Trust... or the art of life amid crisis

I know how to trust.

Really I do. When I was younger, I traveled all over the world, met people who I didn’t share a language with and trusted them with my safety. I told people my story, my life, my vulnerability. I got rejected a lot or found that my story wasn’t important. And still I kept on being “naive.”

My children seem to be trying to train me not to trust. Since they grew out of toddlerhood and got past the stair gates, they have been getting into things, raiding the cupboards for slime-making ingredients, sneaking treats before dinner, hiding their dirty clothes and jumbled toys in the most ingenious places to avoid cleaning their rooms and memorizing my phone password every chance they get. I have learned that part of trust is trusting that kids will try to get sweets. electronics, dangerous chemicals and matches as soon as your back is turned.

Chick bird spring vulnerability trust - CC image via pixabay.jpg

Trust, in reality, means that if I give my first kid money to go to the store and buy bread and an ice cream, there is likely to be an armload of the worst junk food coming. If I give the money to the other kid, the money has a 50 percent chance of being lost on the way to the corner shop, but if it doesn’t get lost, the bread will come back along with a receipt for the devoured ice cream. Or at least the receipt will start the journey home.

But then again either might not happen. Nothing is guaranteed.

After many years break from community life and activism, I have joined an activist group again, this time focused on demanding emergency action on climate change from governments and corporations. It is a decentralized organization and yet one focused on coordinated, efficient and sometimes even risky action. It is also incredibly diverse, spanning the political spectrum and socioeconomic ladder. I sit next to students, psychologists, IT professionals, teachers and fast food employees in meetings. We don’t know each other and in order to accomplish the enormous task before us, we must trust each other.

I have to trust that our fellows will:

  • do what they promised, so that I can do my part in the work without having to wait too long on them,

  • not betray confidences to those that might stand against us,

  • forego temptations to pursue personal agendas that might harm our cause,

  • be honest,

  • care,

  • and not make careless mistakes that may endanger us all.

It is no small thing. I can see why a lot of people say they aren’t “joiners.” I am still more “naive” than most and the initial trust is not that hard for me. I trust that almost all of my fellows are good, conscientious and kind. I also trust that they are overwhelmed and busy. I trust that they will make mistakes and forget important tasks. And I trust that someday one of the few who are not conscientious will turn out to be an informant planted by institutions bent on bringing us down.

I am certain it will happen. But I also know that worrying about it will do little good.

After all this, you’d think I had trust down. But I don’t.

Recently someone in authority within the organization came to my group and asked us to do something that sounds like it could destroy much of the gains we have made over the past weeks. This person did not give details and insisted that authority and the traditions of the organization dictate that we must abide by these decisions.

I am confused. This is supposed to be a decentralized movement. How then, can we find ourselves under direct orders, required to follow instructions without understanding the reasoning? And part of the answer given is that things are bigger than we can see in the international movement. There are urgent actions needed for our goal and like soldiers on the front lines, there are times when we have to take orders as a matter of survival. Our mission to avert climate change is a matter of survival after all.

So, I am in a crisis of trust.

It would be immensely comforting to have a leader I could trust implicitly and automatically. That’s what my fiction is about. If you’ve read the Kyrennei series… well, I wish I had a Jace McCoy. But I don’t. We almost never do in the real world.

The reason Jace McCoy in the story—and his co-leader Dasha, for that matter—is so trusted and has the unswerving loyalty of J. Company is that he has been successful where so many others have failed. He has survived 40 years of guerrilla warfare against an immense foe. His gambles have almost always been right and he is a brilliant strategist and tactician. His people know that.

But they weren’t born knowing it. Each of them went through a process of becoming so loyal, including Aranka Miko. And in the end, he proves that her trust is warranted, no matter the cost to him personally.

Okay, that’s fantasy fiction. But that is why I wrote it. As dark as the Kyrennei series seems on some levels, it is actually a comforting fantasy to many. It is about the hope that we could have such trust among us in crisis.

And today there is no doubt that we are in a crisis of survival. I remember reading about the greenhouse effect in third grade science class in 1985. And now climate change is at the door and very little has been done since I was a kid to avert the looming disaster. Reports coming from scientists are increasingly desperate and our daily lives are being affected in ever increasing ways.

So, we need people willing to take risks and go into a massive struggle. We may not have a Jace McCoy but we do almost have a J. Company. There is one group that has achieved significant real results in forcing governments to take urgent action and that is the growing international movement of Extinction Rebellion. The structure and principles of this organization have been tried… maybe not for forty years, but they have been tested and have come through better than any of the many other organizations that have attempted this task. There is even a real-world sixteen-year-old prophetic voice of hope, just as in the my fantasy.

And yet I know that people are terribly imperfect. What I see right in front of me is a community movement poised at a fragile moment in new country and a leader with a heavy-hand and a plan that doesn’t make sense and doesn’t appear to follow the Extinction Rebellion model faithfully. And I am asked to believe that this leader is the genuine article. But I’ve only been with them for a few weeks.

Trust does not come easy this time, not even for me.

The morning after all this cames down I ventured outside to take a break from the messages online that bring troubling news. It’s chilly and bright with a stiff wind dropping the last of the blackberry blossoms.

And there in the duck house I found a miracle that I only thought might possibly occur. Baby chicks.

You see I have big black hens of the Australorp breed and I love them for many reasons. They’re hardy, have good homing instincts and they lay a lot of beautiful, large eggs with pale shells that come in handy for spring painting as well as eating. But they have one problematic breed characteristic. They are bad mothers. Apparently some people don’t think so, but my hens have shown absolutely no interest in sitting on their eggs in three years.

So, early this spring when one of the Indian Runner ducks that guard my vegetable garden against slugs started brooding and sitting on eggs, I replaced her eggs with the Australorp eggs. I have no male ducks, so she wouldn’t be able to have any ducklings, no matter how hard she sat on her duck eggs.

It was a fly-by-night experiment and I didn’t really think it would work. I also miscalculated how soon to expect the chicks and so I was completely unprepared for their appearance. The duck pen had not been secured and the chicks scattered out through the large holes in the wire fence into the empty lot next door. The adoptive mother duck could not follow them and she was frantic, calling them and flapping her wings, but the chicks ignored her.

I went out and waded through the knee high patch of giant nettles to herd the chicks back into the pen. Then I spent the next two hours shoring up the pen and catching stray chicks, which I could hear but couldn’t see because I’m ninety percent blind.

It would have been comic had anyone been watching me gingerly chase baby chicks around the yard while being careful not to step on those that stopped and curled into little gray balls. Oh yes, Australorp chicks are not handily yellow. They’re gray.

When I finally had everything that peeped contained, I peeked inside the coop. One of the chicks had fallen into the large water dish meant for adult ducks and was struggling to get out. The mother duck, thinking she had a duckling on her hand, was watching fondly, apparently assuming it was time for him to learn to swim.

I reached in to help the poor little chick out of the water but the mother duck struck at my hand with the speed and force of a rattlesnake. I jerked my hand back with a yelp of pain. I talked to her soothingly but continued to watch the chick, which was not drowning but should not be in cold water at all. Finally I made another attempt and earned a nasty bruise for my trouble.

Despite all my help in rounding up her adopted babies the mother duck was nowhere close to trusting me.

But my faith in the powers of life and mother nature was somewhat restored, even so. I could now ponder my own situation a bit more philosophically.

In some ways, I am like the mother duck. I have found something I passionately believe in and I have young, timid volunteers lining up with desperate hope in their voices. And anyone who looks like they might threaten that is libel to get bruised. I’m not particularly in the mood to take chances.

The tough little Australorp chick managed to get him or her own self out of the water dish and snuggle back into the mother’s warm feathers. He was still alive the next day.

I rigged up a small water feeder for the baby chicks in hopes that they would stay out of the adult water dish and made sure they had chick food. Each day I visit them several times, because the mother duck tends to accidentally upset the baby water container.

She doesn’t seem to be putting the chicks into the water as she might with ducklings. She’s keeping them warm and protected from the cold spring wind. And now she only hisses at me when I reach in to change the water and food containers.

Trust comes hard in these times. But I still believe in it, at least in theory.

No comparison: Privilege is a big deal

It's one of the first warm days of spring. The kids are playing together for once, instead of tormenting each other, and I'm taking full advantage of the moment, turning the soil in garden beds and planting peas and carrots as fast as I can.

Then I hear a horrible screeching from the empty lot next door. There are words in it, though barely.. "Get out... like rats... this is ours." 

There's more but that's enough. It's an adult voice yelling but it is followed by the shrieking laughter and pounding feet of children, fleeing from the sounds of it.

I put down the shovel and strip off my work gloves. But I don't have to search far to find the kids. They are breathless and covered with fresh black dirt. I pry the story out of them. The neighbor lady from down the hill, someone who wants nothing to do with us, yelled at them for playing in the empty lot. 

"She said it's hers but it's not!" my nine-year-old daughter fumes.

Creative Commons image courtesy of Stefan Lins

Creative Commons image courtesy of Stefan Lins

She's right in that the lot belongs to an absentee landlord and local law supports  recreational use of unfenced land. I pry further though and learn that the children discovered a nice tall dirt pile in the empty lot and they were "sledding"  down it.

Thus the condition of their clothes... and no doubt the reaction of the neighbor.

I explain that the dirt pile probably does belong to the neighbor, even if it's in the empty lot. The kids are unrepentant. They don't understand about the need to keep a load of dirt in it's pile, not spread all around and packed into the sand and weeds. My daughter refers to the neighbor lady in distinctly disrespectful terms. I reprimand her but part of me is also livid inside.

Rats? That's what I heard the lady shriek at them and my stomach is roiling--not with anger so much as with fear.

The kids also don't understand the potential consequences of getting into trouble with the neighbors in this little town, which is already not particularly friendly to children with olive skin and dark-lashed, "striking" eyes. The kids from our street--otherwise all particularly pale white--roam around freely and I've never heard the them scolded by a neighbor,. But my kids seem to run up against hostility on a regular basis. I don't think my kids are exactly angels, but this was the first time I'd heard of them doing something harmful off of our property..

Having a mixed family has enlightened me about many realities I did not used to understand, such as the heightened risk of trouble kids of color run and the fears of their parents.

Most white people don't grok "white privilege" because it is a term that encompasses things that we not only take for granted but feel are merely the way life is. If you go to a coffee shop in clean clothes with money in your pocket and wait for a friend, nothing negative will happen. You go golfing and you just golf. You walk down the street, shop, get in your car and talk to your kid's teacher and it's all placid and uneventful. If you're a kid and you slide down a dirt pile, you might get told off but that will be the end of it. 

To white people this seems like life as usual, simply enjoying the experience of a peaceful and prosperous society. The hitch is that this experience of peace should be for everyone.

After nine years, I know that it isn't.

There was the time my son pushed another kid and nearly got expelled from preschool, even though the teachers agreed that sort of thing happens every day among the boys and my son is no worse than any of the others. He did get banned from school once over ant bites on his knee and the resulting concerns over contagion from "dirty people." My daughter came home at four years old crying because people called her "black" and she was terrified that meant she was going to turn the color black. How was she to know that olive-skinned Roma are sometimes called "black" in lily-white Central Europe?

So I give the kids a lecture I never got from my parents, my voice low and deadly serious. "You treat adults with respect! Period! Do you hear me? You listen and speak respectfully to adults. I don't care if you think the lady is wrong. You apologize and walk away. That's it."

I never needed that lecture, even though I was a wild kid who chased the neighbors cows. I was white. Now I feel like I'm channeling the father in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. 

On the weekend my Nigerian friend from the city comes over and confides in me the struggles of dealing with white teachers in the Czech schools. Her youngest son is under constant attack because a teacher insists he is "dirty"  and doesn't have "basic hygiene habits." 

She's honestly confused. Sure, he sometimes has to be reminded to wash his hands. He's only five. But he willingly goes to wash if told and he's quiet and respectful to a fault, which I envy. 

But I know the Central European short-hand. Whenever they want to question the presence of a child of color in the classroom they default to concerns over "basic hygiene habits." It's like a code phrase. 

Creative Commons image courtesy of C. Thomas Anderson

Creative Commons image courtesy of C. Thomas Anderson

This year we are more and more aware of the entitlement and privilege that fuels injustice. It is good to see awareness growing. More and more people are seeing privilege and entitlement for what it is--the driving force of deeper injustice. 

The weekend is over and the kids are back in school. On Monday afternoon I get on my electric scooter, which helps me get around since I can neither drive nor walk long distances due to disability. This is how I pick up my kids from school and do the shopping The scooter can move at a walking pace and stop instantly. It works well, even on the narrow sidewalks in our small town. 

The kids walk downtown next to me, except when we have to go single file in the narrowest spots. My daughter has a dance class on the town square. My son and I go into the delicatessen next door to get him a sandwich. The nice man behind the counter greets us in English. We chat back and forth. His English is really quite good.

Then another man--fifty-ish--walks in and stands at the counter. Before our acquaintance can ask what he wants, the newcomer says loudly to the cashier, "Why don't you tell that lady there to get off the sidewalks?"  

My heart starts pounding. Again I am not offended, so much as terrified. This is what I have feared, since a few angry people started yelling at me on the street. I have been so careful, making sure to yield to anyone on foot. The sidewalks are narrow here after all and I'm not certain about the legalities of my situation, since my mobility device isn't actually a wheelchair.

The man behind the counter looks stunned, his eyes wide.

"Please, sir,"  I say to the belligerent customer in as conciliatory a voice as I can muster. "Please let me explain. I'm legally blind. I can't go in traffic. And I can't drive a car." 

The man turns toward me a bit. "I know," he grunts.

"We live on the edge of town. It's two kilometers to get to the pediatrician or the post office," I stammer.

"I know where you live." His voice is gruff and unforgiving.

"I have problems with the bones in my legs and I can't walk all that way. That's why I ride that scooter," I explain.

"I know."  

"I'm very careful. It doesn't hurt anyone." 

His tone has become a bit less confrontational at least. "I know all that. I just think you shouldn't take up the sidewalk." 

"I'm very careful. I always let other people go first if the sidewalk is narrow." 

"Whatever."  He has managed to make a purchase during our discussion and he walks out. 

But the fear is still there. I know my situation is precarious. The local police could forbid me to use the scooter on the sidewalk, since it isn't officially a wheelchair and I can technically walk. I just can't walk two kilometers without significant pain. If these grouchy people complain to the police or if I make a tiny mistake, the consequences could be severe. 

I understand now that it is the same for my kids, even without a disability. Where white kids would get away with a scolding, they could be reported to the police or expelled from school. The stakes are higher and the stress is chronic. 

Interconnection: A child's encounter with new life


My normally hyperactive, constant-motion child sits for hours by the box on the back veranda--cuddling, cooing, coaxing. 

Once in a long while, I predict a parenting moment correctly. I decided to take on the responsibility of a litter of kittens during my kids' middle childhood. And it took planning. 

Creative Commons image by Sergey Ivanov

Creative Commons image by Sergey Ivanov

Some might ask why i would plan to contribute to the overpopulation of small furry creatures. My first reason is that I always felt a measure of guilt that I had my first beloved cat spayed fourteen years ago, before she had a chance to have even one kitten.

I watched her pine and grieve over other kittens. She almost adopted a kitten who came to live at our neighbor's house. He followed her around a bit, but didn't stay attached to her.

All this was made extra poignant by the fact that I was struggling with unexplained infertility at the time and it eventually led to adoption. Some small part of me wondered if my inability to have children wasn't a kind of karmic retribution, even though I know all the theories claiming that spaying is the kindest thing we can do for our pets. 

I will get my cat spayed and I already have more prospective adoptive homes lined up than I have  kittens to fill them. But I feel a sense of relief having gone through with it.

My second reason has to do with my children, who I finally did find at the end of my own long road. Having a litter of kittens at home was one of my great childhood dreams (which went unfulfilled along with the shiny black dress shoes I coveted).  Beyond that, I believe that watching birth and the bonding between a mother and her young is a fundamental part of education that is often missed by human children today. 

If I could persuade my ducks or hens to exercise their parenting instincts I would have baby chicks as well. But the only easily observable mother around turns out to be our new cat, a flighty year-old adolescent herself. She was abandoned as a kitten and we adopted her after my first cat died. 

We waited to allow her a litter of kittens before being spayed--for her sake and for the education of our next human generation. 

The kids watched her grow heavy with a drooping belly. They wondered as her behavior changed, while she searched for security and struggled with the pain of birth. They ran to me at least twenty times, calling out that the kittens were being born. And each time it was a false alarm.

Finally one afternoon, my six-year-old son came to me with round, solemn eyes. "The kittens are there," he said. "They are already born."

Creative Commons image by SuPeRnOvA of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by SuPeRnOvA of Flickr.com

I hurried to look and sure enough the cat, who in retrospect I realized had been strangely quiet that day, lay with four tiny vaguely rat-shaped bundles attached to the tits on her underside. 

Still it was my older child who was most overwhelmed. Though she usually has great difficulty controlling her impulses, she took to heart admonitions against picking up the newborns and sat occasionally stroking their backs with one tentative finger for as long as we would let her in the evening. 

Getting her to sleep that night was as difficult as it has ever been on the eve of a major holiday. She lay in bed wriggling with delight and anticipation, believing the tiny beings in the cat's basket would be running and romping with her the very next day.

Kittens do grow quickly, but not instantly. In fact, their timing is well calibrated to teach small humans--who can conceive of about a week but no more--the rudiments of patience. 

The children observed the chewed off remnants of umbilical cords on the kitten's bellies. Now they watch as the kittens totter about and open their eyes. They learned amazing amounts from this, so much more than they absorb from school or books. 

And the thought that so many children today never get to closely observe this process of new life gives me pause. No wonder we are so disconnected from life and our interdependence with the natural world. This seems to me to be such a fundamental building block--as crucial as reading or addition. 

The simple awe-inspiring beauty of kittens is nigh unto to universal. An acquaintance passing by on a bike ride thanked me profusely after my children showed her the kittens. I was momentarily perplexed, but she explained that seeing them was just what she had needed.

The calming and centering effect on children for whom every day at school is a struggle is clear. I do hope this time I have done right by all.

Put down your burdens and breathe in the spring

The first day when the vibrant green of new grass shows through, the first moment when the sun really warms your back again--it may be unseasonably early but spring is still good.

In some ways, this spring feels better than any I can remember. It's partly because I have two functional greenhouses--an investment of two years of physical labor and financial scrimping. Now they are already full of leafy young greens, radishes, carrot tops just poking through and young cucumber vines braving the still chilly mornings. I also have chickens laying smooth eggs that fit perfectly into the palm of your hand and impart a sense of comfort and security. 

Creative Commons image by Song River - CowGirlZen 

Creative Commons image by Song River - CowGirlZen 

That makes this spring particularly lively and the changing weather gives me reason for a bit of joy. But more than that I am thankful for the contrast from the rest of life. My work necessitates sitting at a computer for hours on. A few more hours are spent in on-line, telephone and graphic design activism to help civil rights and democracy-oriented organizations back home in the US in this difficult time. . 

I'm heartened to see the surge of interest and activism in the United States over the past few months after what felt like decades of apathy and disinterest on issues such as climate change, the undermining of our democracy, structural racism and rule by corporations. But the activist work still often feels insurmountable and i am like a kid getting out of school when I get up for a break and go to work outdoors. 

Old wisdom has it that you often love the time of year in which you were born and I suppose that might explain part of it. But there is no period when the air is cleaner or better than it is in early spring. The coal smoke of fall and winter has blown away on brisk winds and washed away with the gentle, misty rains. Summer dust and heat has not yet come. Now and for the next month and a half, it is delight to take big lung-fulls of the air, even in town. 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

I know there are people who suffer from pollen allergies even this early in the year. That seems like a particular injustice. And I do mean injustice. Rates of allergies and rates of chemical pollution and use of pesticides are closely correlated. I count my blessings having grown up far from industry and large-scale agriculture. Thus I find myself allergic to almost nothing, except hypocrisy and money (including m own oddly enough).

My hands are a bit cracked and dry from all the digging in garden soil, but I have herbal salves for that. I hung wind chimes on the back deck, so the song of the wind and the soft clucking of the ducks follows me as I water and coax the young plants.  

Meanwhile, on-line there seems to be a campaign to divide Democrats from supporters of third parties or independent options. Many on both sides will defend their perspective at all cost, but the hand of corporations such as social media and internet companies in gleefully promoting the acrimony is also clearly evident.

Even I have been cut out of two of the largest on-line activist organizations, though I refrained from negative comments, never used crude language and only rarely posted articles at all. The official reason given in one group was the scandalous discovery (found by browsing my page and history, rather than through my comments) that I had volunteered to help a local Green Party chapter. I never knew that was against the group rules as it was supposed to be a progressive activism group, and the other large progressive group banned me though I had not made any recent comments, most likely due to shared administrators with the no-Greens-allowed group.

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

It is actually not that hard to shrug off my momentary resentment at this exclusion from the largest on-line activism groups. It is less easy to banish the fear that wells up inside me. We have this a slim chance to resist tyranny and we seem to be letting it slip away for the most banal of reasons--infighting between those who should be allies. And worse yet, while some of this infighting appears to be organic, some is spurred on by precisely those interests that stand to lose if democracy wins the latest arm wrestle with fascism. 

My heart is heavy after an evening spent on my publishing work and a discussion with the Google content removal department, which despite the filing of official complaints refuses to remove links to pirated copies of my books. Google's official policy continues to state that they will remove such links and no reason was given in their official refusal letter, except that they believe since i published the work, I agreed to its "public" use, despite copyright laws. 

It appears that the corporate behemoths will always flatten you in the end, even when you think you've found a crack in their glass ceilings. My professional work is fragile and completely at the mercy of companies like Google. And if all life was contained in their computerized world, it would truly feel hopeless.

The morning sunshine blazes through my windows, greeted by a wild chorus of birdsong from the tangle of brush in the empty lot next door.. I don't know what the future holds. But for now I skip outside, giddy the way I was hopping off the school bus long ago, and sink my bare hands into the earth. It is a time to put down your burdens, breathe out your sorrows and take time to be one with spring.