I have a relative who's between a rock and a hard place right now. Her husband is in prison, and bad as that is, it's not as life-changing as losing the income he contributed to their household. She now has 1/3 of the money she's used to, with all the debt. She can't possibly make ends meet. Because she's part of a large and supportive extended family, she's going to be OK. Some people can give her a little money. Others can help get debts forgiven. Some can call and visit and help her through the stress and emotional pain of her situation.
What if she wasn't part of our family? She'd be like most people in the world when trouble hits -- broke, hungry, lonely, probably homeless, potentially resorting to some substance or other to dull the pain. It's very nearly the same impact that people suffer when they're shunned by their community. I know groups that believe shunning protects the rest of the group by getting rid of those indulging in bad behavior. One can't think too much about the shun-ee, because the inhumanity of this practice is tough to justify. Isn't that what we're doing, though, as a greater society? Shunning, ostracizing, marginalizing -- call it what you will. There are people we don't approve of, or don't understand, or are afraid of, so we choose to ignore their existence.
When I moved to a conservative suburban community after I divorced, believing it to be a good environment for my kids, I was shocked to learn that some neighbors wouldn't allow their children to play with mine, because I was divorced. I don't know what they thought was wrong with that -- was I a troublemaker? Needy? Bad at relationships? A victim who would suck others into my problems? I have no idea, but we definitely weren't part of those people's definition of the neighborhood.
Steering clear of people or situations we don't understand is a common practice and has been for hundreds of years. But the more urbanized our culture becomes, the more cost there is to avoidance. We need to know and care about the people near us. Everybody needs a hand once in a while. If we don't care, if we don't participate in the whole spectrum of our society, we're eventually going to have so many broken, hopeless, scarred neighbors that society as a whole will crumble. The few can't support the many.
Maybe you're scared. Maybe someone married to a man in prison is uncomfortable for you. Maybe someone who suffered an injury and was over-prescribed pain medication seems weak or irresponsible. It doesn't really matter why people strike us as different. The important thing is that we overcome those differences. We need to talk to the stranger, feed the hungry, warm the un-sheltered. We don't have to put ourselves in danger, but we do have to care. If we cease to care, what are we?
dMy son-in-law keeps fish. He's nuts about them. I think we have seven tanks going right now, with lots more parts and plans and ideas floating about. The big tank holds 150 gallons and is home to a few varieties, but mostly goldfish. They're showy creatures, and if you watch long enough, you start to see behavior patterns, even attitudes. There's a definite pecking order. There's a deep sense of entitlement, especially with regard to food. They've learned to swarm in the corner where food gets placed, to indicate that they want some. They are beautiful and entertaining.
One night I was dozing back there, keeping an eye on the baby while the kids were out. I woke up in the wee hours and looked toward the crib to make sure my grandson was still asleep, and I saw a fish in the tank beyond the crib that scared the bejeezes out of me. I had no idea such a critter existed, let alone lived among us. He's a plecostomus named Morpheus. Apparently he's nocturnal, and he eats the algae off the glass, keeping the tank ecology balanced. Now that I know what he is, I'm fascinated.
I didn't get a photo, but my first view was his belly, as he hung from the glass by his large round mouth. Seriously large. Of course he was all black in the night, a dramatic contrast to the shiny goldfish gently glowing in the dim light. He's also about ten times the size of the largest goldfish. I swear I thought I was looking at a monster or alien or some unknown invading creature. Or maybe I was dreaming. I was seriously creeped out.
The plecostomus has a chameleon-like camouflage ability that helps it stay hidden in the shadows. When he's out at night, alone, fairly sure that his tank-mates are asleep, he changes from a near-solid black to an intricate scale-like pattern that blends with the rocks and gravel. He doesn't want to be seen. He may believe he's homely and a social misfit. Even when food is provided, he waits, in the dark, in the quiet shadows. The bright goldfish eat everything. When they finish their flakes, they go after the plants -- leaves, roots, everything. They pick at the rocks looking for specks that might have been missed. They compete with one another and race to grab food before the next guy can get to it. Still, Morpheus waits.
Not until long after everyone else has settled down for the night does he slowly emerge. He's very careful to stay away from the others, even though they're asleep. He carefully places himself against a wall or a rock and extends his lips. These are serious fish lips. Wait, let me find a picture...
He eats only what the others leave behind. He doesn't compete. He doesn't hurt anybody. He doesn't need the fresh, best food. He doesn't need attention. All he needs is to be allowed to live among the others, unobtrusive, only taking enough to survive.
Why, do you think, does this fish community remind me of Portland?
My son and his girlfriend have been living in a small one-bedroom apartment with their cat for the past year. I basically kicked them out of our house when my daughter announced her pregnancy, since living space is the one asset we have that could help our grandson get off to a good start in life. Bill and Simone have been struggling and making do, and hopefully they're learning more of what it takes to make it in this not-user-friendly society we've created.
It's Bill's birthday today, and I just saw him briefly. They have new roommates, he says. A couple with a dog and a cat. A pregnant cat, it turned out, so now also seven kittens. I assume the newcomers are settled in the living room, since the bedroom is occupied and the kitchen is tiny. He sounds good about all this, though. There's more help with expenses and always somebody to hang out with, and they all love animals.
This is a typical living situation for their generation. Kids born in the 90s just missed the booming economy of the 80s and the affordable college of last century. We lost our nest egg in 2001, when Bill was 11. Overcrowded schools, an ADD diagnosis, a propensity toward anxiety, and a gentle spirit don't provide much support for a young teen. Three college attempts resulted in quite a few non-transferable units and a good chunk of student loan debt. Jobs? Yeah, good luck with that. Even those with master's degrees are working in call centers and driving buses.
It's not just this particular decade. Baby boomers who were patriotic enough to serve in the military are now experiencing poverty and over-extended veteran's programs. We take leftover donuts to them and just that small kindness makes their day. Veterans commit suicide at nearly 40 times the rate that soldiers die in combat. It's estimated that at least half of the homeless people in America are veterans, mostly over 60 years old.
Happy birthday, Bill. Here's the bright future we promised you. We hope you enjoy the used clothes, hand-me-down car, and cheap food. In a country that was built on cooperation, community, opportunity, and vision, we haven't done much to protect and maintain those values. Watch your backs, retirees. There's a spirit of revolution brewing.
I spent a very informative hour with some extremely hard-working people at Portland Public School District's offices. I initiated contact with them at the request of a group of parents who are working to reduce waste and improve recycling programs in schools throughout Oregon.
Did you know that nutrition services is not part of the school district? It's a contracted program. This is a good thing, because it allows the district to demand outstanding service from the provider, rather than having to stretch district resources ever farther to provide nutrition as well as all the other needs our kids have.
The single biggest thing we can do to improve our children's education (besides reading with them) is to vote for them. We don't only vote with our election ballots, although those are important. We vote with how we spend our money and how we use our time. Every parent who can should be volunteering in their child's school on a regular basis. Those who can't because they work should be contributing a few of those earned dollars. Teachers need all the parents to check in, ask what they can do or provide. Parent/teacher clubs are often pitiful little groups that try to run a cookie sale to pay for field trip buses. They used to be the hub of the community! Everyone should be involved, should know what programs are struggling and where to lend a hand. These institutions were never meant to be a gift to the public. They're only gathering places. What makes a school successful is the commitment it receives from the community.
We need to stop, as a society, criticizing our institutions while contributing nothing to them. Oregon citizens hate tax increases, and you can tell from the state of our infrastructure. Families think the schools are there to provide everything their children need, from education to meals, from challenging their minds to providing daycare. It's OUR responsibility, parents, to educate our kids. The schools are there to provide structure and guidelines, to introduce material and nudge kids along, but it's up to families to inspire them, to share their dreams, to walk alongside them as they learn and grow and think and imagine.
Thank you to those who have supported my efforts to reduce food waste in Portland Public Schools. I'll continue to work with them and help every way I can. But let's not stop there. Let's provide what the schools, and our kids, really need. Let's invest ourselves in the schools. Imagine what we can create together!
PS: An important department of PPS is the sustainability team, officially called Resource Conservation, a division of Facilities & Asset Management. The "team" is one staff person, Nancy Bond, and one Americorps intern. And Nancy will be retiring at the end of this year. If you really feel there's waste in Portland schools, I suggest you check in with Nancy and ask how YOU can help. If we want sustainability in our schools, we're going to have to fund it, build it, and support it.
Thank you, Nancy, for your hard work over the years. Your commitment to getting the most for our kids out of limited resources is vastly under-acknowledged. I look forward to learning from you in this final semester of your career.
I grew up with privilege. Even before our current societal awareness of white privilege, I knew I had significant and rare advantages. Not money or great schools or opportunities. I had family.
My mom's siblings have always been a tight-knit, supportive group, including all their spouses. Even after my dad died, my mom reconnected with a friend from childhood, who had been part of the social crowd when they were all teens. Well, mostly teens. Mom remembers being the left-out little kid when her all-older siblings, along with my stepdad and his brothers, were dating and entering college and starting their adult lives in the late 1940s.
Through the years they all stayed connected. I have wonderful memories of holidays with my cousins, while Mom's brothers and sisters hosted the Morehouse clan. When Mom married into the Pierce family, a whole second chapter of close siblings and all their kids were added to the mix. My mom & dad's "immediate" family exceeded fifty people.
Dad is six years older than Mom, and Mom's eldest sibling is nine years older. Their support and wisdom saved her many times in her young years. But Mom is in her 80s now. Dad had a heart monitor put in the other day. Mom's two middle siblings, Hap and Shirley, both died in the last year. Eldest sister Margie is in the hospital, as is Shirley's widower, Kirk. This is a hard time for my mom.
These people shaped us into who we are. Each of them is a part of me, and I'm so much better, wiser, stronger, and more capable because of their influence. I can't imagine how much more they are a part of my mom, but I know they are in her mind and heart and spirit. She's generous because they gave to her. She's kind because they cared. She's wise because they taught, and brave because they shared their courage.
Every day, I meet people who are alone because their family all died, or left, or gave up on them, and I am reminded how privileged I am. Even as my mom's heart breaks while her generation's lives reach their end, none of us are ever alone. We all live in one another, and as I watch my daughter become more like my mother, I am grateful for the family that came before, for the legacy they gave us. Most especially, I'm grateful for my mother, for her commitment to family, for the sacrifices she continues to make without a second thought, because family is her purpose, her strength, her gift.
Several articles have come out this year about power causing brain damage (cited below for your convenience). No big surprise there. The more power an individual has, the less he/she needs to empathize with others, the less he/she has to understand or care, the less he/she is motivated to take on helping anybody else. In a very broad, general sense, of course. Most super-wealthy people give generously to charity.
So power, in and of itself, broadens the divide between the rich and the poor, and contributes to the decline of our middle class. But I don't think power, or even wealthy people, can be blamed for our failing democracy. As we watch the power of the people wane and see a modern feudal system developing, in which giant business interests can pay below-poverty wages, We The People have to take some responsibility.
The blanket statement that money is power is treason in a democracy. It's giving up. It's allowing oneself to become a victim, thereby increasing the truth of the statement. The power of the people isn't something that comes naturally in this world, and our forefathers worked very hard to create a power-of-the-people society that bucks tradition and history. We want to rise above petty competition and labeling people and classes/castes and slavery and bowing to anyone as if they were better than us. We want to hold our heads high, no matter our income, and speak out for truth and justice. If money is power and power damages the brain, our duty as ordinary citizens is even more important than we realized.
The only thing allowing money to corrupt, allowing power to disengage from compassion, is our failure to speak up. Each and every citizen in a democracy has a responsibility to be educated, aware, and to praise the parts that are working, expose the damaging bits, and be willing to carry a share of the weight to make everything work, with or without money. I don't have money, but I have a voice.
The United States is on a collision course to failure. Mankind is on a collision course to extinction. We can change these paths, but we can't do it sitting around musing over the mess. We have to take some steps, or make a call, or write a check, or join a team. We have to serve a meal, share a room, complain about excessive packaging. It doesn't really matter what action any one of us takes -- if we all do SOMETHING, we can change the world.
Once Halloween is over with, the candy has been disposed of, the costumes and spiders are all back in their bins in the garage, it becomes the season of anticipation for me. The weather is changing, the clocks are falling back, the evenings are dark, the mornings are damp, and turning the oven on seems like a good idea. We bought apples for a pie. I've started thinking about what small gifts would be most appreciated by the kids -- a rolling pin for Will? some fondant tools for Katie? (My kids love to bake -- big surprise!)
This year, there's far more anticipation than usual. My grandson is due in mid-December! Just a few years ago, I was pretty sure neither of my kids would be having children. Will, at 27, still seems dead-set against having a family. But Katie & PJ surprised us all, and I couldn't be more delighted. PJ is head and shoulders above the other young men she dated, and his capacity for parenting is already very visible. Katie turned into a mature, responsible adult practically overnight when she learned she was pregnant. Now we're in the last six weeks of waiting.
It's going to be a cold winter. We're wondering if it was wise to go with hard floors instead of carpet, and whether little Carter will have warm enough sleepers. Or whether we'll be able to turn up the thermostat a little and still manage the power bills. PJ is going to take a few weeks off work and be there for Katie, a tremendous blessing for her and a scary choice from the budget point of view. Sometimes it's a little difficult to honor our priorities and not become a slave to money or sell out our family for perceived security. We've always gotten by before, and thanks to supportive family, we will come out of the other end of this winter just fine, with an amazing new member of our family to show for it.
These are normal anticipations -- some traditions, some pleasures, some worries, and overall a deep gratitude for the comforts and joys in our lives, homes, and families. It's heartbreaking to know that these aren't the simple wishes of so many people. Katie was just telling me about a friend who is having a baby next week. She and her boyfriend live in their car. She wasn't even aware she was pregnant until six weeks ago. They both smoke, drink, do recreational drugs, and don't have any prospects for their future.
In Oregon, it's not OK for kids to be homeless. The system assumes that a foster home with a roof and food security is better than living with parents who can't provide those basics. I wonder if Katie's friend knows this? Probably not -- so many of the young people trying to live off the grid or outside of boring old traditional lifestyles have no idea what the consequences will be. And that's just the people that are choosing non-conformity. So many more families are willing and eager to work, have always fought to provide for their kids, and find themselves unable to accommodate a 50% or more jump in rent all of a sudden.
What would you do, if you couldn't come up with an extra $500 a month and were suddenly evicted? Would you have family or friends who would take you in? Would you be able to add another part-time job to your schedule to afford higher rent? Or would you find yourself in an old motor home on someone's unused garden patch, because parking it on public property is illegal? Would you live in the minivan? Make room for the kids to sleep in a make-shift bed while you tried to catch a little rest in the driver's seat? Would you have to wash as best you could in the Burger King restroom with paper towels, and then go off to work as if everything were under control? Would you seek help, or would you hide from authorities in order to keep your children with you?
I am so, so grateful that my daughter, her husband, and their baby are going to be here, secure, warm, and fed this winter. That my son and his girlfriend also have family support, choices, and all their needs met. There are no guarantees in this world, and the privileges of family and safety nets, for us, are very deeply appreciated.
I hope you and yours feel as much gratitude as I do in this season of anticipation. These are two of the emotions that make life rich and full.
Like it or not, the season has changed. That doesn't just mean that Christmas merchandise is already hitting retail shelves (bah, humbug). It also means the weather has taken a dramatic turn. Rain. Wind. Thunder. Flooding. Power outages.
True, we've got it very good compared to Puerto Rico, Florida, and Texas, but it's definitely chilly. Dark in the early evening. The sound of the furnace kicking on in the wee hours. Pulling the crock pot out. Keeping a mug of something warm nearby all day. Halloween costumes under construction. I love this time of year! Who doesn't?
The people without shelter, of course. The people who have lost their apartments due to sudden rent hikes, who don't know how to be homeless, who never considered it would happen to them. The working poor. The families that have to choose between gas for their homes or gas for their cars. The elderly and disabled who didn't think to keep a tent or waterproof clothing because they felt safe.
Unfortunately, nobody is safe. NPR recently reported that 40% of Americans cannot accommodate a $400 emergency. That means a blown transmission can cost someone their home. That having to stay home with a sick child for a week can result in a lost job, which balloons into homelessness in a matter of days. Nearly half of all children in Oregon are experiencing food insecurity. Now, that doesn't necessarily mean that they're going to bed hungry every night (although many are). It means that families cannot juggle living expenses, and getting help with food helps keep many from crossing the tipping point. Food stamps, emergency food pantries, and free meal programs are critical to a tremendous number of our neighbors.
Of course, friends are embarrassed to admit that they can't make ends meet. That somehow their obsolete career or reduced work hours make them failures. We don't know who is huddled under three sweaters because they can't pay the heating bill, or who is trying to keep a positive attitude about the empty pantry being an opportunity to clean the shelves. I didn't realize how worn out and thin my clothes were, but my mom noticed, and she bought me a few new basics. I never would have thought that a long-sleeved shirt and slacks without any holes would be a luxury, but they are. My $800-a-month disability check would have me living in a box if it weren't for family.
As we start the seasonal baking and nudge the thermostat up, I hope we stay aware of the half of our city that can't do either of those things. I hope we tuck away a few dollars to donate, or start a box of a-can-a-day foods that we can take to our neighborhood emergency pantry. Many of my friends are making as many sandwiches as they can afford, and then handing them out to the tent camps and new tiny home communities, where people are huddled with minimal resources and just their courage to keep them from despair.
Every day, especially in the cold season, it does us well to take a moment for a thought of the other guy. To write down that little idea that might help one neighbor stay warm or eat well. To take a small action, any action, that can snowball into hope for innumerable strangers.
Here in the developed world, you would think that everybody would have access to food, even the very poor. It's true, there are free meal programs, emergency pantries, food stamps, and more. I've heard people say that in Portland, nobody has to go hungry. But they still do.
The Oregon Food Bank buys foods in bulk and sells it to various hunger-relief charities. Yes, they sell it. They recently started offering all the fresh produce for free, but everything else comes at a price. So the charities have to be funded, and with limits on funding, they have to set up guidelines regarding who is allowed to receive food, and limits as to how often those recipients can be helped.
OFB's free produce is an excellent improvement. Dubbed Free Alliance, the program partners with sellers for more donated fresh food, allowing the food bank to pass it on at no charge, in order to increase nutrition of the food being given to people in need. Because hunger itself really isn't the biggest problem -- it's malnutrition.
There's always bread. I've driven downtown and offered leftover bakery items to people on the streets. Sweets are a big hit, as their brief shelf life makes them harder to distribute. But bread, bagels, and rolls are everywhere, and street folks often say thanks but no thanks to more bread, especially hard breads that aggravate already-under-cared-for dental problems. (Why is it that we can provide free medical care, but no dental services?!)
Man cannot live by bread alone, the bible tells us. It's literally true, regardless of religious meaning. Nature requires a variety of fruits, vegetables, and protein sources to build healthy bodies, and bread is mostly just extra calories. The calories help, especially for people who don't have access to anything else. But consuming calories isn't the same as being nourished.
That free produce that OFB is offering? Yeah, that only goes to partner agencies. If you want food from OFB, you have to be a 501c3, have adequate storage and transportation, submit an application, and attend a class. After all that, they select partner agencies. I went through the process and was declined. This year, they aren't accepting any new partner agencies.
So even though there is a lot of food in Portland, there isn't necessarily a lot of nutrition available to the very poor. Even though there are hundreds of volunteers actively working to provide food to everyone in need, we rely on donations, and few people are donating meat, produce, and dairy products. We end up cooking meals that are heavy on rice or pasta, flavored with what little meat we can get, and supplemented with meager vegetable offerings.
Nobody has to go hungry in Portland, but malnutrition is a whole different story.
I haven't posted in ages, mostly due to my daughter's wedding, the house remodel, and preparing for my first grand-baby, which has all been joyful. But it's also because it's hard to create meaningful content when the world is discouraging, and anyone who keeps up with news and world affairs and isn't discouraged is living in a fantasy. I cope by hunkering down and working on the small things I can control and impact.
Waste Not Food Taxi is poised to become a major force and solution in the greater Portland area, which is both a dream come true and a terrifying prospect. If all three counties' waste management departments, as well as Metro, start referring businesses to us for help with their food waste, we're going to not only need all the volunteers we've been signing up for the past year, we're also going to need managers, coordinators, team leaders, and a primary contact in each of the 100 zip codes in our territory.
So I'm learning that a really great antidote for discouragement is having a lot of meaningful work on my to-do list. Getting the rest of the baseboards painted isn't enough to pull me out of a funk, but methane emissions from wasted food sure is. Knowing there are hundreds of people falling through the cracks of our society because getting excess food to them is inconvenient really lights a fire under me. Feeling temperatures dip into the low 40s at night reminds me that thousands of people can't afford heat, or don't have access to a warm room or even an adequate jacket.
I can't solve all the problems in our world. I can barely cause a ripple. But everyone can do something, and in doing something we can reignite our sense of hope, of value, of courage. One small act of kindness, one changed habit at home, one shared success story can carry us through the darkest times, together.
What can you do today?
Susie Snortum is passionate about improving society's compassion for meeting basic human needs -- food, shelter, clean water, and dignity.