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Breaking Down the Wall Around Us

Motherhood Through Bad Times

by WINDY COOLER

Motherhood has been the story of my life and one I share often, in writing and with my friends. Mac was born when I was a kid. Ob followed ten years later. I’m not attached to either of those men who fathered these sons of mine that I love so much. To be honest, I’m not altogether sorry that that is the case, even if I am sorry for what are apparently the consequences. Zsa Zsa Gabor, half crying at the consequences of what was narcissistic and hurtful in her life said, “You never really know a man until you have divorced him.”

That is overwhelmingly the case in the United States, I think, primarily because the value of a woman in a heterosexual relationship is pretty vulnerable to all the things men have come to expect access to and have the power to quest for, even if they never get them. And maybe we all have that power. It is hard to have a lifelong partnership of any kind, during or after a romantic relationship, if we value the functions of people and not the people themselves.

I don’t seem to have happy goodbyes to romantic relationships in the cases of some of the most serious ones of my life. I have some hope for my current relationship. I have matured. He seems pretty sane. But what a life it is when you cannot afford to be acquainted any longer with someone you were once so intimate with and especially with whom you are supposedly raising a child. A friend once asked me recently “Does he have to stick it in me to co-parent with me?” Well, this is vulgar, but it says a lot about how we do things. We have a hard. hard time with negotiated, real relationships. This has been probably the biggest impacting fact of our culture on my life.

I have a lot of parties. I have a lot of adored and trusted friends. I love my paid work – I finally found work that allows me to be in community. I love my life in so many ways. My kids are so awesome and they drive me insane. I am comfortable in my home. I am, essentially, a happy person; I was after all a happy baby according to my own mother, though that happiness is measured by a great deal of anger and disappointment and finding the language to do justice to both of these truths about my experience, one that I share with many other people, is hard. Because I am not sour, I am told, quite often, that I am some sort of female inspiration to the potential one has in being reborn out of the ashes of horrors that are hardly worth our words anymore – the message I deliver every Mother’s Day through the example of personal and political violence and poverty. One in four of us has been sexually assaulted before we are 18; the US is the one of the worst places in the industrialized world to be a mother, in terms of infant mortality and newborn health, according to The 2013 State of the World’s Mother report released by Save the Children; and being a mother makes you more likely than any other indicator to be living in poverty – and 40% of unmarried mothers end up in poverty, according to Ellen Bravo in Taking on the Big Boys. And war. War is the biggest enemy to motherhood in all of world history and this fact should be self-evident. That said, I do love a good party.

I am not fond of the idea of rebirth, however, however much I love the sunshine and my time with others and my very kind boyfriend and my older son’s cooking and my younger son’s pudgy little face and my fuzzy, bad cats. We don’t apologize or reflect or mourn in rebirth, for example. We move on. We find new friends or new family when we destroy a relationship, political or personal, usually repeating the same behavior with the replacement people that hurt the last people in our lives. We don’t talk about our pain in public, as that is more impolite than talking about politics or religion. Anger is OK in political writing and otherwise it is all happy all the time, when we must know there are other ways of feeling and being. We find new ways of being, such as Buddhism, or pseudo-Buddhism in its many self-care, self-focused forms, borrowing the culture and identity of others, to cover up our own.

There is a reason why, as I recently observed when a sweet friend took me to see the Dalai Lama at the University of Maryland, Buddhism packs a house in the wealthiest places in the US. It may well be that we don’t understand its message and letting go, for us, means all too often letting go of the effect we have on others and expecting them to do the same, as an act of wisdom. Has there not been a month in the past five years that I have not wondered what is up with American Buddhism? Maybe not.

It always feels a little land of the lotus eaters to me, this idea of being born again, if one is a working class Christian, and certainly this idea of rebirth, if one is of the professional culture. This is something liberals and conservatives have in common. We think we can walk away. It is a trademark of colonial thinking: there is always new territory, even if inhabited by the flesh and blood reality of others, to move on to once our own flesh and blood home has been destroyed, or made difficult, through our own reality.

I am thinking today, again and as always, about how deeply I love and trust old friends. How people grow with each other by growing into each other, through memory and experience and baggage –that ugly word for the human experience — that we lift together. I cannot undo my experience. But I can incorporate it. I cannot undo the reality of others, but I can incorporate it too, and that is love.

I can tell you, as I have experimented with what love is, and written about it here, that some of what I have done has been suicidal. To be kind, to remember and be responsive, perhaps does not mean to be nice and always available for anything, especially not from someone who has proven themselves to not be in community with you. But we do have options inside out current reality that will not be suicidal. Howard Zinn says that:

“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

I have had some “marvelous victories” and some astounding defeats in my work toward leading a life more grounded in solidarity. First of all, when I began trying to live with my neighbors I did not have the social skills to do so and I was depressed from years of isolation I did not even know I was experiencing. And I would note that I used to feel such things and not even know I was still feeling it. I may yet be feeling it, but I am working on it too.

“Othermothering”, the taking of responsibility for a child who is not biologically your own, is common, according to Patricia Hill Collins, in the American black community. Having its roots in American slavery and the African cultures of origin from which enslaved peoples in the Americas overwhelmingly came, othermothering rejects individualism and is typically the responsibility of older women in a community who are capable of conveying the cultural values and expectations of the community to the children in their care, as well as taking responsibility for the physical and emotional well-being of the child and family she is connected with. While professional culture is not life affirming, many of us have skills we can share in creative ways and we must be prepared to be connected to specific people, both as people who need help and can offer it. This was, essentially, what I was trying to do with myself when I left professional work about four years ago. This was the idea that, to me, embodied Erich Fromm’s theory of love and the essential elements of a successful solidarity, which propelled me, ideologically, in this direction in the first place. But Fromm points out that to love thy neighbor as thyself is to assume that you do love yourself.

My othermothering was often a shit show, to use the vernacular, however. It was also often quite beautiful. I have a predictable, considering my history, emotional disorder, PTSD, that I was only diagnosed with in the past three years. One might be surprised how many of us probably suffer from PTSD right now. While not having an appropriate circle of support for myself, and often while being criticized by those who were close to me, I attempted to both raise my own children, attend school and comment on the experience I was having even without understanding it, live without income of my own, divorce an inappropriate partner and date an inappropriate partner, and othermother and attend to the needs of neighbors who were at least as emotionally vulnerable as I and who had no such philosophy of solidarity. Guess what that was like? This was suicide. This was not solidarity.

I had encounters with men during this period who humiliated me while I practiced becoming more and more “loving”, or really more permeable in my boundaries with them. I became the person children were left with for any number of personal emergencies, but I was not becoming an important person in the moral lives of these children because the contact was not about a relationship; it was about a function. This stage of my experiment was silly. It was like one of those nice white girl movies except I was not victorious. It was the stuff that American conservatives point to as evidence that we cannot trust one another and that capitalism is human nature and the only thing that allows good people to survive the banality of most others. And some of us who have tried building community without knowing what a limit is have become not unlike those we disagree with politically.

In the advocation of self-care over community-care, which is where American culture comes to an almost universal agreement in response to the problem of other and self, there are some books and speakers marketed to activists, like any other profession. For example, in The Lifelong Activist Hillary Rettig, a life coach, mainly suggests that the pain we carry be addressed by better time management skills and offers many suggestions related to executive function in creative people as the solution to burnout. In Naked Idealism Dave Wheitner, also a life coach suggests introspection on one’s personality traits as a means of finding what one should be doing with one’s life. These two very popular books among progressive/liberal non-profit employees say nothing about solidarity or building community as a solution to the pain at the root of burnout. The focus is entirely on the individual becoming acclimated to the colonial, alienated, environment we find ourselves in. I don’t mean to pick on them. There is stuff in both I appreciate, but still, it is striking to me that this is what we must think we need, even in the Left end of the political spectrum where solidarity is our foundational value.

There is a lot to be said for witness. Recovery, or attempted recovery, from abuse, on an individual or community scale, is about the loneliest thing we do in life.  And it is not rebirth to be anywhere on the spectrum of healing and being whole. Being whole means having your full memory, with all the color still in, so that you can choose the truth. This is true in mainstream culture as well as in Leftist culture. This is a political truth as much as a personal one. The answer to being broken cannot be, despite the advice of magazines and sometimes our own peers, to light a candle and take a scented bath (though I adore a good bath) or, as that and/or other “self-care” fails, to break someone else and feel entitled in any way to it, or forget about it, but this is what we do. We have to witness and to know each other.

I think many people who are mindful of their desire for community do exactly what I once did in that they sacrifice themselves without understanding that that is not love at all and that they are not “part of” a community if they are allowing themselves to be killed in the name of service. Unfortunately I think this is again — just like its opposite, forgetting — part of the confusion we share as people enculturated by capitalism, not relationships. Relationships are a negotiation. They are not one sided. Many of us are trained to take from others and sometimes others of us respond to that, not knowing that the opposite action may not be the best answer.

One of the things I have learned is that we all have limitations. A key part of loving is to really see others and to really see oneself. You cannot love that which you do not know.

My message this Mother’s Day then is to, please, take the time to know yourself through your own senses and through the testimony of others and honor the life your mother has given you and we have given each other.

I still have many questions and my experiment may be a lifelong one, but I have found what it is to be a friend, which is to be in a friendship, and that is what I needed to find. In my ongoing love affair with movement history, James Baldwin, who never disappoints me, offers the following to end my thoughts: “Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.”

It is not our fault and many of us don’t know what else to do right this second, but it is up to us to participate in fixing this culture. Because, for all of our actual faults, we know better than the way we live. It is up to us to live with others and keep pushing at the walls around us.

Windy Cooler is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision. A long-time organizer and former teenage-mother-welfare-queen, she writes about the emotional lives of homemakers and activists. She has two sons and lives in suburban DC. She blogs at windycooler.com, and can be reached at WindyCooler(at)gmail.com.