Friday, March 17, 2017

Picking Up the Slack

When I began to pay taxes long ago, I made a conscious decision that I would not count charitable donations as a deduction.  I argued with my father about this for over a decade, and he never convinced me.

My reasoning is that I pay taxes in my country in order to sustain the basic services that make up our social safety net and give people the opportunity to improve their lives: food stamps, education, housing assistance, medical care, and similar programs.  I have never in my life begrudged that my tax dollars go to those who have less than I do, not even when I barely had enough.  I don't set up litmus tests of who's 'worthy' of help and who's not; people who need help are worthy of help.  If we are to be a human and marginally civilized society, these are the things we need to pay for.  It's the base cost of being a decent human being.

In addition to paying taxes, I donate to charities that I think help the world, both internationally and domestically.  I give what I can, when I can, because I was raised to believe that there's always someone who can benefit from sharing what you have.  Some of these charities also receive taxpayer funding.

Why, I asked myself, would I rob Peter to pay Paul by decreasing my taxes based on my donations?  Why would I take tax money away from programs that benefit charities based on my own donations to those very same charities?

I'm not naive; I know that my taxes also go to pay for a number of things I find reprehensible: foreign wars, massive weapons buildup, an abusive prison system, the unequal enforcement of drug policy, corporate welfare for multinational conglomerates, among other things.  As I can't dictate which programs my tax dollars go to, I lobby against what I oppose while still paying for what I believe in, because the two are inextricably linked.

Until now.  

The current White House administration believes in cutting its support for all those things I donate to: food for the elderly, school lunches, welfare programs, environmental protections, the arts, public education, humanitarian aid to other countries, and healthcare for the sick and needy.  They want to cut out all the things that made me willing to pay my taxes each year, and increase spending on that which I begrudge.

So, thanks for that, Republicans.  You've finally managed to do what my father spent more than ten years unsuccessfully trying to accomplish.  I'll be tracking every charitable penny, accepting every donation receipt, and cutting down next year's taxes as much as humanly possible by forcing you to credit me for the money I spend doing your job.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Complicated Thoughts on a Day Without a Woman

Yesterday was International Women's Day, and like most things involving women, it was complicated and experienced differently by a lot of different people.

Over the last several weeks, plans for a 'day without women' were floated around the internet, with a lot of women talking about how we should opt out for a day.  Don't work, don't do unpaid labor at home, don't buy things, just remove our contributions from the common pool.  A strike, essentially, from being women in the world.

Oh, if only we could.

Most of the criticisms of the 'day without women' idea were valid and based entirely in why we need one and may never get one.  It was a thing that only women lucky enough to be able to afford a day off could participate in.  Women for whom a day without work means an irreplaceable budget shortfall can't afford to strike.  Women who are sole caregivers for their children, or for their parents, cannot take a day away.  Women in "women's professions", especially teaching and nursing, have to face the fact that the people who suffer from their strike day are vulnerable children and patients, not corporations or the public at large.  I saw a number of women explaining that if they took a day off, their already-outnumbered voices would be silent for a day, leaving the decisions and opinions in the hands of their male co-workers.  Women said, "I provide care for others' children, mostly women.  If I don't work, they can't work."  Too many women who could afford to take a day off said, "Well, no one does my work if I'm not here so if I take the day off, I'll just have twice as much work tomorrow."

I took yesterday off.  I slept late and did exactly as I wanted, which included a couple of house projects I've been trying to get to but haven't because I'm often exhausted from work and other obligations.  It was excellent.

I also spent a lot of time thinking about what I was doing and why I should or should not do it.  The day actually hit a minor guilt-bubble around the time I was drinking my coffee in bed, because how can self-indulgence be a radical act?

It is, you know.  Though it's not just women, women (especially women of color) represent the greatest portion of the demographic for whom the words 'day off' are a faraway vision of unimaginable ease and luxury.  Too many of us are working paycheck to paycheck and balancing a lioness's share of unpaid household labor.

Everyone deserves a living wage for a full day's work, and that includes women.  If you're working 40 hours a week and you cannot afford to feed, house, and clothe yourself without taking on roommates or extra work, then you're being exploited.  If you're working 40 hours a week and can't even afford rent on a space large enough for your family, you're being exploited.  If you're working 40 hours a week and can't afford to save for emergencies *or* retirement, you're being exploited.  If you're working two 25-hour-a-week jobs because neither employer wants to give you full-time benefits, you're being doubly exploited.  Mark my words, every company that treats its employees this way receives government subsidies twice over, first as tax cuts and corporate welfare, and second by having tax dollars supplement their employees' abysmal wages with public assistance to meet a basic standard of living.

If you can't trust your male co-workers or managers to speak for women or consider their input as valuable if you're not physically there to hold them accountable, you're doing additional and likely unpaid labor to have a workplace that treats people fairly.

Systems, like modern nursing, that are arranged with such spare staffing coverage that every minute of every worker's day is essential to keeping the machine from failing increase burnout, which decreases employee longevity and destroys institutional knowledge.  It shortens the lives of those who work under those conditions, and damages their physical and emotional health in the long term.  If a shift that 'begins' at 3 and 'ends' at midnight requires you to be there at 2 and leave at 1230 in order to exchange critical information, AND work through your 'lunch' to finish required documentation, you're working an extra 10+ hours each week, unacknowledged.

Teachers, who are predominantly women, work hundreds of hours of invisible labor a year, from spending time over the summer designing and creating room decorations to supervising extracurricular activities to hours upon hours of grading.  "It must be nice to only work till 4," they say to the woman struggling out to the parking lot at the end of a ten-hour day, with twenty-six term papers to read and grade over the weekend.

Some of this is why I stayed home.  I am, as the articles point out, privileged in that I can do that.  My job isn't endangered by a day off; my boss was slightly inconvenienced that a thing he wanted to know didn't materialize immediately upon asking it and he had to wait until today.  Rather than dismissing things because "Only privileged women can do them" I think we need to say "Hey, this thing that's only accessible to privileged women, I think they all need to do it because they can, and to acknowledge that being able to do that should be available to all."  When a protest is only available to those of privilege, one of the best uses of privilege is to do it while pointing out its universal inaccessibility.

That's not the only reason I stayed home, though.  One of the most defining characteristics of modern womanhood is the idea that any time taken for oneself and one's own priorities is time 'stolen' from what we owe the rest of the world.  Mothers make memes about hiding in the pantry to eat a candy bar and get a few minutes' quiet.  We glamorize the idea of being 'so busy' that a cup of tea or a glass of wine in one's own living room is an unspeakable decadence.  There's an entire culture based around the conflict between feeling obligated to social engagements but being so exhausted you have to cancel them and beg forgiveness from friends for 'letting them down' by staying in for a night.

We're supposed to 'have it all' by which 'having it all' means putting the job, and the family, and the partner, and the social expectations of activism or volunteering all ahead of the simple act of enjoying time doing the things that feed us emotionally.  Women who put themselves and their own priorities ahead of any of those things are seen as somehow indulgent and rebellious.

There's a backlash against the self-care movement to tell women, "Stop claiming your pedicure or leaving a dish in the sink is 'self-care' because it's not, it's just being selfish and lazy and pretending that doing what you want is emotionally necessary."

Pretending that doing what you want is emotionally necessary.

So many of the arguments regarding women's rights boil down to whether or not women should have the same freedom to do as we want that men have.  The same opportunities to attend colleges or be hired for jobs or paid fairly.  The same ability to set our own boundaries.  The right to do as we want with our bodies and our health care.

When you trivialize the idea that doing what you want is emotionally necessary, you undermine the entire idea of women's autonomy.  You undermine our identity as complete, independent, self-actualized beings.  So what if you think my pedicure is trivial?  It's an hour of time doing what I want, at the end of which I feel physically and emotionally refreshed.  So what if you think I should go home and do the dishes instead of staying at work to finish a project I'm really interested in?  I will spend my time to my own best advantage.

Ultimately, it becomes a revolutionary act to do as we wish without validation or justification.  It is pure rebellion to spend my time entirely on my terms regardless of what the world thinks I should do with it.  Whether it's a full day I can take as a 'Floating Holiday' thanks to my employer's inclusive policies, or just a half-hour lunch break on which I refuse to work 'off the clock' and instead read a book or take a walk, unashamedly claiming the autonomy of spent time is a basic human right.

And if there's a better day for me to embrace that rebellion than International Women's Day, I don't know what it is.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

A Little Winter's Thaw

For years now, Imbolc has been my favorite holiday.  A lot of people may not be familiar with it, so here's a quick explanation:

If you're among certain kinds of Northern European pagans, the year is divided into eight pie pieces, by the holidays.  Four of those holidays are the solstices and equinoxes, and then there's an observance bisecting each of those.

At the Winter Solstice, one of the things people do sometimes is to hold vigil for the sun to return after its longest night.  We watch the sun set, and then we stay up all night to watch it return.  It's a way that we can express faith that we will stand through the darkest times, until the light comes again.  We greet the return of the sun with joy, though winter's only half over, because we are now on the road to spring.

Roughly six weeks later, we come to Imbolc.  In agrarian cultures, it marked the lactation of the ewes, the first faint sign that the lambs were coming, and spring following behind them.  Long before the weather turned, before the earth quickened or the trees put forth their leaves, into the bitter grey there came the promise of spring.  Here in Central Texas, Imbolc is more likely marked by the first green shoots and budding wildflowers, to herald our brief and gentle spring before the brutal summer takes hold.

The reason that Imbolc is my favorite is that it's a marker of validated faith.  In the northern latitudes you can't see, at the Winter Solstice, any real indication that spring will ever return.  All you have is your belief in how the world works, that it will continue to follow the laws of nature that it always has, and then at Imbolc that faith is met with proof.

When I lived in the Midwest, I always knew that the worst of the year, the most bitter, brutal, demoralizing cold came in February, in the weeks following Imbolc.  No matter how mild a January thaw might be, there remained the looming threat of weather so cold it would freeze the gas lines in your car, burst your pipes, creep in around your windows to torment your sleep.  The worst of winter was always its last gasp.

As a modern, educated pagan who knows exactly how the seasons progress and why, there's less concern that the sun will or won't come back, and the cycle of the year becomes metaphorical.  Imbolc comes to stand for the moment when the darkness breaks briefly, to give you a glimpse of the coming light before the year plunges you into another harsh test of faith.

My country is in darkness now.  The long election season and the first two weeks of the new administration have cast a lot of people into despair.  We rightly worry that fear and ignorance have handed the reins of power to a dangerous madman, and that we'll end in war -- external OR internal.  The most vulnerable members of our society are at ever-greater risk.

There have been small victories, though.  Marches and protests, rogue government agencies, little wins over policy or polemic.  There is just enough happening to mark an Imbolc moment, a signal to those who crave light that it will come someday and give us the ease and abundance of full summer.

There may yet be worse to come than we've endured already.  There may be more danger, there may be more rage and fear driving our actions and our neighbors'.  It's not yet time to plant our gardens, or plan our leisure time.  We have more tests of faith before us, but we can survive them.

We must apply winter logic, though, if we're going to get as many people as possible through the darkness ahead.

Know your resources and use them carefully.  Check on one another.  Support and take care of your neighbors.  Stand up for each other.  Plan for the worst.  Keep your faith and believe in the better times coming, but make sure your root cellar is stocked to get you to them.  Trade what you have for what you need.  Fight the madness that accompanies isolation and despair with companionship, with music, with laughter.  Find a hearth and circle it with love.  Connect where you can, and fight where you must, but remember, always, that your only goal is to carry yourself and as many of the lives around you as possible through to the better days.

Together, in community with one another, we can reach spring.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Every Child a Wanted Child

When I was younger, I had a good friend.  I'll call her 'Jane' for the sake of her privacy.

Jane was born at the end of 1972.  Her mother had not wanted her, or her older sibling, but had no access to reliable birth control, and she had a husband with needs and expectations who wouldn't have allowed any child of his to be put up for adoption.  It became clear to me, the longer I knew her, that Jane's mother was one of those people who should never have had children, and she knew it.

Rather than try to become the good mother she was singularly ill-equipped to be, Jane's mom let the resentment through.  My friend was regularly beaten; she confided to me once that her mom had started using the belt on her upper thighs, because she'd had her ass beaten so frequently it no longer really hurt that much, and her mom had figured that out.

The thing that sticks with me, more than any other, is Jane finding out when my birthday was, and saying enviously, "You were wanted."  I was born *after* the landmark Roe vs. Wade decision.  Our friendship fell across that historic cusp.

Since she could remember, my good friend's mother had told her, on a regular basis, that she wished abortion had been legal in her state.  She told her "If it had been six months later or if I could have afforded to drive to another state, I would have aborted you."  She told her "you never should have been born and I wish you hadn't."  She told her children "Your father left after you were born and it was your fault.  He wouldn't have left me if not for you."  Jane looked at everyone she knew through an age-related filter, with everyone younger than her living in this miracle land of being a wanted child, because the law hadn't forced their mothers to have them like it had hers.

Everything Jane had done to improve her life, from studying hard to taking up hobbies to applying to colleges and getting a part-time job, her mother met with, "Why bother?  You'll just ruin your own life like you ruined mine."  When she started dating, she was told, "When you've gone and gotten yourself knocked up, I'll take you to get an abortion because even you don't deserve a child like you."

I can't explain what it was like to be in proximity to this kind of toxic relationship.  Jane made me promise not to tell anyone because every time someone tried to help it got worse.  I was much younger then, so I kept her secret.

As the years wore on and we moved to different cities, Jane and I had our fallings-out.  She was always a difficult person to be friends with, so quick to reject friendship if she had any fear that it might hurt her, so guarded against trust.  But when she was in an emotionally healthy space the friendship was good and solid.  Jane at her best was bright, kind, and witty.

Looking back I wish I'd tried harder to hold the connection, but that was tough to do in the days before email, and cellphones with free long distance, and jobs that pay enough for road trips.  She started making some dangerous choices with drugs and sex, and the last straw for a close relationship was me trying to talk to her about that.  I was not particularly subtle or empathetic about it, and she was not open to having her slow suicide through deliberate irresponsibility called out.  She told me she should never have been born anyway, so why did it matter?  We spoke occasionally after that, but the real closeness and trust were gone.  Eventually, the relationship just dissolved, and she faded out of my life.

Whenever abortion comes up, I think of Jane.  I hope she's all right and that she eventually managed to get the help she needed to deal with her abuse.  I hope that she's never become the mother she feared she'd be if she had kids.  I hope that her life, today, is one of joy and freedom.  Every so often I put her name in a search engine to no real effect, and I'm not even sure what I'd say to her if I found her.

Most stories of the days before Roe focus on the women, the ones who lost their lives or suffered desperate health crises as a result of a botched illegal abortion.  We tell a lot of stories about women whose lives were derailed or forever altered by a pregnancy and motherhood they didn't choose.

We talk about how now, because abortion is not as readily available as it should be, we have not reached the goal of making every pregnancy wanted and healthy.  We talk so much about the effects of abortion restriction upon the women who are forced to bear by them.

I can never deny, though, that the deepest part of my own opinions on the necessity of safe, legal, accessible abortion doesn't come from my own identity as a woman, or from my belief in my bodily autonomy.  It was formed by being helpless to stop the pain of a child who would not have existed if abortion access had been a reality for her mother.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Compersion is Not Just About Romance

If you hang around polyamorous circles long enough, you run into the concept of 'compersion'.  It refers to the state, when you and a partner are involved in multiple relationships, where a partner's happiness with another person brings you happiness because you're genuinely invested in their own well-being and you don't view that relationship as a threat to your own.

Whether it's a natural outgrowth of healthy polyamory or a general goal some people struggle towards is a matter of hotly debated opinion, and I'm not going to weigh in on it here.  I'm here today to talk about a different type of compersion: the manner in which it relates to the people your partner loves but is specifically not involved romantically with.  I'm talking about seeking compersion with your partner's friend group.

I am part of a large, caring, close-knit tribe.  We're loud, loving, honest and heavily invested in our success as individuals and as a group.  Many of us struggle with some form of chronic physical or mental illness, so we support one another on the bad days and celebrate the good ones.  We've got a diverse skillset that includes domestic, medical, technical, literary, financial, and social skills, and each of us is happy to put those skills to use to help one another, so that we all benefit from what we each have.  Without this group, my depression would have claimed me years ago; other friends would have failed in things they wanted or needed.

Over the years, some of the people I've dated have been intimidated by my tribe.  They see this group of unfailing advocates as somehow arrayed *against* them, in competition for my time, energy, or affection.  One poor fellow once told me, "Well, I just feel like if they don't like me, you won't like me."

He had it backwards.  If I love you and they see that you love me, my tribe will look at you through that filter, and if they don't understand what I see in you, they'll try to find it, try to build a relationship with you, try to meet you on some common ground, because they want my highest good.  They are invested in me being well and happy, and they consider anyone who is invested in me being well and happy as their ally.  It takes a lot for them to say, "No, I'm sorry, I know that this person is important to you, but I can't accept them."  And in most cases, that starts with a partner rejecting the friends, not the other way around.

The effects of having a tribe like mine have been twofold.  The first was that I chose not to pursue a relationship with anyone who treated my tribe as adversaries, and I feel that I'm much better for it.  If someone couldn't respect the people who love and support me as an important part of my life and necessary to my emotional health, then that person wasn't committed to my happiness.  My partner, on the other hand, has been delighted to find that I had such a wonderful support system, and he has really enjoyed building relationships with them.  Our wedding was a celebration of shared happiness surrounded by people committed to supporting it.

The other effect is that I view my partner's friends as MY allies in his happiness.  He has a group of good friends, and I have made it a point to know and have relationships with his friends, because if they are the people he enjoys and loves, who share in his triumphs and support him in his troubles, then they're on my side because they're on his.  When he goes out with them, and has a good time, I get the benefit of seeing him happy.  When we hang out together, we all have the shared baseline of valuing my partner upon which to build our own friendships.

That's where, for me, non-romantic compersion comes into play.  I have some interests my partner does not share.  He likes to do some things I either don't have time and energy for or an interest in doing.  If we tried to be everything to one another, tried to be the sole support, then we'd both be less happy.  But I can see him come home from an afternoon of games with his buddies, or plan to go out with a friend to see a show, and celebrate the joy he has in doing things he enjoys.  When we have separate experiences, we have things to talk about together.  Even in our monogamous relationship, we can embrace the things and people outside our relationship that make one another happy, and take our own pleasure from it.

Too often, I see the partners of friends or loved ones look at established friendships with suspicion, as obstacles to be navigated or power struggles to be won.  I've seen partners who treated friends as competition for a finite resource, and that hurts everyone.

Love is never a finite resource; time is.  And you have the choice, in your relationships, to compete for that finite resource and ensure that someone doesn't get enough of it, or to share it with the people who, when your beloved's demons come calling, will stand beside you as you help to fight them.