July 2013

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Robert Frost, Meet Karl Marx…

All well-worn trails radiate calmness,
where so many boots, and shoes, and sandals,
paws, galoshes, and fleshy summer toes,
have worked the earth down into rounded edges,
like the dulling of a knife.
The line is almost fuzzy, out of focus,
between the smooth and clean undulations
of brown clay
and the unkempt edges of grass, forest, jungle.
It suggests an unspoken collective contract
between thousands,
that by asynchronously walking this same ground,
–you earlier, and me right now–
all those messy things might be held back,
kept in their place.

These are the properties that trails have.
They are social relationships, set in slow motion.

And just as the same path
can hold its rough, yet unmistakable integrity
as it grazes green fields,
then cuts deserts,
dips into seasonal creeks,
or polishes down the jagged rocks from other years’ avalanches,
it can bring the same familiarity
to fashion and fad,
to rituals of control.
To horror. To loss.
Just as the disparaging dinner table remark,
the offhand comment about your body,
is easier to take when it’s not the first,
so is each bloody sidewalk,
diabetic death,
wad of safety money rolled into newspapers,
made so much softer, even soothing,
by the rhythm of its repetition alone.

“It’s okay, my friend,”
the trail always whispers,
“you are not the first to see this thing.
Just keep going.
I need your lone, humble tread,
to make it easier for there to be a next time.”

Party of 23…

A quick family update, by the numbers.

These days, there are 23 of us in Glendi and I’s orbit of family responsibility:

    -Glendi, me, and Amanecer (3)
    -Mariana (19), Ivan (16), Josue (14), Juan Jose and Jose Juan (both 10)
    -Isabel (22) and her husband, Oswaldo
    -Walter (23), his partner Gaby (23), and their newborn, Mario David (4 months)
    -Mario (26), his wife Estefany (20), and their daughter, Genesis (4)
    -Ines (37), her husband Oswaldo (40?), and their children Celeste (17), Anavi (15), Alan (12), Pamela (10), and Melany (5)

We are the complete providers for 12 of these people, and we have regular backup responsibilities for the other 11–especially regarding emergency expenses and healthcare.

In the last two years, we have lost two immediate family members–Glendi’s parents–and we have gained two babies and two new spouses/partners.

In the last year alone, beyond the health crises and deaths of Glendi’s parents, we have struggled to help our family with:

    -Adopting the four youngest siblings so they can eventually live in the U.S. with us
    -Two lay-offs and chronic unemployment
    -Violent extortion for multiple thousands of dollars (twice)
    -Robbery at knifepoint in a bus
    -A piece of rebar through a kid’s foot
    -A piece of corrugated metal stuck in a scalp (that was me!)
    -Scarlet fever
    -Life-threatening post-childbirth sepsis
    -Multiple staph infections (potentially MRSE?)
    -Ongoing type-2 diabetes
    -Stage 1 uterine cancer
    -Potentially hereditary liver problems causing systemic allergic reactions

Since I joined the family in 2007, and with the tremendous help from so many great friends and family members, our positive material impact has included:

    -Building 1 1/2 new houses on the family property
    -Building a store that ran for a year
    -Buying two used cars (the first of which was stolen at the hospital), for safer and cheaper family transport
    -Buying a motorcycle for Glendi’s brother to commute with
    -Getting internet into the house
    -Building the family’s first septic tank, shower, and two toilets (thanks to all who donated!)
    -Buying two additional plots of land for agricultural produce and our eventual school
    -Getting two family members graduated from secondary school, and one into college so far!

Sometimes it’s so easy to get lost in the details from week to week that I forget just how much we’ve done together, how much we’ve been through. Sure, a lot of this stuff is painful, but it’s all punctuated with so many hilarious and loving moments. I feel so honored and fortunate to be a part of this family, and to be able to help in the ways that I am able…which is never enough.

At around the same time that I read the news of George Zimmerman’s acquittal, 4 people were shot just up the road from the house here in Guatemala, as they were commuting in the same truck that Glendi’s siblings usually take to go pick coffee. A 7 year-old girl and her 16 year-old brother died in their mother’s arms. A man who was shot in the groin ended up losing both of his legs. If Zimmerman’s trial sent the message that black lives don’t matter—which it did—then what of these campesinos, whose deaths will not even lead to an arrest?

There is a connection here, between what is happening in Guatemala and what happened to Trayvon Martin in Florida—which itself is just a brutal extension of the profiling and violence that youth of color face across the United States. There are layers of lessons here, but to see them all we have to go beyond the easy conclusions about race and fear. We have to be willing to step beyond simple liberal outrage and even self-identification with Zimmerman’s fears of black masculinity. Of course, there is truth at that level, but if we want to just wallow there we might as well just loop Ludacris’ scenes from the movie Crash over and over on top of the cable news coverage and we’ll have all the in-depth analysis we need. People across our planet have been taught to fear black people. Yes, it’s absolutely true. I am absolutely included. But that is not all this is about.

What Zimmerman did wasn’t just the tragic overreaction of a scared and damaged man, and his acquittal wasn’t just a lone aberration of justice. Zimmerman’s trial was a personalized example of a deep yet unspoken U.S. doctrine: that disproportionate and deadly force is entirely justified in order to defend American comfort from even the slightest rumblings of The Other. Trayvon Martin was an outsider in a gated community, and he made Zimmerman uncomfortable. When Zimmerman acted on that racist discomfort and confronted Martin, Martin did what no Other is allowed to do, he responded naturally with appropriate defensiveness to a threatening and abusive person. That is, Martin stepped out of his place, and Florida law gave Zimmerman the legal right to defend himself—which is to say, defend his sense of entitlement and comfort—and he killed Martin right there.

Those of us North Americans who live comfortably in our privileges find it easy to shake our heads and pout our lips. We can cry for Trayvon and we can wear black solidarity hoodies. We can wring our hands and acknowledge the fearful Zimmerman that lives in all of us. I personally have no qualms with these responses. I must and will acknowledge my own racism and my place in propping up such a racist order. But let’s be real. What Zimmerman thought he was doing for his neighborhood is basically what happens each time our country sends out a drone strike, sponsors a coup, or authorizes an ICE raid. Self-defense. Standing our ground. The comfort levels of those that matter must be defended, at all costs to The Other.

What Zimmerman did was scarcely different from what the powerful have continued to do to Guatemala since well before 1954: strike out at even the slightest sign of justified self-defense with completely disproportionate brutality. The consequence of Zimmerman’s actions and acquittal is a U.S. environment where the lesser value–the Otherness–of black people’s lives has been re-affirmed, even by legal institutions. The simmering consequence of these same dynamics in Guatemala is that Glendi’s friends, neighbors, family members all have been touched by countless deaths that no one outside of these communities even cares about. They are just another permanent Other on the world stage. They pick our coffee and our bananas, but they are easily replaced.

If there is any truth to the connections that I’m making, then any calls for post-trial racial healing and introspection ring hollow without a far deeper soul-searching. If we are so interested in healing, are we willing to relinquish our comforts so that we can take our bloody boot off the necks of half the planet? Are we willing to stand down our drones and our bases and militarized police forces?

No? Am I being too extreme, too rhetorical? Then how convenient, and how useless so much chatter about one trial in Florida.

Stand still,
Let me scrub that brackish line
Where something rose and then receded.

-The Weakerthans, “Watermark”

Sometimes it’s almost comforting how predictable my patterns of self-sabotage are. Just as I’m gearing up to not only write more, but also to pursue avenues towards polishing and publishing my writing, the voice steps in and tells me, “Jeremy, there is nothing new under the sun, and even if there were, it sure as hell won’t be coming from you. Sit down and shut up.” They are some damn strong psychological shackles. Damn strong. Looked at with a little bit of distance, it’s actually breathtaking how intently, how systematically that voice scrambles to pull out every possible piece of evidence to shut me down.

    There is a prison strike in California happening right now, Jeremy. There is more revolution happening in Egypt. It’s history in the making. You aren’t doing shit about it, so anything you have to say about anything is clearly coming from the sidelines. Come back when you’re actually in the game.

    Jeremy, do you see all these other articles and blog posts you are reading? You see those little numbers that are strewn all over the place? Those are called footnotes—and you don’t ever use them because you are a fucking wannabe who just spouts stuff from the top of your head with no grounding in any real discourse.

    Jeremy, don’t you see the thirteen, fourteen, twenty-six errors that you’ve made down here in Guatemala today alone? Who are you to have anything to say about justice, equality, change? You can’t even maintain a great conversation at the family breakfast table.

    Really, my friend? You are going to write about how relationships are key to movement building? Ha! Let’s have a look at your own scattered husks of starved and roach-infested friendships, the zero birthdays you remember on Facebook, the trail of forgotten promises.

I don’t know why this voice hates me so much. I don’t know what I did to deserve its rancor, its unremitting bile. I try to be grounded, I try to remind myself of all the other people who share their writing, warts and all, and to recognize that they are doing just fine after the fact. Almost robotically, I chant through all the reasons why I think I am good, am worthy, do have something to contribute. This voice doesn’t give a shit. This voice knows all the ways to rip apart any rational argument I might have.

A little while ago, I read a book called the War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, by Steven Pressfield. It’s got quite a following, and that’s because it’s like this nice, compact Art of War aimed at that little voice. Pressfield calls that little voice “Resistance.” Here’s a sample of what he says about it:

    Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.

A little later…

    Resistance will tell you anything to keep you from doing your work. It will perjure, fabricate, falsify; seduce, bully, cajole. Resistance is protean. It will assume any form, if that’s what it takes to deceive you. It will reason with you like a lawyer or jam a nine-millimeter in your face like a stickup man. Resistance has no conscience. It will pledge anything to get a deal, then double-cross you as soon as your back is turned.

Although one reading of Pressfield can basically feel like “Pull Yourself Up By Your Bootstraps: The Book,” through a more flexible, politicized lens–with a conceptual toolbox for things like internalized oppression–the War of Art felt like the feminist “click” that many women describe as an experience during the women’s liberation movement—the realization that your reality is not just yours. It’s shared. It’s collective. Could other people have this voice, with this intensity? Could it be that I’m not alone in this self-hatred?

I feel buoyed for a spell. I feel held. I take another dozen steps forward. I have 5 separate drafts for 4 different posts, plus a grant application for a larger project, all right here on my computer desktop. I hook up the little 3g wireless modem we have here, use our little bit of data left on it to read a few more articles on other blogs—damn you, Miami Autonomy and Solidarity for being so damned awesome—and then the voice winds right back up.

This is one of the hardest parts, something that I’ve also been noticing in other readings like David Gilbert’s striking reflections about ego in his incredible memoir, Love and Struggle: this voice turns the people and places that should feel like comrades, the highest sources of inspiration, and it turns them into the most threatening enemies.

I feel so lonely so often, so surrounded by critics waiting to take a bite out of me. Even here in Guatemala, where the urgent reality of both my privileges and my opportunities, where my actually quantifiable impact on 22 other people’s lives, is constantly impressed on me, I become so tempted to just give up. Pick up your 3DS and play some more Mario, Jeremy. There’s nothing to see here. Revolutionary work is too hard.

Tonight, right now at 2am, at least, I chose to turn on this computer instead.

If you are going to keep attacking me, you ugly and brash and overhyped broken record of a voice, then I’m going to at least expose you. The very least I can do is call you out into the open and see how you will do in the sunlight. You aren’t me. I’m not that mean, I’m much too loving to have produced you. So, go now, back out into the world where you came from.

This little light of mine…I’m going to let it shine.

The old era.

Behold the revolution. Goose included.

Currently Reading:

-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi