Change Your Thinking, Change Your World

Over the past few weeks I’ve had my tone and communication approach mentioned or alluded to on several occasions.  As a human, my defenses wanted to go up, and they did to an extent, but I tried my best to take notice and examine the way I speak and interact with people, whether in person or on social media.

A couple of years ago I was invited to contribute to a blog with the goal of sharing in a kind but firm manner about the issues surrounding racial issues, privilege, and the way these topics contribute to a lot of negative events and divides in the United States.  I remember one of my editor’s critiquing me on my tone in a particular piece, essentially reminding me that “you get more flies with honey than with lemons.”

Due to my health circumstances, my primary mode of communication over the past two years has been technological and through social media.  It can be easy to get into word battles, forgetting the person on the other end of the conversation is more than that one point you’re arguing and, more than that, they are also human with a soul and feelings.  Therefore, with all the synchronistic reminders about how I come across to people, I am making a deliberate effort to check my words, speak kindly (but firmly, when necessary), but to also remain true to what I believe, even on hard issues.

A few mornings ago I entered into a conversation with a family member about a political meme they shared.  I care about this person a lot, and I want to facilitate good conversation when we speak because our relationship goes far beyond a Facebook chat.  We were able to have a constructive, cordial, and engaged discussion that ended on a very positive note.  Additionally, it left me considering what I had said, how I had said it, and if there was more I could have added to improve on what I’d said.

Like most people, I think, I continued mulling over certain aspects of what we’d said, trying to think of what my next response would have been, had we continued the discussion—which ultimately began addressing freedoms that we have in the United States, whether real, perceived, or mythical, particularly regarding money and how we spend it.

For instance, how many people are actually able to campaign to become politicians compared to those who would like to based solely on financial ability?  And would campaign spending limits fix this?  I know in the United Kingdom there are spending limits for referendum votes, like for Brexit (I don’t know if they limit candidate campaign spending).  I took the perspective that spending limits would make a positive impact on our political system because it would take some of the power away from the 1% and large corporations and give it back to “the people.”  My family member took the position that if we start to limit freedom in one area there is the danger it will spread into other areas, too.

I understand that concern.  I appreciate and value the freedoms that I have because of my citizenship, race, gender (in Western culture, because even with the hurdles I may face as a woman, other parts of the world are significantly worse), socioeconomic status, etc.  But, what happens to people who don’t have those same privileges?  I am by no means a wealthy person, but all of my needs are met.  Could I go out, campaign for office, and get elected?  Maybe at a local level (which is where we really need to invest our energy, by the way!), but without the right connections to people with money and influence, I would be hard pressed to go to a higher level.

The conversation flowed from the political curtailing of spending to the personal ability to spend, and whether or not either one of us would like someone telling us how we could spend our money if we were one of the lucky few to be exorbitantly wealthy.  Shortly after, busyness of the day caused our conversation to close, but I continued pondering the question and different factors over the course of the next few days (hence this blog post).

I agree that there is a potential danger to limiting freedoms, because when one is sacrificed, it’s that much easier to continue removing others one at a time.  In fact, I would argue we are already at that place, but it’s been done in such a way that many people don’t see it—for instance, the Presidential Alert that most cell phones in the U.S. received last week.  Those alerts mean the government has accessed all of our cell phone numbers from our cell phone companies and can reach and/or surveil us that much more easily.

Remember Edward Snowden?  He’s in Russia because he called out the NSA for illegal collection of data on Americans.  If that doesn’t mean anything to you, watch this great episode from John Oliver as he explains why that should massively freak all of us out!

Moving on…

So, while I get the concern (fear) of the slippery-slope of losing freedom, I have to jump to a different perspective from which to see the concept of spending and money (the semi-original topic).  The “American Dream (myth)”, while perhaps originally rooted in the idea of leaving someplace for a better life, has historically set up the majority of Americans (even today) to believe that anyone can do anything if they work hard enough, and what I earn is mine to use as I please without concern for anyone else (I recognize it’s a very black and white statement for a complex issue, but I’m trying to not write a book.  Feel free to email if you want to discuss further.)

This (predominantly) American mentality has created a selfish society that values personal, monetary worth over the good of humanity.  Of course, many who read that sentence will think, “Not me!  I give _____ amount to such-and-such a charity or religious organization,” or “I gave that homeless person $5 last week,” and while those are good things, it misses the core problem: that while giving to those causes we consider “worthy”, in the very next breath we criticize those who are in need or policies that could help make the playing field more equal if we feel our personal income and accumulated possessions/finances are going to be threatened.

Before you start thinking, “She should move to Venezuela and see how she likes it” or “She’s such a socialist,” hear me out.  I am advocating for a change in how we view our freedom and how we view our fellow humans.

If, as my family member posed, I’d been born to a billionaire father, would I want someone telling me how I could spend my money?  My first reaction is, no.  I’d want to be able to spend and give as I saw fit.  However, when considered, we need to recognize that a better system could be structured if we separated the personal spending from the political.  The issue is that the 1% and the large corporations can use their money as personal investments in the political arena (buying products…or in this case politicians, policies, votes, etc.) to benefit themselves.  How does that help the 99% (who, incidentally, are often the biggest advocates for the absurdly wealthy to be given tax breaks and other benefits, rather than being expected to pay their due to our system, too)?

Ultimately, I see it boiling down to selfishness and greed brought on by the idea that no one deserves anything and should therefore have to work just as hard to get anywhere.  But that ideology ignores the cultural, economic, and systemic shifts that have taken place.  No longer can a college student work for a summer to pay for college.  No longer can someone walk into an office, drop off an application face-to-face, and practically be guaranteed the job.  No longer can (or could we ever?) receive quality healthcare without the risk of financial ruin.  No longer can you move out on your own and easily survive…or survive at all.  The list goes on…

How do we fix this?  We can start by reading, educating ourselves on what’s really happening behind the “curtain” of our political system, opening our hearts and minds to the plights of others, and viewing ourselves as a team.  I’m not advocating for “everyone gets one egg for their meal today.”  I’m advocating for a mentality shift that doesn’t equate “tuition free college” or “free healthcare” as an attack on our freedoms and bank accounts but as an investment into our society and future.  I’m pushing for the understanding that when we set up a system to succeed, even if it costs a little bit more from the people (tax dollars…that aren’t poured into the military industrial complex), that we will all be more successful and stable.

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Joy, Pain, Tears: Ten Years

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Sitting on a cannon outside of Rochester Castle

Today is the day my family chose to commemorate the death of my late grandma, of whom I am her namesake.  Her death is the one I have felt most deeply in the course of my life.  It is shrouded in a sense of unknowing, because tragically we don’t actually know how things ended—I think most of us choose to not dwell on that reality.

I still remember the night before I found out she had died.  It was my first semester of college, and I had just completed a project for my Spanish class: a family tree.  I knew my grandma didn’t leave England, but as I lay in bed, I thought to myself, “Maybe if I fly there and back with her, she’ll come to my wedding.”

The next day, one of my floor leaders brought me into her room, and my phone rang.  It was my dad.  I could immediately tell by is voice something was wrong.  He told me Grandma had died.  I remember grief washing over me as I registered his words, and then my very next thought being about him, her son, and telling him how sorry I was.

I went to my room, kept the lights off, and cried, pacing around my small dorm space.  I remember pulling out my Spanish project and writing “(D)” next to her name before taking it to class.

Fall Break was approaching, and the whirlwind began.  Expedited replacement passport, a fast trip to England–my first since I was eight, and the process of becoming reacquainted with my British family in person.  When I reflect on those times together, I’m thankful for them.  I”m thankful for the laughter, the bonding, the sharing of memories, and the tears, acknowledging we’d lost someone dear to us.

As I said at the beginning, Grandma’s death is the one I’ve felt most deeply in all of my life.  There are several reasons for this: she lived in a different country, so I only met her twice, and didn’t have the wonderful memories like my cousins, the world wasn’t as interconnected then (plus, she only had a rotary phone), which made it more difficult to keep in touch, and her personality was one that chatted mainly on holidays and otherwise she did her own thing and expected you to do your own thing (or so I’ve been told).  But, I know she loved me.

The biggest reason her death made such an impact on me is that her’s was the first that didn’t come. with a nice, boxed explanation.  All of the other people I’d known who were older when they’d died (and, I’ve known a lot) came with an explanation: “Oh, they lived a long, happy life.”  “They are in a better place now.”  “We don’t need to be sad, we can be happy they are no longer suffering/”. And, often, other religiously inspired cliches.  But Grandma wasn’t even 70, I’d never gotten to know her the way I’d have liked, and having her taken away so abruptly stunned me.  It was the first time I experienced the “It’s not fair!” response to losing someone at the core of my being…and that feeling has never left.

Part of me still feels pangs of regret at not taking more initiative to talk with her, though my reason tells me I was young and it wasn’t as easy then.  I sent her a letter once, with pictures from a pageant I’d won.  She’d kept it, because when she died they gave it back to me.

She loved roses and had bushes of them in her back garden.  I have a happy memory of my first visit to England, when I was five, playing back there with her, my dad, and my brother.

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She spoiled us!  Upon walking in the door when my dad took me over for a week when I was eight, she handed me a bag of (British) smarties (not to be confused with the American).  He said something like, “Mum!  That will spoil her dinner!”  And she probably said, “I don’t care!  I’m her grandma.”

I remember her making me fish sticks and peas and making me sit at the tiny table in her kitchen.  I’m vegetarian now, and I long ago stopped liking fish sticks (except, maybe I’d like them if they were English), but that memory always makes me want to go cook myself a replica meal…just for the memory.

Before leaving the house on outings with my dad, she’d always give me a few pounds and tell me, “Make sure your father doesn’t take them from you!”  I accumulated quite the collection, leading to another hilarious family story of my uncle offering me cash for the pile of coins I was carrying around.  I actually think I would have made out better taking the cash, but I didn’t understand that at the time and started to cry, thinking he was trying to take my money.

She knew how to put the fear in us: “If I have to come upstairs…”

The one time my cousin and I stayed with her together, we thought (perhaps imagined) we heard her walking up the stairs…it was like a scene from a movie: madly turning off the light, leaping into bed, and not saying another word the rest of the night.

She was German.  She was authentically proud and self-reliant.  She loved her family.

Whenever I go to England I miss her.  When I see women around her age, I wish they were she.  I’d like nothing more than to visit her, share a cup of tea, walk around town, and get to know her better, especially as an adult.  I’ll never understand why I didn’t get the chance to know her, my own grandma, better on this earth.  I think I’ll forever feel this hole in my heart and its accompanying ache.  But, I proudly bear her name as my middle name, and I know, wherever I go, whomever and whatever I look at are seen with her blue eyes.

Here’s to ten years.  I love and miss you, still and always.