All posts by Sean Talbot

Essay: Fifteen Minimum – Reflections on Compassion, Privilege, and War

“Choosing our own comfort over hard conversations is the epitome of privilege, and it corrodes trust and moves us away from meaningful and lasting change.”
― Brené Brown, Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts.”

I heard the muffled knock on the passenger window, but I didn’t look up from the chess game on my phone. Memories rushed back of police officers tapping at my car window with metal flashlights as I tried to sleep in a dark parking lot. But this knock was not the knock of a cop, I thought, still avoiding the source. Five seconds passed. I saw checkmate in three moves. Another knock.

Then I saw her: late twenties or early thirties, black, hair pony-tailed, wearing a coat too light for this February cold. I noticed the assumptions surging to the front of my mind: homeless, addict, wants money. My heart sank, and my head shook almost involuntarily.

—I’m sorry, I mouthed through the closed window, not today.

—I’m hungry and I’m cold, she said, her voice muffled as her knock. She was looking directly at me.

I’ve never been able be one of those people who isn’t willing to listen. Whatever created this tendency in me has over the years landed me in dozens of hours-long conversations with people whose presence and storytelling abilities inspired me to become a writer. People whose stories of altered mental states, trauma, addiction, mystical experiences, train-hopping, and in some cases intentionally living outside the bounds of economy and law inspired me to explore many of those paths in my own life. People whom my mother, an ex-cop, would certainly have tried to steer me clear of.

I could feel in my bones that this was one of those moments where waving the person off with a fake apology and a sympathetic look would break my heart for decades.

She was still talking as I tried to put down the window. The car wasn’t on. So many layers between us, I thought, suddenly ashamed of the car, the iPhone, the expensive jacket I was wearing, the years between my own homelessness experience and this moment. I dropped the phone and searched for an ignition key that didn’t exist. Suddenly perplexed as to how to put down the window, I considered leaning over to open the passenger door, but no, I thought, that would be too much, too soon. Too vulnerable.

After I managed to press the brake, hit the ignition button, wait for the car computer to boot, and press the window button, finally, the window went down—and the music started to bump. There she was, still talking, voice now drowned by the music.

—I asked this other man for food, she said, but he said no, and I asked for five dollars for a daylong bus fare, and I need to leave this place…

—I’m sorry, I said. Not today.

After all that, I was still in reaction mode, not seeing her, not listening to her. The words came out like ash. What if she spends it on drugs, I reasoned. What if she’s lying?

I may have been one of “those people” willing to listen, but how often do I act? I have always resonated with the criticism of people with means and awareness who do nothing to help improve the lives of those with less means. Yet here I was, not even pretending to help by trying to profit from trying to help.

That part of me that wanted to be unique, seen, and respected assumed that I was being manipulated. That victim strategy birthed a deep self-centeredness in me when I was younger, and fostered an inability to see my own privilege or truly empathize with others. It’s a gross little demon that rears its head when I’m faced with an uncomfortable situation that I have the ability to avoid.

I let the demon play for a moment and took a deep breath. The woman was still there. She didn’t seem fazed by my rejection. Maybe she hadn’t even heard it. She was saying something about her living situation. My spidey-senses went off when she repeated that she needed to “get out of here.”

We spoke briefly: she, outside, leaning toward the half-open passenger window; me, buckled in the driver seat. I noticed myself looking for signs of intoxication, mental crisis. I am no psychotherapist but I know altered mental states in my own experience, drug-induced and not. I know that hunger causes its own kind of delirium. My body remembers the violent shakes of hypothermia. I have spent many a day wondering where I would sleep that night.

And, none of those experiences taught me how to be with someone else in those states. Certainly not how to help. Sometimes it’s difficult for me to know the right thing to do. I’ve been taught to think so much about everything that I’ve misplaced my ability to listen to my gut.

The caravan of thoughts rolled through my mind: The Dalai Lama says to be kind and compassionate; that is enough. If I were to look to Silicon Valley for answers on how to act, I could probably become a billionaire by developing an app wherein this woman could connect with a million people ready to buy her lunch with a thumbprint. If I were to rely on government and police as role models, I’d probably try to make sure this woman’s toe was wedged under the tire before I drove away.

Sometimes I can feel my friends’ judgment when I give money to people on the street. I’ve learned to not talk about it in social settings: that feeling of my heart falling into the pit of my stomach; the tears that began to well in my delay to open the car window; the fear that, if I opened the door in my rush to hear this woman, she may perceive it as an invitation for something she was not asking for.

Sometimes I do not know how to navigate the space between my privilege and someone else’s lack thereof. But the truth is that I’d rather be lost than avoid the territory.

I offered to help. I said I only had a debit card. The part of me that thought she might use the money for drugs kept me in that moment from remembering that I had a twenty in my wallet. The part of me that wanted to save her got out of the car and awkwardly offered to buy her lunch.

We walked half a block together, toward—where? A deli? A restaurant? I’d taken people who lived on the street out to lunch before, and had found it to be a soul-enriching experience to hear stories from people who were not often heard, to experience them express themselves. Sometimes it was about the food, and other times, the connection.

Which made me wonder, as I asked her name, in what ways was my willingness to help conditional? In what ways did I want to benefit from this? Did I require some kind of personal connection in trade for a few dollars? And what was this need of mine to know and even control what she spent it on?

I remembered Zippy, a woman who approached me one night on the corner of Marcy & Myrtle in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood, where I lived some years ago. Zippy asked me to buy her baby formula. She was skinny as a rail, dreaded, bedraggled. She told me a story about Jay-Z, how they grew up together. She talked about her baby. She suggested we go into the deli across the street. How do you say ‘no’ to a baby who needs food? I bought her a can of baby formula. 

The cashier gave his co-worker a look, held up the can for a moment. The next day at work I learned that baby formula served as a kind of black market currency for heroin.

Zippy got me. That’s the story my co-workers told me. They laughed at my ‘rookie’ move. The money was for drugs, they said, therefore I got scammed, manipulated, sold.

True as it may have been, that story has never sat well with me. What was the difference, really, between giving money to a drug addict on the street and giving it to a corporation? Their respective sales tactics could be eerily similar. The rewards for my action are not. In this culture, if I give money to a drug addict under the auspices that I’m helping to feed a baby and I feel good about that act, I am considered foolish because the “truth” is that the money will go straight to heroin, which is “bad.”

On the other hand, if I buy a tank of Shell gasoline, my car will get me 350 miles down the road, which is “good” because I can go to work, etc. I can accept that I’m contributing to greenhouse gases and mass extinction because, well, I need to go to work.

In the context of material goods, my attachment to how my money might be used after it leaves my hands vanishes. Of course, if I thought every time I bought gas that I was consciously exacerbating a global addiction to a substance that is in every possible way worse than heroin, I might still buy it, and feel bad about it, so often I just don’t think about it.

We reached a crosswalk and stopped. Food and bus fare would be fifteen minimum, especially in this neighborhood.

—What’s your name? I asked, pulling out my wallet.
—Shriana.
—I’m sorry that you’re in this situation, I said.

We went into a deli and I asked the cashier for change. Shriana stood a few feet away, looking around. I sensed that she’d done this before. I watched the cashier count bills, and remembered the cashier that night in Brooklyn all those years ago, giving his co-worker a look as he cashed me out for the baby formula.

What did it matter anyway, if Zippy or Shriana or the hundred or more folks I’d given money to since I was a teenager, had all bought drugs with it? I buy drugs. I’ve bought pot, alcohol, psychedelics, cigarettes. My employers have neither known nor cared what I’ve done with my wages. Nor, I assume, are my loved ones particularly attached to what I do with their birthday cards or small gifts.

When I see suffering, I cannot ignore it. Which is partly why paying attention to the news makes me sick. It is also why, 99% of the day, I hide under the cloak of my privilege: the car, the clothes, apologetic looks, the silent mouthing of ‘not today’, which implies that I think that I have other days available to me to worry about how generous I wish to perceive myself.

I believe that Shriana was in a state where tomorrow didn’t yet exist. She knew what she needed and overcame all the shame involved in knocking on the window of a new-looking car in a hip Portland neighborhood, asking this reasonably well-dressed white man for help. I believe that such a brave act requires a presence, vulnerability, strength, and, frankly, vigilance, that overrides fear and self-doubt. One on hand, it resembles the kind of presence that I seek to develop and embody in my own life. Conversely, vigilance is often a fear response, a survival-level alertness that produces high levels of stress. That can’t be good for humans, long-term.

I write this knowing that I myself will never be able to count or understand the myriad layers between Shriana and I: the passenger window wasn’t just a car window, it was a transparent, impregnable force field, like that of a spaceship in science fiction stories. A force field that makes those inside it by definition invulnerable. It becomes the choice of those within to open the window, to breathe unfiltered air, to feel, to listen, and to act.

It hurts to think that there is no easy solution to the growing disparity between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots.’ The conditions which created this singular situation are deeply systemic, fundamental to the culture of our society. Sure, one often-repeated solution could be to re-allocate one percent of the USA military budget to end homelessness and hunger in this country. Another solution would be to tax a handful of the wealthiest American individuals and corporations in service to the people who helped make them so wealthy. Top-down solutions are easy to think about, especially from a power-under point of view: they can afford it, we might think, and it wouldn’t matter much because they would still be super rich.

Bottom-up solutions are more cumbersome. They require multitudes of people to change their behaviors, and, ultimately, their beliefs. They require dozens of millions of have-nots to reconcile their differences with each other, many of which were created by the powerful in order to retain power.

The theory goes that when enough people make a conscious change in their own lives, it changes the whole system. Back in the 90’s, it was recycling.

Now, according to Greta Thunburg, it’s more radical: stop using fossil fuels immediately. Those are easy ideas to agree with because we all want a healthy planet, but to actually change and sustain those changes seem even more difficult to accomplish, because those whose voices matter most have to pay rent. Most people on the planet live their day to day lives at a level much closer to survival than charitable philanthropy.

In an individualist society like the United States, where ego and money are valued above community and connection, it makes sense that conservative values would take power—they value abundance, and being so entrenched in that value creates an inability and unwillingness to see, for example, that their wealth was built on the premise of keeping a whole lot of other people poor. And it also makes sense that liberal values would appear shiny on the surface and from the podium, because they’re all about inspiring hope in the people—rather than actually serving the people.

What doesn’t make sense to me is how such a fiercely individualist society as ours has devolved into a simple dichotomy: right and left, conservative and liberal, red and blue. It doesn’t make sense to me that, given the American penchant for innovation, we can’t seem to navigate complex political terrain without reverting to childhood playground dynamics. We elected a playground bully to lead our nation. We armed him with nuclear weapons. In turn, he armed white supremacists with permission to terrorize the streets of this country all but protected by a racist, corrupt, and militarized police state. Known rapists have been appointed to our highest courts.

It makes perfect sense to me that the wealthiest, most power-drunk nation on the planet has lost its way. For the past hundred years, the United States has reinforced corrosive attitudes about its own leadership based on scarcity, fear, and comparison to others (“richest,” “most _____,” “freest”), rather than using its resources and influence to lead its people—and thus, inevitably, others—toward a more sustainably whole society.

Nevertheless, the culture is changing: The Women’s March, #MeToo, and #TimesUp have ousted thousands of men from positions of power in the most influential industries. The uprising of the feminine in the last few years is unprecedented in history. Nearly matched in its ferocity by a triggered, antagonistic masculine—the wounded boy turned insecure bully—her time has come. It is also time for the masculine not to bow out—as he may fear she insists—but to call on a stronger inner force than violence. He must learn to stand within himself as himself, without pretense or expectation. He must learn to become aware of the ways his culture manipulates him into doing its bidding, into fighting its wars.

In men’s work, we sometimes talk about the archetype of the “warrior,” a term that can be both triggering and misleading. That terminology is used, I believe, to find an audience of those who may not otherwise listen, and also because war offers an accurate metaphor for the path toward greater consciousness. But the so-called battles we must fight require weapons far more effective than bombs and guns.

Teacher and author Joanna Macy once relayed a story about the Shambala warriors. She told how their only two weapons are compassion and insight into the interconnectedness of all beings. The wounded, unintegrated warriors within us—and I’m not just talking about men—have been fighting for so long that we’ve forgotten why, and against whom. We fight ourselves, and in our wounding, project the parts of ourselves that we despise onto others. The more we feed that system, the bigger and more destructive it gets. Thus, war.

This is why I could not rely on any other information but the present moment for guidance on how to show up in that moment with Shriana. I saw only what was in front of me, struggled to fight back the tides of status quo trying to assert itself through my actions, and did what felt most right. In doing so, I may have failed both of us. I cannot know, but I can try to be okay with that not knowing.

James Baldwin said that “not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” It’s a perspective that makes me grateful for the election of Trump. I say that as someone who has not been terribly and personally affected by that election. The shadow that Trump represents, which would have lurked on even if Bernie Sanders had been elected, is now out in the open. We can see its ugliness, hear its rhetoric, feel its poison. And some of us can choose compassion for it. Not to excuse its behavior, but to understand more about where all that hurt may have come from, and what we can do for our children that may cause less harm for them.

To be sure, things are changing. It may also be true that our species has simply caused too much damage to the earth and each other to survive much longer. Which makes it all the more important for me to show up in small moments, to acknowledge the shadows and demons as they flow through me, and to continue to breathe.

I want to remember what I experienced with Shriana as connection— an empathy, a knowing, deep in my body of what suffering looks like in another human, and make a commitment to refuse the temptation to repress it in the future. But that commitment is optimistic, frail: to feel all of the suffering all of the time debilitates, paralyzes.

Where is the balance?

There’s a lot of talk in activist circles—and, increasingly, outside of them—about self-care and how holding firm personal boundaries can help reduce, or at least slow down—burn-out and compassion fatigue. There is an unprecedented amount of negative stimuli barraging many of us from every direction in our hyper-connected lives that the line, for me, between remaining engaged and becoming a recluse becomes thinner daily. Humans simply have not evolved to take in as much trauma as we do in 2019, and one doesn’t need to be an activist or work in the helping professions to be overwhelmed even by the number of people on the street asking for help.

When I was living in my car all those years ago, sleeping in parking lots and working for pennies, I remember most clearly the generosity of people I didn’t know. To be acknowledged by another human is life-affirming. Those are the things many of us think about as we go to sleep. How connected did we feel that day? To wish them a warm night or a great day may not seem like much to someone who lives in a heated home or sleeps in a warm bed, but it really can mean everything to one person in a moment of hopelessness.

I know too well what it is to numb, look elsewhere, ignore the man on the subway car with the outstretched cup; I know many times over what it is to drive by the bearded man on the Ross Island Bridge eastbound whose laminated military photo hangs below his cardboard sign. I know what it feels like to buy nice warm clothes and delicious food that insulates me from my past experiences of hunger and homelessness. It’s tempting to think of my ability to postpone worry until tomorrow as compensation for my own suffering, to pretend that my experience of warmth and fullness today fills the void I felt years ago.

But I cannot. I want to remember that hunger. I want to remember the cold. I still struggle with the desire to use drugs to tune out of my current reality. I want to remember these feelings because I want to feel connected, even when it hurts—especially when it hurts—because in this age of hyper-connection and information overload, it’s so easy to ignore and dismiss the brave, muffled knocks on the window.

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Hunger Action Month and A Progressive RVTV Show in Oregon

The following piece details another phase of Kokayi Nosakhere’s death-defying quest to end child hunger in the United States, now in Oregon’s Rogue Valley.

We met eight years ago in Anchorage, Alaska. I was a young poet looking for my way in the world, a path to becoming a better person. Kokayi introduced me to the very idea of ‘community’ as a self-supporting system, as a mode of connection and collaboration. His thoughts and perspectives blew my world wide open.

Kokayi has inspired me time and time again with his soul-moving efforts to raise awareness around child hunger: walking hundreds of consecutive miles across the South, practically starving himself outside the office of an Alaska State Legislator, and being willing to teach radically, learn constantly, and express himself wholly against the pounding waves of institutional racism and relentless capitalism.

I continue to learn from and be challenged by Kokayi in ways that help me grow into the person I want to become. I love this man and honor his work in the world.

Thank you, Kokayi.

In Search of Magnificent Minds

I am an activist. In the face of any societal ill, I do not shy away from the challenge. I seek to act. I confront the problem. My problem is finding those who resonate at the same passion level as I do.

When the co-hosts of RVTV’s Tending the Threshold asked me, “Kokayi, would you like to be on our show and what would you want to talk about?”, my response was almost instant. “Yes and child hunger,” I said.

Tuhlar embraced the subject and Wanda Borland, who produces the show, was quick to co-sign.

“We haven’t even thought of that issue,” Borland said in her soft voice.

Rogue Valley TV

Because I am still new to Ashland, I am not yet aware of RVTV or it’s influence in the area. This weekend, I learned the recording studios are on Southern Oregon University campus. There exists a green room and…

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More talking. Less violence.

“In any real city, you walk, you brush past people, and people bump into you. In L.A., nobody touches you. We’re always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much that we crash into each other just so we can feel something.”
Crash, 2004

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Recently, on Portland’s MAX train, Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, Rick Best, and Micah Fletcher stood up to interrupt hate speech spewing from the mouth of a white supremacist. Each put themselves unknowingly in harm’s way in service to two young women none of them knew. Namkai-Meche and Best paid with their lives. All are now called heroes.

After that, the Portland Tribune ran a story about whether it was “safe” to ride Trimet, Portland’s public transportation provider. It noted that despite Trimet’s efforts over the years: bolstering security, eliminating free fare zones, and announcing that these programs “solved” safety issues, hundreds of crimes are reported each year on the bus and rail lines, “many of them serious.”

“Trimet is safe,” Neil MacFarlane, Trimet’s General Manager, said. “but we want our customers to perceive it as safe.”

Translation: We want riders to treat each other better.

The question of whether a bus or train is safe is, in this case, irrelevant. An empty train is perfectly safe. People are the wildcards, the variables, the unknown factors for which we feel we must account. This should go without saying, but the conversation around how to stop violence continues to invite more oppression and suppression in the form of increased police enforcement, a band-aid that cannot cover the oceanic wound between how we hope and expect people will act and how we actually relate with one another in real time.

Safety does not result from force.

At some point, we may understand that “safe spaces” exist only in the fleeting perceptions of individuals, and that these constantly shifting notions cannot be controlled by increasing security. In many cases, police presence raises the tension in a space, not least because police officers are trained to profile, a tactic which has killed more Americans in the last thirty years than a small war.

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The most present question for me right now is, how do we create a culture where disagreement is welcome, invited, and explored? Or, on a more practical level, how do we create equitable public spaces? That is, free, physical public spaces whose purpose is for people from different backgrounds to talk, connect, debate, dialogue, and *gasp* disagree?

That’s a tall order, given a culture driven by real estate prices and corporate profits. Imagine: if we redesigned the physical aspects of how we convene in public spaces, how might we interact differently? If the seats on a bus were formed in a circle instead of in rows, where people faced one another out of circumstance, would they remain glued to their smartphones? Maybe. But maybe they’d make eye contact, and maybe, a conversation would emerge.

Barring the internet’s digital plane, and next to city parks, the most equitable public spaces we have are the transit and road systems. Public transport equates people in some ways—most everyone pays fare, occupies the same physical space. But buses and rail lines are built for efficiency and transportation but lack the intention of gathering people for a greater purpose than (at best!) a peaceful commute.

And for drivers, the road system requires that we follow the same rules, regardless of whether we drive a clunker Ford or a Maserati, but the walls of glass, metal, and wind barricade us from accessing each others’ personal worlds.

If the only spaces where people of different backgrounds and viewpoints interact with one another are those in which we’re traveling from one destination to another, one calendar event to the next, from one insulated and exclusionary space to the next, our conversations and interactions will follow that pattern.

What might happen in a space where a white supremacist and those he fears can gather, at least in theory, and both be heard, seen, and understood for who they are, as opposed to the current dynamic of fear and anxiety creating conflict and avoidance?

My guess: More talking. Less violence.

When I saw Christian’s mugshot in the paper, I did not see a Murderer. I saw a man with great internal pain, a boy who experienced unfathomable trauma, whose models for how to be a good person probably did not exist.

These are my judgments and projections; I know nothing of the man but that which the media has portrayed of him. Which is a colossal problem, because he has been portrayed an a detestable and unforgivable monster – and maybe he is – but if we as a society do not effectively address that which made him and others like him, we cannot create spaces where people even have the opportunity to feel safe, let alone connect.

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One last thing: it’s time that we get to know our neighbors. You never know when they might save your life. Here are a few ways that people in Portland are working toward healthy community:

Multnomah County, in the vein of Seattle’s Facing Homelessness tiny house project, seek to integrate houseless individuals into tiny houses built in the community’s backyards. We need each other to treat each other better in these turbulent times. Not just on TriMet, but everywhere. We must relearn how to convene, converse, and how to be in disagreement. We need to create more equitable public spaces, and more intentional opportunities to interact with each other. One great example of this is Oregon Humanities’ Conversation Project, where local leaders facilitate topic-specific discussions with local communities around the state.

The City Repair Project and the Village Building Convergence, which is happening this week, seek to reclaim and repurpose neighborhood intersections into equitable public spaces by facilitating neighbors’ collaboration and connection in painting street murals, building self-serve tea stations, playgrounds, and creating a sense of community around a space where previously people might have needed to crash into one another in order to meet their neighbors.

chased from the garden of home

Corey and Cherie Nelson’s backyard slid down the bank into the Washougal river on a Sunday. The couple was watching TV when they heard a strange rumbling. Cherie jumped and went to the deck.

The door opened to a sweeping view of a pristine river canyon. Surrounded by large firs in the Cascade foothills, the braided Washougal river rushed along the far bank to sip on creeks and waterfalls. A smaller, slower channel meandered along the edge of the ravine just sixty feet below, right under the Nelsons’ deck. For two and a half years, they had spent countless hours taking in their personal theatre of classic Pacific Northwest scenery.

The pungent scent of fresh dirt filled Cherie’s nostrils. Steam rose like woodsmoke from where the yard used to be. The landslide had exposed the tangled roots of the massive Douglas fir next to their house.

Cherie knew in that instant that her life had changed, but she did not want to admit it. Corey joined her on the deck. It took half a second for him to realize the same. He wrapped his arms around her.

“It’s going to be okay, baby,” he said.

Corey says he’s always trying to make Cherie feel better, trying to fix things, but that he knew deep down, they just lost their dream home.

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After their daughters moved out, Corey and Cherie wanted to move into a smaller home. Not just a smaller home, but the home in which they could happily spend the rest of their days. For years they searched for the perfect spot. They put in offers on places that they’re glad now didn’t pan out, because a little house on a high bank of the Washougal River, just downstream from Naked Falls – where they fell in love more than forty years ago – whispered, welcome

Buying the place was complicated. The property belonged to the bank, and the process of purchasing took months of negotiations and back and forth about how the old septic tanks needed to be replaced before they could move in, then a whole summer of actual work. They sold the farmhouse in which they raised three daughters, and Corey cashed in on his thirty-five years of setting tile in million-dollar houses to make the sale happen.

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Nevertheless, the couple was essentially homeless for four months, luckily supported by aunts and daughters with spare couches, while the old septic system was dug up and new “biogreen”  tanks put in the ground. But their waiting to land full circle back at their teenage stomping grounds was not always patient. Cherie says she was “done” being strung all over the place.

“I wanted the comfort of a home home.”

Before they moved in, Cherie would lie down in the grass of her would-be home, and imagined her roots going deep into the ground. She prayed to the spirit of the Native American people for a blessing to steward the land, to protect and enhance it.

“I just wanted to be worthy of this place,” Cherie says.

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Corey and I work together, remodeling houses in Lake Oswego. When he’s not around, general contractors talk about the mastery and humility with which he works. They vie for his schedule, say that he doesn’t charge enough. He’s quiet, unassuming, kind. Wears a tawny pony tail, gray at the roots. When he lets his beard grow scruffy, it betrays the youth in his face.

A few weeks ago, on a quiet afternoon in someone else’s big empty house, he told me the story of how he was losing his dream home, the place into which he’d invested everything, because a landslide dropped half his yard into the river rapids below.

I balked, and as he spoke, I nearly teared up. Naïvely, I didn’t want to believe that could happen because I didn’t want to believe that I could work my entire life to finally feel like I belonged somewhere—my struggle since toddlerhood—only to watch the place I’d worked to find myself collapse like Jenga blocks into a ravine.

“Are you saying the foundation is slipping out from under your dreams,” I asked. I tried to skirt around how deeply I resonated with his story by saying that I thought that a lot of people in this country could relate to what he and his wife were going through right now. Metaphorically, of course.

I asked if I could come out and see it for myself. I wanted to see what home looked like for them, and how they dealt with losing it.

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The weather was supposed to be partly sunny. I rode my motorcycle from inner SE Portland and headed for Washougal. The sun didn’t last long. On the I-205 bridge, high winds from the Gorge threatened to push my bike sideways into the box truck in the next lane. I tightened my grip and loosened my shoulders because that’s what you do when the winds of change become gales.

Becoming homeless is no fable to me. It is not something that just happens to bad people or addicts. It has happened to me, over and over again, in different forms, making my sense of home an ambivalent quest for an unknown grail. Maybe I’ve had many homes, more than all my fingers and toes; maybe I’ve had none, and simply floated between places to lay my sleeping bag, occasionally landing for a few months, maybe a couple of years. Times when I’ve really had it good, really felt like I was home, I’ve tightened my grip, wanting to not lose it. But a place has its way of shrugging us off when the time comes.

Now, I’m tentative to love a place too much. At 30, I’ve lived in Portland for four years, twice longer than anywhere else in my life. I’m trying to loosen my death grip on a good thing, to be open to other options. Maybe soon I’ll take a reprieve from the city and do the Thoreau thing for a while. But what place would I be worthy of?

From town, Washougal River Road follows the idyllic river upstream through the foothills of the Cascades north of the Columbia River. The farther out I ride, the more familiar the landscape becomes. Dilapidated houses sink into the earth farther and farther apart from each other on scraggly forested land. Shoddy fences surround dead playground equipment and doghouses whose shingles have been torn off. Washing machines sit in driveways; some operable, others bound for the trip to the dump that will never happen. Antique, tireless tractors decorate the field edges of thumbprint-sized farms.

I was raised in rural communities so much like the outskirts of Washougal that on my ride out River Road, I silently name the year, make and model of most broken down trucks I see that littered the Trump/Pence-postered yards as they pass through my periphery. On many levels, I feel like I know this place intimately, which is one reason I live in the city.

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When I park in the Nelsons’ driveway, I notice the driveway is flanked by a half dozen brown and silver tarps covering what is left of a small yard. Anchored by tent stakes and sandbags, the tarps should delay the erosion of the driveway long enough for the couple to move out, walk away, hand back the house to the other bank.

From their deck, which is barely large enough for five or six chairs, I take in the gorgeous panorama. The land across from us gushes water from three creeks within a hundred yards upstream from a waterfall tall and wide as the Nelsons’ house. Chimney smoke billows from a neighbor’s blue house, near the waterfall. The trees sway. An eagle glides by.

This place, to me, is fantastically beautiful. I feel like I’m in a postcard slice of the PNW relegated to Instagram and the dreams of Bay Area refugees, the wilder tracts of our bioregion cityfolks feel they must prepare to visit with expensive trips to REI.

Corey welcomes me in. I take off my wet gear and realize that after two years, I’ve never seen the man outside work. We hug each other for the first time. Cherie offers me hot tea. They describe how they stand out on the deck together and watch eagles soar beneath wildly morphing clouds; how the full moon rises every month over the hill on the far side of the river;  how the trees in autumn change color and drop leaves into a river effusive with winter’s first rains.

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They tell me about the landslide, how they went from ‘set for life’ to homeless and soon-to-be bankrupt in three seconds. For days after the slide, Cherie says she could hardly breathe. She didn’t sleep for two weeks.

Don’t you have any recourse, or any way to repair the bank, I ask.

“That first day, I called a builder I’ve known for twenty years,” Corey says. He gave them options. They called an excavator, who said he couldn’t get the proper machinery where he needed it, and didn’t want to put his employees at risk trying. A geotech engineer came up with a hundred-thousand-dollar solution that, if that kind of money was just lying around, they would do. Besides, Cherie says, fixing the bank isn’t even important at this point.

“I don’t feel safe here anymore,” she says.

<<>>

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What is home, if you don’t feel safe there? My own answer is that it is no longer home, a truth I’ve come to more than once about a particular house, town, and recently, a nation post-election. In the latter case, however, I’m not tempted to leave this time so much as I am to dig in and create a home for myself. But the thought of doing so after being here gives me pause.

<<>>

The house is impressively compact and spacious at the same time. Inside and out, it screams Tiny House, built 50 years before Tiny Houses became cool. Their loft bedroom sets above the bathroom and kitchen. Crystal-studded altars, Buddha statues, and small goddesses live throughout the space. The couches are super comfortable. It’s as large a house as I could ever want. During our conversation, I find myself distracted by the natural beauty outside the huge square windows. On the sill, I notice an ancient stone tool or three of them.

“We found that thing when we started digging in the garden,” Corey says. “I know it’s not natural.”

I pick up a rough stone pestle about 8” long, and turn it this way and that. At first glance, I think it could have come right out of a riverbed, but the phallic tool is too refined for that. Three potato chip-shaped indents serve as comfortable grips for a thumb and two fingers. I’ve seen things like it only in museums.

I’m reminded of Cherie’s comment about stewarding the land. It impresses me how we humans play games of ownership and development with different intentions: to one person, a tract of land represents only money; to someone else, a hillside is the history and spirit of generations of people, just one in a community of subjects: plants, animals, microbes, stones, all in relation to one another.

Before I leave, I help Corey load a futon into the back of his truck. I sense the peace around leaving is not yet pervasive. For saying that they’re leaving this week, I see little evidence of packing.

They’re debating whether they need to bury the stone tools back in the garden.

“I think we should leave them here,” Corey says.

For two and a half years, Cherie and Corey stewarded this piece of land, called it home, enjoyed every mile of the long commute to and from the Portland area. Home meant, for them, a permanent vacation, a source of constant gratitude.

That’s part of her confusion.

“I wonder, did I do something wrong?” Cherie says, tears welling in her eyes. “Was I taking it for granted? I don’t think I was. I was very present, all the time. Always thinking of ways to beautify it and make it better. Did I not show enough gratitude?”

Corey reaches over to comfort her. He takes her into his arms.

“I think I did,” she says.

<<>>

Women’s March on Portland

“No country can preserve its political liberties unless its rulers know that their people preserve the spirit of resistance.”
Thomas Jefferson

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“I inherited the instinct as a true-born American bred to the worship of both machinery and money; an appreciation of its force I acquired during a lifetime of reading newspaper reports of political uprisings in the provinces of the bourgeois world state—in China, Israel, and Greece in the 1940s; in the 1950s those in Hungary, Cuba, Guatemala, Algeria, Egypt, Bolivia, and Iran; in the 1960s in Vietnam, France, America, Ethiopia, and the Congo; in the 1970s and 1980s in El Salvador, Poland, Nicaragua, Kenya, Argentina, Chile, Indonesia, Czechoslovakia, Turkey, Jordan, Cambodia, again in Iran; over the last twenty-four years in Russia, Venezuela, Lebanon, Croatia, Bosnia, Libya, Tunisia, Syria, Ukraine, Iraq, Somalia, South Africa, Romania, Sudan, again in Algeria and Egypt…

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“…the plot line tends to repeat itself—first the new flag on the roof of the palace, rapturous crowds in the streets waving banners; then searches, requisitions, massacres, severed heads raised on pikes; soon afterward the transfer of power from one police force to another police force, the latter more repressive than the former (darker uniforms, heavier motorcycles) because more frightened of the social and economic upheavals they can neither foresee nor control.”

Lewis Lapham

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“Poverty gives rise to the desire for change, the desire for action, and the desire for revolution. On a blank sheet of paper free from any mark, the freshest and most beautiful characters can be written, the freshest and most beautiful pictures can be painted.”
Chairman Mao Zedong

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“Who has time to think or care about political change when it’s more than enough trouble to save oneself from drowning in the flood of technological change?”
-L. Lapham

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“One magic word today seems capable of compensating for all sufferings, resolving all anxieties, avenging the past, curing present ills, summing up all future possibilities: that word is revolution…This word has aroused such pure acts of devotion, has repeatedly caused such generous blood to be shed, has constituted for so many unfortunates the only source of courage for living, that it is almost a sacrilege to investigate it; all this, however, does not prevent it from possibly being meaningless.”
Albert Camus

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“The Civil Rights movement and later the anti–Vietnam War protests were reformative, not revolutionary, the expression of democratic objection and dissent in accord with the thinking of Jefferson, also with President John F. Kennedy’s having said in his 1961 inaugural address, Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country

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“The fantastic fears of violent revolt awakened by a news media in search of a profit stimulated the demand for repressive surveillance and heavy law enforcement that over the last fifty years has blossomed into one of the richest and most innovative of the nation’s growth industries. For our own good, of course, and without forgoing our constitutional right to shop…

 

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“The television camera…isn’t much interested in political reform (slow, tedious, and unphotogenic) and so, even in the first years of protest [in the 1960s], the news media presented the trouble running around loose in the streets as a[n armed, violent] revolution…

 

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“The medium is the message, and because the camera sees but doesn’t think, it substitutes the personal for the impersonal; whether in Hollywood restaurants or Washington committee rooms, the actor takes precedence over the act. What is wanted is a flow of emotion, not a train of thought, a vocabulary of images better suited to the selling of a product than to the expression of an idea.”
-Lewis Lapham

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“No attempt at revolt could ever hope to set up even a minimum of resonance in the rest of society, because that society is ‘soporific,’ submerged in a consumer rat race…Even if revolt were possible, however, it would remain the solitary gesture of a few isolated individuals, and they would be opposed not only by a gigantic apparatus of national (and supranational) power, but also by the very society in whose name they were mounting their revolt in the first place.”

Václav Havel, poet, playwright,  former president of Czech Republic

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“Governments are not overthrown by the poor, who have no power, but by the rich—when they are insulted by their inferiors and cannot obtain justice.”

-Dionysius of Halicarnassus, 20 BC

Standing Home

I’ve never had a home to fight for. I moved around so much as a child that I graduated from my seventeenth public school as a new kid. Throughout my twenties, money in my bank account equaled passport stamps equaled minority status in most countries I trekked through. A local woman in rural Nepal once waggled her permanently broken arm in my face, grunting muted guttural sounds from her throat. When she opened her mouth to, I assumed from her body language, yell, I saw that she had no tongue, and few teeth. With her good arm, she smacked my jacket pocket. In shock and unable to comprehend, I dumbly stared at her. I remember smelling dried sweat and dal, the traditional local cuisine, on her sleeve. My role became clear to me that day: I was a privileged Westerner come to voyeur foreign squalor. Shame washed over me. I had no place there.

I told myself to go home, but I didn’t know where that was. 

This autumn, in an effort to make believe, I began building a tiny house on wheels. A place of my own. Before I started, I told myself that because I had no land yet on which to put it, I didn’t actually deserve it a roof over my head, a place to own and take responsibility for. That I hadn’t earned the right to a place to exist, or feel safe. Doesn’t everyone deserve that, one might wonder. Let me tell you: as I continue to build the tiny home, I choose to trust that I am also building something within myself that might one day belong within it. 

My friend Ari was headed out to Standing Rock to support the water protectors in their fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline. He knew no one out there and had little money. When he announced on social media his intention to go, someone he didn’t know bought him a train ticket in support, or solidarity, or perhaps lack of knowing how else to help the water protectors keep their ancestral home but to put people on it who wouldn’t budge.

“Do you want to come out, Sean?” Ari asked.

My anger and sadness flared. My body shook in resonance. I sensed that the Native Americans knew in their souls that home was more than just a plot of land in a nice neighborhood, a piece of wisdom long lost to my ancestry. I thought that I could go to Standing Rock and that my white maleness would declare my alacrity to heal the genocidal rift between our cultures. It seemed to fit my pursuit: I needed to know what it was to fight for home. I wanted viscerally to make eye contact with a man in riot gear from the other side of the line. To reach across the gulf between us: not just politics, but the narcissistic colonialist values that would keep a modern American man from honoring the Native struggle, not impeding it. I could empathize with the very human motivation to feed, clothe, and show one’s family that they loved them, but supporting a family at the expense of the freedoms police are employed to protect is another thing. I wanted the mercenary to see himself in me. I wanted my mother, who was a cop when I was a child, to see which side of the line I stood on.

To be sure, at Standing Rock I would stand isolated from my brethren in riot gear, and from the people I sought to aid. Maybe ‘aid’ was the wrong verb for what I wanted to do. Aid was what privilege-guilty Americans did to Africa; I wanted to be present, to listen. I wanted to wash dishes, chop firewood, build camp structures warm and strong enough to endure the frigid North Dakota winter. 

“Yes, I want to come,” I wrote back.

I contacted another friend who was moving his family to Omaha in three days. He replied immediately. Yes, there was room for me in the moving truck, if I would help with driving. 

Resistance set in. Did I have enough money? A warm enough sleeping bag? Was it ironic that I would consume heaps of fossil fuels in order to protest them? How long would I spend out there? My mother was coming to visit in a couple of weeks; would I be back in time? Would she understand if I wasn’t? 

I also had my own structure to build. The Northwest’s autumnal rains left me with precious few weather windows to work. Sunshine was forecast for the week. I had planned to sheathe and put up the walls, the most significant visual progress of the build: that of raising a pile of fastened lumber into a tangible house. 

Both options—going to Standing Rock; staying to build the tiny house—were noble holes to sink money into. Neither made sense. Why didn’t I just abandon both, give in to the poverty consciousness I was raised to believe—that there is never enough—and call my boss to pick up some more work, like a good American man? 

Fervent and confused, I backpedaled and deferred choosing my destiny until morning.

<<>>

I’ve never seen an animal willingly subject itself to physical violence. I doubt that even David Attenborough has seen an impala in pursuit of a cheetah. Impalas know who wins that fight. 

Humans put themselves in harm’s way daily. We ride motorcycles, drink alcohol, join the military, stay in abusive relationships, eat fast food. Some beg to be whipped; stand unarmed in front of advancing war tanks; set themselves on fire to make a point. We put ourselves in dangerous situations because we either 1) ignore or haven’t developed our intuition and risk assessment to register that it’s dangerous, 2) think we’re cunning enough to avoid harm, or 3) because we’re harmed enough already that we indulge in it. 

Consciousness is a funny thing. With it, humans invented iPhones, democracy, and given a thousand names to the Great Mystery: Allah, Yahweh, El Shadday, Love, God. Consciousness is powerful, too, in that an individual may choose to make herself vulnerable, to chase the proverbial cheetah when her instinct says that only death will come if she does. It’s as if we are constantly asking ourselves, what if I do this?

My friend Ari knew that he might experience violence. In part, that’s why he went to Standing Rock. It felt important for him to witness people gathering to fight. It meant they believed in something. And from what I know of Ari, he probably needed something to believe in.

The complex cost of developing our consciousness is the very problem it provides us the ability to solve: as we discover new ways to create, the greater our power, and the closer we come to the values we’ve projected onto the gods. But we’re not perfect yet. Like gods in on-the-job training, humans make mistakes. We may assume that a particular resource is infinite, like oil. While framing my tiny house, I thought that I could get away with a mismeasured window frame. It wasn’t a big deal until much later when I couldn’t fit the window into the hole I’d created for it. Doing it right the first time would have been a pain, but I would have saved time and money.

By continuing to ask ‘what happens when I do this?’, observing the results, and changing our behavior accordingly, we enact and embody the very essence of what it is to be human – the ability to think, and to choose one path over another. Sometimes that looks like exploring the home culture, language, or land of others. In the not-so-distant past, European colonists coveted the land we now call America so much that they raped and pillaged for possession of it.

We did nearly everything we could to exterminate the Native American people. At Wounded Knee, we murdered them in cold blood. We systematically destroyed the bison population, once a primary food source. For decades we stole Native children, put them in boarding schools, made them wear “civilized” clothing, punished them for speaking their native languages. In the 18th century, the corporations of the day, including Hudson Bay Trading Company, traded and sold whiskey by the barrel to villages, creating a dependency that lasts into the 21st century. Later, we brought meth and heroin, drugs so powerful and addictive that the White Man has almost succeeded in our slow genocide. Now, an oil company is burying an oil pipeline under the Missouri River, a water source depended on by 17 million Americans. 

I woke up the next morning with a stone in my gut. I couldn’t go to Standing Rock. Not now. I needed to build my home. If there’s any gulf I needed to reach across, any rift I needed to heal, it was the shame of the privilege that allowed me to take up space. This body, this land, even this tiny house—these are not mine. They are composed of resources lent to me—to us—for a time, and I can choose what to do with them. I have always deserved a home. The Standing Rock Sioux deserve their home. We all deserve clean water.

A month into his stay at Standing Rock, Ari was among dozens who were teargassed one night at a barricade where unarmed water protectors and heavily-armed members of the Morton County Sheriff department have faced off for months. A concussion grenade exploded in front of him, followed by a fire hose spraying bear mace. Rubber bullets and bean bags were shot at the protectors. In subfreezing temperatures, the fire hose unleashed torrents of water upon the protectors.

The concussion grenade had struck a young Native woman, tearing into her arm above the elbow. She stared dumbly at her attackers. When she opened her mouth to yell, she had no tongue. Ari’s role became clear to him. He had come to witness the fact that she and her people were the Impala being driven from their ancestral home. After generations of caring for this land, they no longer had a place there. Ari knew who would win this fight, and shame washed over him.

The suffering is no longer foreign.

(Photo courtesy of Leland B Benoist)

to fix a leaky wall

Since election day, when I last worked on the tiny house, rainwater found its way under the port side wall and seeped into the house. Water that gets inside a structure makes for dismal things to come if left unchecked. Moisture begets mold growth which when inhaled causes illness. Eventually, the materials of the house degrade, and the house, given enough time, collapses. One might liken a water leak to a salesman who gets elected President. There was a hole in the system. I could curse the hole, or I could deal with the water that seeped through it.

I did what any builder depressed by the state of the world would do. I ignored it and instead focused on framing the roof. I’d never framed a roof before, and the geometry involved made my head spin. I had to look up the Pythagorean Theorem, which I learned in grade seven and swiftly forgot, to find that I didn’t have 2x4s long enough to span the width of the house. It took me an hour to pass the short exam online that I thought would help my confidence enough to make the cuts based on my own math.

Later, as I stood warily on a three-and-a-half inch beam thirteen feet off the gravel, my angle cut turned out too shallow, the new joist cut too short. I threw my measuring tape on the deck and hurled the beam out of the roofless house and into the driveway. I hoped that the crash landing killed the spider that had been trekking across the joist.

Rarely does expressing anger accomplish anything for me. The Nineties taught me that my anger punctured bedroom doors and broke CDs and that sadness and regret did not put them back together again. Other people got scared or mad and lashed back at me, or left. I decided way back then that expressing anger was not useful. So I repressed it.

I fetched the piece of lumber, put it away, and returned to the loft to reflect on my progress. I had built the downstairs walls too high, which meant there would be scarce ceiling height in the loft to do anything more interesting than reading a book. The DOT (or somesuch agency) requires that tiny homes on wheels be limited to thirteen and a half feet in height—understandable, in that roofs shouldn’t collide with the underside of a bridge at fifty-five mph, but my wife wanted more height in the loft. Her opinion on matters of the bed is important.

Could have waited to install the top plates, too. Top plates are 2x4s that connect wall segments together to improve the stability of the structure. Why not use the bottom plates of the loft wall frames for that and save an inch and a half of height?

Could have made a better decision months ago. But I had to have it my way, take the more difficult route, be different from the rest.

Efficiency in hindsight.

I didn’t blueprint this house, drew nothing to scale, spent seven thousand dollars on what looked to me like the boxy doghouse I built in seventh grade for my Rottweiler, Hans.

My mistakes revealed themselves hourly, as fast as I learned to detect them. To increase the time interval between finding yet another blunder, I practiced snare drum rudiments on the window sills and juggled hammers and snacked on banana macaroons.

I got down on myself today when Ryan, a builder whose work I admire, came by to see how things were going. He poked his head into one of my crookedly sawzall’d window holes and looked around. I imagined him, the master builder of mcmansions, eyeing each of my mistakes and silently judging me as an amateur, a charlatan not even good enough to build a tiny house.

“If I knew what the fuck I was doing, things would be going great,” I told him. It came out harsh, even brash. Ryan seemed to ignore it. To change the subject, I asked him how he learned to build.

But I couldn’t shake the question in my head, why did I say that?

Because he is better at what I am doing than I am. Because I want to be good at everything I do. Because I fear that I’m not enough, or will ever be.

No one is holding me accountable for this build. No one is paying me. No one was around to see me throw a 2×4 at the ground. Maybe that just needed to come out of me. Maybe all the frustration and anger I feel about the election needs to come out so I can look at the water leak in the wall and not take it personally, or conclude that there was thus a hole in me, and mold would grow and cause me to get sick and die. Internalizing the mistake would help only shame, which I needed not indulge.

After Ryan left, I sat up on the beam and waited for the roof to build itself, the correct angles to be cut, and the leak to have never happened. Minutes passed. Clouds threatened rain, then continued sweeping north. The roof, the angles, the leak, they didn’t budge. My anger dissolved into sadness, then resolve. The repair work was mine to do. This build was a one-man democracy. It required participation from all parties in order to progress. Only by continuing to lift the roof joists into place could I begin to understand the weight of my actions. Removing the glued-down top plates would be costly in time I could better use learning how to work with and around them.

Perhaps the President elect has leaked into the system. That’s what he was elected to do, according to Michael Moore.

Maybe mold will form, and people will die. They already have. Maybe things will begin to crumble. Maybe the very idea of the United States of America will deteriorate to the point where he won’t need to build a wall. People won’t bother immigrating here. How would four years of zero new immigrants impact our national self-esteem?

Now is not the time to internalize our anger. That’s what got us here in the first place. Letting things fester, not saying anything when perhaps we should have—whether out of fear, disenfranchisement, lack of vocal cords, or apathy. Or shutting down and ignoring the people who were saying something important. Bernie Sanders. Black Lives Matter. Occupy Wall Street. Maybe what they were saying wasn’t relevant to us, or maybe if the public listened to them it could have negatively impacted our bottom line.

I’ve thought of quitting this build. I went to the Canadian immigration site on election night to find the crashed server couldn’t be reached. Fortunately, my wife is Canadian, I reasoned, so maybe it wouldn’t be so shameful if I just accompanied her back home. I’ve thought of cutting my losses instead of lumber and of selling this doghouse to some Portlandite bent on breaking free. But I won’t do that.

I’m not going to quit. I’m not going to run away from poor judgments, from shame for not having gained more experience before starting a mad project, shame for being privileged enough to begin building a tiny home and to consider quitting. I need simply to dry out the moisture under the wall, and seal the hole.