My partner-in-parental-crime and I have taken great pains to try to teach our boys some responsibility in the madness of their over-scheduled childhood. We tried to instill pride in helping with daily chores, to model the joy of keeping things orderly and tidy, and to impart our wisdom of obedience and diligence. We pretend to be good Calvinists, you see...we attempted this out of guilt if nothing else.
But we failed miserably.
Instead, we hired our boys out to the local newspaper to deliver papers in the 'hood. Every day but Sunday. When I made this decision, my generous logic thought this activity would oblige someone in the family to walk the dog at least once a day while alleviating my temptation to give my children an allowance for doing minus nothing. I've always had a weakness for multi-tasking ventures.
But. One day, they were busy. And I mean gone busy. And I was here. Looking at a stack of 18 newspapers that needed to be placed into neighbourhood mailboxes. Now, I am not so arrogant and full of myself to think I am too good for such a task. At least this is what I told myself. I stuffed and then huffed a bag full of good and mostly horrid news over my shoulder. And I prepared Juno (the dog not the god) for the adventure.
So. Since only three people under the age of 40 read the actual newspaper anymore, most of my boys' "clientele" comes from the elderly of the bunch. They tip my boys often; they scribble them thank-you cards and hand them old puzzles from their attics; they smile and pat and give Juno treats. It's all rather Norman Rockwell-ish.
Except for one big mansion. We were told an older lady lives there. The boys often fought over who got to deliver the paper to The Mansion. She left no Christmas tip or note, never once a nod of gratitude. At least we never glimpsed her face to notice it.
On the day of my deliverance, Mansion Owner was in her front driveway speaking to a man who had recently finished shoveling it. She watched me approach with my paper-boy satchel. She looked at me and twisted her chin down sideways in that way that shouted quite clearly, "what in the hell are you doing walking onto my property?"
I smiled my warmest with a paper in hand and asked if she would like it or if she would like me to place it in the mailbox.
She looked at me confused. And then she said, "I do not want the paper anymore. I have told them that I will not pay for it. It is ridiculously expensive."
I apologized for the obvious error in communication, and I offered my assistance in amending the mistake by calling my important contacts at the Newspaper Headquarters on her behalf.
She grunted in disgust. And then she said, "Yes, tell them I will not pay."
And then she took the paper out of my hands.
I am not writing to condemn this particular woman's arrogance or her self-righteousness or even her disillusionment of wealth; it is all too easy to see that merely one of her exterior light fixtures would suffice to pay for the newspaper for four years for the entire neighbourhood. I know enough wealthy people, well two anyway, to know that they do not appreciate being expected to pay for everyone else's poverty and need. That many were born into wealth makes no difference at all. Clearly, the birthright into wealth comes with the right to refuse appeals to a generosity based on a discretion beyond reproach. It must be exhausting and confusing. I've watched enough Downton Abbey to sympathize with the responsibility and burden of being one of the upper class.
What I do want to address in this whole peculiar situation is my own discomfort of being on the receiving end of this woman's disdain. I will not lie. Not here anyway. About this anyway.
While placing my physical body into a position of weakness, vulnerable to the thoughts of any passerby, I willingly took away almost all of the "power" I have worked diligently and unknowingly to earn in my 40 years. I opened myself up for vast interpretation and judgment. No penis, therefore no male power (though perhaps a male doing this job alone might appear even more shameful in our patriarchal society). No intellectual or professional capital is obvious while carrying such a paper-boy bag. No reasonable, educated middle-aged white person would work for a looney an hour. The only power I had left was my whiteness. Imagine the fear or disgust that might have accompanied Mansion Woman's disdain if I was black... or Latina... I would have then confirmed her likely suspicions... (Oh! I know. No one is racist anymore. Right. Except for the fact that no one is racist out loud, most of the time, in public. But most people are racist in every other way. Our society was founded on and organized by White supremacy and continues to be so, I am increasingly convinced of this in my studies). The assumptions about my ignorance and my laziness and my primitive ways of being that were seemingly coming from each person I passed (and that were then confirmed in The Mansion Woman's face and words) disturbed me greatly.
Clearly, my perceived elevation on this imagined ladder of power exposes my own disdain for those perceived to be on the lower rungs. I am ashamed of this. I hope, at least, that my admission and exposure can help my recovery.
I am fully aware that my writing about the issue here, also, could be construed as me re-claiming or re-asserting my power or privilege, or as an appeal for some sort of dignified badge of heroics or honour. No. That is not why I write.
I write, rather, because this curious incident, this unintentional experiment in powerlessness, gave me something I want to try to capture in words. It had been quite some time since I had placed myself in a position like this. Moving to a new country and trying to establish some kind of a respectable identity has led me to be quite wary of appearing so vulnerable. I want desperately to earn the respect of the natives here, and I've never quite believed that vulnerability leads to respect, even though I know that it does.
I can't help but be reminded of the irony of Jesus in all this. Turning everything upside down like he did. Having nothing. Being completely exposed, vulnerable, open to disdain. And then receiving it, enduring it, and suffering greatly for it. All while being pretty honest, by most accounts, and not mincing words about it either.
And I, for 15 minutes, freak out about walking around my block exposed to judgment, and still pretend to follow Jesus and his ways. Here's my honesty: I am absolutely nothing like Jesus... and yet, if asked, I will profess to following him. I am trying to understand how I can admire him and his ways and express a desire to be like him, and yet fight against it with every fabric of my being, living, and acting. What kind of witness is my life to the freedom and love that Jesus offers if by all measurable ways, I resent his model? For what is love if it is not vulnerability and sacrifice? And what is freedom if it is not a place without labels and judgment and fear? I do not know.
I do not know. And I think that that's okay. I'm getting a little sweaty wrestling with it though, and I think that's okay too. Not knowing. No certainty. No answers.
Delivery to the unknown...