Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Writing in the 'End Times' - a comprehensive mission statement for this writer

No, not those end times, not the biblical apocalypse, not the extinction of humans that so many environmentalists predict is imminent, not the death of the planet (it will live on long after we're gone). No, the end of these times, the end of the US American era, the end of U.S. dominance in the world, the end, more than likely, of our political and governing institutions as we have known them.

Only for most U.S. Americans do we not notice that this is happening, so comfortable are we in perceiving ourselves within a certain way of being that we cannot imagine it could ever end.

But it's ending. As I have written elsewhere and repeatedly, Trumpism is not cause but effect. The collapses underway opened a huge vacuum in the culture into which these people could storm in. The destructive force of this rightist movement, ideologically rigid, uncompromising, and fully bent on destroying government as a service to its people (who merely pay for it after all), has been paving the way for this takeover for a long time. The vacuum was created when the 2-party system ended up fully bought by different factions of global corporate power, when more and more people realized that their lives had become irrelevant to the powers-that-be.

Okay, this is not a political blog. It's a blog about writing and why I write. But why I write, and what I write about, the things that most concern me and make it worth my time to sit with my journal or laptop, has a lot to do with how I perceive the times in which we live. My vantage point is pretty broad. I turn 68 this month. Fifty years ago, the events that shaped my life journey - from growing up in a very conservative Roman Catholic family harboring racist fears in a whites-only suburb of Milwaukee, to the progressive firebrand and spiritual seeker that I turned out to be - those events began with the outbreak of riots in Milwaukee 50 years ago on the last days of July 1967, fomented in large part by the fierce response of our local police force and the city's mayor to the local civil rights movement led by young black men and women with inspiration from the great civil rights leader, Fr. Jim Groppi.

Photo: Milwaukee Public Library

My family feared him. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., too. Mayor Henry Maier called in the National Guard and shut down the entire metro area for several days, enforcing a dawn-to-dusk curfew, no matter how far you were from the actual location of the rioting. What that did was create an intense climate of fear, as if hordes of young black men would show up several miles from the inner city to our precious lily white 'burb and start raping the white girls and burning down our houses.

I know, I know, it's hard to believe. But it really was that bad.

This shaped my young life. I graduated from high school that summer. I didn't have a lot of life experience yet, so the impact was huge.

After the riots came the 200 straight days of fair housing marches in our city until the laws were finally changed. Then came the assassination of Dr. King, then Bobby Kennedy, then many more riots and more police brutality all over the country, then the police riot targeting anti-war protestors in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention, watched live on TV by millions of people. I remember sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the TV in the family room all by myself watching this and I can tell you that the shock and trauma is as raw today as it was 49 years ago this month.


Video - one of those moments that changed my life forever

Should I be grateful for these events? I am. I don't know who I would have been without them. Between 1967 and the murder of 4 students by National Guardsmen at Kent State in Ohio in 1970, followed by the two students shot and killed at Jackson State 11 days later, my world view, shall we say, had taken a fierce 180 degree turn.

I wanted to be a writer then but I was not a very good one. It took a long while to find the confidence in my vantage point, or my POV, as writers call it. I needed to live into this person who had no real foundation for the turn I had taken. So from UW in Milwaukee I went off to CU in Boulder and lived there for 4 years. Via a very progressive campus ministry staff, I became involved in peace studies, solidarity with the United Farmworkers, visiting young first offenders at a federal prison (where I also encountered several draft resisters), marched against the Vietnam War and got tear-gassed, some sort of rite of passage, I guess.

From there I returned to Milwaukee and spent a couple of years kind of lost, searching, trying to find my path, until circumstances put me in Montreal for another couple of years, living and working around a soup kitchen in an old beat-up neighborhood called Griffintown. It was there that I first came to know political refugees from Pinochet's dictatorship in Chile, including a guy named Raรบl, a teenage labor organizer and member of an armed left group there, before being captured, detained, horribly tortured, and eventually released to Canada thanks to the work of Amnesty International. With all that history, he was only 24 when I met him. His stories of the overthrow of the Allende government, his testimony of repression and torture, his analysis from the perspective of a Marxist revolutionary group - well, it was all an education for this still rather naive young Catholic girl from Milwaukee. Gave me a lot to think about - especially when it came to the role of the United States in installing military dictatorships throughout most of Latin America.

RTF logo: Lee Miller
The journey continued, one encounter leading to other encounters until I ended up in Washington DC working with the Religious Task Force on Central America for 24 years. It was there that I finally became grounded, found work to do, a contribution I could make. I wrote my brains out - our bimonthly journal, our organizing packets for local communities, our homemade books and calendars with stories of the martyrs of the region. I found my voice there, and even I could see it become clearer and more confident over time.

By the time I came back to my hometown, I was a very different person. I have been disoriented here ever since, caught up once again in the slow-to-change-like-walking-through-molasses Milwaukee culture, still as segregated as when I left, maybe not quite as racist, except for most suburbs and exurbs, and more affluent parts of the city that are as racist as ever. When I left, African-Americans were about 23% of the population, now it's over 40%. White flight continues, and those white people take a whole lot of money and resources with them. Much of the city is very poor, and unemployment among African-American men is in the 20% range. We have the highest incarceration rate of black men in the entire country.

This is not an accident. This is structured into the culture itself. The laws encoding discrimination may have ended, but not the cultural structures that gave them force to begin with. And I have finally had to come to terms with this reality: most white people around here simply do not want to live anywhere near black people. It always feels shocking to say it out loud, and to write it here, but that's indicative of the problem - we never like to say outright what's really going on.

my 2nd book
By the time I returned, 10 years ago now, I had two books under my belt and some published essays, started writing poems, a few of which got published. I have a new manuscript I'm trying to shop, and another well on its way, except that it's really two books, not one, and I have to do the work of separating them out. (Look for that after another year or two - sigh). I have to find a new publisher, too, because I have outgrown the target audience of the first one.

The focus of my work has evolved, or expanded as the world shifted toward a global crisis - planetary in scale. From peace and justice work, embedded in a radical Christian liberationist perspective, that focus began to embrace ecology and a grounded Earth-based spirituality as a response to the crisis in the relationship between humans and the rest of nature. I was (and still am) also inspired by the grand vision of what's often called the "new cosmology," a new understanding of the vastness in space and time of our universe, and how scientific discovery over the past century or so has toppled many old gods, though most people still cling to them.

But the social justice orientation remains and my POV now brings all of that together with the realities of economic inequality, racism, and environmental injustice. It became clear to me that one of the reasons all that other work doesn't really change much in the cultural story here is because those latter realities, so resistant to change, mostly get left out.

What I keep seeing in this whole journey as it has evolved and opened me more and more to the reality of the big world, not the small one in which I was raised, are the same underlying causes of most of the crises of our time: capitalist/consumer economics and values; fierce individualism based in the small unit of the nuclear family and property rights; religious orthodoxies that enforce, rather than challenge, those economic and cultural values even when they contradict the tenets of their religions; separation of the economic human from the natural world in which we are fully embedded but which most people no longer experience as such; instilled aggressiveness and competitiveness that we are told are natural traits of the human but are really products of culture and economics. I could go on. I'm sure many of you could add to the list.

As a writer, I feel compelled to resist that culture of separation, to speak truth about our humble place in the scheme of things, that our grandiosity and propensity to commit vast destruction for its sake is leading us directly into an apocalyptic "end time" - for us, for this culture, this nation - that we could very well be at the beginning of the end of the American Revolution and the unraveling of the nation that grew from it - until we ran full on into our own deep contradictions that have plagued us from the first days.

Lk Mich shore - trying to live outside the contradictions
I need to write outside those cultural boundaries. I need to stand outside the contradictions and name them clearly. Milwaukee, for example, can't get away with mere endless dialogue about racism, of being nicer to one another (we can be so, so nice here), of allowing a few more "people of color" to enter into the silos of staidness (or what Fr. Bryan Massingale, STD, recently referred to as Milwaukee's "numbing sameness"), without addressing the cultural and economic structures of separation, without addressing how much was stolen from these communities by white privilege and transferring some of those stolen resources back into the city's neighborhoods.
I need to stand outside the contradictions so that I can see better, articulate better, what this reality is that we fortify every single day without seeing it, or wanting to see it. I have heard some amazing local poets do this. I have seen artists do it with an image. I want to do more of it with words. I want to use metaphors to get us out of our rational brains (the ones that keep talking us out of radical change) and break open some deeper truth about who we are, even perhaps who we are meant to be. I want to share the stories that - reveal. And if that revelation is not searing and a call to conversion, then it is not the full truth.

Last Sunday evening (Aug 6) on the CBS Evening News I saw this story and was overwhelmed with horror and grief. There are more than 2.5 million children in this country who are living with relatives or in foster homes because both of their parents are opioid or heroin addicts. Read that sentence again, then read it again. Watch the news story and take this in. This is a sign of a failing nation at every level. And the truth is that, as a nation, we have no answer to this. Even the treatment approach (forget about any meaningful conversation about the causes) is endangered by future cuts to Medicaid. Ohio alone is anticipating 10,000 overdose deaths this year.

If we were a sane nation, if our culture cohered at all right now, this would be declared a nearly unprecedented national emergency and it would be all hands on deck in dealing with it.

But we haven't dealt with any recent national emergency like that, as Hurricane Katrina announced to us so well back in 2005.

How do those of us writers who care about these things use our words, our stories, poems, essays, to break down the walls of our crafted misperceptions, our cultural blindness and shallowness, so that we can begin to see ourselves more clearly and exactly what is happening now? Cultural, political collapse seems inevitable to me - not because of Trump but because of larger forces at work that opened the space for him to be there. He and Bannon & Co. may be bent on chaos, but the chaos was already here. They're just pushing it along, kicking more pillars out from under the culture we once knew.

The contradictions of a nation bent on taming the frontier and occupying it, no matter who was already living here, no matter how many bodies had to be stolen from other lands for the labor needed for conquest and settlement, that wrote its very first democratic principles for white landowning men only, and only grudgingly over time (and after long and usually violent struggle) allowed more people entry into that system - those contradictions are now crashing into each other with tremendous force.  And along with them are the contradictions of an economic system based on endless economic growth and endless exploitation of the Earth's waters, land, and living beings. This is no longer sustainable. This can't go on. It's breaking the world apart.

The unsettling thing about the political anti-culture right now is that we have no idea how this is going to play out. Even a year from now, six months from now, we can't tell how this story is going to go. Unnerved by that? I am, even though I know this time is inevitable and necessary.

Alice's Garden - sacred space in the heart of Milwaukee
Now how am I going to write from all of that?! Well, I can't write from ALL of that. It's a worldview, and the focus is on "story," and the story is full of individual words and images, and they become lenses, binoculars, through which to view the greater whole and bring into focus. It's like the CBS news story. The shocking nature of the opioid addiction crisis is overwhelming, but seeing it from the vantage point of one foster mother and her witness to the crisis through her specific lens brings it into focus where we can get a handle on it, see the tragedy in its most intimate human terms.

That's a tall order for any writer - to approach creative writing in that way, to bring the reader closer to the heart of the real human condition. But we have to do all we can to help one another SEE the dynamics that are shaping our world right now, how that is shaping our culture, our emotions, our psychological state, our health, our values, and sense of deeper meaning (so many people here are losing that, hence the growing despair). We have to rediscover connection - with one another and the living beings all around us, including the non-sentient beings that hold us here - water, soil, forests, the air we breathe. Stories told well help us reconnect, find our common ground, open wells of compassion.

So, this ended up being something like a long mission statement about writing. So be it. I think I will just let it be long. I hope you find something useful here, something that helps, that supports. I know I need that, and I'm pretty certain we all do.

~ Margaret Swedish