Thursday, November 12, 2015

Operation Dmitry, or Why the F*** Am I Really Moving Across the Country?


Im writing this from a Barnes and Noble café in Omaha NE. The only Barnes and Noble café Ive ever been in where there are no wall outlets for people using laptops. And for someone like me who hates writing on a deadline this isn't helping. I keep glancing at the power light on my Lenovo laptop and waiting for it to go out midsentence.

Not exactly roughing it, I get that. If no free electricity is the worst indignity I suffer out here I'll consider myself lucky. Thus far the trip has been without major incident but not without its share of interesting moments and people. My hope is that this trip, is not a new life, or a better me, but a change.

What I am seeking here is something a little more complex, a little more human. For reasons that I hope will eventually reveal themselves I see this journey and my destination and my new life(whatever that may be) as something that has to be constructed.

Believe me, I’m fully aware of the folly of escaping to a new and better me. It never works, I've tried it before. Wherever you go, there you are. With all your anxieties and neuroses, and baggage. You open the door to a new apartment and there, in the bathroom mirror, is the same face, the one that is trying to escape the consequences of his mistakes. He's follows you and shaking his head says "Looks like you fucked up again."

That is not what this is. I am ok with taking myself with me this time. Actually, this time, I like myself more. IM more forgiving of myself because I have learned to forgive some of the people who've done damage to me(specifics on who and what later). And I've recognized the damage I've done as mistakes, not the product of an ill, meanspirited, or malevolent will. Im not trying to construct a new me. Im not trying to escape the fallout from the mistakes and bad choices.

What I am doing is leaving something I've participated in that I've come to understand as deeply destructive, to myself and society as a whole: Mass Incarceration. As always, these major decisions of mine start with a book. I don’t substitute a book for experience, but I often find that a book helps put some experiences in a light where the truth of them, their sources and consequences, cannot be denied. Such is the case with Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. After finishing that book, I realized with a brutal shock that depressed me for a month, then angered me, and finally roused me to action.

As I've mentioned here before, I came to realize I participated in a system as bad as Apartheid, all in the name of "The War on Drugs." I saw hundreds of juveniles incarcerated, whom I taught English and Reading to, whose only real crime was poverty. I came to see that though I tried to do what I imagined was "the right thing," getting them to cognitively look at their behaviors, and accept the "criminality" of their actions, but I was instead furthering a system that continued to marginalize them, continued to deprive them of basic human rights and needs. I tried to take their simple language of human needs, for food, shelter, safety, health care, etc, and reprogram it to "thinking errors," and "deviant thinking."

After reading Chris Hedges book, Wages of Rebellion, I learned that one of the most powerful things I can do is simply walk away. Simply choose not to participate in all of this. Simply refuse to perpetuate this. The basic equation came down to despite the best of intentions, I was simply making their lives worse, not better. They should have had the full benefit of a whole host of social services. Not handouts. Fuck the republicans and their neoliberal market self righteousness. The people I worked with did not ask for the globalization of shrinking industry and deteriorating government services(all designed to make the populous tear at each other, and make collective action difficult).

All major countries, first world countries, have free health care and a social safety net. The better ones care about their citizens. They realize the government is about not placating a populous with pithy sayings, but generating real productive and fulfilling lives.

So I walked away.

Im not doing it anymore. Im done with it. If the most significant thing in my power to do to change this system is to limit my ability to further it then so be it. I've accepted that Im not going to be wealthy or affluent. I only have a Bachelor's Degree in English. And my teaching license probably won't transfer to other states (I'm now in a frame of mind where I see our school systems as a fast track for mass incarceration anyway and its something else I don’t want to participate in).

There aren't really many places in my home town area to work besides in the prison system, or the hospitals(and I hate blood and opened up human beings) So this move to the west coast, specifically Portland or Seattle, is an attempt on my part to get to an environment that is more nourishing and helpful. If I work in food service, or in some retail store, so be it. Not what I dreamed my life would be, but so it is.

I've called this entry, and my program, Operation Dmitry. The reference is to my favorite novel: The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky. For those of you who haven't read it, and are planning on reading it, some spoilers follow. But please stay with me and keep reading because this is the main reason for my move.

Dimitry Karamazov is the violent son of a wealthy landowner in czarist Russia. He is a military man, and quick with his fists. He beats his father in front of witnesses, but the old man is wicked and provoked him. He is accused, over the course of the novel, of killing his father, and stands trial. He is convicted(though he is innocent) and receives a sentence of hard labor in Siberia. His brothers, Alyosha and Ivan, know he is innocent and plan to bribe government officials and spirit Dmitry out of the country to America. Though Dmitry can be a violent man, they know his "soul" wont survive incarceration.

Dmitry agrees to the plan and the woman he loves, a prostitute named Grushenka, agrees to go with him. Dmitry feels his violent life has brought this judgement down on him and he accepts how out of control he was. At the end of the novel Alyosha, the wisest and most spiritual of the brothers, says to Dmitry as he is awaiting transport:

"Listen, brother, once and for all,' he said 'here are my thoughts about it. And you know very well I won't lie to you. Listen, then: You're not ready, and such a cross is not for you. Moreover, unready as you are, you don't need such a great martyr's cross. If you had killed father, I would regret that you rejected your cross. But you're innocent, and such a cross is too much for you. You wanted to regenerate another man in yourself through suffering; I say just remember that other man always, all your life, and wherever you escape to-and that is enough for you…and through this constant feeling from now on, all your life you will do more for your regeneration than if you were there(in prison).
-The Brothers Karamazov, pg 764, Pevear and Volokhonsky Translation.

"I say just remember that other man always, all your life, and wherever you escape to-and that is enough for you."

That is why I left, and am looking for a new place to live. If I would have stayed in that job, in that area, I would have forgotten that other man. The job was violent, and it was too easy, at the end of every day, to simply see it as us versus them, the criminals versus the citizens. Too easy to perpetuate the system. Financial needs being what they are, it would have been simple and easy to just let go of what I knew in my bones to be true, and bought a house, a better car, and eventually, lose myself. Lose what I cared about. Lose my capacity for right and wrong. That is why I am left.

So. This is what Operation Dmitry is. This is the plan. Ive saved some money and can take some time until I figure out what's what and where I want to be. But I don’t want to ever lose sight of That Other Man again. And I did, for a long time. I lost the vision of myself as a good man. And that is what I want to regain and hang on to. And I believe crazy Uncle Fyodor is right.

-Dmitry Karamazov