Category Archives: human condition

A Lot of People Say A Lot of Things

“A lot of people say a lot of things,” someone once said to me, under particularly harsh fluorescent lighting, in a particularly unpleasant place, when I had professed my loyalty.

“That’s okay,” I responded, “In time, you’ll see that I’m one of the people who mean what they say,” and I was, at least in the context I meant at the time, though whether he would agree with that may be up for debate.  That said, his words haunt me. As the years have passed, that simple phrase has reared its head time and again and proven itself a fundamental life truth. A lot of people say a lot of things.

That’s true – yet not a lot of people do the things they say they will, are the people they say they are. It seems so simplistic, so ‘walk the talk,’ so very obvious, but again and again, we are all fooled by the words that fall from the lips of people we want to believe.

In our culture, we place so much value – overmuch, perhaps – on the value of the word. When we discuss communication, most of the time we’re talking about the way we speak to each other, even though science has generally proven that most communication is nonverbal. What I’m thinking of, though, has little to do with tone, body language, or words – it boils down to deeds. Action. Real acts in real time that are the living proof of all those words.

In this era of Facebook likes and ‘single-serving friends,’ the ubiquity of the word ‘love’ and sentiments like ‘ride or die’ and ‘BFF (best friends forever)’ can obscure the real struggle to connect with flesh-and-bone individuals who actually show up when it’s, like, possibly inconvenient, messy, or requires work.

So now, I don’t pay so much attention to words – the potential invites, the professions of love, the vows of fealty, the ‘maybe someday we’ or ‘hey we should’ scripts. I shut my mouth and I take note of how people show up, or don’t. Those who will drive over the bridge to visit – or not. Those who buy the plane ticket – or not. Those who take care of their children, their animals, their friends, themselves, the way they say they will. Those who stick to the plans, who make the call, who show up for the day – you get the picture.

I’m not such a harsh taskmistress as I may be making myself out to be. Life happens. I’m as overwhelmed, stressed out, and busy as anyone. I get it. I don’t always feel like Doing The Thing, and I’ve been known to back out and engage in self-care when absolutely necessary – but I’ll tell you this: when the chips are down, when the shit hits the fan, when it well and truly matters, I am there. No matter how far I have to drive, money I have to spend, hours of sleep I have to lose – I show the fuck up, and I mean what I say, because that shit is important. I don’t want to be the person who says a lot of things – I want to be the person who doesn’t say a lot (<–probably not doing so well at that)  but when she does, means it and delivers. And most of the time, I am.

The tricky part is not being in love with all those words people say. Words are so seductive, and I believe that for some people, speaking is the same as doing, when it isn’t really at all. It feels good to say that you’ll do or this or that, it feels good to profess this or that sentiment, but without the act behind the words one becomes just another person who says a lot of things. Just another talker. Another vehicle for pretty, empty sounds.


The Sea Of Samsara

Years ago I worked for a nice Jewish doctor. His wife was an Irish-American Buddhist and so his Judaism, and his science, were both greatly colored by her spiritual discipline. One day we got to talking and laughing, with one of our Chinese-American grad students, about the affinity that the Jews and Chinese seem to feel for one another.

“It’s simple,” I said, “both are cultures that assume life is suffering and that happiness is not a right or a given.” His big Ph.D., smartypants-neuroscientist eyes opened wide and he bellowed a great laugh.

Ask your random person on the street what they want out of life and I’ll bet you twenty bucks the answer is something along the lines of, ‘I just want to be happy.’ I can’t think of anything more antithetical to the American experience than to not just desire, but to feel entitled, to happiness. It’s enshrined in our Declaration of Independence as a right – what other nation can say that?

I thought about this at 6 a.m. today as I walked through my bucolic suburban neighborhood in a deep blue funk. My best friend called me in breakdown mode a few nights ago and said everyone he knows is ‘in their own hell,’ and that goes for the two of us, too. So it’s ironic – here we all are banging our heads into the wall trying to achieve some amorphous state of happiness yet running up against the essential truth of the human condition – dissatisfaction, ennui, alienation, and disappointment (just for starters), all of which are unavoidable and comin’ at ya like a Mack truck just by virtue of being a breathing human being.

It’s as though if we fail to float through our day with a sense of well-being, achievement, and satisfaction, we are failures as people and as Americans. How are you supposed to feel when you’ve done all those things you’ve been led to believe will bring you happiness – made the money, bought the house, traveled the world, had the kids, driven the German-engineered car, whittled the waist, written the book, whatever (not to mention if you haven’t) – and you’re still being eaten away by a vague sense of is that all there is? Think about it; all that pressure from our not-just-a-right-but-almost-a-duty to pursue happiness cultural ethos – where does that leave one when finding oneself adrift on a sea of samsara, trolling the inevitable lows that accompany the equally-reliable highs? It’s almost unpatriotic to be bummed in this land of milk and honey.

We beat ourselves up for not being ‘happy,’ and ‘happiness’ seems to elude us no matter our station or achievements (or lack thereof). Who doesn’t feel like a jerk when mooning about what’s missing when we’re obviously so blessed – but who can help it? It’s in our nature. Perhaps the only true peace we can seem to find is knowing that along with the ebb comes the flow and that the unavoidable dark hours we walk through are just as much our birthright as the bright spikes of joy that relieve it.

Original Sin

I’m a very bad Catholic. I’m very lackadaisical about going to Mass and figure The Great Muhawumba must understand that lounging around drinking two cups of very strong coffee while devouring the entire Sunday paper is a form of religious ritual. I am pro-choice and a major fag-hag. I distrust hierarchies and if the Church isn’t the Grandaddy of those, I don’t know what is.

But still. I like being a Catholic. I appreciate that the Church is adamantly anti-death penalty and constantly agitates on behalf of the poor, voiceless, imprisoned, and weak (unless they’re gay. Kidding.) I’m a classic ‘cafeteria Catholic’ and am happy to belly up to the bar and order all the frankincense, holy water, and Hail Marys (though I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to get the Rosary down) I can get.

There are a few days in the ecclesiastical calendar that I try not to miss, and yesterday, Ash Wednesday, was one of them. It’s the first day of Lent and a day of repentance and atonement (not unlike the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur), when one is encouraged to leave one’s past and sins ‘in the ashes’ and prepare one’s heart for Easter. One is reminded that ‘from dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,’ reminding us (in a very Buddhist-like way) that our existence is transient, our troubles similarly ephemeral.

So I was, you know, a little pensive. I expected some dry, uptight priest to emerge for the Mass, but instead got this great, deep-voiced brother whom, even on this solemn day, exuded joy. As he made the cross of ashes on my forehead he said, ‘Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.’ When I sat back down to meditate upon that, I arrived at this: the greatest sin is that which you commit against yourself; the lies you tell yourself, the addictions you allow to enslave you, the way you sometimes have to harden your heart just to get through the day.

Later that day I stumbled across the story of Pogo, a little three-legged pit bull puppy that had been dumped at the pound, had a vet donate surgery to remove his bum leg, was flourishing in a foster home and was expected to make a great recovery and live and long and fulfilling life. Last July, on a night when I was packing up and preparing to leave the City after 18 years, Pogo was taken for a walk with his foster guardian on Ocean Beach, a block from my house. He ran behind a sand dune and was not seen again until ten days later, when his stabbed corpse was found miles away in the Bayview District.

Reading that, I felt like I had been punched in the face. What does it take, I wonder, what darkness of the human heart has to exist to take a wiggly, three-legged puppy who obviously already had the odds stacked again him and stick a knife into his flesh, again and again and again, while he yelped and struggled and screamed? What kind of person does it take to do that? It’s the same thing I had when I first heard about the Michael Vick case. There are few things in this world that make me feel truly violent, but sick people who hurt weak animals are one of them.

In my tenderhearted moments, in those hours when my body feels like one raw, exposed nerve, I sometimes wonder how one can stand to go on living in a world where puppies are stabbed, where children are abandoned and hit and worse, where fathers grind down their sons and women are commodified and pimped, where wounded deer lie by the side of the freeway dying and none of the thousands of motorists driving by at 75 MPH can be bothered to pick up their cell phone so someone can come put it out of its pain.

If there is such a thing as Original Sin, it is this: we are born with a selfishness beyond that inherent in our simple animal biology; a selfishness and a cruelty that surpasses that of any other species, one so ugly and dark and irredeemable and impossible to beat, breed, or perhaps even love out of us, that at times I believe we really are lost, that we really are ‘The Virus,’ that the sooner we die out – and that means our beauty as well as our bottomless ugliness – the better.

Hindley Wakes

Myra Hindley was not a nice person. So notorious was she, in fact, that following her involvement in the particularly monstrous Moors Murders outside of Manchester, England, in the early 1960s, the use of the name Myra all but disappeared from use and she became popularly known as the ‘most hated woman in Britain.’ Hindley remained behind bars from the time of her arrest in the mid-60s until her death within prison in 2002. She and her psychotic Svegali, the particularly loathsome Ian Brady, were locked into a deeply twisted dance of darkness and sadism that began with Nazi paraphernalia and ended in the murder of children and a lifetime as not only guests of Her Majesty’s Prisons but as pretty much the most reviled people in the UK (particularly for Hindley).

It is interesting to note that in many ways the public treated Hindley far more harshly than Brady, who was generally thought to be the mastermind behind the horrific killings, simply because she was a woman (and Hindley was only too happy to play up this ‘love slave’ role in a calculated play for public sympathy). That a woman could possibly commit such atrocious acts was unthinkable to the popular mind – which conjures up the question, why is it so much less shocking that a man would do these things? Which is a valid topic worth addressing, but that’s another day, another blog.

Hindley spent 36 years in prison, during which she curried favor with figures she felt powerful enough to possibly help her case for parole. Most famously, she allied herself with Lord Longford, an eccentric aristocrat with Irish roots and a penchant for championing the unpopular cause of prisoner’s rights. Hindley hit him up for a visit after an exchange of letters and they embarked upon an unlikely friendship that ultimately cost him the public’s good graces. Even after finding out that Hindley had betrayed him by lying about additional victims and thus soiling his good name, Longford worked through a deep spiritual struggle to arrive at a place of forgiveness.

Their odd friendship was detailed in the very-watchable Channel 4 movie Longford, which caught my attention because the name is the same as an Irish county. My previous knowledge of the Moors Murders consisted of the legend behind The Smiths song ‘Suffer Little Children’ and it’s scandal upon release to the British airwaves in the 1980s. There is a brilliant scene in the film, when Longford, following Hindley’s betrayal, does a radio interview to stump for his new book on the saints. The host is, predictably, far more interested in the salacious details of the Lord’s friendship with Britain’s ‘most hated woman’ and needles the quirky old man mercilessly until he comes up with one of the most beautiful, if brief, speeches on forgiveness I’ve heard to date. The host will not let Longford discuss his book and continues to pepper him with the question of whether or not he regrets championing Hindey’s cause:

Host: It’s a simple answer, Lord Longford, yes or no. Do you regret it?

Lord Longford: Not at all. As a matter of fact, I consider my visiting Myra Hindley, and indeed all the other prisoners I’ve visited for over fifty years, to be one of the great blessings of my life. Now, perhaps, we could get back to the subject of the saints?

Host: But hasn’t she betrayed you? She’s ruined your good name and taken all the hard work you did for her and thrown in back in your face.

Lord Longford: Yes, perhaps there’s some truth in that. Forgiving her has proven difficult, very difficult, not for what she’s done to me, that’s neither here nor there, but for the terrible crimes themselves. Forgiveness is the very cornerstone of my faith, and the struggle to deepen my faith is my life’s journey. In that respect, she has enriched my spiritual life beyond measure, and for that I will always be grateful to her. If people think that makes me weak or mad, so be it. That is the path I have committed to, to love the sinner but hate the sin. Assume the best in people, not the worst. Believe that anyone, no matter how evil, can be redeemed, eventually.

Like both Hindley and Longford, I am an unlikely convert to Roman Catholicism (again, a topic for another blog, another day), and while I certainly cannot claim the same piousness and adherence to doctrine that Longford certainly could (I’m more of a cultural/cafeteria Catholic, a ‘Jesus-Is-My-Homeboy’ type and a Marianist at heart), I found his spiritual path deeply inspiring. While I could never comfortably endorse much of the Catholic dogma out there, I can wholeheartedly get behind the ethos of extending mercy to the most hated and dehumanized of human beings (the thought-provoking U.S. Catholic Bishop’s Statement on Crime and Punishment is one of my favorite recent reads) – prisoners.

In a larger context, I worry greatly about this practice we have of turning each other into things; the penchant we have for labels to help us easily define our fellow men and women, and how we so desperately ache for simple answers (‘she was evil’) to agonizingly complex questions (‘how could she have done such a thing?). I feel a deep uneasiness at the eagerness with which we render one another as less than human by the application of grossly inadequate words and concepts, because we are so very afraid to confront the darkness in the human heart and the illogical, maddening state of the human condition. If we can render an individual inhuman – ‘not like us’ – it is only a myopic and dangerous attempt at brushing the shadow side of our nature under the rug.

Do killers deserve our sympathy? Not particularly. Do I believe some people deserve to die, or to be in jail? Yes, even though I don’t believe the state has the right to take life. Do I believe that some people are simply vile, and should be kept away from the rest of us? Yes, certainly. And do I believe that some people, like Myra Hindley, are irredeemably manipulative or psychopathic? Yes. I do. But at the end of the day, no one is ever not human. These people are the shadow side of us; the faces of the savagery we come hardwired with, viscerally alive if spiritually dead, but no less one of us.

Everything I Need To Know About Love I Learned In A Prison

Several months ago, as summer was mercifully sliding into a languid and temperate fall, I drove down the spine of California to spend my weekend visiting a friend doing time in one of the state’s middle of nowhere megaprisons. I’d never been to a prison of any kind before and though I’d done my research (no spaghetti straps, no jeans, no hoodies, no nothing, lady), the word on the street was that the regulations could be a bit arbitrary (all black clothing was OK last week but isn’t this week, etc.) so I was a little nervous about not being let in. After driving hundreds of miles and booking a nearby hotel, a sista wants to visit her people, ya know?

But it all went smooth as silk. My papers were in order, my outfits were acceptable, I had the requisite clear purse full of quarters, and after pulling all my pockets out and turning around to do the hokey-pokey in front of the inspecting C.O., I was ushered through the metal detector and found myself in a sort of outdoor chainlink holding pen. We’d all hang out there, folks giddy and excited to see their loved ones, until a small herd of visitors had gathered. Periodically they would buzz the gate open and allow us through to make our way several hundred yards down a dusty footpath to the visiting house.

It’s a strange sensation to walk, unescorted, through a prison, even if it was just was on the periphery. I must admit that it was more reminiscent of a community college campus, with its attractive landscaping and quiet hush, than Sing Sing or San Quentin, but all that curly razor wire on top of the omnipresent chainlink kept any illusions in check.

At the visiting house, we were again rounded up into small packs and let through the thick glass doors at regular intervals, assigned a table, and instructed to sit down and wait for our respective inmates to arrive. It took my friend a long time to show, so I had plenty of time to observe – very discreetly – others waiting, as well as the visits already in progress, and to think about how each of these guys had his own story, his own stack of paper, an arraignment, a sentencing, a first day inside. People were playing board games, laughing, stockpiling food from the vending machines, talking with heads bowed, hugging tastefully, and trying very hard to maintain a human connection in the middle of an overly warm, mildly chaotic room that reminded me of any junior high cafeteria.

Finally my friend came down and that day and the next we sat outside, on the small visiting patio, talking about things both deep and trivial. I told him how on certain parts of the journey the highway had smelled like blood, and then all my life’s secrets came out of my mouth and I told him all the things I never knew if I would, things only my best friend knows, even some things he doesn’t. It was easy to forget where we were, with the flowers blooming on the other side of the fence, the hawks flying overhead and wild cats prowling around the grounds. He told me of finding a broken bird and feeding it with food and creatine until it was ready to be let go, and how when the time came, it didn’t want to – but, he had told it, we all have to grow up sometime.

On Sunday at 3pm they called time and all the visitors and inmates dejectedly dragged their feet back inside, stretching out the goodbyes until the very last minute. They herded all the visitors back into our glass pen and let us go one by one, each visitor waving frenetically to his or her inmate, still in the visiting room, as we exited through the sliding glass doors. Then it was back on the footpath and groups of us waiting again by the gate to be let through to the parking lot, our cars, the freeways, home.

Unlike Saturday afternoon, when the mood had been jovial and nearly ebullient due to the next day’s impending visiting hours, the vibe on Sunday was somber; shoulders slumped, feet shuffling, grief borne both nobly and nakedly. There would be no visits tomorrow, and all of us were going to get in our cars and drive many, many miles home, while our guys, whomever and whatever they were to us, would stay there, in their state blues, for a long time.

I started talking to a couple next to me, black folks in their 40s, who had driven all the way from LA. The Mom told me they’d come up to visit their son, and about how she’d bought all this food from the vending machines and kept feeding and feeding him until he pleaded, “Ma, stop, I’m gonna get sick.” The beauty of her simple act, a mother trying to feed her child, caught in my throat and I pushed my sunglasses down over my eyes, trying to be a stoic German girl.

I looked around at these people that I’d gotten to know just a little bit over the last two days – the woman with her wheelchair-bound mother whom I’d discussed different strategies for getting over the coastal mountain-range with; the girlfriends I’d seen putting on blush in the early morning light of the parking lot, the parents of the overfed young man, the young wife of an inmate struggling to get in a cuddle – and thought about how far all of us had driven, the money saved for hotel rooms and gasoline, the time spent hitting redial for the visiting-appointment line, the hours on dark freeways, the clear purses full of quarters, the careful attention paid to wardrobe, and the all the men, some who’d done terrible things and some whose mistakes weren’t so terrible, now shuffling back to their cells in buildings we couldn’t see the inside of, and I realized I’d never in all my life been to a place so overflowing with love. In the middle of nowhere. Beneath all that razor wire.

And this is the thing about love: sometimes I think it thrives best in the ugliest of places; where hope and joy are in short supply, where suffering and shame are as much a part of the day as sunrise and the inevitable night. You can’t stop it with judgments, or prohibitions against spaghetti straps, or miles of freeway. You can’t stop it with time. Just like the cats that didn’t know they were living amongst the exiled and the wicked, love wanders where it wants, knows no cage, and obeys no man.