20 October 2011

Scarcity

The downtrodden starts with nothing, yet by self-determination, work, innovation, and courage, achieve middle class security and comfort. We fatten our cultural selves with these myths. Family, friends, schools, and media meld success tales into us with images and words. American mythology cultivates rags to riches tales; some stories are even true.

I was born into riches. My birth parents attained upper middle-class post World War II security and comfort. I lived it. I never dreamed it. It was the air I breathed and water I drank. My parents did what they wanted and possessed what they wanted. My parents taught me I could do anything and have anything. My parents gave me resources to do this. They were proud of it!

For my father and my mother their tool was the mind. My mother was ashamed of her farm family laboring life. My father was ashamed of his laboring shanty-irish railroad family. Labor was what someone else did. Their mind, not body and hands, was their tool. The use of mind, not character, was their ideal. It was the very beginning of the end of an economic, social, and cultural time. This was their time and my father taught me, “You can do anything you want.” He’d say it again, over time again and again. Now I sense he was reassuring himself, intuitively realizing he couldn't do anything he wanted, feeling, sensing, seeing his mind wasn't enough. He voiced contempt for this son's choices. What was to come for the son whose father taught him he could do anything he wanted? I’m a cultural antithesis of Horatio Alger. No one dreams of the everything to nothing story.

I’m proud, but now not so much that I’m blind to blessings and ashamed by my limitations. I labor with my hands and body. I bring my mind with me. I persist at new tasks that feel, but are not, overwhelming. I try with the best I'm blessed with, and I sense I do good enough. I do not feel the goal I accomplish. I see darkly what I've done. I might speak, but I sense no one who might listen and hear. What can one learn from one who started with a silver spoon and lives now with his sense of limitations?

I'm blessed with an abundance of resources. I have food, clothing, and shelter that are good enough. I have physical and mental health and access to medical care. I have family, loved ones, and a social network of fellowship. I have work and the needed tools for fruitful use for myself and others. I have financial resources and use them prudently. I have education, the gift to learn from my failures, and for self-expression. I have accomplishments and achievements that reflect me and my history and culture, which I pray may give meaning to others. I know social cues and skills, freedom of choice, and navigate culture. I have spiritual and religious resources and I express them for my sustenance and that of others. This litany of I have is success. Lord, I believe. Please help me recall your blessings, and please help my unbelief.

10 October 2011

Hired Help

My mother called the help “hired help.” The hired help were negro women. The hired help began in Connecticut, maybe 1956. I’d’ve been 5 years old. Hired help wore a uniform. The uniform was a Pantone Cool-Grey 4, accented with white ‘camp-shirt’ pointed lapel collars, buttoned white cuffs on sleeve, and an apron, bow tied at the back waist, and in the front coming to a middle point. The uniform and apron were ironed and starched.

The hired help washed, pressed, and starched all laundry in all my birth family homes; there were three. In my early birth family Connecticut house I recall the hired help in the basement. The basement was divided, finished and unfinished. Unfinished was the laundry area. It was darkish, lit by daylight from windows and bare bulb. It was furnished with iron and ironing board, sprinkling bottles, an Ironite Mangle Iron, maybe model #85, brushes of various types, old-timey wooden stocking hangers, deep sinks, washboard, and little wire soap cages with handles made for by-hand scrubbings in the deep sinks. I don’t recall washer and dryer.

In the Connecticut summerhouse, to which we decamped, the hired help lived in a back room. It was her room, with sink, commode, and shower. We were rarely permitted in the hired help’s room. A back porch and its grey floor was screened, with a screen door to the backyard, and connected and separated the house from the back room. There were two 12-pane glass doors, one to living room, one to kitchen, and a door to garage.

The hired help had Sunday off. I recall her leaving by the back porch screen door. Floral print dress, straw hat, black handbag, white gloves, and sensible black laced shoes with slight heels. Where was she going? To church. How did she go? She walks; it seemed a long way. She returned in late evening coming in by the back porch screen door.

In the Ohio house the entire basement was finished. The laundry room was bright and light. A laundry chute dumped laundry to it. The Ironite iron made its way too. It was a nifty machine. I’d stand by the help as she fed crumpled bed sheets into it. I’d watch them roll out as pressed starched cloth ribbons. I don’t recall conversations.

I recall the help serving guests at cocktail parties. A black women’s krewe, in their cool-grey-4 uniforms in the pink kitchen, serving guests in the dining and living rooms. The krewe was alive with conviviality in the kitchen. Somehow I was permitted in their company. It was exceptional. My mother did not care for my being in company with the help. The help never baby-sat me. The help never cooked for my family or me.
I think the help’s most challenging work was managing my mother, maybe my mother and my father.

There was a steady stream of black women who came and went. At some point help stopped in our house. I recall TV and seeing more black people than I’d ever seen. I recall dogs and police, fire hoses, marches, and speeches. Later on I attended the 1964 Newport Folk Festival; I was 13! Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Muddy Waters, and Odetta entered my consciousness, then Koerner, Glover, and Ray, and B.B. King.

07 October 2011

Ducat

“George, the tithe is the best practice,” the pater said. Our stewardship conversation had gotten ‘round to the tithe, and I’d figured, dive in. “I do not tithe.” I had their attention, the pater’s too. “Do you have a plan to work on it?” he inquired. “No, not in the sense that I use envelopes and when the cash runs out . . . ‘Then you’re out’ another said. “Right. We do proportional giving and we steadily increase our giving year by year.

We couldn’t meet our pledge last year. We were afraid. I told our rector. He said, ‘Not to worry.’ I’m thinking, ‘I gave my word.’ I’m embarrassing myself and us. I don’t like reneging but I’ll own it, especially amongst stewardship peers. I’ve some pride and I value and respect standing. It’s hard to earn and easy to degrade. In our parish we have a little standing. My wife was Senior Warden. I’ve served on Vestry, served as Treasurer, chair of the Finance Committee. We’ve done more too. I'd tell folks, “I don’t speak for my wife. My wife doesn't speak for me.” I limit the value I place on standing.

I reneged and my wife was taken aback. She did not speak or act then to object. We know we’re pinched. Later I learn our reneged pledge is paid. This I discover from our church statement. She didn’t tell me. “I paid the balance,” she said. “How’d ya do that?” “I sold my ducat.”

“You’re not angry are you?” Weeks earlier she’d told me, in exasperation, and with reason, “Everything makes you mad!” “No, I’m not, I’m proud of you. Thank you.” It was hers. It’s what ducats are for. I was sorry for her loss, felt disappointment but more pride and admiration for her upholding our commitment.

In my past a priest, who was my social and economic peer and friend, betrayed me. I felt shunned in my parish home in which I wedded two times and had friends. A different priest, in a different parish home and another time, spoke to Sarah, his Senior Warden, in a manner unbecoming a person empowered and ordained by the Church. So I’m not to speak my truth with my stewardship peers about our personal financial giving? What’s next? More betrayal, loss of fellowship, and shunning by friends? More powerlessness?

I acted. I spoke truth in person. I reneged in person. I labor to shoulder my part, and at times, not so successfully. People with an abundance of resources, with power to have and to make choices, may self select to hide and may choose to insulate their selves and their choices.

We are real when we strip away hiding and insulation and are accountable.