I woke up this morning, thankfully early, to a new chill in the air. Summer seems to have blown itself out in that final hurrah of ninety degree afternoons, blue skies and blinding sunlight. The fog machine is back on and the weather is back to being comfortably cold, verging on uncomfortably brisk. I love these quiet mornings before anyone is stirring, before the trash collectors disturb my sleep, before the hum of the occasional traffic past my window, and the sound of people on their way to whatever the day holds for them.
It is a far cry from mornings at the shelter, or in my old sweet apartment in the bad part of town with the mice and the chaos outside the window. Hardly a car passes by here. There are no constant sirens. There is at least the illusion of peace in the City out here. Someone who lives here sandwiched between all the beautiful parks and the sea in the west part of the City could be forgiven for thinking that all of life is this quiet as long as you are good and rich and privileged and keep your drug use to microdosing shrooms or the occasional naughty line of coke at some party for people who live successful lives. There is a definite sense of ‘deserving’ the life you get.
The fact is, there is bad wisdom to those unlucky enough to learn it the only way you can learn it – the hard way. Suzanne Vega is playing on my stereo. 99.9F°, that almost boiling point record that is as much her electric album as Highway 61 Revisited is Dylan’s. Vega, the folkster from New York City, turns up the heat and it seemed like the perfect day to do so, with the air so chill and the day so still. She sang:
“Mother you’ve taught me the laws are so fineBad Wisdom, 99.9F Suzanne Vega
If I’m good that I will be protected
I’ve fallen through the crack and there’s no getting back
And I’ll never trust whoever gets elected”
I have that bad wisdom. I started out life a little shakily, but still with the promise of privilege, of never finding out that there was something beyond that sandbox state of protection that the lucky exist in. That is why conservatism is so seductive to so many. If they have never ‘fallen through the crack’, then to fall seems to be the fault of the faller, not of the crack that lays in waiting to gobble them and their happiness up like the monster it is. Once you fall through those cracks in society, put there by capitalism, racism, chance and desperation, there is very rarely ever any getting back, and if you do, you bring with you ‘bad wisdom’.
I fell right through the crack like a careless Alice. That crack should have been papered over but a family who failed to care for me, another who adopted me and didn’t really want me and resented me, a childhood of being tortured and bullied to within an inch of my life, and then only finding safety in silence and withstanding pain opened up not a crack in my world, but an entire gaping chasm to fall into.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not entirely grateful – this cost me almost everything I had. It cost me almost all my happiness, my possible successes, and turned me from a nice girl into a rebel and a renegade. I know in the most personal of ways that ‘if you are good then you will be protected’ is a lie. The truth is, if you are lucky, if you are lucky, then you get to not have to know why it is important that people can flee to refuge and safety. If you are privileged you get to not understand the basic unfair truths of this world. My privilege lays tattered under my feet and a sign that says ‘but you are alive, aren’t you?’ as if I should be guilty for surviving. I don’t have to be told to feel guilty, I do anyway. Guilt runs through my veins along with my sensitivity and my shame.
I don’t have the luxury of looking down on a single soul. I learnt the danger of rage and revenge. I sit here wondering, what then? What am I meant to do then? It is a devil’s bargain of protecting yourself, whilst doing as little harm as possible. No harm is not possible in this violent schoolyard we call life on earth.
I know enough to get me in trouble, but not enough to get myself out of it. I live in a state of permanent avoidance, waiting for the axe to fall on my ragged old neck. I don’t even have youth or health on my side any more. I am shorn and broken at the seams and looking out at the world in horror, but at least I have my learned empathy to keep me warm in this cold San Francisco nights.
I know how choices are not really choices at all. How easy it is to end up sleeping outside with your children and nowhere to go. That old assertation of ‘go ask family to help, that is what they are there for’, presumes someone has family. Mine all washed their hands of me at birth, telling themselves lies that it was for the best. None of it was for the best for ME, but that doesn’t seem to matter at all. Bad wisdom. Unfashionable opinions. Comforting fake logic.
It is far easier for the San Franciscan chattering classes to believe that everyone out on the streets deserves to be there. It is easier to look at an addict and name their fate, as ‘their choice’, when choices are not really choices at all, but instead vulnerable human bodies carried into hell on a tidal wave of bad luck, useless families and a system which divides everyone up, by necessity, into ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. For there to be winners, there have to be losers.
I look at the news and see yet another mass shooting in the USA. I can’t bear to read past the headlines. When do we learn the lessons? When does all this bad wisdom turn into good action? The whole world seems to be a pyramid scheme with all of us suffering on the bottom, while those at the top take no risks, have no fear of anything much at all, except Death who is bigger than us all, but even he can be cut down to size with enough money and protection and yes, privilege. The risks are not equal for all. We all learn the bad knowledge and suffer, while the money is being made on the top to buy thousand dollar bowls, quarter of a million dollar cars and the ability to sleep safely at night.
This is my bad knowledge, out here in the ‘burbs: hell is only a few miles away at most and it is getting restless. I get to sleep through the night, without being woken by the sounds of desperation and conflict outside my window. I used to regularly hear gunshots and large fireworks, not being always able to tell the difference between the two. Now all I hear is sounds of buffeted happiness, cotton wool encased glee and the laughter of children. I never used to see a child where I used to live, despite a school being very close. Where do the children play, Cat Stevens once asked. Well not in the Tenderloin.
We are all looking for peace and safety. It is always more fragile for some than it is for others. The pay off for those on the very bottom of the pile is bad knowledge, not learnt in books, but only real and true once experienced: that life ain’t that easy, and conflict is always close by. It is the gift of survival, of reality. It is the gift of suffering to know how dangerous and how brutally breakable life and people both are.
Once you realize how fragile people are, then perhaps you have a better chance of treating people as if they are breakable. I put the kid gloves on when dealing with most people. I only take them off once I am attacked. I try to put out love and peace and kindness, but to be frank, I rarely get it back in return, even from those I would very much like to love me as much as I love them.
I blame the internet. It has put us all into camps, into groups, and made more divisions than it has built bridges. Those human connections are now much looser and we fail to see the humans behind the words, and that bleeds into real physical life.
In the end, the price for bad wisdom, that terrible knowledge of the reality of suffering, is always way too high, but would I have had it any other way? Would I want to not know, and be sitting here, not by the long route, but by the short path, never having fallen through the cracks? I am now peeping out from that chasm, sitting with my legs dangling over the edge. Once you know, you know. I might be comfortable now, but I can always fall back down more easily than the average soul could ever manage. Of course I would have loved to have known love, care, happiness, but would I have appreciated it? Would I have even recognized all that I had if I had not experienced the flip side? I doubt it. I would have walked through life an ungrateful, obnoxious soul at worst, at best a sweet person who didn’t know, didn’t understand and didn’t truly appreciate all I had. I know me. I needed to be shown in painful detail how bad it could be. Now life is sweet. Not sickeningly so, but I can taste the syrup and distinguish it from the vinegar.
Suffering has trained my taste buds, and now I can see more clearly what it is we have, what I have, and truly love what I have, and conversely, painfully, mourn all that I lost.
San Francisco has me appreciating the heat, and loving the cold. I can’t decide whether I am longing for summer, or if I need some mist on my face and fog around my front door. I do know that we are in a huge mess, one that I can’t see resolving any way other than suffering. If we didn’t learn our lessons in two vastly destructive world wars and multiple pogroms against the Jewish people which were disgustingly tolerated, leading ‘never again’ to be on the lips of world leaders, a ‘never again’ which is now being betrayed on a huge scale, then I fear we are about to take that Big Dip back into worldwide suffering. The trouble is, so many of us have learnt that we do not want suffering, and the rest are playing catch up forcing us all to go through the lesson once again.
If anything, these ‘lessons’ are proof enough for me that the Great Almighty, the Big Cheese, the Huge Kahuna, the Vast Beyond, the One, actually exists and is forging soul of the human race, not through mercy, but through periods of almost totally unmitigated suffering. After all, how can we appreciate the good and name the bad if we can’t distinguish the honey from the vinegar?
Why can’t we all catch up, and realize that suffering does not need to happen. Why can’t we break those cycles of horror and love, love freely and understand what hurts me, hurts you too? I could be mad at a world which failed to learn, but what good will that do?
I am no saint. I have my own affiliations and teams, but in the end, it is the civilians, the peaceful which suffer because of the death cults of the power hungry. I feel sick to the very depths of my being, wrestling my better angels who tell me to have compassion for those who have none themselves. It is still something that I am struggling with, knowing my compassion will be used against me.
Microcosms of the macrocosmic issues are simply not enough to avoid major suffering on major scales. When the quiet communities of the privileged, like the one I am very gratefully sitting in, but do not belong in, start to suffer, then perhaps things will change. To be frank, I doubt it. I think humanity is essentially flawed and tends towards war and inflicting suffering, and a total lack of empathy. But what do I know? I am just a speck of trash that fell through the crack, and has sort of made it back out with some news of what lays beneath privileged ‘normality’.
The day is heating up. Four seasons in an afternoon out here in the Bay. I will walk to the headlands and look out over the Pacific ocean and see if I can see any peace on its horizon. I doubt it. All I can see are storm clouds rolling in. There is bad weather ahead and a bad full hunter’s moon on the rise. It all glows gold and ghostly. The world of the Dead is on the rise and the wolves of war are baying on the mountaintops.