Birds Inside and Outside

As I sit down to write this, I have to stop: why was I so upset the other day?

There are many reasons now.

I was supposed to go to my sister’s birthday (masked, masked), but I had woken up afraid, and two meditations had not touched my fear. I cuddled up in my blankets.

I didn’t want to hear about people of legend, or hear the words of the liturgy, though they are sacred to me. That morning I felt when I heard them, they crumbled to dust.

Why was I in pain? Domestic terrorists attack the capitol. What will happen next.

I thought, if anyone mentions the attack to me at birthday gathering, I will lose it, scream and drive away.

Parts of my family are politically aligned with me, but not everyone. That’s what families are for, right?

I grabbed my sister’s present and started the drive to Kansas City.

I realized I had forgotten my granola bar. I was hungry. I turned the car around to go to the bagel place. The bagel place was closed. Okay, I would go to the bakery. The bakery had nothing but plain croissants left.

I drove to Kansas City. My body was a blank, my mind was a blank, both overloaded with fear and anger.

The road to Kansas City is K-10. As I recently mentioned to my niece, the K is for Kansas. The yellow flower it’s on is a sunflower, the Kansas flower.

As I was almost at the place to get on K-10, a bright red bird suddenly swooped into and out of my vision.

It startled me like cold water. I felt in my body, and the numbness lifted. On a January day, when everything as far as the eye can see is a shade of brown, a red bird. I see a lot of hawks on that drive. They sit up at the tops of trees, or on road signs, like the Tom Cruises of K-10. That smile.

I got to my sister’s birthday, and everyone was hugely warm and happy, like people who know they need something happy, and by God, they are going to have it. They are going to mine it out of the mountains. The party was pirate themed, everyone wore an eye patch. In my depressed haze, I had forgotten to bring my pirate hat or parrot. It was the first time in my life I had arrived at a costume party uncostumed. I’m the person who shows up at uncostumed parties in costume.

There was a chest full of treasure, and someone had made this pirate trivia game for us to play, earning dubloons for correct answers.

This, bodily, how was it? This was stepping into the space with the indoor pool, being immediately engulfed in warmth, softness, joy.

I went with it.

I thought, this is why we need each other.

I kept thinking about the red bird and how weird it was. I like to use animals to think about how I’m feeling, or where I am in my life, but I was not expecting that bird at all.

I remembered a friend had said that she sees a cardinal and knows her grandpa is with her. I remember another friend who sees owls and knows people who have died are there.

I’m not really a bird person.

Monday night I heard that the little dog I’ve been hanging out with, while I care for my nieces, was going to be put to sleep. He was one of the good guys. We need him.

I drove out to the house, dreading the sadness of opening the door and not having the pup wag his tail and bound down the stairs, thrilled to see me.

Instead my niece opened the door. She is doing school at home today. She had a new, more grown-up haircut, and she was wrapped up in a blanket.

“Can I give you a hug?” I said.

“I never refuse a hug!” she said. Hugs are still dangerous. But.

I went downstairs to the room where I close the door, de-mask, and work. A record player was on the floor, with Carole King’s “Tapestry” sitting on the turntable. I lifted the needle. I was already crouching on the carpet, and after starting the record, I lay down in a ball, my legs folded under me, my head resting on the floor. The pressure on my head was nice. Yesterday and today, I woke up with a tension headache behind my eye, before I even had time to do anything stressful.

The record played “It’s Too Late.” And “Home Again.”

This album was my aunt’s. She has had dementia for the past few years. It’s been a long time since she said my name, or her daughter’s. Anything but certain song lyrics.

And things were shit, but you know the feeling of being where you are, and the outside feeling just like the inside, even if the inside and outside are painful?

That was it. And the carpet was soft.

Images are cut and pasted from “Red Bird, from the Series Birds of America” for Allen & Ginter cigarettes brands, 1888.

Our Business

From an American perspective, it may seem like Scrooge is wealthy.

But in England, the wealthy were born into their wealth. It had been a relatively recent development that the middle class had become significant, that someone made his own money and could be proud of it and use it as he saw fit.While aristocrats “gave” to their people because they were so kind, and God had made them be born wealthy, they were never giving away money they had earned or needed, just money they had. It kept the peasants from murdering them (sometimes).

In “A Christmas Carol,” Dickens is (somewhat consciously) setting up what secular Christmas will be. (Along with Victoria and Albert, who were not as hot as the couple appears in the TV show “Victoria,” which I recommend.) Secular Christmas will be about being generous because community feels good and generosity feels good and it makes people like you.I felt much more sympathy for Scrooge this time.

In a society where there is no unemployment, health insurance, social security, not much of a safety net except a workhouse that might be worse than death, he wants to hold onto his money. The fear people had of poverty in that time, in that place, especially for urban people, was well founded.

Money makes Scrooge feel safe. He doesn’t have an inheritance or a trust fund. And when his girl is like, you’ve changed, he could be like, yeah, bitch, I changed because we can’t get married unless I can afford to feed me and you and kids that follow. (Dickens’ father could not afford his kids, and Dickens barely could afford his.)

1859

From age nine to twelve, Dickens was sent to work in a factory because of his father’s debt. If your father went to debtor’s prison, the children went to work.

Today in the United States, about 5.7 million children have a parent incarcerated during their childhood.

At twelve, he was able to return to school for an additional two years.

Dickens was one of our earliest professional writers. Before that time, writers were rich, or friends of the rich. They did not make their money from their books, because books were too expensive for most people to afford, and literacy was not great. Industrialization meant that paper got cheap. Instead of being made of linen, it was made of grass and wood pulp, by machines. Most people could suddenly afford magazines and paperback books.

The virtues of this Christmas have little to do with the Christian story, and much more to do with civic values (“mankind was my business”) and how they are not supported by capitalism, but can be upheld by individuals.

Which is basically the way Americans have structured our care for people who are poor, except we also make sure they are “deserving,” because nothing’s worse than Tiny Tim being all, uh, how about you make society more equitable so I would have gotten enough vitamin D to not have rickets and not be able to hold up my own damn weight?

Should we rely on every American thinking that charity feels good, or rely on a system that helps balance the unfairness and selfishness in human nature? (I’m a liberal, so the answer is B.)

19th century homeless shelter

Something that always stands out to me in Dickens’ work is that people who are poor are likely to be sweet and kind and loving as anyone else. And are definitely likely to be more generous. Another thing Dickens gets right is how generous people are more fun to party with, and people who go all out even though they are of humble means are awesome. I always wish I could go to a party at Fezziwig’s. Sounds like A RAGER. No doubt Dickens had thrown and attended many amazing parties.

circa 1834

Dickens clearly also believed in the other model, reforming laws and civic institutions to make them work better for people who are poor: he worked on homelessness, workhouses, schools, the British military, and the death penalty. “Christmas Carol” happens to not deal with that part of his activism, but it makes sense to me that he might figure just thinking of poor people as human, as deserving of safety and joy, was as far as many of his readers were ready to go.

I’m interested in how British people now respond to the story. In many respects, Europeans (and Brits) feel the ethical thing is to make the government care for people through taxes, rather than have people care for people out of the goodness of their hearts/out of a desire to seem like a good person to their friends.

I’ve seen a lot of how the latter can go wrong, especially in myself. I have loved times of contributing and helping, but I’ve also seen how thinking that enough good deeds will make you happy, or make you loved, or make you safe, doesn’t work.

You have to do good because of your personal ethics. Personal ethics and love of people.

Homeless children Children of the street, 1914, Rights: © The Children’s Society

Watching all the special charity at this time of year, I don’t want to Scrooge you, but I want to suggest that helping 45 million Americans in poverty by ensuring they all have access to health care, regardless of income. I want to suggest that ensuring our schools are funded by federal dollars rather than local dollars could mean that schools are just a tiny bit more equal, because kids who grow up poor need MORE than other kids, not less.

Kids in Victorian England.

I suggest that offering a minimum basic income is better than running a soup kitchen. That making retailers tell shift workers when their shifts are so they can know if they will be able to pay their bills is better than buying Christmas presents for poor kids.

Investing in local transportation so that getting to work on the bus doesn’t take up all the time someone could spend with their kids is better than donating to a day care center for families in poverty. Closing payday loan businesses can help more families than sending someone to Disney World.

Passing gun laws and funding programs for kids after school is more important than giving a house to a family who lost someone to gun violence.

I’ll add that for every family in the media acting super deserving, there are millions of other families that don’t look deserving. And sometimes it’s because they are exhausted from work, or mentally broken from a lack of work, or crushed by grief because they’ve lost loved ones, especially our neighbors who are Black or Latinx or American Indian. They are TWO TO THREE TIMES AS LIKELY TO DIE OF COVID and that isn’t an accident. It’s a direct result of policies that Americans have voted and lobbied to enact.

I suggest that we can do better than Dickens could imagine in 1843.

That was 177 years ago.

We can do better.

You don’t need to see one person looking thrilled and grateful and humble. That helps you a lot more than it helps our fellow citizens who are struggling. You get to hold onto the idea that you are a good, kind person who shares. They have to hold onto the idea that their lives are in someone else’s fickle hands.

Dickens worked on homelessness, workhouses, schools, the British military, and the death penalty. Visiting Dickens’ house in London and seeing his door knocker, and learning more about the vast extent of his social activism was one of the most awesome things I have ever done. “The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business.”

Don’t be a Scrooge. Be a Dickens.

This charity is one of those founded by Dickens and still exists today.

These people work on expanding Medicaid in Kansas.

These people are trying to ensure that if people have jobs, they can afford to live without begging others for help.

These people are working to stop companies from charging people 239% interest on loans.

These people are working on stopping our neighbors from being killed by guns.

A few notes on Dickens I feel compelled to add:

Scrooge made his money in a way that would set off alarm bells for Anti-Semites: he was a lender. Indeed, Dickens was callout out for his anti-Semitism after writing “Oliver Twist” with Fagin as an anti-Semitic stereotype. He took that seriously, and removed mentions of Fagin being Jewish from future print editions. He had been doing readings where he used Jewish stereotypes of voice and posturing, and he stopped doing that, as well. Finally, he created a character who was super awesome and Jewish in “Our Mutual Friend.”

Dickens traveled to the United States to try to convince Americans that slavery was wrong. That one really gets me.

However, certainly Dickens is not a perfect liberal hero. He thought Englishmen were better than “primitive people,” and believed in “civilizing” others.

The Books

How are you?

A weird thing about me is that I feel less lonely. I’ve been mad at the unfairness of the world since I was ten years old, and now it seems the whole world is with me. I told you!

I haven’t put in nearly as much time here, partly because I’ve been working on publishing some books. I’ve spent a great deal of time agent-seeking, and workshop attending, and though I did have interest from agents several times, nothing ever panned out.

This made me feel like a failure.

It has been my primary goal in life to have a book published.

The last time I really worked hard at this, I went to a conference in New York City. Most of my group were enjoying Manhattan and the conference. I was trying to stay awake, and not have so many panic attacks.

I made one great friend at the conference, and I had more people say, “This is good. You can get this out there.”

But then, I didn’t.

It was cold comfort that friends with good books often didn’t get agents, and people I knew to have books I never would read had published their books.

I had attempted to figure out an online publishing platform in the past, but got frustrated.

Whether it’s middle age, mid-life crisis, or anxiety, I’ve had much less energy the last few years. I’ve felt like I need to budget myself even more carefully.

I was so afraid that I would go through all this work– writing the pieces took years, years, and the publishing stuff took days– and then only my mom would buy a copy.

My mom would always buy a copy. If she had the dough, she’d buy 1,000 of them in secret.

Like all artists, I’ve had some surprise successes and many, many, many painful rejections. The main thing I love about this blog is that it’s totally my creation. Although I will not put anything up if I think it isn’t useful or beautiful, it’s a wonderful way to get my writing out in a lower-stakes situation.

I’m pretty much over the fact that I was not DISCOVERED by SOMEONE POWERFUL who PLUCKED ME FROM OBSCURITY, a la “Julie and Julia.”

Pretty much.

It has given me a chance to share work with a larger audience, especially with people who might have some things in common with me that don’t come up in casual conversation.

When I did announce I was publishing the books, I was so heartened. Many friends let me know they were excited to buy one. Many people congratulated me. Because my only goals were to stop hating myself for not publishing a book, and to have someone other than my mom buy a copy, I can now say it’s been a success.

I had been so embarrassed of self-publishing, thinking that it would prove the world did not want to listen to me. But this was not a helpful story. I know that plenty of “successful” writers feel like no one wants to listen to them. I know it’s not really about that.

If it were not for pandemic, I probably would not have had the time or energy to do all the book prep. Trying to make that lemonade. During pandemic, there are so many reasons to be depressed, pessimistic. Finally there was a day I thought, I’m going to try this again, just for like a minute, and then I got sucked into the long process.

It’s one less thing to feel bad about.

It’s also been a little money in my pocket, WHICH I DO NOT MIND AT ALL. I hate Big Internet Company, but they do make my work available, and I make like $7 a book.

I think the last time I got paid for writing was when I wrote a piece of art criticism, around 2008.

Well, I have been paid to write some curriculum materials.

Anyway, this is all to say thank you for reading, and to let you know the books are available. The creative exercises have not been published anywhere in their entirety, and neither has the novel, but fair warning, the teaching memoir is built from posts I originally posted here.

I have a new cat, a gift from a student. And I have enough work to get by. I wish you calmness and steadiness and patience in living through so much grief.