Sunday, March 20, 2011

WHY I USED NOT TO VOTE AND AM NOW GOING TO START

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK,
WYOMING, MONTANA, IDAHO
Recently a correspondent who, how can I put this, does not give the impression of being COMPLETELY in my corner, e-mailed and said, “Just for the record, may I ask if you voted last Tuesday?”

My first thought was: Record? What record? What have you and your hate-mongering leftist friends got a dossier on me?

My second was: None of your [I’m-trying-not-to-swear-for-Lent-ing] business.

My third was: Just for the record, who are you to go around demanding that other people give an account of themselves? Why don't you try giving one of yourself?.

I'm holding those thoughts, but I also realized I'm actually happy to share my reflections, such as they are, on voting. Voting is a whole big issue that I have been trying to work through for a long time, and this past couple of weeks I've had a chance to devote some real effort to the subject.

First off, I think you have to come from a place of sorrow and grief for this country—not government, note; country—that I, for one, love so much. I have learned to love my country by walking its streets, its mountains, deserts, prairies, and seashores, by driving across it and back, by myself, twice, by mingling with its people at Motel 6es and Super 8s and truck stops and convenience stores and churches, by seeing their spiritual hunger and knowing it is my hunger.

I love my country not so much as a citizen, but as a friend. When Christ looked out over the city where he would die and said, “O Jerusalem, how often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling,” [Mt. 23:37], he was not talking about the government. He was not talking about the political system. He was talking about the land he loved, about people’s hearts, about the spirit that hovers over a city, or a country, and the people who live in it.

I come from a blue-collar family of, on my father’s side, second-generation Irish. We were Democrats, I guess. My father didn’t talk politics: He recited poetry and tended his tomatoes. He talked the Red Sox, the Pats, the Celts. He was decent to people, he was kind, he did for his neighbors. He said please and thank you. He was for the underdog. He was always whipping out his Boston Globe at the breakfast table to read us some Mike Barnicle piece about a Little League pitcher with leukemia, or a welfare mother who rode the bus to five different jobs to support her kids.

“Geez, imagine that, the poor soul, out in the cold waiting for the bus,” he’d say, shaking his head, and then he’d go off, often out in the bitter cold himself all day, to his job as a bricklayer with which he supported eight kids. “Geez I can't stand a guy who blows his own horn,” he’d say. We were wary of, and gave a wide berth to, “rich people.” We did not feel entitled; we felt grateful for what we had. We felt very, very anxious that we might lose it.  We hid the unspoken knowledge that there perhaps was not quite room for us at the inn of the "American dream" with humor.

ORGAN PIPE NATIONAL MONUMENT,
ARIZONA
I grew up during the ‘60s and ‘70s. I was friends with people who were very active politically: who campaigned for McGovern, who organized the Clamshell Alliance, who maintained a years-long resistance to the building of the Seabrook (New Hampshire) power plant. I went along, and I certainly agreed with their stance as far as it went, and when I got old enough to vote, I voted Democrat—of course Democrat, that was never in question—but I always had my eye on some other realm. I always felt some basic half-heartedness towards politics; felt something was wrong with me, and the world, that no amount of political change could fix.

I went on to lead a very different life than most of my peers, past and present. I hitch-hiked across country, wandered around the streets of Boston in blackouts, had sex with strangers, experienced degradation, humiliation, poverty. I lived for years in a sort of glorified Skid Row hotel. This has given me a certain resident-alien psychic slant, a closeness to the edge, a deep awareness of my own propensity to sin. It also in a sense has given me less to lose. I don’t in any way mean I don’t care what people think of me. I care deeply, and I also deeply want to contribute. But I am maybe less concerned with appearances, with stepping outside the lines. I had already stepped as far as I could go, in the worst possibly way, by being an active alcoholic. I have lived outside the grid, in one way or another, for most of my life.

In spite of my many egregiously wrong turns, I have also always had a deep hunger for the truth. I think that was what enabled me, after I got sober and started working as a lawyer, to find my way to Christ. As misguided as my going to law school turned out to have been, I hadn’t chosen the law entirely by accident. I had always wanted to know "how things worked." And when I discovered the the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court didn't any more know how the world really worked than a Skid Row drunk--in fact, he probably knew less--suddenly I didn’t care if people thought I was stupid or crazy for starting to believe in God. I had lived a lie for so long as an alcoholic that I had an almost frantic distaste for, aversion to, cultural lies. I was, and still am, unclear on much else, but I was strangely clear on what mattered, what master I wanted to serve. I had a very strange kind of true north compass that came to me completely unbidden and that I simply know in the depths of my soul was the truth and that was Christ.

One of the reasons I was drawn to Christ was that right away, I saw he was so not a politician or a lawyer or a social worker. He said, “Pray to your heavenly Father: he knows what you need. He said, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all will be given unto you.” He said, “Regard the lilies of the field.” Every time I'd hear another rant from some blowhard, self-serving politician or commentator (which wasn't often as I don't watch TV), I'd think:
We have in our day no prince, prophet, or leader, no holocaust, sacrifice, oblation, or incense, no place to offer first fruits, to find favor with you. (Daniel 3: 38)
I'd grope to think of a prince, prophet or leader, and the only person I could come up with was the unquestionably great Martin Luther King, Jr. Which only proved my point, because MLK was a preacher, not a politician. As Clarence Jordan, another visionary Baptist who established a community called the Koinonia Farm during the civil rights struggle in the 1950's and 60's, observed :

GLACIER NATIONAL PARK,
MONTANA
"The thing that just burns my heart out is that the Supreme Court is making pagans more Christian than the Bible is making Christians Christians. The whole integration struggle is being fought not in the household of God but in the buses, depots and around the Woolworth tables in arguments about whether or not we can sit down and eat hamburgers and drink cokes together. We ought to be sitting around Jesus' table drinking wine and eating bread together...The sit-ins never would have been necessary if Christians had been sitting down together in church and at Christ's table all these many years."

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a piece called "Why I Avoid Both the Catholic Right and the Catholic Left" in which I groped to articulate what Jordan did in the quote above (which I just found, btw, on a blog called Blue Eyed Ennis). Clearly, Christ is intimately, vitally concerned with "politics" in the sense of how we are to live, and how we are to live with each other. The problem for me is that politics provides no model or example or paradigm within which to explore the question of how we are to live. Clearly, you don't roll over and play dead. You don’t sit around doing nothing. You don’t say Wake me up when it’s over. You notice everything, and you reflect day and night upon the word of God, and you labor silently, hiddenly, ceaselessly. You examine your conscience, you see how often you make people into enemies, how your heart is hardened, you devote your entire life, to it smallest hour, your memory, intellect, understanding, and will, to trying to change, to fostering inner peace, and after awhile you see, “We are sowing the seeds but we are not living in harvest time,” as Dorothy Day said.

In my case you see, Oh okay, the law is based not on justice but on power, the medical system is based not on patients but on insurance companies, politics is based not on promoting the cause of the people but on promoting the causes of the politicians. And then you think no more about it. You don't go over the malfeasance again and again, continuing to be shocked, continuing to be outraged, continuing to think that any real transformative change is going to happen there. You simply walk around it. You proceed to order your life around a completely different paradigm.

For me, that paradigm, as I said, is the Person of Christ. Capitalism is built on the notion of scarcity, of not enough to go around. Christianity is about needing less and being willing to share more. Capitalism is built on war: the war on cancer, the war on drugs, the war against terrorism, the war to end all wars that, as a child could have predicted, only paved the way for more war. Christianity is built on non-violent sacrifice. Capitalism is based on the accumulation of money. Christianity is built—politically, economically, philosophically, sociologically, psychologically, spiritually—on the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. Capitalism is built on the sentiment of Caiaphas as he urged the Jews to sentence Christ to die: “You do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.” [John 11: 49] It is better that one should die than many." Christianity is based on the notion of the infinite worth of a single human soul.

HOT SPRINGS NATIONAL PARK
ARKANSAS
I’m not anti-politics, or anti-government, I simply consider both utterly, utterly irrelevant to the formation of my conscience and at least as much to the point, my imagination. I do not look to the government for guidance or enlightenment or moral instruction or any kind of inspiration. I don’t for a moment expect politicians to tell the truth, to do what they’re pledged to do, or to act with integrity. I know there are many who do and my hat is off to them. I know there are lawyers, to whom I bow in homage, who have devoted years of their lives to, say, getting prisoners off Death Row. But truth and integrity are not values our culture treasures or even recognizes. A lawyer’s job is to “shade” the truth, stretch the truth, withhold, maneuver, manipulate, lie. That is what our culture values. That is what we admiringly call “learning to play by the rules.”

So while I don’t look to the government for guidance, I don’t sit around complaining about the government either. I haven’t been able to afford even the most minimal catastrophic health insurance for years, for example. But it has never occurred to me to complain about that, or rail about that, or consider that an outrage that must be addressed. I would like to have health insurance. If affordable health insurance came to be, I would happily and gratefully avail myself of it. But I don’t consider myself entitled to health insurance. Why should I have access to medical care when a billion people in the world are not only uninsured, but hungry?

Also, I made a conscious decision many years ago to quit a job about which I was morally ambivalent (and which I loathed), that had security and benefits, in order to embark upon what I knew full well would be the precarious life of a writer. I never expected to be shielded from the possible consequences of my decision. I never expected the U.S. Government, of all “people,” to take up the slack. It would be nice to have universal health care. It would be nice if the government recognized the contribution of artists and gave us a tax break or whatever, but I do not for a minute expect a government whose economy is based on war, that tortures, kills, maims, executes, and cruelly and unusually imprisons, that sends unmanned military drones that have an unfortunate tendency to pick off stray civilians, that in August, 1945, incinerated hundreds of thousands of innocent Japanese—I guess that showed the world how to pursue happiness!—is going to institute universal health care except because it is going to primarily benefit a few rich people who already have way WAY more than their share, and only secondarily the rest of us.

I kept thinking of Christ when he said “Say yes when you mean yes and no when you mean no. Anything more comes from the evil one.” [Mt. 5: 37] The rub, when it came to voting, was that I couldn’t figure out how to not do violence to myself. I couldn't figure out a way to vote and not in some way say yes when I meant no and no when I really meant yes. How could I vote for the candidate who happened to be against abortion but was also a warmonger? How could I vote for a candidate who was for universal health care but also for embryonic stem cell research, selective abortion, and reproductive “rights”? The very inconsistency not only cast doubt on the motive behind the "good" portion of the platform, but created a situation in which to say yes when I meant yes and no when I meant no was impossible.

(Christ also said not to take oaths. "Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.' But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. [Mt. 5: 33-35] In fact, I recently resigned from the State Bar of California because I no longer wanted to be bound by an oath that required me to uphold the U.S. Constitution.)

ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK,
COLORADO
At any rate, for much of the 14 years I was married I had my husband (who was the son of a plumber-electrician and had enough of the same basic values I did so I knew I could trust him)  fill out my ballot. I’d take the sample ballot to  to the polling place and fill it out half the time without even looking. I wasn't exactly proud of the fact, but I didn't hide it either, and in fact would often trumpet it to my  friends as a sign of my hopeless hypocrisy and sloth. But truth to tell, I didn't really feel that hypocritical. My dereliction of citizenly duty, if any, lay not so much in my lackluster approach to voting, I felt, but in not having the balls to be a prisoner of conscience for having crossed the line at the School of the Americas in Georgia or the Nevada testing site or at an abortion clinic: not as a political action, not because I’d be trying to get people to vote a certain way, but because I'd long for the conversion of hearts. My dereliction of duty lay in the fact that I'd been so absorbed in work that for weeks, I hadn't had anyone over for dinner. 

Finally, though, I realized the more honest tack would be not to vote at all, and so for a couple of years, I didn't. I spent the first 6 months of 2010 on the road and when I returned to L.A. last July, I never registered at my new address.

All other things being equal, I like to make people happy. I like to go along with the program. I’m happy, eager even, to participate. I’m not an agitator, or a revolutionary, but at the same time I simply don’t buy any of it. I don’t buy that we are one nation, under God. I don’t buy that money, success, and an ipad are going to make me happy. I don't buy that an Afghani mother or a German mother or a Japanese mother mother doesn't grieve just as much over her soldier son who's killed as an American mother. I don’t buy that Sarah Palin is who you get if you don’t vote. I buy that Sarah Palin is who you get when you engage in the ceaseless vitriol and contempt that passes in our culture for political discussion. The kind of talk doesn’t destroy Sarah Palin; that kind of talk creates Sarah Palin.

Nonetheless, I gladly cooperate every way I can. I return my library books on time, refrain from littering, stop at red lights. I file my taxes (even though I made so little money last year my total tax bill was $7). “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” My impulse is to say I owe nothing to Caesar and everything to God. And yet, I take advantage of the roads, the libraries, the airports, the national parks. That is why the idea of paying no taxes, as a matter of principle, has always bothered me. I can’t escape the fact that I'm complicit in the suffering of the world. I can't escape that to enjoy the benefits of a government that does so much violence, that so inequitably distributes its wealth, that deals in greed and death, is to automatically be complicit in the violence. I can do penance. I can pray. I can make so little money that I don’t owe any taxes.

I can take a walk. I believe to take a walk through our heart-wrenchingly beautiful city is an action. Now there are different ways you can take a walk. You can take a walk in order to detest life even more than you already do. You can take a walk with hatred in your heart for the purpose of building up a case against humanity, the government, the cretins who don’t vote the way you do, the apathetic drones who don’t “bother” to vote at all. You can walk solely (partially's okay) for the purpose of having a hot body and the hope of getting lots of sex.

ACADIA NATIONAL PARK,
MAINE
But if you take a walk with love, out of gratitude, for the sky, the stars, your legs, your life, noticing the flowers, smiling at people even though they mostly don’t smile back: I believe that is an action. It is based on an entire way of seeing the world, of being in the world, of our purpose in the world. I believe to meditate on the word of the Lord day and night is an action. I believe that to write, if writing is your calling, is a major, major action. I believe, along with the anonymous author of The Way of a Pilgrim that “The silent contemplatives are like pillars supporting the devotion of the church by their secret continuous prayer.”

At the same time, I’m deeply mindful of the spiritual peril of in any way thinking I am separate from or different from than the rest of humanity (which is another reason why I am a passionate adherent of Church).  I participate in all kinds of other communities besides the political community, but I still can’t hide a bad motive, whether it’s sloth, willful indifference, pride, self-righteousness or sheer contrariness under a supposedly good one. To say politics doesn’t go deeply enough is not to say I don’t also have an obligation to participate by voting, especially if obedience dictates.

So I finally consulted the Church--the authority to which I do look for guidance, enlightenment, and inspiration--and this is what I found.

Cathechism of the Catholic Church

"2239 It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. The love and service of one’s country [N.B. not one’s government or one’s political system] follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity. Submission to legitimate authorities and service of the common good require citizens to fulfill their roles in the life of the political community.

2240 Submission to authority and co-responsibility for the common good make it morally obligatory to pay taxes, to exercise the right to vote, and to defend one's country:

Pay to all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. [Rom 13: 7]

           [Christians] reside in their own nations, but as resident aliens. They participate in all things as citizens and endure all things as foreigners...They obey the established laws and their way of life surpasses the laws...So noble is the position to which God has assigned them that they are not allowed to desert it. [Ad Diognetum 5, 5 and 10; 6, 10: PG 2, 1173 and 1176.]

At the same time:

2242 The citizen is obliged in conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospel. Refusing obedience to civil authorities, when their demands are contrary to those of an upright conscience, finds its justification in the distinction between serving God and serving the political community. 'Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.' [Mt 22: 21]."

Our highest duty, in other words, is to our conscience. The Papal encyclical Gaudiem et Spes (which is crammed with all kinds of other interesting stuff about civic duties) corroborates the ascendancy of conscience, while also likewise noting: “All citizens, therefore, should be mindful of the right and also the duty to use their free vote to further the common good.”

Of course we all have different ideas as to what constitutes “the common good.” Here’s what I think would be for the common good: about a year-long period of national mourning for the hideous, hideous violence we have perpetrated, here and abroad, since our country’s founding; a deep examination of conscience: collective, personal, national, universal.

JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK,
CALIFORNIA
I’m not holding my breath, though. And in the meantime, taking all of the above into account, I see I have been derelict in my duty. I had let the din of the haters, the scorners, the bulliers drown out my quiet wonder at the way things generally run smoothly enough to allow me to go about my day; my gratitude for the vast army of unsung folks--sanitation workers, teachers, firemen, gardeners, park rangers--who keep things afloat: locally, state-wide, nationally. So the other day I sent off a registration application for my new address and from now on, I am pledged to vote.

I’ll take my conscience with me. If I can’t say yes when I mean yes and no when I mean no, I’ll leave that box blank. I’ll take a sample ballot I filled out myself.  I’ll take a heart that I’ll pray is pure: not begrudging but joyful, not in opposition to but in solidarity with, not hateful but hopeful.

And most of all I’ll take my father: who was decent, and courteous, and funny, and kind; who for 40 years laid brick to support his wife and kids. Who loved to take a ride along the ocean, and point out the first maple turning in fall. Who didn’t talk much about politics, but whose heart bled for the boy with leukemia. Who always had a quip for the guy at the gas station. Who never forgot the welfare woman on the bus.

Whose own account is recorded in a dossier not of this world: who took not more than his share--but less.

7 comments:

  1. Wow, Heather...that was a great piece!!! THANKS!
    I have always voted, but have never been able to bring myself to register as either a Republican or Democrat. I'm 53 so I can make this claim honestly...i.e. before it became "politically correct" among some on the right to make themselve independent of the Republican party.

    'Also liked your piece on the Catholic right vs. left. Thanks for that too!

    But perhaps more than anything, I LOVE your Dad!!! ;-)...mine too! Thank goodness and God for the gentle & wise good men in our lives. I can't think of anything that impresses me more in this world... and perhaps there's nothing we need more these days, now that I think of it.

    Thanks Again,
    Sophia

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  2. I concur wholeheartedly with what Sophia says! This is an extraordinarily thoughtful piece, and it comes at a time when I'm pondering my own peculiar state of political homelessness, at least in terms of presidential politics. I'm not apathetic, and I do note important differences between the two parties -- but can I vote for a major-party presidential candidate without in some way -- as you and the Gospels say -- blurring the line between "yes" and "no", between life and death?

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  3. Thank you for posting this (and everything else you write). You always make me think and usually make me smile.

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  4. I agree with Jay, you always make me think, and usually make me smile. I look forward each day to reading your pieces. I can't thank the Concord pastor enough for having your link on his website--you make me a better person. Thanks

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  5. Oh, that phrase, "resident alien." So apt. I have deep respect for the American women who were beaten by police (and a few who even died) so that I could have the right to vote. So I am a regular voter -- but I hate having to choose a candidate, since each party espouses such egregious positions on caring for the pooor, gun control, abortion, capital punishment, etc. I think I do expect politics to be better than it is, and I'm often disappointed. Thanks for this thoughtful piece.
    Nancy

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  6. Thank you so much, all: for plowing through that lengthy piece, for responding with charity and love.

    Barb, as you know, I especially love you. Yours is a voice, though yours is kinder and less shrill, I hear frequently, from both within and outside the Church. It's the voice that basically says, “If you were a really good Catholic, or human being, you’d be doing such-and-such. If you had the courage of your convictions, you’d be voicing them the way I and my friends do.”

    Anybody who regularly reads my blog will know that I abhor abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, poverty and war; that I believe we are called, whatever our station, to order our lives around the sanctity of the family: mother, father, if possible children. They will know that I love the Church, and her teachings, as my Mother.

    In a way, I'm really "arguing for" vocation. I’m really trying to get across my burn-me-at-the-stake belief that writing matters, absolutely: saves lives, helps redeem lives, converts hearts. I therefore can't think that it is in any way a failure of conviction to spend 30 to 40 to 50 hours a week, week after week, month after month, year after year, trying to learn my craft for what works out, since the early '90s when I began, to be somewhere around minimum wage.

    I would not dream of telling people that they, too, should order their lives to writing, or to the kind of writing I do. I believe no-one COULD do the particular kind of writing I do, because that is the peculiar little mission to which I've been called, and to which I try to remain faithful even though it has meant great loneliness, great precariousness, great financial uncertainty, and very little emotional support or validation.

    Of course we are all called to live out and in our ways proclaim the truths of the Church and the life, death and resurrection of Christ. One person’s way might be to picket abortion clinics. Another’s might be to befriend a pregnant mother.

    My way was to spend three months last year writing a personal essay about my own experience with and healing from abortion. I HOPE to sell the piece, but I may not, in which case I would probably post it as a good-will offering on my blog, as I have been posting pieces since last August. Pieces from which, by the way, I don't stand to gain a whole lot from either my liberal friends or from my conservative adversaries. Pieces in which I try to get across "Wouldn't it be great if we all acted like Christ?" instead of "Wouldn't it be great if everyone acted like me?"

    I could point out that my life and work take a certain kind of courage, determination, discipline, and passion. I could point out the strength required to exercise restraint of tongue and pen when everything in me craves to unleash the kind of vitriol that swirls all around me.

    I could talk about my sorrow that the writing life, the habit of art, is demeaned, devalued, degraded, and diminished, even, perhaps especially among, the "literati;" even, obviously, among my beloved fellow Catholics. I could talk about the pieces I have written for free; the thousands of emails of support, encouragement, commiseration, information-disseminating, to fellow writers and fellow seekers I've sent; the Masses to which I have trudged, weeping, over one more rejection letter, one more editor who up and left without even saying goodbye, one more hate comment, one more $1500 dentist bill or car repair.

    I could talk about all that, but it would never occur to me to because that I found my way to writing is the biggest blessing of my life. I could talk about all that but it would not occur to me to because writing is the pearl of great price for which, in a sense, I sold everything I had. I could talk about all that I’m too floored with gratitude for all the writers, past and present, who have helped convert, and are still converting me.

    And also—like my father—I kind of can't stand a guy who blows his own horn.

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  7. I have a friend who, quite literally, sold everything she had and is now working for Christ's Hope International doing HIV/AIDS education and caring for the sick and dying. That was her pearl of great price, and her family especially doesn't get it. I am so grateful to have found your blog, and look forward to reading your books. I am grateful that you followed the particular calling on your life. And your dad is cool.
    Nancy

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