There’s this guy in our hay barn

After the last time, the Hubbit and I promised each other never again to invite someone to share our home. For years we had (irritably and messily) shared an office, while the spare bedroom just sat and looked pretty for months on end until I succumbed to guilt and suggested to Himself that some or other lost soul really needed it … and he never bloody said no! And, despite my best intentions, almost every attempt at sustained hospitality ended with all parties seething.

There was Sewerbreath, a close friend whose marriage broke down a few weeks before we were due to leave on a prolonged visit to South Africa. “Come stay at our house!” we warbled. “Bring your dog! You can look after our animals, and it’ll give you three months to get on your feet!” While we were gone she fell and broke some necessary bone or other and wasn’t able to work. We returned home jet-lagged and unfazed. “It’s Christmas! You can’t be homeless over Christmas!” we caroled. “You’ll soon be back at work, and meanwhile you’re welcome – it’s fine!” She got a job at a grocery store early in the new year. “Congratulations!” I trilled. “No need to pay rent – save up for a deposit on your own place! And don’t worry about the food – three is as easy to feed as two! – just check in before you leave work to see if we need anything – save me making a trip to the store in between my regular shopping days!” So then I learned that expecting a grown woman in her forties to “check in” was offensive, and things pretty much went downhill from there.

I kicked her out the following April, seven months after she’d moved in. I forget the specific reason, but I think it was either because she refused to clean her bathroom (removing the crunchy toothpaste from her sink after she left was an exercise in archeology!) or because I got fed up with her attempts to allure the (blissfully oblivious) Hubbit.

There were the teenage daughters of old friends of mine, who wanted to leave the Pacific island where their parents were missionaries and start life in America. They didn’t have work permits, but were going to find jobs under the radar as tutors, nannies, house cleaners – you know the sort of work – to cover their personal expenses while they studied at the local community college, or maybe online – they were going to figure that out. Only … they were so tired after years of missionary life, they felt they deserved a little vacation. So for eight or nine months they lolled around, not studying, not working, not volunteering. I tried to engage with their parents via email, only to learn that these delightful young ladies had access to the parental email account and were deleting our messages as fast as I sent them. When their parents quit the mission field and returned to South Africa the girls decided to go home, and we sang the hallelujah chorus and waved them away.

There was Peter Pan. I call him that because when I met him he seemed joyous and wild and a little bit magical … but in truth he was more of a Lost Boy. He arrived one day with Wonder Woman’s teenage protégé, to spend a few days helping out, camping in a grassy corner of our farmlet, and canoodling like bunnies. Less than 24 hours later the protégé roared away down our driveway, and I went outside to find Pan standing outside his tent and looking forlorn. Well, we needed help and so did he so we invited him to stay, and that year was pretty good. He was a hard worker, giggly and zany (he was high a lot of the time), the animals loved him, and I fell a little bit in love with him myself – nah, don’t be stupid; he was sort of like a beloved nephew. Since my actual nieces and nephews were all clear around the other side of the planet, and my grandchildren-by-Hubbit were by then not speaking to me, I felt the lack of a young person to love and mentor and indulge. And as someone who had been severely abused and neglected by his parents, he lapped it up. After a while he went off with a girl, but he kept in touch and it was all good.

Verruca arrived shortly after Pan left. She showed up with someone who’d advertised on Craigslist, looking for temporary accommodation for her pet chickens. I’d invited the chickens to rough it with the flock of not-pet-but-very-happy chickens hanging out in my veggie garden, so she came to take a look and brought Verruca with her. They arrived just in time to distract me from a full meltdown caused by several hours spent trying to sign up with WWOOF because the Hubbit and I desperately needed, but could not afford to pay for, help on the farmlet. Only the WWOOF website kept crashing, and I was brimful of angst, gloom and fury. Well, Verruca looked around, and gazed longingly from the river to me, and said, “I don’t suppose you need someone to help you out in return for a place to stay, do you?”

The Olde Buzzard and the Hubbit, down at the river near where I met Angelo and Charlie (see below). The Fogies also spent a year with us. Memories built despite some stormy weather, and kept close to my heart.

So Verruca moved in, and for maybe a week or two it was great – we were like sister wives (only with certain duties allocated, not shared). And pretty soon she started educating me about how the world really works. Like how the government is using contrails to rain down poison upon us all, and how Nibiru is going to destroy us all, and … oh man, she believed so many things! I wrote a lot of them down to share with you, but now I can’t find the list … It was a while ago. Anyway, I was enthralled! I was fascinated! Sometimes I asked questions, but that just annoyed her. I learned it was better to shut my trap and listen.

And then … I don’t know, I guess she had a revelation. She realized that our water was contaminated. She stopped eating anything we raised, and would consume nothing but energy drinks and canned soup. (Of course I bought them for her – I’m a sucker!) But she just got sicker and sicker, and eventually I took her to the doctor, who diagnosed Hepatitis A. “Yikes! That’s contagious!” I said, hurling myself at Google, where I learned that it’s common in homeless shelters (she’d lived in several) and among addicts (she’d lived with her addict daughter and son-in-law prior to moving here). Then she announced that she was going to sue us for making her sick. Testing our well water (clean and sweet) and ourselves (ditto) had no effect. The situation got ugly and depressing and – as I read up on Washington State law pertaining to eviction (not good for property owners. Not at all) it got scary.

But one day she up and left, and suddenly peace was restored, and the Hubbit and I agreed “Never again”. Only then Pan came back and of course we figured he’d be okay. We knew him. He was practically family. It was a bit stressful that this time he had a bunch of friends who liked to hang out in our shop or my kitchen, and often some stayed over, but I loved Pan and kind of enjoyed having a houseful of youngsters, and the Hubbit tolerated the invasion. Only pretty soon it became clear that Pan had … changed. I’ve done some reading since then about mental illness that emerges in young adults and … well, I don’t want to write about that. I already told you how it ended.

So after that the Hubbit and I agreed never, ever again under any circumstances for any reason to invite anyone to live in our home, double pinky promise. To reinforce that promise, while he was in rehab for the months following his altercation with a tractor I transformed the spare bedroom into a Hubbit Hole just for him. It’s inconvenient not to have a spare room when the Girl Child or the Young Bull come to stay, but a lot easier to tell myself “We don’t have room” when, in fact, we don’t have a spare room.

And then, a few weeks ago I was down at the river with Argos, and there was this guy with a Chihuahua. Conversation ensued. The Chihuahua – a cutie who occasionally answers to Charlie – needed to be spayed and vaccinated, so I got that done, which led to more conversation. In the middle of all this conversing we had the mother of all windstorms. I pulled together some food and a tent and went down to the river – did I mention they were living there? Under a bush? Well, technically, under a piece of tarp, but shrubbery was involved … Ugh, sorry, I digress. My point is, I went down to check on them, and Charlie came hurtling out of the bushes and leaped into my car with a look of the most profound relief, which was followed by a look of bewilderment when her papa didn’t join her in this comfy place out of the wind, and then plummeting dismay when he took her in his arms and disappeared back under his bush as I drove away.

We really don’t have a room.

But we have a row of horse stalls, and the end one – where we keep hay in winter – is empty. Or was. It now has a tent in it, and a random assortment of other stuff, much of it rather smelly. When the heat gets unbearable (right now it’s 108F out, and the heat wave is only getting started) they come inside and cool off. (They’re watching Penguin Town on Netflix as I write this.) Lying in bed the night after they moved in, I started feeling guilty that I had a comfortable bed and a house, and they have so little. A better person, I thought, would invite them inside. But then I slapped myself upside the head and counted their blessings. They have shelter from the weather, a fridge and freezer, drawers for storage, a place to cook, and food any time they ask for it. They have electricity and wi-fi, and the use of our guest bathroom. They have walls and a door and privacy. Cops don’t hassle them to move on. Bikers don’t roar up and start a middle-of-the-night party a few feet from where they’re hiding under their bush. They can ask for a ride into town when they need one. And that’s as good as the Hubbit and I can make it and still be okay inside ourselves and with each other.

I wish I could say “It’s all good,” but really it isn’t. The thing about most homeless people in this country is, there are reasons they’re homeless. There are reasons Angelo has been kicked out of most of the places he’s lived in. A few days ago I got so mad at him I was ready to dump him back at the river and let the damn heat dome cook his skinny ass! I didn’t because of Charlie, and a little bit because that’s not who I am, and mostly because I heard my hectoring voice getting shriller and angrier and … I was ashamed.

The thing about not being homeless is, you hold all the cards. You have all the power. It doesn’t matter how broke you are, or old, or sore, or disappointed in yourself or your life … if you have a piece of this earth you can call your own, you have everything. And if you have the power, you can’t use it against someone who is powerless and still feel good about being you. So the next morning I sought Angelo out.

“Hey,” I said. He looked at me warily. “Can we agree to a truce?” I asked.

He sighed with relief. “Oh,” he said. “Yes please.”

Charlie – never so happy as when she’s with her papa.

He is a good man – Charlie told me so. He is also a profoundly annoying man, moody, often irrational, desperately needy, and not very clean. Keeping my temper in check is going to be hard. But we promised him a place through the summer, until we need the stall back for hay. In return, he helps out – sometimes with begrudging carelessness, and sometimes pouring his heart into making our lives so very much better. I’m hoping we can make it work.

I might have to come on here to vent occasionally. I hope that’s okay.

Skin-deep storytelling

I was just off visiting one of my favorite bloggers and her latest post got me thinking … and my thinking has got me all upset and bothered and pondering uncomfortable questions.

She wants to know, where are the kids’ books with non-white heroes? And she makes the point that, while there are books about black kids, in almost every case the fact that they’re black adds a whole chunk of extra Stuff to the story. Usually, it’s not just a story the way “James and the Giant Peach” is the story of a boy who has an adventure. The kid’s color almost always matters.

So my first thought, on reading this, was to wonder how much of the issue was inherent in the way these stories are written, and how much had to do with Stuff already floating around in the reader’s head. Could it be that when the main character is white, you don’t think about their whiteness because that’s the norm in Bookworld, so you simply identify with them, and focus on the action? Seems to me that might be part of what happens. Whether the reader was white or black (or whatever), the very fact that a hero or heroine was Not-White would make them unusual. You would notice. You would wonder whether there was another layer of meaning hidden in the Other-colored skin. You would be alert to cultural signals, speech patterns, other indicators of Not-Whiteness, and if the author got them wrong you wouldn’t like it.

When does the hero's skin start to matter?
When does the hero’s skin start to matter? (Source)

This got me to wondering when it starts to matter. White kids obviously don’t notice the whiteness of characters. Do they notice not-whiteness? And what do black kids think when they read book after book about white kids? If nobody points it out, do they care that Snow White is an unusually attractive shade of pinkish beige, while they are not?

I find myself remembering an incident that shocked me when the Girl Child was at preschool. It was a Montessori preschool – in other words, featuring parents with liberal opinions about matters such as educational philosophy – in an upscale neighborhood (the Girl Child fit right in, but my battered little no-name-brand car looked pretty silly when I pulled up between the Mercs and Beemers to pick her up). Maybe 10% of the kids were black, and they all played together just fine. And then one day when I picked her up, the sweet man who tended the grounds waved goodbye to her, and she stuck her nose in the air and refused to wave back. Because he was black.

It was a long time ago and I have forgotten just how I reacted, but I remember feeling nauseated, wondering where in Hell she’d picked up that ugly piece of nasty. I remember saying, “But some of your friends are black!” and how she just rolled her eyes and told me that was “different”. They were kids. He was black. The end.

So much for the real world. What do kids see when they read story books? Could we make Jack the Giant Killer black, and not change the essence of the story? Would the result be a politically correct version of an old European fairy story? Or would it be blackface?

Anyway, this got me wondering whether I could write an ordinary adventure story or fantasy in which the hero or heroine is black, and get it right. Because a kid is just a kid, right? That’s what I want to believe … and yet … we are all so much a part of our families, our neighborhoods, our culture. From our earliest days we are immersed and soaked and pickled in the worldview, assumptions, expectations, fears, beliefs of our family and community. Even if we consciously reject everything we are taught, I don’t know that it’s possible to climb into an Other-colored skin and know how to wear it.

I lived for two years as a teacher in a poor rural South African community, where the only white people were my daughter, another woman who lived separately from us, and I. We were fully part of the community. We shared an outside toilet with our neighbors, ate the same sort of food as they did, went in and out of each other’s homes, prayed, argued, worried, grieved and celebrated together. I remain in contact with several of my former pupils. Their children call me Granny, and I wouldn’t hesitate to call on them if I needed help.

Yet I really don’t know that I could write a convincing story from inside the head of a black African kid. And I don’t understand this failure of imagination and empathy. Can I imagine being a desperately poor, or fabulously wealthy, or superpower-endowed white kid? You bet! Can I give that white kid black friends who are also fully-developed characters each with a unique voice? No problem – in fact that’s an integral part of the book I’m working on at present. Can I imagine being a black kid growing up in an ordinary black home with the spoken and unspoken everything that generations of racism means to my family, my future, who I am, how I think – can I get out of my white head and into theirs? I don’t know, but I suspect – I fear – that I could not. And I don’t know whether that is because I am lacking, or because it really isn’t possible.

And even if I did – if I were to try – what would readers think of my story? Would they assess it simply as a work of fiction – well written or not, believable or not, enjoyable or not? Or would I face the hostility due to an ignorant trespasser on sacred ground?

And, you know, thinking about all this just makes me so. Damn. Sad.

It shouldn’t matter.

It shouldn’t matter.

It shouldn’t matter.

But God help us, it does.

[UPDATE: I posted the link to this video of a white police officer sitting on a bikini-clad teenage girl to restrain her, while cursing and waving a gun at other teens. Apparently a party “got out of control” when a large group of black teens showed up in a predominantly white, upscale neighborhood. The video, taken by an observer, is out there somewhere but not where I could find it during a short search. I’m sure you get the idea, however … We’re talking about kids here, not hefty 18 and 19-year-olds, and a cop who thinks the best way to calm them down is to wave a gun. Not okay. I don’t care who did what, that’s simply poor policing.]

So now it’s your turn. What do you think? I really want to know.

How to help Rara

Rara went to prison very shortly after I became aware of her, so I’ve not really followed her blog and I don’t know her. However, my heart goes out to her, and I want to help her. If you feel so inclined, please make a donation to help her.

When your best is not enough

Jane
Jane

Himself and I spent most of yesterday driving around 300 miles to help a scrap of a dog get home. We were just one small part of a big effort. To get Jane from Denver, Colorado to Spokane, Washington involved 14 drivers working in relay, after hours of intensive work by the coordinator who put the project together.

It feels pretty special to be part of something like that. Yes, you can argue, “Why put so much effort into one puppy when there are so many in desperate need?” And yes, maybe, differently managed, that same amount of human love, time and energy, not to mention the cost of the gas alone, could have been directed into saving a whole lot of dogs – or whales – or children.

I heard the same argument back when I ran a mission school in South Africa. I often asked people I met to make a small donation, or maybe sponsor just one child. The cost of sponsorship was equivalent to maybe one fast food meal for four, once a month. Several times wealthy people, who routinely spent more on a single dinner out than the families I served spent on a month of eating, replied, “But what’s the point? There are so many kids like that – I can’t change anything.”

The argument is valid, but it misses the point completely. We can’t change the whole world, but anyone can touch a life. As long as you stay safely outside the war zone of life, you can think in abstract terms and pray for world peace and argue on Facebook about which political party “cares” more. But, with heartfelt apologies to the Democrats and Republicans out there, no government program will magic away poverty, and nor will setting the market free enable everyone to pursue life, liberty or happiness. There is no global solution to the problem of human failure and imperfection.

If you want the world to be better, you have to make that happen yourself, one act of kindness at a time. And I honestly believe it doesn’t matter whether you direct your kindness toward a kid or a puppy or [Insert Cause Here]. Any act – large or small – that adds to the sum total of happiness, peace and beauty in the world is worthwhile. One of the best things to happen to me this year was when I was having a rough day, dealing with physical pain and a whole lot of sadness, and the guy ahead of me in the Dutch Brothers drive-through paid for my coffee. He didn’t save the world or change my life, but he transformed that one day for me, and while he has certainly forgotten the few dollars it cost him, I still remember how good that coffee tasted, and how it warmed my heart.

Sometimes a few dollars, or a bit of time, is all it takes. Sometimes it’s more about a change of attitude. Sometimes you get to take on something big.

Sometimes it costs a whole lot more than you bargained for. I have been trying for months to write about what it was like to create a dog rescue organization, and pour everything I had into running it, and finally – just as I broke beyond repair under the strain – to hand it off to people I trusted, and then to find that my trust had been misplaced. But writing about that kept leading to what it felt like to start a school out of nothing but a gang of children, and pour everything I had into running it, and finally to break when people I trusted turned against me. I wanted to write about what it’s like for your best never to be enough, about the pain of broken trust and shattered dreams, and also about the soul-scorch of burnout.

Here’s the thing about burnout: you hold it at bay for as long as you can, because the need – whatever it is – is unrelenting. You feel the heat, you know you won’t hold out forever, but you keep going in an effort to save what you can while you can. When you finally quit, you think that at last you’re free. That’s when you find out that all that’s been holding you together is the purpose that has also been devouring you from the inside out. Rid yourself of the purpose, and whatever is left collapses upon itself.

So I wanted to write about that, but I couldn’t figure out how to do so without sounding like I was whining or – worse – looking for a pat on the head. And while that might have been the case a year or even six months ago, whines and pats are irrelevant now that I’m through the pain.

I’ve just realized that what I want to write about is the fact that sometimes the cost of kindness is so high it seems to bankrupt you – but it’s still worth it.

Don’t get me wrong: it sucks when you take on something too big, and it eats you alive and hacks you up and leaves the remnants lying in the dirt. Burnout sucks, and being disappointed or betrayed or blamed sucks, and feeling guilty and ashamed because you know your personal flaws contributed to the crash-and-burn sucks most of all.

But it doesn’t suck enough not to risk it. I believe the key to riches is to give fearlessly whenever you see a need and have the capacity to respond, no matter how little you’re able to give. A small act of kindness may be to humanity like the perfectly timed flap of a butterfly’s wing – and even if it isn’t, it will still give wings to that one moment. And if you are blessed to have the freedom and opportunity to pour yourself out, do so with a lavish hand – because that may indeed change a small corner of the world, and it will certainly transform you.

The truth – my post-burnout truth – is that there are a whole lot of alive-minded young people out there whose kids call me granny. One of them, a girl who grew up in unimaginable poverty, is a qualified and highly paid engineer who now helps support my parents. Another is a musician, some are teachers, a few are entrepreneurs. One is a single mom who occasionally needs help with her kids’ school expenses. Also, hundreds of dogs and people are happy because we brought them together, and the rescue Himself and I started is still the best in our town and doing just fine without us.

Sometimes your best just is not enough, and then failure or burnout may strike with all the devastating effect of a forest fire. But time passes, you begin to heal, and the desire to re-engage rises like sap in a young tree. And then you take a deep breath, and you do the next best thing. Maybe you can’t plunge in too deep, because you’ve grown wary and the burns still hurt. But you can buy one child a study aid, you can help out one cash-strapped shopper at the till, you can give one puppy a ride home.

WordPress – You don’t decide who is Popular

I don’t especially like Opinionated Man’s blog. I followed him way back because he was one of the first bloggers to follow American Soustannie, and he had a number of posts that I, as a baby blogger, found helpful. But after a while I unfollowed him, for several reasons. Firstly, I wanted to take my time about figuring out how this whole blogging thing works (and I was more interested in creating something I liked, that expressed who I was, than in generating huge numbers of followers, which is a big part of what he’s about. If you want to be a power blogger, he will tell you how!) Also, he posted too often for my taste, and some of his posts annoyed me. (Like he says, he’s opinionated!)

But even though I’m not a fan, I’m grateful to Jason for what he does, and I see him as an important member of the WordPress community. Like when I, as a really new blogger, used his platform to introduce myself to the world. Some visitors stopped by as a result of that. I’m not sure whether any of them actually followed me, but that’s not the point. The point is, Jason the Opinionated Man gave me a chance to be seen – and if I’d wanted to continue hanging out with his crowd there would have been many more opportunities to promote this blog – because that’s one of the things he does. He has intentionally set up his blog to provide a communal platform that pretty much anyone, as far as I know, can use.

Opinionated Man has created a platform for a network that sustains the WordPress community. Even though I don't necessarily want to be locked into it all the time, I like knowing it's there.
Opinionated Man has created a platform for a network that sustains the WordPress community. Even though I don’t necessarily want to be locked into it all the time, I like knowing it’s there.

So okay, I followed for a bit, then I unfollowed. Every now and then I’d see a reference to his blog somewhere and I’d pop in, check him out, usually learn something new, and then move on. The free market in action. It WORKS, guys, really it does!

Does he read every blog he follows? Probably not. Certainly he’s never commented on mine, although he liked one or two posts back in the day when the encouragement meant a lot to me, before I got a little bit established. Do I want to blog the way he does? Nope; my priorities are different. But so what? I figure it’s not my job to judge how he manages his blog or how he uses his blogging time. What I see is a guy with an unusually community-oriented approach to the blogiverse; I see someone who appears to answer every comment anyone leaves on his blog (and there are many), and who actively tries to help other bloggers both by providing a platform and by answering requests for advice.

And now I see WordPress making his life difficult and, in the process, taking something away from the overall WordPress blogger community.

Recently I became aware of some kind of turmoil surrounding Jason’s blog. I still don’t know all the ins and outs of it, but it seems the powers that be within WordPress decided they didn’t like his Power Blogger approach and restricted some of his activity. So his supporters created a bit of an uproar, and I’m sure I’m not the only person who didn’t like what WP was doing and re-followed him in order to keep track of events, and WP reinstated whatever it was they had taken away. So far so good.

Well, apparently now WP is at it again. And once again I don’t know the details, and I don’t expect them to affect a little fish like me … but I have to take issue on the basis of principle.

To be quite clear, I think WP has the right to set whatever rules they like, and shape this platform any way they like. They own it. I can’t walk into a store and tell them how to run their business.

But in the same spirit, I don’t shop at Wal-Mart, because I think they’re jerks. I hate the way they treat their staff and their suppliers, the fact that a huge amount of the stuff they sell comes direct from the sweatshop to you appalls me, and their chilling effect on the economies of small communities scares me. So I won’t go there and I preach against them at any opportunity. Equally, I choose to shop at Yokes as often as I can, even though I can’t afford to do all my shopping there, because I like the fact that they’re employee-owned and that they support small local farmers and they have a good range of organic products. That’s because I believe in putting my money where my values are.

I think the same kind of choice may be arising here. I’m probably not going to up and leave immediately if Opinionated Man does, because it’s a hassle and I’m just starting to feel comfortable in this blogging thing … but the fact that WP is restricting the way in which a respected colleague runs his blog will definitely impinge on my comfort level. It’s likely that I’ll start looking around, familiarizing myself with the alternative options. And I’ll be watching to see if there is a pattern of behavior emerging here that I don’t want to live with.

How do you make your choices?
How do you make your choices?

I was just going to “like” Jason’s post and hope that a few of my followers would read it … but then it occurred to me that this made an interesting follow-on to my last post. This whole situation, and how I feel about it, and how it influences my future choices vis-a-vis blogging – in a small way, it’s about my personal values. And the thing is, I believe in freedom – including the freedom to post things that people find obnoxious, and the freedom to follow or not follow, like or not like.

What do you think? When you choose a provider of a service or a product, do you care about whether their values match yours? And if so, does it bother you that WordPress might be bullying one of its most influential and effective bloggers?