Fish Out of Water

A MediaMouse.org reader shares her thoughts on life and the question of boycotting the Grand Rapids Press.

Advertisements

Every day, the Grand Rapids Press lands on my front step and I wince as I scan the headlines, steel myself to read the letters on the editorial page, and grit my teeth over the incessant selection of the conservative, cute, and upbeat over pressing issues that are glossed over or ignored entirely. Sometimes my reaction to the Press is more visceral. That was the case when, after reading online about a racist DVD that was being distributed for free in local newspapers, that very item turned up in the Sunday supplements of my own paper. I was so upset I nearly threw up.

On that day, and on so many other days, I go through the same cycle of thought. “Should I cancel my subscription? Should I attempt to get all of my friends to boycott this awful newspaper? Or is it my duty to keep plowing through this day after day, reading the editorials disguised as news stories and the hate-mongering letters and the chirpy ‘local interest’ stories?” I never come up with an adequate answer for myself. I write letters, as I did about the DVD, which rarely get published (if they published all the letters I write, there would be one at least every week). I find myself looking more and more for alternate source of the news, but I continue to get the Press.

My anger/despair relationship with the Press sometimes seems to me to be emblematic of my life in general. I have found myself swimming against the current my entire life, never finding a place that felt entirely mine. I spent my childhood and adolescence as an outsider in my own social class, growing up in one of the wealthiest areas of the state and feeling like I probably had been dropped down the wrong chimney by the stork. As a child, I was constantly giving away my possessions to anyone who looked like they might need a scarf, a stuffed animal, or a pair of mittens more than I did, knowing that behind me was an endless sea of replacement items that never seemed to diminish. Each time I left the house, my nanny would do an inventory of what I was wearing and carrying, and she was lucky to get me back home again with half of what I’d left with. One time she led me through a museum for about a half-hour before she noticed that I was barefoot, having given my shoes away to a little girl while I waited in the entry hall.

By the time I was in high school, my parents were seriously worried. In the summers, when my peers were water-skiing and taking tennis lessons, I was boarding buses and scraping paint off of inner-city houses, or teaching crafts (at which I was hilariously bad) to kids in a daycare program downtown. I was constantly missing important events like the yacht club regatta or the Friday night dances at the country club, and enduring many lectures as a result. One time my mother gravely explained to me that if I continued to refuse to take golf lessons, some day I would not be ready when the wife of my husband’s boss wanted me to play golf with her, and his promotion might hang in the balance. I sat listening to her as if she was sending a transmission from Mars, because she and I were on such different planets by that time that we could barely hear each other.

Most of the students I went to high school with channeled their parents’ beliefs and social style without examination, and although I had grown up with them, I was constantly astonished by their behavior. One time, a distinguished scholar came to our school to talk to us about the history of school busing and the continuation of civil rights struggles in Michigan education. After he finished speaking, the president of the National Honor Society raised his hand and told the speaker that if he had any notions of bringing “his people” to our community, he would be sorry he’d ever been born. That same student asked me out the next week, and I told him I’d rather eat ground glass. At the end of my senior year, I was selected for two senior “awards”: Best Smile and Worst Debutante. (Yes, I went to a school where “Best Debutante” was a highly prized honor.) My mother was not amused.

I longed for the escape of college, but by the time I was sixteen my father had died and my mother was unfortunately in charge of the money, including my education fund. She decided that, in order to save me from myself, the drastic step of sending me to the most conservative college she could find was necessary. I ended up going to Hope College. This was only moving her square peg from one round hole to another, but my mother didn’t realize it at the time. My life among the WASPs ended and my life among the evangelicals began.

My mother had had no encounters in her life with Calvinism, and neither had I, so I was completely unprepared for what happened next. On one of my first days on campus, I was sitting under a pine tree and a young man sat down next to me and asked me where I’d come from and what church I attended. I told him a little about my background, including the fact that I’d been baptized both a Catholic and an Episcopalian. He asked, “So are you a Christian or a Catholic?”

“Catholics are Christians,” I answered, puzzled.

“No, they’re not,” he said calmly.

“Catholics were the original Christians,” I said, wondering if he’d ever studied any church history.

“Catholics worship idols,” he said. “They are not Christians. Are you Catholic or Protestant?”

“Well,” I answered, “I was basically raised as an Episcopalian, but taught Catholic prayer and tenets. And I’m interested in Catholic liberation theology. But Anglicans are really more part of a Catholic, rather than Protestant, church tradition anyway.”

“Then you’re not a Christian,” he said sadly. “You don’t know Jesus.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Are you sure you do?” I asked.

It was going to be a long four years.

In addition to navigating the labyrinth of right-wing theology in my many required religion courses, I started a number of wars on other fronts during my college years. I helped organize dining-hall protests when it turned out the college food service was not buying supplies in accordance to farm worker union boycotts. When a group of students discovered that the food service was also using student board payments to subsidize large banquets for college donors, my roommate and I went off board for a year in protest. Since there were no cooking facilities in our dorm, we ate a lot of salads and made grilled-cheese sandwiches with our irons, and got really tired of both. Despite a double-major workload, I managed to get onto an advisory board for what were called “campus life issues,” the only real voice that students had in some quite repressive college policies.

My biggest battle, though, as an official fish out of water on campus was over a policy Hope was instituting to hire only “Christian” professors. (Whether they were Christian or not was apparently determined in something of the same manner that I was vetted during my first week on campus). The president of the college at the time tended to insulate himself from students, but I started marching up to his home, ringing the doorbell, and demanding to talk to him about what I considered to be a discriminatory practice. These were long, hard discussions over a period of several years that boiled down to one basic issue–that it was apparently dangerous to have, say, a Buddhist teaching a class on Buddhism when you could hire a Calvinist to offer the Christian perspective instead, a premise with which I vehemently disagreed. This ongoing fight with the president, though private, gained attention on campus. During the opening ceremony for school my senior year, the president said from the pulpit, “I’ve been talking to some students this week,” and several pews’ worth of students turned around to stare at me. A friend of mine leaned over and said, “My God, Kate, have you been to see him already? You’ve only been back for three days!”

But at the end of four years, it seemed to me that, no matter how hard I had fought, nothing had been accomplished. It was a hard lesson, it hurt deeply, and I blamed myself as much as the place I had attempted to change. The food service continued to buy Campbell’s soup and scab grapes; the Campus Life Board continued to out-vote its student members, the “all-Christian faculty” goal was locked into policy and practice. The smooth, conservative waters closed back over the college, unruffled, and it was time for me to swim forward to graduate school.

It was during my time in college that I got my first look at the Grand Rapids Press. I had ignored it during my first two years in West Michigan, but when I was a junior I started dating a man from Grand Rapids. We would go out for breakfast on Sunday mornings with newspapers we bought on the walk to the restaurant: the New York Times for me and the Grand Rapids Press for him. One morning, I asked him if I could look through his paper and leafed through several sections. “This…this is like a cartoon newspaper!” I said.

“It is not,” he said. “What do you mean by that?”

What did I mean, exactly? I struggled to articulate it. “There’s nothing in here,” I said finally.

“It’s twice as big as your newspaper!” he said defensively.

“It is enormous,” I agreed, looking at the sections bloated with baldly edited wire-service stories and weird, comic-book-like illustrations. Although I didn’t want to dis my lover’s hometown to his face, I felt silently thankful that I would never end up living in a place that had such a ridiculous newspaper.

I was headed, I thought, to either New York or Boston for graduate school, but then I gave a poetry reading in Chicago. It was attended by a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who taught in Montana. Later that summer, he called me and asked if I would come and study with him. Montana sounded like an adventure, light years away from both my tennis-and-blazer hometown and my religious-right college. So I voluntarily headed out to yet another place where I really, really did not fit in.

Montana, imbued with its cowboy culture and its virgin-whore view of women, was an uncomfortable place, although not as bad as college. There was not really any overt bigotry mainly because there were almost no minorities–in this way it resembled a whole-state version of my hometown. Religion, apart from some Latter-Day Saints wandering around from door to door, seemed nonexistent. The student body was overwhelmingly White and came largely from ranching towns. I found their views unpredictable, but the most interesting dynamic was a general disinterest in anything not Montanan. Everyone I met could talk knowledgeably about coal taxes, strip mining, and water rights, but appeared to have no interest in foreign policy, foreign wars, or civil rights. One time I started to talk with a fellow student about the Sandinistas, and he said, “Worrying about that won’t get the fences mended.”

After graduate school, I got a job for a year teaching reading and running an elementary-school library in a tiny ranching town near the Canadian border. There I could see what that student had meant. The everyday demands of ranching, of struggling to make ends meet in a hostile environment, of facing everything from deadly blizzards to crop losses to the inability to pay for feed and equipment, tended to blot out outside-world concerns. When my special license from the state ran out, I did not renew it. I headed back to a place where I had contacts for a job–ironically, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

In Grand Rapids, I wasted a lot of time. I worked in a couple of writing jobs for corporations, and found corporate life lucrative but dismal. The largest corporation I worked for was a publisher. It was a job that suited my writing and editing skills but the demands of working 70-hour weeks left little time for any kind of activism. Plus, what I viewed as my failures in college haunted me now that I was back among the radical right again–what was the point of throwing myself against that wall again? And then there was the Grand Rapids Press. I read the letters to the editor declaring that patriots never questioned the President, that God hated gays, that people who supported Roe v. Wade were going to hell, and I would feel demoralized and spent. Sometimes I cancelled my subscription, but I always ended up re-subscribing, because it seemed somehow like part of my job to keep an eye on what was going on, even though I felt I could do little to effect any change and had given up trying. I was keeping my head down.

But eventually I reached a point where change was an absolute necessity. I quit my job, got together the money to go back to school for a paralegal degree, and found work at a civil rights law firm.

The first year, I felt like I could barely catch my breath. I knew that I had been living in a place where people were being persecuted, but until I was inside a place where those people were coming for help, I had no idea of the depth and breadth of the problem. The number of potential cases was overwhelming. The cases we were able to take were heartbreaking. The bravery of the people looking for justice put me to shame. I learned so much from them, and acceptance was one of the most important lessons I learned. One of the best moments of my life came when I was sitting with a client who had been through an exhausting and demeaning deposition by the defense. She broke down and cried. I got her some water. She said, “You know, you’re not like a White person. You don’t look at me the way that White people do.” The fact that she was able, in the midst of the virulent racism she was facing in her case, to see something beyond it brought tears to my eyes.

Along with various Bar Association publications, the Grand Rapids Press was placed in our break room every day. One day, I put it down on the table in disgust and said, “This is a horrible newspaper.”

One of the attorneys said, “Yes, it is. Unfortunately, it’s the only paper we have.”

“I hate reading it,” I said.

She smiled. “Try reading what isn’t there,” she said. “It’s illuminating.”

I tried to take this Zen-like advice to heart. It improved my relationship with the paper, or maybe it just felt that way because I had found an outlet besides resignation. I had an almost boundless energy for my work, and after a year, the firm took me off regular paralegal duties and had me doing case analysis and the drafting of briefs and other documents. The money was terrible, because civil rights is not a high-paying area of law, but I supplemented my wages with freelance writing and scraped together a living. I was still living in the same place, but finally I was doing something of value, was making at least a small dent of change in people’s lives, and I was working with a group of people who saw the world the way that I did.

And then I started to die.

It was a surprise, to say the least, to find out that 35 to 40 years of my life expectancy was going to be lopped off. This time, I became the fish on the dock, gasping for air, diagnosed with a lung condition so rare that only about 350 people in North America have it. The doctors told me I had about eight weeks or so to live.

That was a year and a half ago. Dying slowly is an interesting process, a lot more interesting than I would have thought before I started it. Thinking seems to be my only job these days, as I sort through my various choices in life, looking at connections I didn’t see before. In some ways, I wish I had spent my entire life knowing that I was dying slowly, so I would have acted faster and more decisively at each point in my life. Would I have not allowed my early activism efforts to discourage me so completely? Would I have chosen meaning in work earlier? Would I have spoken more loudly, taken more risks, fought harder? Would I have lived in a place friendlier to my political and social views? Why did I spend my entire life in places where I felt I didn’t belong? And should it really have been my goal to feel like I belonged, to be comfortable? Wasn’t that really the biggest time-waster of all?

One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately in connection with these questions is the year I spent teaching in Montana, and the Hutterite children who I taught there.

The year that I taught in Montana, the state required that Hutterite children who lived near public schools attend them for the first time. The Hutterites are similar to the Amish, except that they live on communal farms and have no personal property. The state sent an educator to our school before classes began to talk to us about Hutterite beliefs and the problems that the state expected when these children arrived for their first days away from their communities. “They will probably be ostracized by the local children,” the educator said. “You’ll have to deal with many awkward moments.”

There were, in fact, awkward moments. On the first day of school, I gave each child who came into the library a bookmark I had made. The first Hutterite child who received one looked at it, and then handed it back politely, because of course he wasn’t allowed to own it. Hutterite children are also taught never to make eye contact with their elders, so whenever I would speak, they would put their hands behind their backs and lower their heads. This made me feel like I was yelling at them instead of, for example, explaining why they might like to read If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.

One day, the little Hutterite girl from the first grade walked into the library during recess and vomited on the floor, and I discovered she was running a high fever. The nurse was absent that day, and I ended up carrying the child to the cottage hospital a few blocks away. The next day when I came into work, the school secretary said, “The Hutterite councilmen put a gift for you in the library.” There, lying in state on my desk, was a freshly strangled goose–beak, feathers, feet and all. Talk about awkward.

But it turned out that there were no awkward moments with the Hutterite children and the kids from the ranching community. Because they had been raised in a communal setting, the Hutterites were geniuses at getting along with their peers. During the first days in school, they would stand at the sidelines on the playground, not grouping together but staying near their classmates; not intruding on anyone’s play but simply watching and being themselves. They always waited to be invited to play, and they never played favorites–they would sit with anyone who wanted companionship, join the team of any child who asked, and always be the first to intervene and make peace when a fight broke out. In this cowboy world, the Hutterites were fish out of water indeed: they did not fight, which was a primary way of solving problems; they did not dress in jeans but in their 19th century clothes; they spoke halting English with heavy German accents. But they never altered themselves to fit in. They just waited for whatever acceptance came their way, and if it didn’t come, they were untroubled.

I wonder how things would have been different if I had thought to model myself on their example. I don’t feel myself to be a peaceful person; I have always been more of a fighter by instinct. But would I have been more effective and less troubled by my inability to fit in if I had used them as my guide?

And what would they have done with a dilemma like the Grand Rapids Press? Ignored it, banned it from their lives, or embraced it as something foreign but not to be feared? The newspaper still comes to my house every day, and every day I still dread it. Sometimes, like on the day that the “Obsession” DVD arrived, I think, “OK, this is it. I don’t have to keep reading this crap. I don’t have to keep writing letters to the editor. Everyone will understand if I just let go.” But I find I can’t close my eyes to the place where I’m living, the place where I’m going to die, not even now.

These days, I seem to be adrift on a sea of questions, and the newspaper and the news it does and does not bring is only one of them. But I hope to be swimming with the current, instead of against it, soon, and maybe I’ll find more answers then.

Kate Wheeler

Author: mediamouse

Grand Rapids independent media // mediamouse.org