Monday, December 6, 2010
A Letter to Myself at Twenty-Two
Your Vista housemate David Soffa dug up this photo from November of 1969. Six months out of college and you seem so serious. Looks like you are standing in front of a brick wall. I know you felt more like you were up against it. Let me tell you now, from where I sit, you’ve moved above this wall.
Though I haven’t seen you in quite a while, you have always been in my thoughts. Over the years, your passion, intuition, and experience have served me well. This year in Texas will turn out to be more meaningful than you realize. That doesn’t matter now. What matters is what I need to tell you, so listen carefully; there will be no question/answer session to follow.
I know you are disturbed by the poverty you have seen. The black and white photos and TV images can’t begin to address the sensory overload that comes with life on the edge. Continue to absorb everything. Open up your senses. Let the food you eat, the streets you walk, and the faces you see become seared in your brain. Look deeply at the red color of the beans, the gray-spotted Masa Harina, the five shades of green in the watermelon rind. Taste more of that government cheese, powered milk and peanut butter from the can. Capture forever the dry, bleached, cracked wood of your house, the flashy turquoise exterior of the barbeque place down the street; look again at their juke box near the counter with only B.B. King, Little Milton and Bobby “Blue” Bland records. Take in Carl Adam’s smile, the swollen veins in his arms, his children’s sepia skin. File away Juke Boy Bonner’s well-worn guitar, Lightin’ Hopkins gold teeth, and someone’s midnight wail around the corner. Keep looking for the culture of the underclass, it’s sometimes hidden by the refuse of cheap and cheaper highs, Apple Wine, MD 20/20, Robitussin, and Thunderbird. Let the imprint become permanent. Breathe in the steaming sopa at Las Casuelas, hear the conjunto sound of Flaco Jimenez. The neighborhoods, issues, living conditions you encounter daily will surely change; sadly, others just as bad will take their place. The inequity and injustice that chips away at your spirit can silence you. Don’t let it. Change will come. Not as you might imagine, and even more slowly. But it will happen. Nothing ever gets in the way of an idea whose time has come. There will be joy.
I’m proud of you for treating the people you lived with as family. Remember that quality and use it well throughout your teaching career. Keep a critical eye. Your ability to empathize with those you serve is deeply embedded. It’s an important part of who you are. In all you do, don’t ever forget that. “Treat your students as if they were your own children” will become a popular catch phrase. They are your own children. There will come a time when you take severe criticism for siding with poor people. Americans don’t want to see poverty; it smells, it’s inconvenient, it’s ugly, it exudes guilt, and it especially gets in the way of having a good time. Yes, I’m afraid it’s a constant. People will tell you it’s always been around and always will and they are right. But deal with the folks you encounter as individuals, try not to blame them for their conditions, and continue to help them see the big picture. Encourage that elderly couple you met at the welfare rights meetings to keep voting, despite the budget cuts they must endure. Whenever you encounter an all too threatening alcoholic, remember Solomon Scott. His caustic wit and fierce intelligence will help you separate the disease from the person. Like other social ills, poverty takes many forms. The bankrupt exist in all levels of income. True, there is no reason to romanticize life on the bottom, but like a riverbed, it can be rich in nutrients. Feed from this stream; emerge like it’s aquatic insects and watch where your wings take you. Like most self-perpetuating systems, poverty can be overcome. It’s simply a matter of will.
Your fear, while inhibiting, is powerful. Keep it separate from your anger and it too will serve you well. Who wouldn’t fear the KKK, oversized roaches, untrustworthy cops or the most violent urban areas in the country? Laugh with your fear. (Give it a try, at least) That will help you keep perspective and remind you of all things human. Try not to let your fear interfere with your judgment. You have an innate ability to see all sides of an issue. Develop that quality. Hone it thoughtfully and see if it doesn’t dispel unnecessary anxiety. Act with caution, but never fear to act. Go to Washington D.C. and march with your generation. Remind your elected officials that dissent is patriotic. Befriend the most intense fear you feel; you’ll need to, for your survival is at stake.
You’ve learned a good deal about gender and race in the last few years, but not enough, and certainly not enough about class. This year will address that in subtle ways. Pay attention. The “Father Knows Best" world of your childhood existed only on television. “Happily ever after” has been stricken from the record. Norman Rockwell land is a nice place to visit, but no one ever lives there. Keep in mind the advantages that you’ve had. (I forgive you that chuckle.) I know our family was always hovering on or below the poverty line itself, but other givens in your life have placed you ahead in the game from the outset. Your skin color grants you privilege immediately. Your education has been better than most. I know you paid for all of it, but you could work. Be ever mindful of these things.
Let me close by telling you something you may already know. This year has tested your moral compass. Your direction is set. Walk on. Your intuition won’t always save you, but on the most crucial issues it will remain solid. In the years to follow what appears set in concrete: technology, political economies, physical geography, energy resources, will erode. Turn your collar to the wind, Bruce, and like a boxing referee always says, “protect yourself at all times.” Teach others to separate their love of country from the fear of their own government. That love will keep you fighting and learning, and uncovering what matters most. That fear will continue to expose the lies and the liars. Read everything, keep singing, signing petitions and suggesting. Take risks; find the humor whenever possible, and interrupt when you must. (You do have something to say) Remember bread and roses: art lives in human need. Welcome the mystery.
The man you became.