Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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THE cold glass jar felt good in my pudgy seven-year-old hands. It had once been filled with hard candies wrapped in brightly colored cellophane, a gift from one of my dad’s clients. Sitting on our back deck on a Colorado summer afternoon, I wondered what I should fill the jar with now that all the candy was gone.
Then I remembered the homeless people I had seen on our recent trip to New York City. They were sitting on the sidewalk, something I knew my mom would have considered fun, but my grandmother would never have allowed. They had paper coffee cups and poorly written signs on cardboard. Sometimes they smelled.
I had a sinking feeling that they had something to do with me.
Remembering this feeling, I put on my pink plastic shoes and took a walk around the block, knocking on doors and holding the jar in my hands. As each friendly neighbor’s face smiled down at me, I’d say, “I’m collecting change for homeless people. Even a penny will help.”
They’d come back with quarters and sometimes even a dollar or two. “Aren’t you sweet?” they’d say. I would nod and shake the jar so I could hear the metal clanging against the glass. It was the sound of my conscience being soothed, if only temporarily — a sound I would crave in a complicated way for the rest of my life.
© Helen M. Stummer
I BELIEVE that we each have an innate sense of connectedness with the rest of humanity. After all, our first taste of life is in a totally dependent state, connected to our mothers by a cord made of arteries and veins. Even after this cord is cut, we rely on sympathetic adults to hear our cries and try to appease us.
Of course as we grow, we are faced with Darwinian challenges. Our brothers and sisters, if we have any, do not always have our needs in mind. My older brother insisted that he went after the Easter candy so mercilessly because he wanted me to understand what the “real world” was like. He also followed me out of the room whenever I walked away from a fight, insisting that I learn to argue and hold my own.
The seeds of separation and competition planted in childhood are fertilized — sometimes to freak-show, bioengineered proportions — by adolescence, but even then they rarely overcome our innate understanding that we are interdependent with other human beings.
I have noticed that many of my generation who grew up as I did, with trampolines in the yard, fathers who wore suits, and college guidebooks in the house, often have an inflated sense of responsibility for others. We were raised on a steady diet of Earth Day and Oprah empowerment. I don’t know where I first read the phrase “save the world,” but I felt sure it had been written with me in mind: a daughter of privilege, a possessor of deep feelings, a unique snowflake of a person with gifts that could help the less fortunate. Thanks to birth control and hippies who had delayed starting families until they were good and ready, my peers and I were some of the most-wanted children in history, and we knew it. We were pumped full of the idea of our own goodness just waiting to be unleashed on the world. And then we were left clueless about where to direct it.
I spent much of my childhood trying to help others. If I wasn’t circulating through the neighborhood asking for change, I was writing letters to local fast-food restaurants insisting that they stop using styrofoam, which I’d learned in school was bad for the environment. I proudly gave an antidrug speech in which I vowed not only to “just say no” myself, but to help my peers say no, too. I volunteered in the soup kitchen. I called bingo games at the local nursing home. I did the cystic-fibrosis walk every year. And for a moment, these activities would soothe my conscience, like the drop of a coin in my glass jar.
I swore to myself that my compulsive volunteerism was motivated by more than a desire to be nominated to Key Club or to pad my college applications, but I wasn’t sure. Though I wanted badly to “help others,” I could never quite interpret the source of this ache. Was it about me, or the “others,” or both? It didn’t seem as if the nursing-home residents even liked it when I called bingo, because they couldn’t hear the letters; my voice was too high-pitched. The soup kitchen would have been fine without me; I probably ate more soup than I ladled. And, in the most depressing and obvious symbol of my ineffectiveness, the jar filled with coins “for the homeless” lay in the dirt beneath my playhouse. I had buried it there — along with my guilt — after realizing I didn’t know any homeless people in Colorado Springs.
This was the curse of my specialness, of my manufactured conviction that I, the privileged child, must “save the world.” My lessons in altruism hadn’t left me with any authentic way to do good, just generic certificates of appreciation (printed in bulk) and college-application fodder. I had no clear path to my own salvation, only a sense of righteousness and yearning, a deep feeling of interconnectedness, and the jar filled with coins.
WHEN it came time to leave home, I went to college in New York City, where I’d first seen homeless people. As a student at Barnard in Morningside Heights (otherwise known as South Harlem) I found plenty of new ways to channel my save-the-world angst. I was living much closer to people who had grown up without healthy cereals and soccer leagues. I didn’t waste any time signing up to volunteer at a housing-project preschool.
Though my stomach hurt the first few times I walked down the hill to the towering rust red buildings of the Grant Houses project, the kids — Malcolm and Ayana and James — immediately confirmed that they were glad I was there. They touched my hair and asked me questions like: “Did you have to be smart to get into that school?” Sort of. “Are you married?” No. “Where your momma live?” Colorado.
When the Columbine High School shootings were in the news, the kids heard the word Colorado and remembered that I was from there. “Didn’t you say your momma lived in that place? It must be real dangerous.”
I almost laughed out loud at the absurdity of a bunch of five-year-olds from Harlem telling me that my tree-filled home state was dangerous, but something kept my mouth shut. At Barnard I was not the daughter of privilege, as I’d been made to feel back home. I was middle-class and not very well educated compared to the Dante-quoting products of private schools who sat beside me in lectures. College challenged my spuriously simple notions of good works and charity. In the echoing lecture halls I learned about imperialism and globalization, Machiavelli and Freud. After reading Rousseau’s The Social Contract, I was unsure what “saving the world” really meant. “One man thinks himself the master of others,” Rousseau writes, “but remains more of a slave than they.” Suddenly a little round-faced black girl who lived with her welfare-collecting single mom in a roach-filled apartment in the projects telling me that I had grown up in a dangerous place was not something to laugh at. The problem wasn’t that I didn’t know any homeless people, but that I didn’t know if they were the ones who needed my help in the first place.
Rousseau also believed that people are born good. It wasn’t just that I was a “bleeding-heart liberal” or a “guilty white American.” I had natural instincts — to help, to feel connected — that could potentially be harnessed into a sound political system. My angst, writ large, was grounds for a more just world. If only these ideas would live beyond my dog-eared, underlined copy of The Social Contract.
I began to analyze the story I’d been told about a world waiting for me, the special child, to wash away all its inequalities. The evils of Western certainty in Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness hit all too close to my postcolonial home. My fear of being an ignorant American blowhard imposing my values and views on others suddenly outweighed my fear of being apathetic or self-focused. When I studied abroad in South Africa, living with an African family in a sand-colored township, I discovered that I had more to learn than to teach. I wrote poetry about finally shedding my guilt. I understood, after long nights of drinking “hooch” and smoking blunts with the neighborhood Xhosa boys, that my guilt did nothing but bore them. They preferred that I dance.
THREE years later a PBS documentarian chose me to interview former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno for a new film on female leadership. I called my mom and asked what I should wear. “Thank God we bought you that suit right before you left for college,” she said.
I reached into my closet and touched the billowy black pantsuit, the most expensive item of clothing I owned. I remembered buying it at the Castle Rock outlet mall, my mom at my side insisting that I needed one suit before moving to New York City. At the time I’d been confused by her urgency — why was this such a big deal? — but later I understood it was her way of “packing my lunch” one last time. A graduate of Colorado State University, she worried that she hadn’t given me the social acumen necessary for life at an Ivy League school. She had bought me a suit because she’d felt guilty for not supplying a legacy of wealth and intellectualism.
“You promise to call me tomorrow right after the interview and tell me all about it?” she asked, excitement in her voice.
“Of course. As soon as I’m done hanging out with Janet, I’ll give you a call,” I said and laughed.
“Have your people call my people,” she said, giggling like a girl. We were drunk on my specialness.
That was September 10, 2001.
I woke up the next morning in the crook of my boyfriend’s arm, both of us wedged into my twin bed. The phone was ringing. It was the producer: the interview was off. A plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. In my groggy state, I could barely put the pieces together, but his urgency was unmistakable even to a college student who’d just woken up.
I spent the rest of that morning watching the giant television in the dorm lounge with a sea of crying and open-mouthed students. The residence-hall cafeterias urged us to eat, whether we had a meal plan or not. Those who longed for comfort foods gorged on bagels and grilled cheese sandwiches and peach cobbler.
I attended an emergency meeting for all the resident assistants in my building (I was one) and listened to instructions: “Find the students on your floors. Make sure they are OK. Ask them if they have friends or family in the towers. If they do, let us know. We consider them vulnerable.”
I found all the residents on my floors. Some were instant-messaging frantically with high-school friends about who was missing. Some were sitting on their beds, staring at the wall. Some were trying unsuccessfully to get through to their parents and let them know they were safe. Everyone seemed vulnerable.
One student told me her mother worked in the towers. I searched for something reassuring to say. “What time does she go to work?” I asked. “They say it happened really early, so if she goes to work at a normal time, she is probably totally fine. Oh, and if she works in some of the lower floors, she’s probably fine too.”
Her mother went to work early. She worked high up in the building. She was dead. So many people were.
Later in the day, the Wall Street refugees started to reach Broadway and 116th Street with soot-covered faces, their high heels and briefcases in their hands, their eyes glazed over. My boyfriend and I sat at a local pizza shop, milky-sweet coffees in hand, and watched the migration. Just as the moon finally became visible in the gray sky, I turned to him and said something I hadn’t expected to utter for at least another ten years: “I want babies.”
I wanted to give blood, but the Red Cross had enough. I wanted to go to Ground Zero and make a firefighter a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, but only people with EMT experience were allowed in. I lit a candle at the all-school vigil. The flame sputtered and then went out, its tiny wisp of smoke rising and disappearing in the dark.
I started reading Noam Chomsky’s critiques of U.S. foreign policy and wondering what it meant to be American. My professors were instructed to offer students class time to “deconstruct” what had taken place; it was always a disaster when someone took them up on it. There was no escaping the script: an anticorporate activist with multiple piercings would use the phrase “imperialistic foreign policy,” and another student, usually in a school sweat shirt, would invoke President Bush’s rhetoric about “evil” and “terror.” The rest of us would yearn for the abstractions of astronomy or statistics that we had once despised.
I began to wonder whether it was wise to live so far from my parents and my big brother, who was in San Francisco. He’d left me a message, in tears, on September 11, begging me to get in touch so that he’d know I was OK.
I was OK physically, but I was not the same, never would be the same. I had experienced the sharp, metallic taste of death at an age when I should have been only stupidly, zealously alive. The appropriate, if irritating, self-importance of youth had been burned away, and in its place anxiety and impatience and impotence had taken root. I was a charred forest regrowing the wrong trees.
Then I discovered Rwanda in my human-rights class. Where had I been while nine hundred thousand men, women, and children were killed, many of them hacked to death by neighbors armed with farm tools and the fear of God? Where the hell had I been? Had I been writing a letter to the local manager of Kinko’s about using recycled paper? While I had been swooning over Anne Frank’s diary, Rwandan teenagers with no attics to hide in had been brutally murdered. Genocide wasn’t just a history lesson; it was an example of what my psychology professor called “contemporary amnesia.”
I protested the war. Bush called the millions of protestors worldwide a “focus group.” I voted for John Kerry in 2004. I continue to write op-eds about Iraq and Sudan and to donate what little money I earn from them to nonprofits with humanitarian missions. I read Nicholas Kristof’s columns in the New York Times about raped girls and motherless sons. I sign Moveon.org petitions. I try to look homeless people in the eye and wish them luck when they ask for change. (A friend has convinced me that giving panhandlers money just exacerbates the problem.) I vote in midterm elections. I recycle. I cry.
I am looking ahead to thirty now (the age I thought I might be when I was ready for babies) and feeling my seven-year-old angst again. I read about New Orleans, where residents of the Ninth Ward can’t return home; and China, where baby girls are killed; and Chicago, where teenagers are taking one another’s lives before they begin. I feel compelled to find a glass jar and start knocking on apartment doors, asking for change. I want to hear the sound of metal against glass. I want to stop the humanity from leaking out of me.
But the eighteen-year-old lives inside me too, the one who knows that these matters are complicated; that I could do more harm than good; that I am not endowed with special powers just because I was raised on multivitamins and gifted-and-talented programs. This part of me realizes that it is my relationships with nearby “others” — my cousin who served in Iraq, my student who can’t imagine a woman president, my boyfriend’s conspiracy-theorist mother — that bring me closest to “saving the world,” which all along has meant just being a kind, accountable part of it. I have searched so hard for ways I can matter to strangers — people deemed “less fortunate,” tragic figures, victims of poverty and happenstance — that I have overlooked the radical work of being a good friend.
But I disavow that notion as soon as I type it. There is a world out there plagued by injustice, and it is not my friends who suffer most. Period.
Of course, the twenty-one-year-old is here, too: Scared. Selfish. Wanting babies of her own, babies whom she would make comfortable and safe. This part of me is grateful that my brother now lives in the next room and is available to talk me down from my existential ledges.
I am exhausted by the hard work of reconciling all these parts of myself, all these multiple truths. I want an adult relationship with my own sense of responsibility. I want to understand how to be wisely connected, how to survive my own bleeding-heart liberalism, how to do good in the world without being patronizing or ineffective or self-serving.
I want to go back to my childhood home on that tree-lined street in Colorado Springs. I want to go through the wrought-iron gate and around the side of the house, past the hammock and the little Buddha statue my dad set next to the oldest tree; past the flat stone with “believe” etched in it, set on the other side of that tree by my mom. I want to keep walking down the path by the vegetable garden and the cherry tree that the birds love so much and the garage with my dad’s first car inside: a ’55 lime-green-and-yellow Chevy convertible. I want to walk right up to the playhouse and drop to my knees and dig in the dirt with my bare hands and uncover that jar full of twenty-year-old coins and know — really, truly know — what the hell to do with it.
Courtney E. Martin
I want to thank Courtney E. Martin [“The Jar of Coins,” March 2008] for speaking my heart and surely the hearts of many others in our generation who recognize how much we have been blessed — with multivitamins and gifted-and-talented programs, yes, but also with the yearning for a better world. We struggle under the weight of our world-saving inclinations, but our struggles are nothing compared to the injustices and hardships that others face.
Here’s to continuing to explore those “multiple truths” Martin writes about. May we be endowed with not just awareness but the courage to act. And may we continue to discover that how we live matters — to our friends, our communities, and our global neighbors.
Five years ago I left a high-paying position in corporate law and took an 80 percent pay cut to join the staff of the Hunger Project as a full-time fundraiser. I love my work — which I don’t even think of as “work” but simply as a vehicle for expressing my hopes for the world.
Courtney E. Martin’s essay “The Jar of Coins” [March 2008] vividly illustrates the day-to-day questions we face when we try to make a difference: Will my actions be patronizing or counterproductive? Do people need or want my help? How can I “empower” them to be self-reliant — and what does that mean, anyway?
None of us has the answers. Still I admire Martin for not only asking the questions but taking the risk of living them.