Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The End of Suburbia

I’m still mulling over this powerful documentary about “oil depletion and the collapse of the American Dream.” It follows my skimming of Jared Diamond’s 12 most critical ecological problems (in Collapse) of our time and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (per Jean’s recommendation). The three texts came to my attention without much willful bidding on my part and now am trying to hold them coherently within a line of vision that is still blurry. While waiting to focus, I am jotting down these reflections:

1. In hindsight, the development of suburbia (and the concept of the “American dream”) is the most wasteful use of oil and natural energy sources in the last 150 years. Oil production in the US peaked in the 1970s and natural energy sources are also depleting. The global oil reserves will reach their peak levels and then decline in about two decades and yet no new energy policy is in place. In order to perpetuate the lifestyle of suburbia, we elect officials who promise us a never-ending supply of oil. The Project for the New American Century, a neoconservative thinktank, is unabashed in its declaration that the US will use its military might in making sure that the American lifestyle remains non-negotiable. (The End of Suburbia)
2. Jared Diamond’s thesis is that the collapse of western civilization is imminent since ten of the twelve worst ecological crises facing us are almost irreversible. The short-sightedness of the culture leads to the failure to foresee and foretell, thus the inability to make wise decisions in the present.
3. Octavia Butler’s novel depicts a dystopia set in 2024 when California has suffered a major earthquake, the infrastructure is in near-collapse, water has become gold (since “it hardly ever rains anymore"), gated communities are under siege, dogs have become feral again, and church-going folks arm themselves to protect themselves. Butler creates a main character who is a hyperempath (feels the pain of others),a young black woman, Lauren, who begins to conceptualize a new religion (God is Change) and leads a small band of survivalists from Los Angeles towards the north. Her religion states: our destiny is to take root among the stars. Butler makes an attempt to rescue the transcendent impulse of modernity in a time of postmodernity where all master narratives have supposedly died. Neither the concept of an anthropomorphic God or an unknowable God is acceptable. God is Change. We shape it as it shapes us.

So imagine that I am carrying these thoughts in my head as I walk around the glitter of christmas and the glut of products to consume. I am suppose to be nostalgic for the childhood memories of christmases past which, in turn, should make me buy gifts for all the people that I love. The grandchild is old enough for his first photo with Santa or a train ride with Thomas. I can’t wait to bring him to a christmas tree farm where we can cut our own tree, buy local crafts, go for a hayride, and pet the sheep and llamas in the petting zoo. We are building memories just as my parents did for me. Nothing wrong with this at all.

And yet as I peruse the aisles and racks at the mall, I couldn’t help thinking: where do all these things come from? What natural resources did they use? How much longer can the earth provide us with these?

I ask Cal how he balances it all out. He says we just need to be mindful of what we buy within our means and not be carried away by the ads about “what’s hot” and “must haves.”

So I bought yarn. I have a knitting gadget and a crochet needle and I am making scarves for everyone on my list.

Let me know if you want one.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

On emotional labor...

Our neighbor, M, died today. She was 87 years old. Except for her caregiver, L, a native of Fiji, she had no one else in the world. L came to live with her more than a year ago after a string of rejected caregivers sent by an agency. One of those caregivers is also from Fiji, whose husband occasionally came over to help with the housework. M didn’t want her husband’s help even if he didn’t ask for compensation. Another caregiver, a young white woman, just wasn’t polite enough. These caregivers came and went. M said that they were all uncouth, impolite, unreliable, lazy.

M was the last of her kin. She had no children from her marriage. She had two stepchildren that she didn’t get along with. When her husband lay dying at the hospital, her husband secretly called in a lawyer and decided to give the power of attorney to his son instead of his wife. He also made sure that part of his assets would go to his children in spite of his wife’s disapproval. Upon discovering this clandestine act of her husband, M refused to take him back home. She filed for divorce instead. She was 83 years old.

Her now-ex-husband recovered from his near-death condition and managed to live another year. He tried to move back in with his ex-wife but instead his wife filed an injuction against him. He couldn’t come near their property within 100 meters. He took up with another woman and a year later he died.

M lived a bitter and angry life. Who knows if this contributed to the mini-strokes she would have over the course of the next five years? Slowly she lost the use of her legs and then her arms and hands. While her mind remained sharp and feisty her speech was eventually reduced to screeches and screams.

By the time L came to care for her, she had slowed down a bit although it was not beyond her to call L “dumb” when L couldn’t figure out how to bake a turkey or when she couldn’t spell the items for the grocery list. Yet, L would come to call her Mama. She invited her Fijian community to be a friend to M and soon even her own children in Fiji told her: Just bring Mama to Fiji, we will take care of her here. M uneasily accepted this friendship and surrendered bit by bit to its unlikely source.

[Oh, did I forget to mention that as long as we’ve been neighbors, she and her ex-husband had always expressed prejudice against “those others”?]

L had the patience of a saint. Perhaps it was her Christian faith. She began to read the Bible to M and began to talk to her about life after death. L didn’t hesitate to ask what she would want for her funeral, what psalms she would want to be read. The next door neighbors who were also devout Christians thought the time was right to call in the pastor for the evangelical version of extreme unction. So once a week, the pastor paid M a visit. Was she merely a captive audience? Someone whose life was so bereft of friendships and kin that she welcomed this belated reconnection with other human beings?

On her final days, M was rushed to the hospital due an infection that had shut down her organs. The doctors moved her from the ICU to comfort care and started her morphine drops to ease her into the twilight zone. L wanted no part of this morphine regimen. She wanted to take M home and care for her until she breathed her last. She begged the doctors but she was only a caregiver whose opinion didn’t matter. She cried and never left M’s side until the final moment.

I asked L if M had made provisions for her to take a break – go home to Fiji for awhile and rest – after she’s gone. I had to be blunt. Did she make provision in her will to leave you something… anything? L didn’t know. The fact that M never mentioned anything to L about this make me suspect that she hasn’t.

What is the cost of emotional labor? At one point, L requested M to buy out her contract from the agency so she can have a larger take home pay. M wouldn’t hear of it; she was afraid that she would be left in a lurch, if for some reason, L didn’t work out. She didn’t have any reason to trust L. And yet L stayed. It was a job, yes. But it was also more than that.

Last I heard L already has three job offers. But she tells me she is tired and she needs to rest for a while. Maybe go home to Fiji. But it costs money to go back and maybe she’d rather make money while she still can.

What is the cost of emotional labor? Should the working contract for caregivers include a “time-out” after the emotional toll of caring for a dying person? How humane is the caregiving business in taking care of its caregivers? I am reaching for something here…a little hope maybe…that some things are still beyond commodification. And I am afraid to be mistaken.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

For my babaylan sisters:

On Community Wisdom
(In answer to the question: what is the nature of “spiritual calling”?)
The Other Side, May-June 2000

As a Filipina, I’ve always understood the concept of spiritual call as directly related to the needs of one’s community. What here in the West is seen as “discerning one’s call” would be understood in the Philippines as a process of learning what one individual, as a member of the community, could and must offer back to it. In such a context, the whole notion of answering the spiritual call becomes a question of “putting one’s gift back in circulation.” In Filipino culture, this is spiritually rooted in the practice of gift-giving, which reflects the belief that we own nothing at all.

We believe that who we are in our innermost being, our loob, is never separate from our interconnectedness with our fellow human beings and our connection with creation and its Creator. Gift-giving, then, is the natural result of this profound awareness, called pakikiramdam. What is given to us by nature, by God, by our ancestors and spiritual guides must be given back in a spirit of gratitude, generosity and humility. This reciprocity – the process of sustaining God’s gifts by circulating them – creates and nurtures our relationship with our fellow beings, with God, with nature, and with our ancestors.

If you visit a Filipino home and happen to admire an object there, your host will most likely offer it as a gift without thinking twice. Our practice of offering an unexpected visitor a place at the dinner table reflects the practice of sharing the bounty of one’s table with everyone. Even time is not our own to manage. Friends or visitors who appear with no agreed-upon appointment are an opportunity to be with another who might need us.

This exchange of gifts goes much deeper than obligatory reciprocity. It is rooted in a sense of not wanting or needing to hold onto things and ideas that might get in the way of the life we share with others. In that cultural framework, hearing God’s call centers on understanding how we as individuals fit into the shared life of the community.

This sense of call doesn’t spring from a lack of fulfillment in one’s current life or a sense of spiritual emptiness. Nor does it arise out of a dark night of the soul or an emotional altar call. Instead, the Filipino idea of “putting God’s gifts back in circulation” is an ongoing practice that is measured by the generosity of one’s spirit, the generosity of attention we are willing to give each other, the sharing of our possessions, and the sharing of our suffering.

Only when I came to the United States did my experience confirm how deeply these values were rooted in my daily life. When I first arrived, I thought of myself as “bearing gifts.” I believed that if God willed that I come here, I must have some gifts to share.

Yet for many years, I was frustrated. I felt that no one wanted my gifts, and in many ways, I wasn’t certain what they were anymore. I retreated and hid them away in a closet.

Now I see more clearly what gifts I am able to offer here, and they are gifts rooted in Filipino cultural values. The capacity for pakikipagkapwa-tao and pakikiramdam, for instance, now surfaces in Western discourse as values of “interdependence” or “interconnectedness.” However compromised and imperfect our practice of these values has been as we’ve negotiated life in different cultures, they are something we have always known.

My cultural background has also helped me to easily experience the miraculous presence of God everyday. A Catholic priest once commented to me that Filipino Catholics may not understand theology, but they are devout worshippers. I was taught to experience the sacredness of daily life. The ability to articulate my theological beliefs was not a priority.

Those from other nations often describe Filipinos as “happy people.” They say our “gross national happiness” is high even though our “gross national product” is low. We laugh at this joke, but it reflects a gift that we offer to more materially rich cultures. As a people, we know the sadness of material poverty. Sometimes it causes us to tiptoe lightly around the edges of despair. Yet under that despair runs a river of irrepressible joy, because we have learned to be grateful for all we have been given, hopeful for what we can become.

At the root of that joy is this understanding of spiritual call as putting God’s gifts back into circulation. It is the conviction that we do now own anything- and that to let go and give away what we have in the material and nonmaterial sense if perhaps the greatest privilege any of us have.

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