Surreal world all of a sudden, isn't it? There's no traffic, no place I have to be, nothing on the calendar. I'm still going out, because there's excess food everywhere and so many people who need it. But I'm doing as little as possible and being very careful.
My husband worries. I have a history of respiratory disease, asthma, antibiotic resistance -- I'm the person authorities are telling to stay home. But I have gloves, masks, hand sanitizer, even hair nets. I'm staying away from people and only touching packaging, no unwrapped food. We aren't sorting donations or delivering food boxes. Donations are minimally handled, just driven from the donor to whatever large enough hunger-relief organization we can find.
Getting out of the van this morning in downtown Portland, at a store I've never visited, I thought about the air. How many people have breathed this particular air? It's a creepy thought. I can avoid touching surfaces and stay six feet away from people, but I have to breathe. We all have to breathe.
This is a new sensation for most of us, but not all of us. People all over the world have suffered because basic survival necessities simply aren't there. We're starting to see, for the first time, what it feels like to need to breathe but not know if the very air will kill us. To need water and not know whether it's clean. To need food and have no idea where it's been, who's touched it, whether anybody sneezed on it, whether it's fresh enough to be safe.
I'm reminded of working on the Women's March on Portland in January, 2017. It wasn't just women feeling anger and frustration that the first woman president was cheated out of the position for which she's been preparing her whole life. It was women feeling unseen, unsafe, undervalued and powerless. It was traumatic for the middle-class, middle-aged, white suburban mom that I am, as it was for most of my circle, my world. But my world isn't THE world. The transgender, multi-racial, low-income activists who were working with me took the opportunity to let me know that none of this was new -- it was just new to me. They took the opportunity to educate us and used words like intersectional and woke.
I am not intersectional, nor are the woman who claim to be low-income, homeless, disabled, or any combination of those fairly common sources of prejudice. Intersectionalism refers to the oppression that comes from multiple powers granted to multiple segments of society that increase the likelihood of certain people slipping through the cracks of justice. A black woman doesn't get the same treatment as a white one. Nor does a trans woman. How about the disabled African-Asian American trans woman who's face is disfigured?
Most of us will find some excuse not to care about the person who is different from us in so many ways that we simply cannot relate to them. I know I've avoided the woman with no arms or legs who can only speak a little. I think if we could have a conversation I might make more effort, but I didn't. I don't see her anymore and I feel guilt for not caring enough. Her differences don't change her humanity. She was able to accomplish an extraordinary amount, running sound and video projection for church services (using a pencil in her mouth) but unable to use a toilet by herself.
So this burden isn't new. It's just new FOR US. How can we embrace it and use it to help us understand what it's like to live in Flint Michigan where the water could kill you? Next door to the pig farm that blows the animal detritus across the landscape and fills the air? The poverty-stricken masses who have to take whatever food is given, whether it's safe to eat or not, and watch their babies die from lack of calories?
I'm uncomfortable with the air right now. I think I'd like to buy an air purifier. I have to remember how incredibly blessed and fortunate I am that I have that option. And I owe it to myself to be aware of the people who live with this kind of fear, lack, inconvenience and powerlessness their whole lives.
Susie Snortum is passionate about improving society's compassion for meeting basic human needs -- food, shelter, clean water, and dignity.