us to gain the whole world, but we ourselves are lost or destroyed? (Luke 9:25)

I think Jesus was being literal when he told a rich young ruler, "You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Then the passage says, "when the rich young ruler heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy." Then Jesus said, "Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”  (Luke 18:22-25)

Jesus really went hard against love of money. He talked about money a lot, actually - 11 out of 40 parables, more than the topics of faith and prayer, combined (source). Pre-Covid, I never considered myself wealthy, so I'm sad to say I just glossed over most of what Jesus teaches about money. Jesus doesn't vilify those with wealth so much as lament how easy it is for those with wealth to be blind. When a corrupt tax-collector named Zacchaeus had an encounter with Jesus, it prompted Zacchaeus to give away half of what he owned and repay those he had cheated at a rate of 4 times the damage he had caused. Jesus celebrated Zacchaeus' decision. (Luke 19)

God doesn't call everyone to the same roles, but I think too many of us have been hoping (assuming?) he is calling us toward roles that involve personal wealth. The American church (as a broad culture; certainly exceptions apply) seems pretty assimilated into the capitalist structure, and even gets into some exploitations of its own. It's both funny and sad to realize how much I was enticed by Christian riches. Heaven is talked about in children's songs as a place with individual mansions and golden streets. The reward for good works is jewels in our heavenly crowns. For all I know, those things are true, but it took me so long to discover that that's simply not the point. It took me not quite as long to realize that a jeweled crown just wasn't going to cut it as life long motivation. I've spent a lot of time feeling secretly unnerved that a Heaven based on glorious riches is sort of shitty. I only care to go there as an alternative to something more painful. What a bizarre way to view the present and the future. 

Jesus made the present quite a bit more clear. "You cannot become my disciple without giving up everything you own" (Luke 14:33). "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62. Harsh, but radical). "Where your treasure is, there your heart will also be" (Matthew 6:21). "You cannot serve God and money" (Matthew 6:24). 

The Workers Are Revolting 

After being furloughed from my job in March, I was laid off in August. Those 5 months were long enough for me to fully internalize that I had been working too much. I fear what will happen if I don't work enough to make enough money, but that cycle was broken enough to realize my worst fears did not materialize. Even the necessary components of work and money can create a whole that is not good. 

My relationship to money as leisure (I love to thrift shop) was also put into perspective. Rather than feeling deprivation (though certainly I experienced a sense of loss during early Covid days like many others), I became acutely aware of how I could not only survive, but thrive without accumulating more things. I became content with what I have. That train of thought has aided my goal of shifting away from supporting corporations known to exploit workers. 

I had already been aware of my perpetual exhaustion at working 3 jobs. I never had time or energy to look for other work or to build hobbies into sustainable work (the dream, supposedly, for many creatives). Not to mention that maintaining relationships and investing in my community got the leftovers of my energy and attention. There was an illusion that we'd "get somewhere" at some undetermined point in the future. We'd have worked long and hard enough to... I don't know.... stop? Rest? Which is code for get rich or retire, I guess. That's the base assumption of the American Dream - anything is achievable if you work hard enough. Ironically, the rewards for all that hard work are material, and you probably won't have any time left to enjoy them, let alone be able to part with what you worked so long and hard for. We are slaves to this dream. 

Money as the reward for life (or afterlife!), i.e. capitalism, leaves no room for rest. There is no space to say "no" to working more and harder to the end of time. For example, Jonas' job has not infrequent "mandatory overtime". There are penalties for not fulfilling a work quota in most jobs - namely, you'll be replaced by someone who will work more. In some cases, doing your best work only leads to increased expectations on productivity. 

America was born not out of truly Christian values but out of a twisted view that everything here is here for the taking to those who work for it. We consider hard work toward our own gain one of our greatest virtues. A byproduct of this view of work is that we tend to believe that those who aren't wealthy just haven't worked hard enough yet. At the same time, Americans live with a deeply ingrained scarcity mindset. If the person next to you works harder than you do, there will be less for you to gain toward your own wealth. 

If wealth is your goal, you can not escape slavery. 

Working Class Morality

If you could have something better than you have right now, wouldn't you take it? A nicer house, a better job, a newer car? I've always thought the obvious answer was yes! At what point do we stop answering yes? If we can't determine that point at which we have everything we need, it will pass us by and we will find ourselves enslaved.  

So much that we thought we deserved or we earned of our own merit turns out not to be our right. As we recognized, hard work does not necessarily equal decent pay. There are lots of reasons someone might have enough or more than enough in their life, but as a person of faith, I view the things I have as a gift. Not a reward, but a gift. 

Capitalism suggests that wealth is personal. Afterall, what's mine is not someone else's, right? If I give something that is mine away, then I have less for myself. Is it wrong to have wealth? Your money, your decisions, right? In the sense of free will, that remains true. But if you view what you have as a gift, you become the vessel that wealth passes through, not its destination. 

If we stop viewing wealth as our individual concern, it ought to affect our choices far beyond our possessions. In July, I found myself in a position in which I knew that the right thing for me to do as a representative of a brand was to publicly and unequivocally denounce a statement that had been made against Black people. The brand I was representing not only rescinded my statement, but forbade any further mention of the topic. It was risk management from the brand's perspective, but the feeling of telling the injured party that there would not only be no restitution, but no public acknowledgment whatsoever made a lasting impression on me. For the first time in my working life, I confronted the idea that the return for my labor (money) was not worth moral ambiguity, not to mention direct harm. 

Setting your own needs above or against those of others is literally antithetical to the gospel. How much more egregious if you already have everything that you need? If we refute the idea that we should be working toward the benefit of those who have less than we have, what sort of Christianity are we defending? 

Looking a Gift Camel in the Mouth 

When you feel taken care of or have your own wealth put into perspective, it's much easier to be benevolent toward others. Unless you're greedy, which is perhaps more of an insecurity than a moral flaw at first. Some greed originates from feeling that you aren't taken care of. Wealthy people do have their economic needs met, but many seem to lack the benefits that come from being in community with others and sharing common goals.

As has been covered, immense wealth is not the result of work, but the amassing of the profits of other people's work. This wealth creates an erosion of perspective as one can not fathom poverty or even reality. An absence of wealth sharing drives a wedge in community. I experience that pretty often - that which I have no concept of can barely affect my lifestyle or my choices. Some poverty, even local to my city, is so far outside of my own reality that I am unaware it. Even if someone described it to me, I might find it truly unbelievable. That is privilege. Even without a ton of money to my name, the money and possessions I do have are only possible, in part, due to the labor of others. I can not fit through the eye of a needle if I do not pass on every gift I have been given. 

Work is good. Having good things is good. Stopping there is not good. After discussing much of this with my sister, she was feeling guilty for wallpapering her bathroom. Sure, wallpaper isn't a necessity, but I don't think it's immoral as long as it's not instead of sharing wealth. 

Those who have a lot should give away a lot. "Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more" (Luke 12:48; Context is about responsibility rather than explicitly about money, but I think it applies).

Literally giving money away is yet another Covid-fueled revelation to me. 

I experienced a dilemma when I knew we'd be receiving a stimulus check signed by Donald Trump. On the one hand, I was not immediately in need of the money and I'm wary of the economic consequences of trying to stimulate capitalism by printing money. On the other hand, the future was more uncertain than usual and it seemed like burning rotten money was of less use than simply giving it away to fund the legal expenses of the exact people Trump's administration has vilified for challenging his violent authoritarianism. I went with the latter, and it's very cathartic. 

Christians will be familiar with the concept of tithing - giving roughly 10% of your profits (which are a gift), back to God. Having grown up hearing this all my life, I was never quite on board. Overall, giving to the church always felt shame-based to me. I knew I was supposed to do it, but I didn't want to. It's supposed to be given to the church in the same spirit in which we received it - as a gift. My heart was never in it. I also felt that I didn't have enough money to give any away. Finally, I didn't like how churches use the money they are given a lot of the time. 

All of that melted away when I began to see anyone in need as my neighbor (Luke 10:25-37), and giving "to the least of these" as giving to Jesus (Matthew 25:35-40). Christian philosophies will vary here, but I believe that mutual aid is a legitimate form of tithing. Am I, as a Christian working together with other Christians, not an embodiment of the church? Not passing money through a church organization is not less churchy than acting as an extension of the church myself. Many churches are not giving to the same people in whom I am seeing the image of Christ. In fact, I think that for some people, traditional American tithing factors into that wealth wedge I was talking about - without direct contact with the poor, you have no personal awareness or investment in helping. Giving to a church organization can become a passing of the buck, if you will (lol). 

I am not saying it is wrong to give money to churches. In fact, a local church does monetarily support Jonas and I in our community work and thereby church members are indirectly supporting some people in our city who they do not even know exist. BUT, I think it would benefit these church members to give their tithe directly to their neighbors in need, as I have seen a magnificent benefit in my own life from doing. 

Many people in the church are much more generous with money than I ever have been. It can also be true that many of them aren't connected to the ground floor of local needs. Especially in church culture, Christians tend to recognize the needs of the impoverished elsewhere in the world. I am glad churches give toward international needs. I wish more churches recognized their hometowns as places where there are people who desperately need help, if only we could collide our world with theirs. 

We have got to stop pausing to form a hierarchy of other's needs as we try and pivot away from the clutches of individual wealth. I've wasted a lot of time looking for "the neediest" or figuring I'll give tomorrow when a disaster closer to my heart strikes. I'll give tomorrow when I can better understand the predicament of someone asking for help. Just say yes today. "Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you" (Matthew 5:24).

Due to my entrenched scarcity mindset, I have always struggled to ask for money (because that must mean I'm not working hard enough!) and I didn't like being asked for money either. As I'm learning to give, I'm also learning to ask. I've noticed that people who are poor tend to both give and ask for money and resources much more freely than those who comfort themselves with wealth. Those who are wealthy don't need help and so they rarely experience money as a gift. 

Trust what other people say their needs are. Maybe some people will exploit the money you give. Remember that Jack Johnson lyric, "somebody else needed something so bad, they took everything that somebody had?" When we stop viewing our riches as our own, we stop feeling robbed when other people take what they need. Anything we have is a gift that we've been given for the very purpose of giving it away. 

Sharing wealth should be a lifestyle, not a checkbox. We must be invested in the long-term health of our community, and that happens through relationship. I am working every week to learn the needs of our community and I'm sharing those periodically, mostly in my Instagram stories (@weird_eyes). If you're not local to my city, I promise there are people who need help directly or those who need help in helping the community very near by you. Look for them, and don't stop until you find them. 

I hope I never forget what I've learned in 2020. I began to give away what I have to the poor and gained a sense of wealth I've been chasing my whole life. 

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse is a Greek word meaning to uncover or reveal. It refers to suddenly seeing the true nature of something that you couldn't see before. An apocalypse is a revelation. A Biblical revelation provides a divine perspective (quick source, extended discussion). In a way, thinking about an apocalypse as a revelation of divine perspective is different from our current cultural definition of apocalypse as "the end of the world as we know it". And yet, I think that divine perspective does lead to the end of the world as we know it. And I think that's a good thing. 

Michael Nash, Warsaw, 1946

The purpose of the book of Revelation in the Bible is to give a heavenly perspective on earthly circumstances so that every generation can be challenged, comforted, and given hope (see links above). One thing that strikes me about this new-to-me perspective on apocalypse is that it is by design that each generation experiences what feels like the beginning of the end. These endings are supposed to usher in the beginnings of the renewed world. This occurs over and over and so that we can experience a revelation and be a part of Heaven coming to Earth.

We see this cycle happening within the Bible as well, when the Israelites are exiled in Babylon or under Roman oppression, for example. In those cases, God's revelation to his people (an apocalypse) is not what they'd hoped (immediate destruction of their oppressors), but rather a new understanding of God's plan. It is revealed to Daniel that more oppressive regimes will enslave the Israelites after the fall of Babylon, but that God will reign victoriously over every evil regime someday. To me, there is a strong parallel to our space in the world today, and that is what we are supposed to feel when reading Daniel and Revelation. We are supposed to see our circumstances mirrored there, and then to take the hope that is offered both then and now. As we experience apocalypse, we are gaining a new understanding of what God is doing. 

We've always wanted something better. As children of God and as humans within human systems, we always hope for wholeness, renewal, justice, peace. We want to experience the Kingdom coming, the will of God unfolding, on Earth as it is in Heaven. Yet we often resist this, because it requires death. Your new life will cost you your old one. Change requires sacrifice.

I've heard some describe the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement momentum as an awakening for those who wouldn't or couldn't see and hear before. In this way, it is an apocalypse - a seeing of the true nature of things. "But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. This is why it is said: 'Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you'" (Ephesians 5:13-14). We, illuminated by Christ, become a light. I don't mean to suggest that the Black lives need awoken white people to be their light. On the contrary, those who remain asleep cut themselves off from the light at hand. The apocalypse does not need us, we need it.

I identify with the Jews during Jesus' day who had waited so long to see the fruition of what God promises to do - reign over oppressors. Instead, Jesus kept pointing forward to a something still in the future. I don't understand (I lack the revelation) why or how God is bringing about that promise, but I am beginning to see that I am connected to part of that promise being realized. 

What should the response of the Church (Christians) be to everything unfolding at this time in history? N.T. Wright discusses this in his short book, God and the Pandemic. He talks about how Christians tend to respond to crises, often assuming it's punishment or using it as a platform to talk about Jesus. He discusses how the Bible refutes the crisis-as-punishment theory both in Job and elsewhere. He talks about how the Bible shows us that God grieves with us in tragedy. He talks about how revolutionary it was for the early Church to take upon itself the care of any group of people in another city and how so many social innovations in medicine, hospice, and relief aid were pioneered by the Church as a way to serve people. Those models had not existed outside of the Christian example.  

This does not mean that Christians did a perfect job of helping. I'm aware of ways in which Christians have harmed others in an attempt to help, to the point where it's hard to believe that specific institutions of help that we know today were once Christian (access to equitable healthcare, for example). There's a lot packed into N.T. Wright's points about Biblical, early Christian, and modern suffering and aid weaving together, and I'm still struggling to shift my distressed connections between God and suffering. It does seem to me stark that the modern American Church as a whole (or as I understand and relate to it) is far from the cutting edge of relieving suffering today.

I think this is in part because of a prevalent idea within prominent American Church cultures of a sort of fatalism about suffering. The popular verse Romans 8:28 is often read as, "And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them" (NLT). Generally this reading leads to what N.T. Wright calls "stoic resignation" because it suggests that all disaster is in some way "for the best". Wright flat out says that is not Christian comfort.

For me, this stoic response to suffering has always been disingenuous (even if I couldn't put my finger on it) and alienating because the reasoning that "it's God's will" not only lacks comfort, but leads to often forbidden questions of whether a God who is stoic about suffering (but also in control of it?) is worth serving. Many Christians end up sounding like sadists in how they profess to accept horrors as "God's plan". Is it trust or is it resignation? For me, it's always been resignation, which then led me to feel guilty about my level of trust. 

I think stoic resignation not only eats at the hearts of Christians but also makes it easy for us to watch other people suffering and say, "God is in control of this and their suffering is part of his plan". Which, you may notice, completely removes us from their suffering. I think this is the well-meaning (?) but brutally misplaced response of much of the white Church toward BLM and associated revolutions. 

BUT, N.T. Wright spends about 15 minutes in his book explaining how we misread and misunderstand Romans 8:28. He goes into depth on grammar, translations, and scholarship (which he carefully cites), and you can read/listen to it yourself in the latter part of chapter 4 if you want the scholarly version. His point is that instead of "all things work together for good to those who love God", it should be "all things work together for good with those who love God." This means that instead of God waving a wand over bad situations (that we don't understand) to turn them into some future benefit, he works with us (who love him) for the benefit of others (who are suffering, experiencing all things). God works together with those called according to his purpose for the good of others. Instead of stoic resignation in response to suffering, we are "called to hard work, knowing that God is at work in us", at N.T. Wright puts it. 

I want to clarify that I don't think this means that God can't or doesn't bring good things from suffering for our benefit. I think he does. I think the point is that Romans 8:28, which has defined many of our attitudes toward suffering, should actually prompt us to engage with each other and with those suffering everywhere as an extension of Christ. It is with and through us that Christ is working for good. Of course he can work without us, but if we love him, we must love as he does. 

Both through the Bible and the example of the early church, Wright makes the point that the Church's response in crises should be primarily two things: First, to lament. Second, to provide pragmatic help. As I've experienced it, the white American Church at large is slow or failing both in lamenting and in providing help. Instead of lamenting, many of us are denying the pain in Black lives and the health risk to many lives. Instead of serving those who are suffering, many of us have set ourselves against people who are serving because their service may include some ideas we "disagree with" (my last post was largely about the language of disagreement). We've decided their problems are not our problems, or worse, their problems threaten our comfort. 

N.T. Wright mentioned all those institutions of service that were created and championed by Christians meeting the pragmatic needs of the suffering in revolutionary ways (much of modern medicine, hospice, etc.). Where is that Christ-propelled creativity today? Why is the answer "this is beyond us" instead of, "through Christ we can meet mind-boggling needs". Where is the willingness to try, and occasionally fail, at thinking and serving in ways bigger and beyond what we've ever known in response to suffering we're not prepared for? 

One of the most stark, maddening, painful realizations I've had in my desire to lament and serve those suffering around me is that the structure for how to do that pragmatically has come from outside the church. Not only has it come from outside the church, but it's come from labels that many Christians I know fundamentally shun. Elias Bautista, Tiana Arata, Antifa, neo-Marxists, agnostics, shaman. 

Please. Hold on to your fistful of red flags and consider: why are we threatened by good done by people with ideas we may not share? I have witnessed some of these people feeding the homeless, teaching the youth, giving money to the displaced, respecting the value of Blackness, praying for the cleansing of land, decrying corruption of money and power, championing restorative justice and family unity. Do those things happen through church? Yes! Sometimes they do. But the Church is not currently meeting the needs of the suffering that I see in the way that these others are. Is it more important what the name of the umbrella we stand under is, or is it more important that we work toward the good of those who suffer? 

We the Church should be grossly uncomfortable with what's afoot (and what's not) within our walls and what's afoot outside them too. Not because of those who are suffering expressing their suffering (protesting, in all its forms), but because it is not being adequately comforted. If God is to work this for good, where have we been hiding out such that comfort is not arriving through us? Have we considered that God can and is working through communists because the Church has made itself unavailable? (Of course a dichotomy between Christians and communists is false, but I digress). 

Another popularly mangled idea within the Church as I've known it is that we as Christians are "in the world but not of it" (referenced throughout John 17, and elsewhere). In my background, this has typically been used to discourage Christians from engaging with "bad things" and "bad people", unless it is to quickly warn them of hellfire and then get the hell out of their dangerous presence. I think the more accurate implication is that we as Christians have an allegiance to something beyond powers of injustice (our allegiance is beyond this world). Because of our higher allegiance, we fight to see justice reign around us (in this world). Once again, God works through us who love him to bring about his good purposes. "In but not of the world" doesn't mean isolate yourself from suffering and evil, but go toward it with comfort and justice with an authority that transcends our present plane. 

Seeking justice involves the crushing of injustice. And it requires redemption (cc: restorative justice). But redemption is not priceless. This is the idea that for new life, death is required. Your new life will cost you your old one. Your fight for justice will cost you your peace. Your service will cost you your comfort. Your giving will cost you your wealth. Your speaking truth will cost you your prestige and possibly part of your church community. 

It is troubling that pragmatic help for justice for Black lives and for the poor and the suffering is so often denounced by white American Christians. I do not know enough about the history of Marxist thought or how it has affected other countries enough to comment on it, but Marxism, in simple terms, is a political, economic theory in which a society is not divided by class. Every person within the society works for a common good, and class struggle is theoretically gone (source). I hope to write a separate post exploring my own apocalypse with money, which engages the ideas of class and the Bible more, but what sticks out to me in that summary of Marxism is working for the good of those who are suffering

It is the communists and neo-marxists of Santa Maria that are teaching me most pragmatically how to work toward the good of those who are suffering. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, she is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17). The Bible holds maps for apocalyptic rebirth in so many places. I am convicted to see my place in obstructing the freedom from suffering of others, and I have hope that I am invited into a plan where I get to be free too. 

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Mind Games

"The energy that was buried with the rise of the Christian nations must come back into the world; nothing can prevent it. Many of us, I think, both long to see this happen and are terrified of it, for though this transformation contains the hope of liberation, it also imposes a necessity for great change. 
I have met only a very few people—and most of these were not Americans—who had any real desire to be free. Freedom is hard to bear. It can be objected that I am speaking of political freedom in spiritual terms, but the political institutions of any nation are always menaced and are ultimately controlled by the spiritual state of that nation." 
 James Baldwin, 1962. (From a Letter From a Region in My Mind) 

An Ikea Dresser

Begin by envisioning something you have worked on. A paper you wrote, a recipe you were following, a painting or drawing, a piece of Ikea furniture you put together, maybe some computer code, anything that requires sewing. Fill in the blank if your interests are less crafty.

What happens when you make a mistake while building something? You can't find a source for one of the main arguments in your paper. You sewed on a sleeve inside out. You put the bottom panel of the dresser drawers in upside down and now the screw holes don't line up. You realize you left out the eggs when the cake is already in the oven.

Some things are ruined, some things can be fixed. If you can fix it - let's use the Ikea furniture example - it will require dismantling part of what you've built in order to correct the mistake. Multiple parts must shift so that one part can be changed.

What happens when we want to or have to change our ideas? Our beliefs and our perception of the world and our systems for processing information are like the dresser components that go together to shape who we are and how we interact in the world. In this analogy, we are Ikea dressers. It requires a partial dismantling of self to flip the drawer bottoms into the correct position. It is perilous, destabilizing work when the structural integrity of the dresser - your self - is at stake. Sometimes we decide we can live with the drawer bottoms in upside down. But maybe after you've been shoving clothes in for a few months, they start to sag, and the left side of the center drawer keeps popping out because there's no screw in there. If you want the dresser to work better, you have to put in the work to fix it, which will require some destruction in the process.

It's hard work to transcend beliefs you've held for a long time. Things we believe over a long period of time can become foundational in the way we see the world, and the way we conduct our lives. If those foundational beliefs are questioned, we might question our identity, and that can be very unsettling. It calls everything we've not had to think about (and considered "settled") into question, and that can be overwhelming. It can cause tension in relationships and spaces that view questions as threats.

If you really tackle the question of "Is God good?" you may find that a lot of other beliefs hang in the balance. If you ask new questions about your sexuality, you may find that some of your interaction with the world is called into question too. If you question the narrative of your nationality, you may find yourself adrift in darkened waters. You may also find that people who share in the structure of your foundational beliefs push back when you take a chisel to the pillars.

Questioning our foundational beliefs can also be very freeing. There is space in the way we define ourselves for growth, change, and movement. When I am open to shifting foundational beliefs of my own, I feel the fear and instability of uncertainty, but it also gives me hope that my identity could be freed from entrenched destruction. That the dresser could be put back together, better.

I Believe You

I am comfortable believing that injustice is a footnote in society as I related to it. Well, comfortable enough that I tend not to do the work of deconstructing my foundational beliefs in order to be deeply aware of injustice as a cancer that is gnawing at my neighbor, and it's coming for me. 

How can I stop believing that it's someone else's problem, and a small problem at that? I've been practicing saying, simply, "I believe you." This started with a real person and a real story. Relationship is, for me, a powerful tool in the changing of minds and hearts. I talked with a Black neighbor about her experience in our neighborhood and with the police in her home, with her family. This conversation did not come about through any effort on my part, but because I accidentally came into the position of trying to mitigate professional risk. I was so uncomfortable and ashamed and helpless that I was shaken, and because of that, I believed my neighbor. Despite the fact that I don't understand it and didn't see it with my own eyes, I believed her.

Something about believing without seeing took a sledgehammer to the Ikea dresser, so to speak. I can't stop saying, "I believe you", and it changes everything. I recall Romans 12:2, "but be transformed by the renewing of your mind." This transformation isn't so much about information as it is about posture. A posture of belief becomes a compulsion to help. To love. And I know that other people can sense the difference between an "I believe you" and a "whatever you say" in my mind. One leads to sisterhood, and the other does not.

James Baldwin wrote, "one can give nothing whatever without giving oneself—that is to say, risking oneself. If one cannot risk oneself, then one is simply incapable of giving."

Belief isn't as simple as we sometimes make it out to be. It's typically not "like flipping a switch." Nothing about choosing to dismantle foundational beliefs is simple. It requires risking ourselves. However, to build the practice and posture of "I believe you" into our relationships with people and alternate realities (meaning how other people experience a system differently than we experience it), it's helpful to make a distinction between "I believe you" and "I agree with you."

We are so aware of what we don't agree with. If you don't already have training in agreement wars from your spiritual or racial background, you've probably experienced it on the internet. There are times when disagreement is not only okay, but imperative. But the level of things that I've been taught to disagree with sews a minefield between "the world" (anyone who doesn't already live according to extremely specific interpretations of scripture) and Jesus. You don't have to agree with everyone you believe. You also don't have to say that you don't agree.

Saying (or posturing), "I believe you", removes the internal conflict over looking like I might be "supporting things I don't agree with". This is an important thing to understand if you, like me, have the teaching or the urge to add, "I'm not sure I agree" to interacting with people who act in ways that are outside of the foundations of our moral fabric. In my religious background (which I distinguish from my beliefs today, but won't elaborate on here), anything having to do with gender or baby making falls into this category. Sex before marriage? Disagree. Sex between the same gender? Disagree. Abortion? Disagree. Police as a corrupt institution? Disagree.

As James Baldwin put it, Christianity as we typically see it playing out "is more deeply concerned about the soul than it is about the body, to which fact the flesh (and the corpses) of countless infidels bears witness." 

"I agree (or disagree)" is about ideas. "I believe you (or don't believe you)" is about people. Agreeing is nice, but it's not paramount. I doubt Jesus agrees with me on everything. But I feel his love for me in spite of our differences of opinion.

You were born gay? I believe you. You were born one gender but you now identify as another? I believe you. I hurt you? I believe you. The police don't see you as human? I believe you. Even, even, You're not a racist? I believe you.

In all of these examples, whether or not I agree with someone else's experience or choice makes no difference to them. The only thing that is served by voicing my agreement (or lack there of) is my own voice. Does me not believing that the police are unjust toward you make you feel better treated by police? No it does not. Even if I could interpret your experience differently than you have, it doesn't help you for me to explain what I think you really experienced or what you really meant.

In the past when I've felt wronged (occasionally due to my gender), it would have been great to hear, "I believe you" instead of, "actually, that's not what happened." Whether or not anyone could "prove" my experience one way or another. There's not much that we get to prove in this life, and the things we think we've proven aren't proof to everyone. That's why belief is important, and belief is a choice.

Posturing "I believe you" is important to me because it leads to love. Disagreement is often my ticket to exclusion. I can easily dismiss people experiencing something I don't believe is real. After all, their refusal to see my truth is their problem, now that I've presented them with my disagreement. 

To say, instead, "I believe you" (internally: "even if I disagree"), becomes an I love you. It becomes, "I see what you are saying, and I will help you and be helped by you." 1 Corinthians 13:7 is often read as "Love never loses faith", but the ESV translates it, "Love believes all things." The agreement clause of my structural identity has so often pulled me out of situations before I really listened. And that's one way that we find ourselves in this position, as white people, as a church, where we're shocked by reality because we didn't see it before.


What if you don't believe someone? That's real, and it should be considered a valid scenario.
Maybe we can practice, first, "I can suspend my belief so that I can hear you".

We know that we can't believe everything we see or read. Our impulse is to distrust what we view as outrageous. We also seem to distrust sources that we believe have "an agenda" (maybe we can unpack that another time). We also know that we lean toward believing things that confirm what we already believe. We can go a long time relatively unhindered by that one corner of the drawer bottom popping out occasionally. After all, it still holds most of the clothing.

What does it mean to suspend belief? One definition is, "an intentional avoidance of critical thinking or logic in examining something surreal." 

I say this gently to us, to myself: If it feels like seeing life through Black eyes requires us to suspend belief, perhaps we're not all wrong. It's hard to start believing something that doesn't seem logical to us out of sheer will. I think it is only surreal and illogical to us because we have not believed or experienced it before. Isn't not believing also a suspension of belief? Isn't a refusal to engage in dismantling systems of oppression with our own bodies and a refusal to believe that the police, as a system, are a destructive force an intentional avoidance of critical thinking?

How could something so horrifying - so out there - as centuries of targeted murder in which the murderers are called heroes, be real? If we believe it, what does that mean about us and about other people? What does it mean that we've been able to avoid that view on reality?

Maybe it's not out there, though. Maybe many, many people have said it. Maybe they've been saying it for generations. Maybe I view systemic oppression and my body as the fabric of that system as a surrealist exaggeration because believing it would require a seismic shift in my foundation, not because it's not believable.

If you are a Christian, you already believe something that you can't prove. We don't believe because we are ignorant, but because we've made a choice and continue making that choice. How can we choose not to believe something that we can see, then? We only choose not to believe it if we don't see it. And we can only avoid seeing it if we keep saying we don't believe.

How do you believe something if you have no evidence? Dismantling the dresser in order to repair it requires choice. I am making the choice to believe something new or different primarily through an act of will, and now I am on a quest to gather the evidence to repair my foundations around these altered pillars. Isn't that convenient, you might ask? Yes it is. But the things I believe already are no different. I chose or was handed the other foundational beliefs I already operate under a long time ago, and refusal to shift those beliefs is nothing more than a continual gathering of evidence supporting what I already believed and refuting or ignoring what I did not believe.

For example, it is at some risk to myself (at least any notion of being considered sane within the institutions that I generally run in) that I take a vocal stance on the dismantling of the police as we know them in the United States. I've had experiences with police that amount to personal evidence both that I benefit (not just generally, but specifically) from police and that police are a localized arm of the military, sanctioned by the state to terrorize civilians. Remember, you don't have to agree with me. But you can believe me, if you choose to.

Prior to the last month or two, my beliefs and opinions and feelings toward police in America were maybe slightly less trustful than that of the average white women (due in large part to my knowledge and experience of police in China and Thailand) but in general they were not an institution I'd given much attention to as a whole. Because doing so affected me very little.

In short, while it is a choice, it costs me very little to believe my neighbor suffers unjustly at the hands of police who then face no repercussions whatsoever. Believing that is supported by an abundance of other material which suddenly seems remarkably large to have ever been disregarded by me before. I believe that not every police officer is corrupt and oppressive, but that's a separate conversation. I do believe the police system to be irreconcilably flawed, however, and I believe that in part because my sisters and brothers tell me so. And I believe them.

My old belief served me only passively, and I have no particular attachment to it. My new belief does little to disadvantage me, and I hope everything to affirm my neighbor, both my literal neighbor and my neighbors at large. I have been safe from the police because I have virtually no contact with them. That alone is privilege, and not much of a platform from which to shout that the police are interested in my well-being. I do, however, have the category for lack of safety if I were to challenge police authority, including the authority to terrorize. I believe that injustice toward someone removed from me that goes unchallenged by me is merely an injustice that has not reached me yet.

If we can not repair our beliefs for someone else's sake, we can do it selfishly, to save ourselves.

I don't know if any of this makes any sense to anyone but me. This is a tutorial on how I change my own mind, after all. It may seem as if I'm engaged in extreme mental gymnastics in order to come to radical new conclusions. And that is my point precisely. 

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Look With Your Eyes: Bernard Evein and Jacques Demy

I've been gobbling up movies from the Criterion Collection, and while I'm hardly the first or last to admire the aesthetic of Jacques Demy's films (so far I've watched The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort), I haven't seen much praise or exploration of the set and production designer, Bernard Evein, who seems to have brought much of Demy's dream world to life. 

It's maddeningly difficult to find decent photos of their work, partly (I think) because film was marketed differently in the 60s, partly because most blogs about their works are in French, and partly because the set isn't usually the focus of admiration for the films. 

I particularly want to see more of the set from The Model Shop (1969), below. There are some fantastic details from clips I've watched, but hardly any stills. You can see how The Model Shop and The Umbrellas have a similar saturated color pallet. The Young Girls is referred to by Evein as having a "pastel" pallet, but it's still pretty eye-popping. 

My favorite wall treatments from the Umbrellas of Cherbourg are the oranges (see several photos down, though the color isn't great in the photo I chose) and the metallic purple seen here. Of course I love the garish pink-orange and pink-red combos they use too.

In 2013, there was an exhibit in Paris called "The World of of Jaques Demy" that featured costumes from his films and some of the wallpapers, which I understand were often hand-painted into real homes by Bernard Evein, specifically to play well off the costumes.  

I watched a short documentary interviewing Bernard Evein as he worked on the set of The Young Girls of Rochefort. One remarkable thing about the sets of these movies is that they don't film in a studio but actually created apartments and whole shops for their set within real towns. They're painting the outside of the public buildings! There's a funny section in the documentary where they interview the mayor of Rochefort to ask how the film set has affected the town, and he says he's memorized most of the songs from hearing the cast practice in the city hall building. Evein and his team also struggle with how to control the natural lighting for their purposes and if you watch the documentary before watching the Young Girls, it's fun to note the small details that Evein used to adjust lighting and other details to his vision. I'm especially attached to the pink window frames and matching molding within the sister's apartment. 

You can tell from the behind the scenes footage (the documentary) that Catherine Deneuve is a bit of a diva. The other main actress in the film, Françoise Dorléac, is Deneuve's actual older sister, who died in a car crash soon after the making of the the Young Girls. In the documentary she tells Catherine to stop making a scene about her dress not fitting properly. 

Here is one of Evein's lovely illustrations that was the concept art for a room in the Young Girls. You can see a woman in the documentary painting that piece that's on the left wall in the sketch. I wonder what happened to their sets afterwards?! Did people live in or work out of the sets they built directly into a town?

The cafe in the town square from the Young Girls is amazing. I want the brass-glass-bubble wall SO much, and I really hope that it went into some design-lover's apartment after the movie was finished filming. The patio furniture (teal lucite!!!) from the cafe kills me, you can see it in the background of the photo of the carnies dancing (get a load of those boots, too). 

If you like the world of Demy and Evein then you should just watch the movies for yourself, I suppose! The costumes are fun (particularly the hats in the Young Girls) and I appreciate that the girls are all in kitten heels, but the costumes pale in comparison to the sets, in my opinion. Even so, I had to mention the obnoxious ex-boyfriend's several mega velvet suits with contrasting shirts and ribbon bow ties and these under-reported sequin tops with white jeans. 

But wait, there's MORE! The movie posters that were used to promote the films are fantastic. Here are some from Romania, Japan, and Russia. 

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