The Silence

When the blackout of 2003 hit I was packing for a weekend at the Milwaukee Irish Festival to see “Joe,” a guy that I was crazy about at the time and who worked as a sound technician. As I carefully selected my outfits and placed them in my bag the power died around me killing the fan, lights, and TV, and filling the room with silence.

I lived in the garage apartment behind the double house in Cleveland that my brother owned and lived in with his wife, daughter, and our mom. It was pretty fabulous—in spite of the image that “garage apartment” creates in one’s mind—and secluded. On each side of our property there was a mausoleum and its main office, and directly behind me was a cemetery. As an introvert, I absolutely reveled in not having neighbors to talk to or have to listen to late at night.

My apartment was two stories with a large deck off of my bedroom.  At the time, I was working from home for a friend who owned a real estate appraisal company, and my office was on the first floor. Most days at lunch, mom would call me from her back window and hand lunch out to me, and I often worked from the deck while sunbathing.

At that moment on August 14, 2003, I stopped what I was doing and walked outside to see what was going on in the main house. Before long, we were all gathered in the backyard—mom in her window of the enclosed patio, cigarette in hand—wondering what had caused the blackout. I turned on the radio in my car and we listened to the developing news. People wondered if terrorists might be involved. All I cared about was getting on that plane the next morning.

That night, the heat was brutal. I stripped all of my bedding, then showered in cold water and lay spread eagle and butt naked across the bed, trying to think of anything but how hot I was. It was nauseating. I thought about the original settlers in pioneer days and how they dealt with this kind of heat without fans or air conditioning.

Our power came back on sometime around 10am the next day, so I went to the airport as planned to fly standby. The place was filled with stranded travelers hoping to make it home, while I was just trying to get to a cute guy, lots of good music and booze. When I finally made it onto an aircraft, we were delayed because they couldn’t find the pilot. People around me joked that he was in the bar all day waiting for the “ok” to take off…which of course freaked me out. Eventually he made it back to us and got us to Milwaukee, a few hours late, but safe.

After a quick dinner with Joe that night, I met up with some girlfriends and hung out with them while he worked. Over the next two days he and I had some great conversations about his work, life in NYC, our favorite authors, movies and our families.

One day at lunch the subject of welfare came up. I was 32 years old on that day, and had never voted in my life. I had never paid any attention to politics at all, and hated whenever someone tried to talk to me about current events or political issues. I would instantly become defensive knowing that I simply didn’t know enough to engage in a meaningful discussion. My cop-out was to complain that politics is boring and my vote among all the others would never matter anyway.

I can’t remember the context of the conversation, but I know I made a statement along the lines of “No one needs to be on welfare. Everyone can get a job, even if it’s at McDonalds. If someone isn’t working, it’s because they’re lazy.”

Knowing what I do now, it’s shocking to me that these words ever came out of my mouth. The reaction in Joe’s face was clear: disgust. He waited until he finished his bite of burger, took a swig of beer, and said: “You know, we shouldn’t talk about anything like this, just never mind.” I sat there wondering what I had said that was so wrong. In the silence that followed I felt ashamed and stupid, but wasn’t quite sure why.

When I arrived home that Monday, I immediately searched the Internet for articles about welfare policy. I emailed my friend Ann Marie and asked her for advice in learning about politics. I had no idea where to start and thought there was no way I’d ever learn enough to have a relevant voice. She sent me a few links to both liberal and conservative party websites along with sound advice: “Don’t get overwhelmed. Just start reading. Eventually, it will all start coming together. It seems like you’ll never catch up, but the alternative is not starting, and that isn’t an option either.”

I learned that a minimum wage job, after factoring in daycare and travel expenses, often provides less income than public assistance. I learned about the socialization process—the ways our family, friends and environment shape our values, habits and goals. I discovered that for me, the reasons people live in poverty, hunger, illness, and despair, are not as important as the fact that they are suffering, and I wanted to help them.

I think that everyone needs to have their own moment of self-doubt, of questioning the origins of their own beliefs, and questioning the value of their own words and actions on the greater good of society.

That doesn’t mean you’ll change your mind, but it’s important to hear opposing viewpoints, read unbiased sources, watch a different news channel now and then. Know what it is you’re opposing, what your response would be if someone challenged your ideas, and be sure you have facts to support them.

It was the compassion and tolerance of one friend—Joe—who made me stop to think about what I had said, and made a difference in my life. If he had preached to me, told me off, or become angry with me, I may have just written him off as a jerk, and been too blinded by my own firmly held misinformed and misguided opinions. Instead, it was a turning point for me that determined my course of study and career.

I was inspired to write today after reading the recent blog of one of my favorite authors Jane Devin: Resentment is Energizing the Right. Jane always inspires me.

I suggest Jane’s book Elephant Girl for anyone who struggles with finding compassion for public assistance recipients. Her story is powerful and striking, but sadly, not all that unique. So many Americans face obstacles completely out of their own control and fight to overcome them without the most basic of resources that the rest of us take for granted. When a child grows up enduring the sort of trauma that Jane has, it’s not difficult to understand why she might lose the will to fight, or want to take whatever help she can get.

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