Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Swapping Class Lessons

Entitlement is a concept which has been misunderstood and criticized in feminist/liberation ideologies. It’s an attitude we are born with, as is altruism, but just as altruism has been distorted by American mythology into “self-sacrifice,” entitlement has become conflated with selfishness and arrogance.

An authentic sense of entitlement, however, is not selfish. If you believe there is enough to go around for everybody (which is possible when capitalism and Christianist lies are snipped from your brain,) and if you have achieved enough emotional maturity to love yourself/your community without depending on power imbalances for security, expressing entitlement is an act of mass social empowerment.

Unfortunately we have meager examples of what this actually looks like in our current government or pop culture representation. Those of us trying to define it for ourselves -- say, a fat crippled family-less poor dyke currently receiving high-level care as an indigent -- must stay in continuous conversation and exploration with those we trust to keep identifying the next best refinement of definition.

And of course the major obstacle to clarity about entitlement is class conditioning about which America is in deep denial.

I have been/am being kept afloat daily by a network of middle-class institutions, working-class smarts, and a few specific individuals who will not let go my hand.

One as you all know is Jesse Wendel, raised middle-class Mormon who used the military to escape LDS paranoia and family violence. This is not the most obvious ladder to use, but someone who can manage to stop panicking at the sounds of hounds in his own head long enough to carefully select the next solid-looking hummock can pick his way across any bog. Plus there is a basic Mormon value of service to the deserving, and if you buckle that onto a new template of who is “deserving” you get the Gilliard kind of liberal that Jesse is. His instance of my value was in my head when I finally staggered to the phone last week in the middle of the night and gave myself up to the machinery of possible public humiliation and loss of autonomy. I left the Gillchrist Peninsula; I hitched a ride west from the 9th Ward, into the care of strangers. But I knew Jesse would find me wherever I landed, and I acted like I mattered to everyone I met. To do so meant completely betraying my class training and my families’ choices.

Equally crucial has been Martha Chesnutt, my friend since 1980, who is handling all the finances and working on getting me disability long-distance from Atlanta. Martha and I lived together years ago and she has been the older sister I would have chosen for myself. Our ancestors arrived in North America via Jamestown, and our shared southern roots are tangled. Her line had been as consistently owning class as mine has been poor. But we came out into the crucible of lesbian-feminism where, despite revisionist rhetoric to the contrary, many of us learned to deal with class and race in a way I do not see being done as well now.

Martha is a class ally to me whom I trust more than anyone else on earth. She’s done the work, keeps doing it, translates across the boundary as earnestly as I do, and for over a year she paid my rent, until her own difficulties kept her from doing it any longer.

Martha and I also bore witness to one another as we each in turn fell in love with and partnered to women who, despite all efforts, became abusive. We stayed close friends as these long-term lover relationships degraded us and challenged our ability to self-love. Imperfectly, mentally, we figured out how to just have faith in one another despite watching the other make self-destructive choices. We somehow kept returning to “any difficulty I have with your difficulty is still my difficulty.” The friendship survived where all other connections did not.

I can tell Martha anything. However I use this gift sparingly, because I see the wound in her when she faces some of my reality.

Martha has refused to ever give up her sense of entitlement. She blazed a trail in that regard and continues to often take a machete to the underbrush a few yards ahead of me.

I once wrote in an essay that I felt like my family and I had been left for dead. I still feel that way about them – I mean, they are all dead now.

But because I’ve chosen to reassess every class lesson handed on to me by my people, rejecting toxic beliefs for those of the middle and owning classes where I could see the sense of it, I’m the survivor.

About a month before I called the paramedics, Martha said to me, with all the courage she could muster, that she was afraid I was repeating my mother’s pattern of hopelessness about individual survival. It was an extraordinarily difficult talk, but I have to admit the seeds she planted helped me call those paramedics instead of dying alone.

Thank you, Martha, Jesse, Liza, Genia, Kat. Thanks for getting close enough to see/hear my truth and letting me see yours so I might learn from it. Thank you out there who believe I matter.

And thank you to my family, for taking me as far as they could before their own sense of shame dragged them underwater.

Cross-posted at Meta Watershed and Group News Blog as dictated to Jesse by Maggie.