Monday, May 1, 2017

on being happy and guilty


2017. I've had such a beautiful, blessed, sprawling life so far: twenty-three privileged years of being white and wealthy and loved and safe. 

There was public school in suburbia. A Bachelor's degree. An apartment with a hot tub.

Parents who came to all my guitar recitals and poetry readings and choir concerts and who showed up for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Timberline Middle School six nights in a row when I was playing Potiphar's Sexy Maid in 8th grade. Parents who read Faulkner and Steinbeck and Brontë and Dickens and Le Guin. Parents who took me to church on Sundays and picked me up from Kaitlyn's house late at night and drove me all over Utah County. Parents who fed me whole wheat bread and never smoked crack cocaine or whatever.

A big rock house in the middle of an old naturalist artist's community from the 1970s surrounded by woods and weeds and sunflowers and sage brush. A romping, rolling fairy wildlife as my childhood: deer and raccoons and scrub jays, the dirty foothills behind the house, a hot black trampoline in the summer. Air-conditioning. Land Rovers and Jeeps and Jimmys. Rescuing little hurt baby things from the rough wildnerness of my neighborhood: premature kittens and a squirrel with a broken leg and a pair of tiny, raw-looking starlings that rode from California to Utah in the hood of an old John Deere tractor and died after a few days. My dad drawing cartoons in his wood-smelling studio and watching Bonanza and Gunsmoke at lunchtime. My mom making big, cheeky, panoramic art quilts and winning blue ribbons for them. My dad showing me Harryhausen films and The X-Files and The Twilight Zone and Raising Arizona. My brother coming in dirty from soccer, or tennis, or whatever. My mom baking elaborate loaves of bread and sketching in a notebook when she got bored at church. My dad playing Scarborough Fair on the guitar downstairs when I was falling asleep at night. My brother reading Garth Nix and Hellboy and Brandon Sanderson. My mom playing Carol King loudly when she cleaned.

I, like, skied as a kid. I had a family where everyone just went to college like it was no problem. Everyone loves each other so, so much. We all call each other just to talk. My mom always buys the Girl Scout Cookie cupcakes I like on my birthday. My dad is working on Curious George. Me and Dylan are both writing novels. My sister-in-law just directed a production of The Jungle Book. Everyone is happy, and weird, and wonderful.

So I'm bragging about my sunny, pastoral life ad nauseam. The thing I'm attempting to convey is less gloating and more bewilderment. More bafflement. More astonished, astounded, eye-blinking/eye-rubbing, dazed wandering through the halcyon sunbeam of everything that has essentially just been handed over to me randomly and reasonlessly. I was basically just plonked unceremoniously into a dreamscape with all the lovely, wonderful things I could've ever needed or wanted. I can't even believe my own buck-wild luckiness.

I'm graduating from college with a Film degree (eye-roll) and a Creative Writing minor (eye-roll) and a Women's Studies minor (mm, I'm not eye-rolling this one). I spend every single day with Hunter Phillips, who is ambitious and easygoing and gracious and brilliant.

Here's Hunter: tall, leggy, left-handed, an American citizen, a Mormon convert. A movie-watcher. A dog owner. Currently reading Flanner O'Connor. Full of political/global angst. Lover of The West. Honest and upstanding and sexy in a vaguely cartoony way. A feminist. Hunter Phillips has promised me a Boston Terrier. Dating Hunter is like dating Abraham Lincoln. I wish we were all dating Hunter.

I'm healthy and young and basically graduated from college. Nothing scary under my bed. I'm neurotic and anxious and moody and full of venom -- I've been heartbroken and depressed and scared and self-conscious and a lot of other unhappy things -- but my life is essentially good.

I don't believe that I've ever done anything to deserve the life I have more than someone else. I truly think this was all bonkers, stupid luck -- and that stresses me out so much. There are better people than me living in worse conditions, in unhappier circumstances, and in tragedy.

I want to talk about the weird guilt of being #blessed.

I think it's important to note that I'm not just talking about pure, simple happiness in this post, I'm talking broadly about happiness + privilege. Being able to live so freely and with so few social dangers is a product of being born white and upper middle class in Utah. There are certain luxuries, liberties, and securities that I get to take advantage of simply because I'm not part of a marginalized minority -- and let me make it explicitly clear that the privileges that I have because I'm straight and white and cisgender and have wealthy American parents are unfair and the fact that my quality of life is better because of this privilege is wrong and sinister and it is a giant problem that the entire world is facing right now.

Here's what I think is the closest thing you can get to Making Up For It: freakin' spreading the wealth and sacrificing hard for those who aren't as arbitrarily lucky as you. It's not settling into the charmed, cheerful goodness of being safe and prosperous and healthy and just watching it pan out before you greedily, accumulating more and more privilege to the point where you can't identify with or really even recognize those who are in the midst of The Struggle. And I'm not just talking about donating to women's shelters or the WWF or putting in long hours at the local food bank -- although these things are all wonderful and noble and necessary, and we do need to be serving in these capacities. But I'm talking about just the regular scope of your everyday life. You on Twitter. You in statistics class. You at the mall. There's a certain way to weaponize your own privilege against privilege. Learn to engage in productive discussions about privilege/disadvantage and speak up against problematic behaviors and ideologies; learn to step aside when it's time for someone else -- someone who doesn't have the same built-in entitlement that you do -- to enter a space of success or authority that maybe doesn't include you for once. Maybe it isn't our ("our" meaning those of us who are wealthy and straight and white and whatever else) time to harvest wildly and overwhelmingly anymore. What we're hoping is that the millennium-long tyranny of Straight White Males can finally end and that women, PoC, the LGBT+ community, everyone that didn't have it so easy, can finally be in a position to experience the kind of freedom and safety and general quality of life that we've been taking advantage of for so, so long. It isn't about reversing the oppression dynamic so that all straight white people will be oppressed the way minorities have been for centuries -- it's about fixing the oppression dynamics altogether so that antiquated systems of hate and degradation and bias won't have to exist at all.

So it's about moving aside and not taking all the easiest routes every time. It's about letting other people have some of what you have, and not hoarding every good thing for yourself. It's about not getting everything first and best and only

One thing that I feel very strongly is that there is enough bounty, enough delight, enough joy to go around, but the world has been taught to be selfish. I don't think that sacrificing and working for other people is a means of letting go of the gifts and pleasures that you already have, it's more of a way to broaden and expand them, and to let other people fit inside your privileged circle of safety and good fortune.

I live in luxury and abundance, gluttony even. The thing that I'm trying to better is to make it so other people don't have to have such a hard time because my good, easy life.


"My head cocked toward the sky, I cannot get off the ground." (James Tate)
-Avery Jalaine