I'll stand with you: Equal access to health care for LGBTQ parents

Last month, the Spanish government announced that restrictions barring lesbians, singles and couples in which one member is transgender from fertility treatments under public health insurance programs have been rescinded. Although for most people even in Spain that news may herald only a minor change, I know from experience that for those it does affect personally, it is life changing and fraught with powerful emotions. 

A Spanish gentleman posted an article about the announcement to an American progressive group I frequent. Instead of the passing support I would expect from progressives, the post was attacked by some members of the progressive group, ostensibly because some people objected to fertility treatments in general. They made no overt mention of the LGBTQ rights aspect of the new law, but simply opposed it because it constituted an expansion of medical fertility treatments, which they see as unethical.

I was confused at first. I can understand that some extreme religious types might object to treatments like IVF as "playing god" or something of the like. But I couldn't fathom what progressives would find wrong with it. 

Creative Commons image by  Niklas Montelius

Creative Commons image by Niklas Montelius

Adoption, apparently.

The naysayers were convinced that those who can't otherwise have children are selfish to pursue IVF. They should adopt "the numerous children waiting in orphanages."

The terms of shame employed against transgender people and lesbians who pursue fertility treatments were "selfish," "unethical" and even "stupid." These "progressives" hadn't voiced a problem with fertility treatments for straight people, married couples or for the wealthy who can afford them without insurance. But they felt some people should "just adopt."

The tirade of shame for people struggling with infertility brought it all back.

I woke up disoriented and pinned on my back in a dark room. Tubes and wires were attached to me from either side. I couldn't sit up or even roll over, so I couldn't see anything except distant lights and the lumps of people lying on beds on either side of me. The sound of a steady electronic beeping was interspersed with shrieking laughter.

Vomit rose in my throat and I fought it back. It would be terrible to throw up while immobilized on my back. Slowly I pieced together what had happened. After my first harrowing IVF treatment was successful, I was pregnant for nine weeks. Then a routine check-up resulted in a frantic dash for the hospital. Something was wrong and I was told that I would have a miscarriage, one that would be dangerous and bloody if I didn't go in for surgery. I had gone, filled with grief and despair. 

And I woke up here in the dark and with no way to escape either the physical pain or the gaping loss.

I had been promised that it would be quick and I could go home with my husband afterward. But instead I was in pinned down, it appeared to be night and my husband was gone.

The pain came to me slowly. Dull pain in my womb and sharp pain in my throat. Finally, the shrieking laughter materialized into a gaggle of night nurses, barely old enough to be out of high school, from what I could tell, let alone nursing school. They told me I was in the ICU. Something had gone wrong.

Well, more wrong than it already had been. So I was stuck there, and no, they wouldn't give me anything for the pain.

I survived that night, the longest and worst hours of my life so far (let it stay that way, please). And it was only the beginning of the years of misery and despair in which I fought the monster of infertility because my body and soul needed a child, needed more than just me and my husband and my distant childhood family as "family." 

All in all, I spent six years in infertility, three of them in various stages of IVF. They were some of the loneliest and most painful years of my life. I was geographically cut off from my family and most of my close friends. When I did visit family and friends and made any mention of the all-consuming medical struggle my husband and I were undergoing, I was often met with silence and quick changes of topic. While I could think of nothing else, most people, unsurprisingly, had a lot of other things on their minds.

Never having thought much about it before it happened to me, I was surprised to learn that the topic of infertility makes most people very uncomfortable. It is a medical issue and the subject of genitalia seems too close for easy conversation. Infertility is a misfortune and it may make those who didn't struggle with it feel inexplicably guilty.

But more than any of that, I discovered, many people who have never been faced with the problem themselves feel that those who can't easily have children should do their part to mitigate the human population surplus by gracefully accepting their fate. Someone has to make the sacrifice after all and it's easier to contemplate if that someone is someone else.

To make it even lonelier, IVF is not as simple and painless as it is often described in the media. It is a long and arduous process involving hormone therapies that cause exhaustion and often debilitating mood swings, self-inflicted injections, followed by surgery, extremely precise schedules and many trips to distant medical clinics.

Even when it is "covered" by insurance in countries with universal health care the co-pays are steep and where it isn't covered by insurance tales of mortgages and eventually lost homes are frighteningly normal. Finally, IVF and other fertility treatments often entail enduring exaggerated symptoms of early pregnancy and then miscarriage... repeatedly. 

And that says nothing about the wrenching emotional and psychological process of desperate hope, almost always followed by at least a few devastating losses. 

In some places there are support groups for those undergoing these difficult experiences, but in our area there wasn't anything like that. That made the discomfort of my friends and family around the topic hard to bear, even though I knew that my focus on IVF verged on obsession. I tried not to go on about it, but I couldn't help thinking about it every waking moment.

Even among those who were also struggling with infertility I found a lot of silence and reticence to share. I knew three other couples dealing with infertility at the same time. But two of them found the topic too painful and private and wouldn't either talk about it themselves or listen to my struggles. The one couple I could talk to lived several hours away and we saw them rarely but gladly. 

Their conversation and mutually supportive hugs were a light in a long and painful darkness. The one topic that these friends wouldn't discuss was the diagnosis of their infertility. It's a sensitive subject for many, so my husband and I didn't press them. But one day over lunch at our house, my friend--who had been my colleague as well for five years--turned to me and revealed the truth. One half of the couple was transgender, making normal procreation impossible. 

My friends struggled under the same conditions of IVF that my husband and I did, the same forced silence, the same pain and fear and loss. And to add to that they faced the warranted anxiety that this hidden fact might bring down harsh judgment on them, even from those people who shared their struggle.

I will admit that I was astounded by the revelation. Transgender identity was another thing I had never spent much time thinking about or had any close experience with. My friends were so utterly normal that they broke all the stereotypes I had acquired from the media with that simple declaration. And once all secrets were on the table, our friendship was closer than ever.

My husband and I eventually lost that struggle to have a biological child, though our friends succeeded. We went on to adopt children from a local orphanage. The people engaged in shaming others for struggling against infertility might well have been gratified by us.

But they clearly don't know the reality of adoption in today's world. "The numerous children" waiting to be adopted in the United States where those voices hailed from are either not legally cleared for adoption or they are overwhelmingly older or carry with them costly medical issues. 

I would love for all children without families to be adopted but only into families prepared for them. Older children in the adoption system invariably have complex psychological and emotional needs. People battling their own medical problems and deep losses of dead babies are not the ideal candidates to provide the unconditional nurturing and rock-solid safe homes that those children need and deserve. Such families are also often not equipped to deal with children with extensive medical needs.

Pursuing fertility treatments instead of adoption is neither selfish nor unethical in any other way. In fact, if you do adopt, as my husband and I did, there will be those who will point accusing fingers at you and scream those same words of shame because you adopted.

Just as my husband and I tried to do the right thing in seeking medical help for our difficulties, we made every effort to navigate the adoption system ethically. We went through official channels and waited patiently to be assigned a child in need. We did not pay massive amounts of money to be able to make the choices ourselves. This is no doubt what the shamers and blamers think they would support. 

In the end, we adopted two children--one with complex disabilities and one who came to us after being drugged and neglected in a poorly run orphanage for ten months, who screamed in terror almost without ceasing for the first year. It has been and continues to be a rugged road to family. And yet, there are those who would shame us still. 

Our children needed homes and families primarily because of structural racism and discrimination in the country where we live. Neither of them were true orphans with dead parents. Almost none in the adoption system are.

They came from families facing a vicious system of employment, educational and housing discrimination, who then could not care for their child because of desperate circumstances. Those families sent their children into the adoption system in the hope that their loss and agony might result in their children having a better future. And so, finally we built our family on the ashes left by structural racism and egregious social injustice. Such is our supposedly morally superior path. 

But the fact was that these children were alone and abused in a terrible situation. Not taking them would not have resulted in the salvation of their birth families or communities. And after picking up the shards of our lives shattered by infertility, we felt we had the strength to do this. 

Those who never faced such choices, such pain or deep despair, will judge. But our friends who went through IVF with us, just invite us to stay and our kids build forts together in the construction materials for their new house.

Oddly enough, another friend, this time a single lesbian woman also went through IVF though not at the same time as us. And of the many friends who have appeared and drifted away, these two families are two that stayed in our circle without judgment and linked to us by bonds of solidarity and hope.

That is why I didn't let the issue lie when the tirade broke out shaming transgender people and lesbians in distant Spain. Some people did ask me why I went to the mat over that obscure issue so fiercely. I am not transgender or lesbian and I adopted children. The comments were theoretically praising me. 

But there is one point of honor and ethics that I hold higher than any other. I will always stand up for those who stood by me in hard times. If there is ever need, LGBTQ people will not stand alone, not in this or in any other defense of equal rights.

What does the "all bodies are beautiful" message actually tell our daughters?

"Everyone says you're ugly anyway." 

It's just been that kind of week and this was my nine-year-old daughter's response to the standard mother-daughter talk about how all body types are beautiful and true beauty is in our hearts and actions--you know, those modern truisms that we pass around to try to feel good and keep the horrible self-loathing at bay. 

She has mentioned this before. The first time she came home with tales about what other--kids and some adults--say about me. she was six and there was hurt in her eyes. But she's over it now. Now she has internalized the social norms.

Arie teaching 4.jpg

"What if I get fat?" she asks and there is terror in her voice that runs deep... so deep.

I grind my teeth. I don't know which part to react to first. Her terror infuriates me more than anything. This is what scares you? Not failing a test at school, not monsters, not climate change... she's terrified of getting fat?

I want to tell her first off that if she gets fat, she'll be fat. So what?

She'll have lap-room for more than one kid, she'll have glorious curves and she'll look like an ancient goddess figurine. She'll also be more likely to have knee problems, heart problems and other health issues, if she gets fat. It's not all a goddess picnic. But I also want to scream at her and tell her to get worried about something worth worrying about.

And at the same time, when I see that terror in her eyes, I want to snuggle her close and tell her that she is very unlikely to get fat. I'm her mother, but she doesn't have my genes and she's physically active, loves salad, already wants to be a vegetarian and shows absolutely no signs of gaining any extra. You can't help but want to sooth terror, even if you know that the very soothing is insidious psychological poison.

My body is thick and heavy. I walk a couple of miles a day on average. I can't drive a car because of my vision impairment, so that's just what happens. Recently I've started using an electric scooter because of problems with the bones in my legs. So to get exercise I run on an elliptical machine. I also garden heavily and run herd on hyperactive kids. My Apple Watch at least thinks I have a pretty active lifestyle. 

My genes couldn't care less. A physical therapist recently shook her head over my legs, saying, "Looking at the muscles in your legs, you look like an athlete." My legs are mostly hard muscle, except high on my thighs where the muscle is covered with a layer of fat. And higher still, I carry a round Buddha-belly worthy of a goddess figurine. 

But that isn't the only reason my daughter hears people--both kids and adults--make negative remarks about her mother's body. My eyes have a permanent and severe squint, because I've been legally blind since birth. My pupils move erratically and I'm told it is disconcerting--to say the least--to fully sighted people. 

Given all that, it isn't very inspiring to try to be a fashion queen. I've been lucky to find good, professional clothes that fit me in the last few years. It probably isn't all the latest fashion and features a lot of slimming blacks and dark blues, but I just get dressed, make sure everything is clean and wrinkle-free and go. 

I don't wear make-up. No amount of make-up is going to make my eyes appealing and I'd rather not emphasize the issues. My face has an unfortunate habit of turning red when I'm excited or exerting myself. But I'm not crazy about the chemicals in most affordable make-up and hair dye, so my hair is going gray, which I actually find rather pretty in my own non-standard assessment. I personally don't like the look of make-up either. So some small part of my appearance is personal choice. 

Creative commons courtesy of Lisby of Flickr.com

Creative commons courtesy of Lisby of Flickr.com

But I'll be blunt. I have never gone out in public dirty, smelly or with uncombed hair or even with rumpled clothes. And yet there are enough people saying negative things about my appearance that my terrified little girl says, "Everyone says you're ugly." And this is when she is in a somber mood, not when she's mad at me.

This isn't just a two-way relationship between me and my daughter. This is a three-way conversation and one of the three sides is the commonly expressed social norms of our society.

But society likes to pretend that it has no part at all. Every day or two, some version of a feel-good, "every person's body is beautiful" meme comes across my social media feed. There is never any discussion around these, just a lot of hearts and thumbs up and smiles. No one ever mentions the reality of having a body that is widely seen as distinctly unbeautiful--a physical disability or illness or a shape or a face that doesn't conform to current--or any--beauty standards. 

Those memes make me as sick as the rest of it. I know the people who send them, generally mean well, but mostly they do not open their professional or social circles to people who are considered less attractive no matter what their memes say. We like to say it doesn't matter, but it does matter--to what kind of job you can get, to what kind of community involvement you can have and to how you are treated on a daily basis in simple things like the grocery check-out line. 

This past week one such meme was specifically about communicating this universal beauty myth to our daughters. I have said it to my daughter many times, the same sentiments as in the poem. I tell her how grateful I am for my body, for the health and energy that come from healthy living.

We are almost never sick in this family, even though we are four people and none of us is actually genetically related to any other. It astounds the pediatrician that my children and I stay so healthy through the winter while their classrooms are only half full due to illness. We probably do have some genetic luck, but it is also the result of good nutrition, activity and careful use of medicinal herbs. 

I am thankful that my hands are nimble and strong, that I can sew and build a rock wall and do a great many other things. I am thankful for what vision I have, even if it's supposedly less than ten percent of "the norm." 

I tell my daughter that each of us is beautiful. She hears how beautiful she is every day from strangers. Her big magnetic eyes, completely unblemished skin, thick curly hair and slim, muscled frame are all exactly what society applauds. But I tell her I am beautiful too, because that is what we have been taught in my generations that we should say. 

But if it is true, it is only because I personally choose to see beauty in myself. While some specific feature of my body, may be considered favorable to someone else, it would be disingenuous to say that my body fits any other idea of beauty. 

Irritating meme about how everyone is beautiful.png

And I would not care much, if we lived in a world where appearance wasn't so crucial, where physical beauty wasn't a hiring requirement, a social gatekeeper and something strangers comment on  to small children. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. We don't pretend that everyone has a great singing voice or amazing math ability or spectacular writing skills or huge sports talent.

But we like to pretend that everyone is physically beautiful. 

Why? I'm not sure. Possibly because we actually believe deep down that physical unattractiveness is the last truly shameful flaw--that while it isn't a person's fault if they are tone deaf or bad at math, that it would be a person's fault if they were ugly or fat. And so we must never admit that such a thing is possible or we would be blaming that person.

Finally, last week I broke down and said as much on one of these memes--with not one word of profanity, caps or insult to anyone except the generalized norms of society. And the response rocked me back on my heels and sent my head spinning.

I was met with one of those social media hate storms, in which I was told that I need my head examined and several less flattering things. A group of friends ridiculed me and joked at my expense. Then the person who posted the feel-good meme threatened to use their position to have me banned from a spiritual group I belonged to. 

These were the words that sparked that storm of hate: "I’m thankful that my body doesn’t get sick a lot, thankful that my hands can do a lot of things, thankful for energy to do the things I want to do. And I acknowledge that everyone has strengths and weaknesses.  If someone came along and asked me if I would trade my writing ability, my mental ability and my inner world of curiosity and fun and fantasy for a body that people would honestly say was beautiful, a body that could get around freely or ski or drive or sing or dance or just not make my children ashamed, I would still turn them down. I don't want to hear platitudes about how everyone is beautiful unless people are actually friends with those whose bodies are far from perfect, friends enough to meet at a place where they can get to and in the door, friends enough to spend time, and share the enjoyment of life with people who don't fit common beauty standards."

I wanted to open up a discussion, but somewhere I touched a nerve, something that must have struck home enough that it could not be allowed. And the result was a stream of hateful messages at me and ridiculing messages about me to others. It's the way social media is and one has to be prepared, if one wants to engage in conversations there. But let's not kid ourselves, social media is only more brutal because people are more likely to speak their minds and dispense with politeness. The opinions expressed on social media are what people really think.

While we often--on and off social media--claim that all bodies are beautiful, the messages we and our children absorb from this enforced cheeriness is much less supportive. Children, who are more attuned to actions than words, hear something like this: 

  1. Physical attractiveness is the most important measure of worth.
  2. Don't question the social norm, if you don't want to become a pariah.
  3. And always smile and put on a good face, even if you feel desperately sad and terrified inside.

That I think is a terrible thing to tell ourselves or our daughters and sons. Here is the message I would like to replace it with, one that does not tell half truths or require suspension of one's knowledge for a moment of fuzzy inspiration: 

Friends, children, old people, people all over the world, homeless people, refugees, bankers and presidents, gay people, straight people, black, brown and white people, wheeled people, stick people and running-all-around people, I mean all of you.

Your worth is not defined by your appearance, by your brain, your body or even by your abilities, by your wealth or sophistication or even your manners, by your country, your house, your car, your ancestry, your social media rating, your popularity or your job. Your worth is defined by how hard you strive for something beyond those trappings, by your passion for something beyond yourself and by the depth of your relationships, rather than by their number.

You have strengths, no matter how close to rock bottom you've hit. You may not be beautiful, healthy, popular, smart and wealthy all at once. But there is something in you, that the world needs. You also have your weak spots. You probably are not beautiful, healthy, popular, smart AND wealthy, and if you are, you almost certainly have some other large problem. And that problem does not define you or make you unworthy.

You will in the end choose your own worth because worth can only be measured by things that a person can choose, not by those things that life hands to you. And another thing, that kind of worth cannot be quantified or compared. It just is.

Corporate power and free speech

A video interview with author Arie Farnam

This is a repost of the first in a series of video interviews on hope and integrity in a perilous world. This interview focuses on the influence of corporations in society and how individuals respond with integrity. 

While the vast power of corporations often feels indomitable and the manipulation of our culture and media can be demoralizing, understanding of and resistance to tyranny is spreading.

As the progress of the past fifty years in civil, economic and environmental rights is under threat, we come to see that we have come a great distance and have much to believe in and lives worth defending. 

YouTube Link

YouTube Link

This interview also touches on how the struggle for social justice inspired my writing in 2014. The dystopian series that came out of that time is eerily predictive of our waking reality in 2017. That's why I'm reposting the video. As we struggle with immediate danger, we must also remember how we came to this situation in order to prevent its repetition in the future.

I write my stories because I cannot help myself. Writers must write. But I also write them to reach out and wake up the world from the malaise of apathy and despair. Mine are stories of hard-won and authentic hope and these video interviews tell how and why.

You belong on the earth

I doubt there has ever been a time in history when more people in more varied walks of life have been labeled and told they are unwanted or don't belong. 

I know many people are hurting deeply right now for reasons of life and death, separation from family and elimination of basic freedom. It can feel like other groups who have merely been mocked, degraded or threatened are not in the same boat and that they do not understand the gravity of the situation. 

Creative Commons image by Matt Drobnik

Creative Commons image by Matt Drobnik

We don't all understand every part. We don't all know what it is to stand in one another's shoes. But we do have more in common than we have misunderstandings. 

Your experiences are real and you are not alone. 

And yet it has become unfashionable to have a group identity. We love individuals and we don't like being pigeon-holed. We may be part of one culture, ethnicity, faith, group or class but we are rarely "typical"  of that label and we simultaneously belong to others.

Our media culture idolizes the person who refuses to associate with a group. We have also become educated enough to know that each identity is unique.

I love non-conformity as much as the next person, but too much exceptionalism has its costs. Now when so many of us are truly threatened, we spend precious energy arguing among ourselves and debating who has a greater right to outrage.  We disagree about trivial things or the specific solutions to our problems and thus we don't address immediate threats together. 

At least that's how it has gone down in the past.

Right now there are many groups forming and fluctuating. Membership in both the KKK and the ACLU have skyrocketed. Lines are being drawn and often they are based on an ideology or a particular identity. I personally support the ACLU and other organizations like Greenpeace, the NAACP and Doctors Without Borders. But the point isn't exactly which groups I want to support (as long as it isn't a racist, terrorist or otherwise harmful group)..

We also need broader places where all those who have common interests can belong. 

It isn't so much the strength in numbers that I want. We need a sense of common cause and solidarity. True belonging comes not from the accident of your birth, culture or label, but rather from your choices, values and convictions.

It is time to set down the most basic tenants of what we belong to, the lines which we won't cross and which enclose all of us. This must be at once broad enough for all and clear enough to mean something.

Here are some ideas of where we belong:: 

  • We are open to all races, religions, ability types, sexual orientations, nationalities, ages and appearances.
  • We recognize the right of people to express their identity and culture, to have a voice in public and a connection to their land and people.
  • We know that power entails responsibility.
  • We speak up when we or others are prejudicially attacked or stereotyped.
  • We are concerned about ecological issues and we respect the earth which we depend on for our lives.
  • We take whatever action is feasible and effective in our personal situations to protect the earth, water, air, other species and one another.
  • We recognize that facts exist and can be documented, while context can consist of many facts.
  • We believe that people have a right to true information and that money and incorporation should not accord greater rights to any individual or group. 
  • We insist that the resources of the earth are held in common and must not be exploited for the profit of a few.
  • We believe each person has the right to freedom that does not harm or restrict others.
  • We strive to be kind and welcoming toward newcomers and to work out differences respectfully.
creative Commons image by Matt Drobnik

creative Commons image by Matt Drobnik

There will necessarily be some who haven't explored all of these issues in-depth. But we should be able to agree on the basic values of inclusion and protection of that which sustains our lives.

Still there will be some who choose to reject these values. I have been part of many ecological or earth-based groups and some of them do not hold the same values of openness toward people of different paths and backgrounds that I demand. On the other hand, there are also many groups that are concerned with social justice but don't take the immediate crisis of climate change seriously.

:Environmental concern and the love of diversity are deal breakers for me--two things I simply cannot do without.

Don't get me wrong. Groups can specialize. Not every parenting group must be focused on environmental issues as well as parenting. But I can't feel truly loyal to a group that openly expresses their disregard for environmental concerns, anymore than I can feel welcome in a group with borderline racist statements, no matter how good they are on something else. These are life and death issues that can't be compromised. 

I have no problem with the fact that Facebook groups connected to Black Lives Matter are unlikely to be regularly posting about climate change. Many groups accept these values but focus on one particular need.

I don't demand that environmental groups spend time and attention on anti-racism stuff. However, I could not very well put my loyalty in a multicultural group that irrelevantly professed disdain for tree-huggers and climate scientists, anymore than I can feel comfortable in an earth-centered group that occasionally throws up closet racist posts.

This isn't to say that I will only join groups that agree with all of my opinions. Far from it.

I have an abundance of opinions. I still love Star Trek after all these years, my favorite pizza involves lots of really hot peppers and seared garlic, I think J. K. Rowling is a damned good writer but the seventh book had some issues, And I think dish rags should be changed about every three days.

Those are opinions. And I don't expect members of a group I'm in to agree with them. And that extends to more relevant opinions too. I have my views on economic systems, health care and electoral processes. But these are things we can work out. What level of gun regulation we should have is debatable. I can and have had informative discussions with people who disagree on things like that. 

Therein lies the distinction perhaps. I don't think there is room to casually debate whether or not we'll believe in science and facts or whether we will accept all people of every religion and color. Those who agree on these things need a place to belong where we can learn from the rest of our differences without being constantly bogged down by an inability to agree on ground rules.

That is why I have founded a group called Belonging on the Earth. It is small and not diverse enough as of yet. I hope you will join and find it a welcoming community. Currently the group is starting on Facebook. You can join it here. I am the administrator for now and I can ensure that it is a safe and respectful place. This is a group for those who agree on fundamental values but may not agree on many other things. As the group grows other administrators will be added who can help to foster the openness of the group.

Not everyone is into Facebook and eventually there will be other ways to belong to this community. If you can't join the Facebook group, I encourage yo to join my hearth-side email circles below and keep in touch through the comments on this webpage.

You belong on the earth. Your experiences are real and you are not alone.

The 2017 List: 13 things to bring into the new year

With some truly depressing 2017 lists out there, I want to add a couple that might actually come in handy... or at least crack a smile.

Here is the Rebel With a Pen list of what to take with you when leaping into 2017:

  1. Chocolate
  2. A solar panel
  3. A manual for communicating with racists
  4. A Canadian passport or at least least a maple leaf bumper sticker
  5. Your entire library of books
  6. Wool socks
  7. A couple of 1960s protest albums
  8. Food stockpiles
  9. A bomb shelter
  10. Your family and near neighbors
  11. A first aid kit with extra bandages
  12. Your ability to laugh in the face of disaster
  13. Your generosity of spirit when it comes to people you might feel like judging

And with some of the bizarre wish lists out there, I figured that my brand of fantasy wouldn't seem far fetched at all. Here's my wish list for 2017:

  1. I wish Donald Trump would get on TV, laugh really loud and say, "Just kidding!" And then go back to his moocher lifestyle and leave us in peace.
  2. I wish everyone in the media would suddenly realize they should actually listen to scientists. Then science and climate discussions would be at the top of the news cycle all year long.
  3. I wish oil executives would realize the Indians own that land in North Dakota and that squeezing every last drop of oil out of the sand in Texas is not going to prolong their gluttonous lifestyle for very long anyway so they might as well start thinking about long-term survival.
  4. I wish my kids would wake up January 1 and realize that bickering defeats fun.
  5. I wish the next president would declare a new New Deal consisting of building solar panels to go on every roof and a light-rail system serving the entire country.
  6. I wish all the teenage ISIS fighters would get a deep hankering to go live with their mothers and watch TV until they're forty. 
  7. I wish all bombs, missiles and munitions as well as all guns not in a safe under lock and key would mysteriously disappear on January 1.
  8. I wish someone brilliant would invent a way for writers and artists to make a living at their craft.
  9. I wish Microsoft would go bankrupt and have to sell off all of its parts to independent programmers who want to make an honest living.
  10. I wish our society would begin taxing the use of natural resources instead of the labor of the working poor and the funds would be put toward educational opportunity, urban greenspaces, rural public transit and subsidies for high quality cottage industries. 
  11. I wish a benign virus would evolve and spread among humans which deactivates the part of the brain that categorizes according to skin color, speech pattern and the appearance of a person's eyes.

With those sweet and optimistic thoughts in mind, I wish you a very happy (and peaceful) new year!

Stand with those under attack: A simple gift you can give for free

There are a lot of messages out there at this time of year aimed at getting you to give to good causes. And many of those causes really do help people--ensuring that hungry people eat, refugees receive shelter and sick people get care. 

It is very gratifying to have enough to give materially. But maybe you are not one of the people who can. Or if you do give materially, you may want to give in other ways as well.

Creative Commons image by Fdecomite of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Fdecomite of Flickr.com

Right at the moment, many people are feeling that the future is bleak. There is sorrow at every turn and a looming sense of potential disaster. It is easy to become pessimistic and resort to hunkering down in our own homes, hoping the storm will pass us by.

I've been feeling that way myself and fighting for inspiration in my writing. It's humbling that the answer came to me from my younger brother.  And he probably has no idea he proposed something so actionable. 

Here's how it happened. My brother said he was going to write a letter to the local newspaper. I'd heard him saying how concerned he is about the rise in vocal racism and the apathy of many others to respond. He used to be quite idealistic and recent events had brought him nearly to tears. He's also living out in a rural area that voted nearly 70 percent for Trump, so what options did he have?

I thought I knew what to expect of his letter to a local paper. He's diplomatic, but still I thought he would try to talk some sense into his neighbors one way or another.

He did a bit but he also put something else in his letter: "I invite immigrants into this community. I will protect you physically and emotionally... People of color, people who look different, act different, are different are welcome here in this valley."

I've heard many people say they want to stand by immigrants, people of color or Muslims. And that's nice and all. But mostly we are saying these things in our bubble, whether it's on Facebook or among friends. 

We're not only not persuading anyone not to be racist, we aren't even telling the people in need of support about this. But my brother hit on a good idea, a new spin on writing letters to local newspapers. Don't write to persuade people who probably won't listen to an opposing view. Don't write to officials who aren't going to change their policies.

Instead write your letters to the people who are now living with the greatest uncertainty and fear. Address them directly.

Think of Christian refugees from Syria celebrating their first Christmas in the United States while being harassed for being Arabs. Imagine a Muslim child learning to read English opening up the local paper for homework and finding your letter. Then write with that audience in mind.

Creative Commons image by the Oregon Department of Transportation

Creative Commons image by the Oregon Department of Transportation

Tell your friends and imagine a flood of such letters. 

I welcome you. I stand by you. I am a friend. I want to have people of color, people speaking different languages, Muslims, Jews, Christians, Pagans. Hindus, people of varied gender identities and people of all shapes, sizes and talents in my community. We would miss out, if you were not here. We would be poorer and our town would lack its interest and sparkle. I want you here and I will say it openly. I won't be silent if there is hate speech or hateful policies. I am sorry for these terrifying times. I, for one, stand with you. 

There are a great many of us who agree with these statements, but we mostly say them to each other. Let's say them to the people who feel excluded and attacked. Let's start a campaign of letters to our communities, rather than to officials. 

Go ahead and make it specific. Write to foreign students or immigrants or women who have undergone an abortion or people with visible and invisible disabilities or the quiet people of non-Christian faiths who repeat "Merry Christmas" cheerily without ever hearing their own holidays mentioned. 

You will touch someone deeply, almost certainly make someone's day or week. And if enough of us do it, you will also open the hearts of others who may need to look beyond their personal experience to believe in good people of every kind. It doesn't matter if you are also personally one of the people affected by the uncertainty. There is still someone out there who will be glad to hear you stand with them.

A holiday letter seems like an overly simple thing to give. But under some circumstances it can be a great gift.

And thank you for reading my writing this year. I wish you comfort, simple joy and shared love in this season.

The Great Divide of the Twenty-first Century: In search of mutual understanding between rich and poor

I have said my virtual hearth is open to any and all who seek a little comfort and soul nourishment. And I stand by that, because the ancient concept of hospitality is near and dear to me. Without lines of discrimination and without pre-judgment, you are welcome here. 

Creative Commons image by Urbansnaps-Kennymc of Flickr

Creative Commons image by Urbansnaps-Kennymc of Flickr

That doesn’t mean I claim to understand every perspective in the world which is not my own or to truly know all kinds of people. I make mistakes sometimes, make assumptions or simply have a set of priorities that is not the same as someone else’s. While I have been able to come to deep understanding with people of all races, nations and creeds without much trouble and I have embraced transgender, gay and lesbian friends, while I’ve made common cause with people who perceive the world in opposite ways from mine, there are perspectives I struggle to grok. I say “struggle,” because I do try.

The other day I was observing two acquaintances of mine having an on-line argument about Social Security and poverty in the US. Both of the people involved are vastly wealthy by my standards and their argument was mostly about whether or not Hillary Clinton is bad or good news for poor people. Finally, one of them got fed up and said: “Never mind, you and I don't agree on this one, period. I'm going to Amazon to see whether I can buy something. Time to get rid of my decrepit 32" TV and upgrade to a 40" or maybe a 42".” 

Creative Commons image by Richard of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Richard of Flickr.com

This person’s avatar was a white, fluffy dog and I suspected she was being sarcastic. I put in some laugh emoticons for her apt joke, but suggested that upgrading one’s TV to a larger size is too cliched when making fun of the concerns of rich people. I suggested saying you were going to Amazon to get a load of books or kitchen utensils might be less likely to support prejudice. 

As it turned out Fluffy Dog was not being sarcastic. 

She was perfectly serious. Her TV was eight years old and she wanted a bigger one. She really did feel that was a reasonable change of subject in a discussion of the poverty experienced by older people who have worked all their lives and are still barely able to eat in retirement. 

She was offended because she thought I was implying she doesn’t read or cook enough. For the record, she says she also buys three times as many books as she can read and actually reads two books a week. She noted that she could outfit three kitchens, given her love of shopping for kitchen utensils. But she did not notice that my comment was supportive humor.

Needless to say she got mad and huffy and insisted that she knows what it’s like to be poor because she has traveled to 150 countries and volunteered four times at a soup kitchen, so she’s seen poverty.

Live simply that others may simply live - Creative Commons image by Dina-Roberts Wakulczyk

Live simply that others may simply live - Creative Commons image by Dina-Roberts Wakulczyk

Oh dear. Where to start?

I believe that mutual understanding between those with incomes over $100,000 and those with incomes less than $30,000 would be a good start toward the survival of our species—I.e. surviving climate change, the refugee crisis, ISIS, endless war and all the rest of today’s troubles. We must be able to understand each other, but at the moment it feels like we are speaking different languages, both made up of English words with vastly differing meanings. 

I failed to understand or to make myself clear to my acquaintance, who isn’t a bad sort at all, although possibly afflicted with an impaired ability to laugh at her own foibles. So, I have been thinking on how to explain the vast gulf of understanding between us. First, we must know that we are missing each other in order to ever come together.

The fact is that I would be considered “very poor” by anyone making over $100,000. I live a lifestyle that is far below the average income or consumption in the United States and Western Europe. It is altogether possible that all of humanity could live at a modest level like this (even all the millions in China and India) without causing great harm to the planet or necessitating a massive die-off (though we would still need to slow down our fertility to avert disaster). That said, I don’t look poor . Most people who live at this level don’t, unless they have been hit with a disaster or a crisis. Poverty is as much about relative vulnerability to crisis as it is about the day-to-day material standard of living. 

Mine isn’t a lifestyle you can sit back and enjoy. That’s true. You’ve got to use a myriad of smart and hard-working hacks to make it work, but I don’t spend my days in drudgery and hunger. 

Creative Commons image by Hernán Piñera

Creative Commons image by Hernán Piñera

It requires using and reusing whatever you can, considering second-hand clothes a non-issue, cooking mostly from scratch and growing as much of it as you can locally, using public transportation and finding fun vacations near home, using rainwater and solar for lots of things... It can be done and it can be done well. 

The only time my family notices we are "poor" is when we think about some major trips we'd like to take. That requires a lot of planning, but it is possible. We're currently working on a two-year plan to go to Corsica, where we will camp and cycle and have a blast without great expense. 

There are difficulties to be sure. Having a disability when you have little financial resources is hard. And it is much easier to do poverty well when you are part of a mutually supportive community that shares your troubles, rather than being isolated in relatively wealthy suburbia. 

But living in a country with sane, developed-world (and yes, that obviously means single-payer) health care and free, merit-based higher education helps a lot. But despite these advantages, we buy things at prices higher than those in the US, not lower the way you might think prices would be in a “poor country.” We simply live more simply and quite differently with different assumptions and priorities.

I’ve lived this way in the US too. The difference there is the feeling of constantly walking the edge of a precipice. I’ve seen those who did poverty reasonably well fall over the cliff and end in serious desperation. But as long as you’re lucky, you can live well on a modest income in most of the world. That’s the first thing I think rich people don’t understand. Living simply need not mean want and misery.

And what is it that I need to understand about the other side? Well, if I knew I wouldn’t need it anymore, would I? I do not wish to make jokes at another’s expense, but rather to laugh with others at our own antics and use it as fuel for change. I try not to be judgmental because even though my knee-jerk reaction is that "rich" people (by my standards) simply can't spend that much money without actually throwing it as confetti, I know from real conversations that this simply isn't true and that many people who have ten times the income we do feel like they are struggling.

What is the key to understanding? I start with this. All are welcome at my hearth, to be accepted and to find purpose. My aim is to feed souls and that hunger comes in many forms.