It’s been just a little over a month since I started this blog. It’s been great so far. I’ve dedicated myself to writing something new every Wednesday, and just the exercise of sitting in an armchair at the Green Bean and writing all day has been really invigorating. I’m enjoying this conversation with myself, and I appreciate everyone who listens in.
Another aspect of writing a blog has been fascinating. I’ve been a freelance writer for over twenty-five years, have written and published what must by now be millions of words, but I’ve never before been able to also listen in on other people’s hot-off-the-press and sometimes hot-under-the-collar reactions to what I have to say (granted, most of my career has been writing for decorating and travel magazines, so up until now there probably hasn’t been much to react to.) Most of the comments to what I’ve written in the last month have been reasoned and thoughtful, but, predictably, a few have been kind of mean. One has been remarkably mean. It was posted a few weeks ago on Stephen Dubner’s blog by someone who calls himself (or, I suppose, herself) “Silas”. I’ll quote it here in its entirety:
Liz Seymour/Anarchist Mom has never been middle class a day in her life. She comes from privilege and she will pass a substantial amount of monetary privilege on to her children. She opened her home to an “anarchist” community because she feared growing old alone. There is nothing wrong with that, it’s just to say that I don’t believe her attempts at a home-based community are politically motivated. If she ever finishes her book her hypothetical Oprah appearance will mimic that of James Frey.
This must have written by someone I know, although it could simply be by someone who did a little Google snooping. These days that’s not hard to do. I was surprised to discover when I read the comment that I was puzzled by the little attack but not particularly bothered by it. In a way it’s helpful to have a couple of things brought out into the open. Basically Silas is accurate about the privilege part and wildly inaccurate about the not wanting to grow old alone part. The Oprah part is, of course, just weird.
I did grow up with a tremendous amount of privilege, a lot more than I recognized at the time. “Middle class” is a pretty subjective term; I suppose I could be said to have been born into the upper class, or in the more accurate term, the “owning class.” My father was the dean of Dartmouth College; I grew up in a beautiful little Ivy League town in New Hampshire with a lot of the securities and comforts that people have come to associate with the 1950s. My father’s father was a successful lawyer who argued cases in front of the Supreme Court and spent a year as president of the American Bar Association. I will indeed inherit some money eventually, and I certainly hope to pass it along to my children. Most of the money came from that grandfather. It was his money that helped me to get a very good education at Smith College, a women’s college of sloping lawns and beautiful gardens, of long meandering discussions and rowboats and a capella singing groups, and a sense that every student has a unique and shining destiny.
I also grew up happy, which is a privilege that transcends money. If money actually did buy happiness the celebrity gossip magazines would be out of luck, but unfortunately the kind of happiness that money buys often comes gift wrapped in fear and guilt. The happiness I grew up with (and I do recognize that even if it wasn’t bought with money, it was eased by money) sticks with a person for life. My fundamental privilege is that I expect to be happy. Not everyone comes into adulthood with that expectation.
But like everything else, privilege comes with some baggage. Isabell identified it in the long essay she wrote for my family after she was arrested in Philadelphia. “I think a lot about my privilege,” she wrote. “I am extremely lucky for the opportunities I have, and the love and material assistance I have been given. It is these things that have partially made it possible for me to think through the ideas I outline here, and to take the actions I take in my daily life. This privilege means that I have choices that others do not have. At the same time as I have more choices, I have less vision. I cannot see through DuBois’ ‘veil.’ I am only one person, and everything that I think and do is informed by being an educated, white, middle-class woman. So I try to listen to other people’s experiences. To realize that I see the world only from one vantage point. This means that if a person of color tells me that he or she feels uncomfortable in a situation, I listen. I think, ‘Maybe they see something that I don’t see. Maybe they experience the world in a different way than I do. Maybe I feel comfortable in certain places that others do not because of who I am. Maybe I make assumptions.’”
W.E.B. DuBois said that it is the people without privilege who can see things most clearly. Because the culture of the privileged dominates, the people under its shadow can see both that culture and see their own, but for those of us skimming along the top, the only world we see looks an awful lot like us–and we think it’s the whole world . That’s what DuBois called “the veil.”
I lived behind that veil for five decades. Occasionally the veil would tear a little and I could see something that didn’t quite fit the world as I knew it, or the veil would ripple and for a brief time I could see that the veil was there, but for the most part I lived, as Isabell said, with more choices and less vision. And then for whatever reason it wasn’t enough. As my own experiences brought me closer to people who hadn’t gone to expensive colleges, who hadn’t been cushioned in financial security, who hadn’t grown up inside a protective fence of benign adults, my vision began to clear. I fought it at first; there were things I didn’t want to see. But, bidden or not, the spectrum of visible light expanded and a new landscape, both internal and external, presented itself to me. Then, even stranger, as my vision cleared some corresponding thing deep inside me began to uncramp and stretch. It was almost as though I underwent my own little private Copernican revolution: when I and the people just like me stopped being the center of the universe, the universe got bigger.
So what do you do when the universe expands? You change. I changed. I changed, and this collective house is one of the results. I didn’t want to waste any more energy trying to believe that the sun and the planets revolved around me, which is just another way of saying I no longer wanted the kind of power that comes with being at the top of the heap. Ultimately that’s a very lonely kind of power. I no longer wanted power over. I wanted power with. So I suppose in a way Silas is correct—I turned my house into a collective house because I didn’t want to grow old alone in the cushy uneasy aloneness that leads to gated communities and averted eyes and “they hate us for our freedoms.”
Sunday nights we take turns fixing dinner for each other, and often that’s the night we invite guests over, but on a particular Sunday night a couple of weeks ago it happened that it was just the house members eating. We kept sitting after we had finished eating, just sitting around the living room talking. After a while Mark picked up his homemade bass, the body constructed of two trash can lids, and started to play. Jodi went into her room and brought out her banjo and joined in. Crystal went upstairs and got her accordion, Will brought out an African drum, Skye got her violin. I was the only without an instrument. I’m not a musician, but I went into the kitchen and found a pair of tongs, and snapped a whispery accompaniment to the others.
As we played the odd assortment of instruments began to mesh, and then Crystal began to sing—she’s got a deep rich voice like an old fashioned lounge singer—no words, just tone. Then Skye and I joined in, singing long low notes that I could feel vibrating in my chest. I don’t know how long it went on, twenty minutes, forty minutes, an hour. And then it was over, and everyone put their instruments away, and I put the tongs back in the pitcher on the stove, and we all went on to whatever else we had to do.
Oh Silas, it was glorious. I wish you could have been there.
The poster above is from CrimethInc. The image is by Nikki McClure, cut from a single piece of paper with an X-acto knife!