Thursday, December 12, 2013

An Open Letter to Greg Gopman

Dear Greg,
I've been thinking about what you said all day, as I watch the equally caustic responses to your words stream through my news feed. Personally, I found your words more disturbing than offensive because I'm afraid that they reflect the uninformed views of so many more. I am curious about you. I wonder how long you've been in San Francisco, how long you've been watching the city evolve, and how wide your understanding is of homelessness. I'm a teacher by nature, and I would like to help you understand this issue a bit more so that you can help educate others.

During college, I did volunteer work as a Crisis Counselor with San Francisco Suicide Prevention. Part of our thorough training was a history of mental health care in California. Did you know that California used to have a vast, comprehensive public mental healthcare system? During his tenure as governor, Ronald Reagan gutted the system, leaving very little behind. People end up in public mental health care because they either have no family, or their families cannot afford the care they need. This may change with the ACA, but up until now mental health care has barely, if at all, been covered under insurance plans. Most plans will cover maybe 10 therapy visits, which doesn't even begin to appropriately care for someone who is severely ill.

The huge gaps in social support for persons with mental illness are an important factor in homelessness. Many of these people cannot "pick themselves up by their boot straps," get a job and lead a normal life. I used to regularly talk to a man on the hotline who thought that dollar bills were illegal, and that everyone but he and the people of Australia were robots. Without someone to take care of him, he would surely be raving in and living on the streets.

This is an example of someone who is severely mentally ill. But what about the more subtle disabilities? The majority of the people I spoke to on the hotline found themselves in the positions they were in as a result of being the recipients of abuse as children- in particular, physical and sexual. I hope that this was not a part of your upbringing, and that you have no personal understanding of what it does to a person to be abused in these ways. I will explain for you. Being abused encodes a deep sense of unworthiness into the minds and hearts of its recipients. If the child’s environment enforces or fails to correct the abuse, the child will grow up to believe that they are unworthy of the things most of us take for granted- happiness, love, safety, respect, consistency, healthy relationships, etc. If the abuse is severe and/or sustained long enough, it can be the cause of mental illness that otherwise may have never existed. Even if something more severe such as Dissociative Identity Disorder doesn't present itself, it is sadly common for the recipients of abuse to develop substance abuse problems very early, in addition to depression or anxiety, explosive anger, impulse control, self-abuse such as cutting or eating disorders and a multitude of other issues that can prove to be quite debilitating.

Further compounding the already complex issue of homelessness in San Francisco is a sneaky tactic used by other US cities to bus their homeless population to our city. Although no one will admit to this still being unofficial policy in their city governments, it was for a time. This is such a problem that San Francisco created a program called Homeward Bound, offering homeless people bus tickets back to wherever they came from. Without a solid public mental health care system and with the existing non-profits overwhelmed and at capacity, there are very few options for the vulnerable, often deeply wounded and mentally ill inhabitants of our city.

The area of Market Street that you described is, yes, in the heart of the city. It also happens to be the area of town that belongs to the “degenerates,” as you put it. The Tenderloin and the SOMA may now be on the gentrification chopping block, but they have been the home for low income families, artists, the mentally ill, pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers and others on the fringe for far longer than either of us have been alive. I lived in the Tenderloin for several years and in that time, while not enjoying the constant urine smell and occasional gun shots, met some truly lovely human beings. Most of them approached me not for money, but to make sure I wasn't lost because as a young, healthy white woman, I didn't appear to belong. I ended up moving out because the (young, friendly, white kid) next door was beating the hell out of his (young, friendly, white) girlfriend and I couldn't handle not being able to do anything about it. You know, I witnessed some intense, ridiculous, disturbing things in all my years in the neighborhood, but nothing comes close to the horror I heard that boy scream at that girl through the walls. Nothing.

If the most grotesque experience of your travels thus far is walking down Market Street, I have two thoughts for you: 1) Congratulations! It is rare to live so long and be spared more traumatic experiences, and 2) I don’t know where you've been travelling, but I’m guessing you’re not having much of an adventure. Which cities are you referring to when you say “cosmopolitan”? There are some beautiful, clean cosmopolitan cities in the world, like Vienna, but the rest of the cities I've ever visited are dirty and gritty, at least in part. I was once very aggressively accosted by a homeless man in a Paris McDonalds (I swear, going in that McDonalds was not my call). Paris is dirty, as are Rome and New York and Chicago. Have you ever been to Seattle? Their homeless population is way scarier and more aggressive than San Francisco’s. I digress.

What I hope you take away from all this is that the relative squalor that characterizes Mid Market is a complex problem, symptomatic of much deeper societal issues, which begs a very thoughtful discussion and a sophisticated understanding. If we have been fortunate enough to travel the world, to have access to a good education, to have been raised by mostly functional, loving families, then perhaps we’re in the position to help those who have not. Ask not what the crazy, toothless lady can do for you, but what you can do for the crazy, toothless lady. I’m not even asking you to part with any of your hard earned, American money, but simply to educate yourself about this topic. Rather than wallowing in your own discomfort and lashing out at those people who caused it, get curious. Ask questions. How did it happen that so many people could slip through the cracks? What are the multi-faceted factors and issues which contribute to this problem? What approaches can be taken to best address them?

There is a brokenness in the minds and hearts of these most vulnerable people which can only be healed with love. Our love. Allowing ourselves to love another in this way means opening our hearts to grief, pain, sadness. Harden not your heart, dear. Being able to love so deeply, through our own fears and discomforts, is an essential skill for a full, rich, wild human life. That is my wish for you, and my challenge to you. Open your heart very completely to those who frighten you. Then you’ll get to see what you’re so afraid of, and be that much freer.

Love, Respect, and Prayers for Greatness,

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Being Pretty isn't IT

We were hanging out awhile back and you asked, all full of frustration, "Well, what do you want then?" I had been talking about how uninteresting I find perfectly sculpted physiques to be due to a longtime exposure to beautiful, built gay men. My answer at the time was, "I don't know," which was a lie. I do know what I want, but explaining it in that moment was beyond me. We were in a bar and I think I had just done a shot of tequila.

The truth is, I want MORE. Feeling a physical attraction to your potential partner is important, I appreciate nice looking things, but I have also become concerned with sustainability. The condition of our physical bodies is highly unsustainable. What is of lasting value is what's between your ears and in your heart, because that's who and what you really are. Being beautiful will take you far, but then what? That is not a train that will help you travel the entirety of your lifetime, should you be lucky enough to age to the point of wrinkling everywhere. What carries you across the time and space of a life well lived is character. Character is what you choose to do with the time that you have, and this matters more than anything else.

Not everyone will require you to be anything but pretty. They will see what's outside and be satisfied. It is not enough for me, dearone. I want MORE from you. I have looked you in the eye. I See You, I've Heard You speak with great depth and honesty. I know what's there and I want it ALL. I want your sadness and fear, your humor and brilliant ideas, your remarkable strength and your vulnerability. I want to see you deeply fulfilled, fully self-realized and authentically happy, no matter what that looks like. Because I love you. I told you I loved you but that I didn't even know what it meant when I said it. It wasn't until I revisited this quote from my favorite Zen master, Osho, that I found something which begins to articulate this feeling:
"What we call love is really a whole spectrum of relating, reaching from the earth to the sky. At the most earthy level, love is sexual attraction. Many of us remain stuck there, because our conditioning has burdened our sexuality with all kinds of expectations and repressions. Actually the biggest "problem" with sexual love is that it never lasts...As we mature, we can begin to experience the love that exists beyond sexuality and honors the unique individuality of the other...This love is based in freedom, not expectation or need."

When all is said and done, it doesn't really matter what you look like. For your professional purposes, I know it does, but I want you to know that you are worth so much more than that. Your body is not the real you, it is a temporary, ever changing home for the you who is timeless and eternal. I understand that because you spend so much time working on your body, this might feel like hurtful devaluing. This is not my intention. I respect and admire your discipline and dedication. You are magnificent looking- I wouldn't have you change a thing.

This is so small of a concern when compared with what you're doing with that magnificent body, though. How are you treating yourself? Are you taking care of your mental and emotional life? Are you speaking your truth and honoring your No? Do you perceive yourself to have great value beyond your looks?

What do I want then, dearone? Everything. Bodies can be fun, beautiful and overwhelmingly sexy, but they are not enough. It is the totality of your infinite being that I'm after. I want to know and love every part of you.

Which is a hard thing to explain in a bar.

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Wild, Rebel Heart

As I descended the stairs into a sea of crisp black blazers and pencil skirts, fresh blowouts and french tips, it immediately became apparent that I was out of place. You know when it feels like everyone is watching you enter a room? In this case, everyone was. It was something like America's Next Top Model, a sorority rush and free diving with great whites...all at once. However, I smiled wide and laughed in my head at all the beautiful, scowling, full faces of makeup. I reasoned that amid all the black, it would be to my advantage to be in blue and cream stripes. Heck, I barely remembered to shave my legs! I'm a stylish individual and I will stand out!

When we entered the conference room, I realized how flawed my logic had been. The woman leading the open call was in the same uniform as all the other contestants. I naturally immediately suspected a conspiracy, then realized a simple truth: I've been wearing yoga pants to work for a very long time. Even when I worked in an office, my personal style was Kindergarten Librarian Chic. I rocked a knee length skirt with tiny kittens on it on the reg. Business attire is not my forte. This is not a job I will be getting.

By the time I reached my senior year of high school, the bulk of my core community had already graduated, so I became involved in multiple clubs and choirs to fill the time. When I had a free lunch period, I could be found in the library reading Girl, Interrupted or Backlash, writing angsty poetry and listening to mix CDs heavily influenced by riot grrrls. My spinster Honors English teacher referred to me as one of her "bright, sensitive girls." Being bright and sensitive in high school is fine if it's buried under more enticing qualities to teenagers, but that was all I had to work with at the time...smarts, sensitivity, mild depression and anxiety, and awkwardness, especially in my body.

My favorite teacher ever, also from the English department, promised me that it would be different when I got to college, and she was largely correct. I've always had a good radar for girls like me- the bright, sensitive ones who forget to shave their legs- but in college I suddenly had a huge tribe. We hung out for hours in the dining hall laughing and stealing handfuls of cookies, learned to knit in a snark laden club called "Stitch and Bitch," stayed up late telling secrets and stories, and watched The L Word and decided we were lesbians...or maybe not...or maaaayyyyyyyybbee. San Francisco, the mecca of tolerance and free expression, welcomed me like a long lost child. I was finally home.

The world at large is not an easy place to be on the fringe, though, but it is getting easier in many ways. The planetary consciousness is shifting rapidly to include a knowledge and embrace of "alternative" and holistic healing methods, universal human rights, environmental activism, political transparency and economic equality. There is so much beautiful, revolutionary, authentic work being done in the world, so much light being spread.

Yet amidst this is a sometimes violent and sickening backlash against these gains in human dignity and awareness. Of course, this is the hallmark of any true revolution. There will always be push back from those who benefit from the maintenance of the status quo. People on the whole are very much afraid of change and, as Osho has to say about Rebels, "people are afraid, very much afraid of those who know themselves. They have a certain power, a certain aura and a certain magnetism, a charisma that can take out alive, young people from the traditional imprisonment...The enlightened man cannot be enslaved - that is the difficulty - and he cannot be imprisoned...Every genius who has known something of the inner is bound to be a little difficult to be absorbed; he is going to be an upsetting force."

Before I continue, I'd like to preface the following by saying that I like getting my nails done and I neglect shaving my legs not out of militant feminist principle but laziness. Women spend entirely too much time tearing each other apart, a separate issue I could talk about forever. I don't seek to shame anyone for having different interests and priorities. I respect where everyone is on their journey. Namaste, y'all. That being said...

This is the time to be an upsetting force. This is the time to be bright stripes in a room full of black suits. The very survival of our planet requires that we question the false truths that we've been indoctrinated to believe and agree with. The foundation we built with these agreements is crumbling. We cannot continue to live as we always have and expect anything to change, and make no mistake, change is very much necessary. Since all sustainable change begins within, it's time, above all else, for some deeply honest, fearless self-inquiry. We must get very real.

What is working well?
What is not working well?
What requires adjustment? And how?
What needs to be disposed of entirely?
What is energizing and brings me joy?
What is weighty and regressive?

For everyone who has ever felt like a misfit or an outcast, rejoice! Our time has come. The tide is turning. Our unique perspectives and alternative approaches are needed. This time of reevaluation and adjustment presents us with the opportunity to make our world more inclusive and loving. The misfits intimately understand the agony of feeling out of place. Let's make our world a place where everyone belongs, just as they are. Not everyone could or should be alike. Variety is just as important to our human eco system as it is to the realms of flora and fauna. There is truly space for all kinds, and it takes all kinds to make it work.

The time has come to shine our wild, rebel hearts...
or rather, to discover what is preventing us from doing so
and burning that up with the light of our own brilliant truth.

Burn it up. Shine that brilliant, wild, rebel heart.