Life and Death

For the past couple of months, I’ve been struggling with the most basic questions of economic survival. And now, for the past week, I’ve been dealing with the sudden and unexpected death of my mother. Given everything that’s been going on, now seems like a good time to talk about life, death, and everything in between (and beyond).

My mother, Maureen, passed away in her sleep last Wednesday morning. She had been dealing with chronic pain and other health issues, but nothing that seemed to indicate just how soon she would be leaving us.

I don’t know what to say, really. I loved my mother, and I still love her, wherever she may be. I don’t claim to understand what exactly happens in the afterlife, but I believe that she is at peace, and I believe that she may be with my aunts, my grandfather, and other family and friends who passed on before she did.

Wherever she is, I’m sure she was touched by the response that people had to her passing. We held a wake and a funeral on fairly short notice, and yet dozens of people (almost a hundred?) came over the course of two days to pay their respects and express their love and appreciation for her. Family, neighbors, former co-workers, friends of family, all showed up from as nearby as Brookfield and as far away as Arizona. In her more self-effacing moments, my mother seemed to think that she didn’t know very many people, or that people didn’t give much thought to her. But many people came to mourn her passing, and so many of them had heartfelt appreciation and affection to share that went beyond the usual polite expressions of sympathy for the family.

A few of my friends here in Carbondale and elsewhere had started getting to know her through Facebook. Some of my other friends never got to know her at all. To those who never had the opportunity to meet her in person, though, I just wanted to take a moment to say that she had a hand in many of the good traits that my friends and loved ones seem to respect and cherish in me.

As someone said at the wake, she was a voice of conscience for many people in her life. She lived a hard life in many regards, especially at times when her life was touched by crime and poverty and other major life challenges. These challenges took their toll on her, and sometimes that toll was more than she or those around her could handle. But unlike many other people in similar circumstances, she took these hard times as lessons in the importance of social justice. When money was tight as a single mom, she fed her children first, and only ate after we had eaten our fill. When men mistreated her, she taught her sons and daughter to respect women and pay attention to women’s rights and feminist issues. When she herself was struggling away at minimum-wage jobs, she joined in boycotts to protest the use of toxic pesticides on grapes that poisoned workers and the land. As she grew older and her life circumstances grew more stable, she devoted a good portion of her newly discovered free time to writing letters, following news stories, and making donations to various ecological and social justice causes.

Of course, I had many other influences in life that inspired me to become socially and ecologically conscious, including my brother and all of the activists I met in Southern Illinois and beyond. But in honor of her passing, I’d like to give credit where credit is due and say that my mother had a good hand in shaping the man I am today. Hopefully, the next time you see me out in the community supporting some cause or organization, you’ll think of her and send your best to her, wherever she may be.

Now that I’m back in Carbondale, however, my thoughts have been thoughts of life and renewal rather than death.

Life is too short for us to waste our time on the things in life that don’t matter. We should listen to our hearts to discover our true calling in life and pursue that calling with every ounce of passion we have in us.

I’ve believed this for a long time now, but watching someone I love pass away unexpectedly has really driven this message home for me. I’m still feeling too chaotic and confused to really focus this into action today, or put this into words properly tonight, but the feeling is there.

Are you happy with your life? Really, truly happy with the job that you work, the state of your friendships and intimate relationships, your role in the community, the state of the world around you? Or are you just going along with the status quo because it seems easier, safer, stabler than rocking the boat?

In yoga, as in meditation, we often talk about taking the time to be still and listen to our breath. Really, pausing to do this several times throughout the day can tell us volumes about whether or not we’re really happy with our lot in life. Is your breathing naturally deep, slow, relaxed, untroubled by muscular tension in the neck, back, chest, hips? Or do you find your muscles tight, and your breath originating from your chest and throat rather than your abdomen?

Listen to the wisdom of your body. Muscular tension and shallow breathing are your body’s way of saying no when your mind and your voice refuse to. No, I don’t like this job. No, I don’t like this relationship pattern. No, I don’t like responding to problems in my world with apathy or cynicism.

If your body is saying no to these things, then your heart is probably saying no too. And life’s simply too short to say no to the deepest genuine desires of your heart and spirit.

Why live in a persistent state of No when you could be living in a persistent state of Yes? Take the time to consider what you really want in life, and then take the time to do what you can to make it a reality. Even if the road is bumpy and unfamiliar, or doesn’t lead where you originally thought it would, you’ll be on the right path.

I believe that our deepest purpose in life is to find the divine spark within us and to make that spark manifest in the world around us. Somewhere deep inside of you, there is a great love, or a great passion, or a great inspiration, that has the power to transform your life and touch the lives of everyone around you. It may be something simple and humble that others will seldom take notice of, or it may be something grandiose and profound that will change the world as we know it. But whatever it is, your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to find that spark within you and bring your light into the world.

I feel like for a long time now, I’ve been doing a good job of finding that inner light within me. But I haven’t always been able to bring it out into the world around me. It often seems like I need more energy, or more money, or more time, or more people in my life who believe as I do and have the time and energy and money to try something new and bold and exciting. And so, I take what I really want and I put it off until tomorrow, or I hide it away until I find the right people to share it with, or I settle for less than what I want and hope that maybe I’ll do better someday.

But life is too short for this attitude. They say that justice delayed is justice denied — and the same is true of our hopes and dreams. I’m not naive enough to believe that everyone’s wildest dreams can be realized in this lifetime, or even that they ought to be. But I do believe that each of us can find a sense of purpose deep within ourselves, and that we can turn this sense of purpose into meaningful actions and relationships that may be more rewarding and amazing than we would have originally thought possible.

I’m still working out the specifics of what it is that I want to do with this life. But I know that it will involve writing, and I know that it will involve teaching, and I know that it will involve doing what I can to support the community groups of Southern Illinois and beyond. It will also involve sharing my life with many family, friends, and loved ones.

The outpouring of love and support that I received after my mother’s passing reminded me that I’ve already come a long way in making my dreams a reality. Sure, I don’t currently have many of the outward material signs of success that people usually look for. My income is low, my debt is slowly growing, and my current lack of steady cash flow is a major barrier to some of my personal and professional goals. However, I have more friends and loved ones than I can even count! If we were all teleported away somewhere, there would be more than enough of us to fill an entire village. So rather than lamenting what I don’t have, I choose to celebrate what I do have. And I do have an entire community worthy of friends, a rich spiritual life, great love and kinship in the present moment, and great hope and prospects for the future.

Thank you to my family, my friends, and everyone else who was supportive and consoling about my mother’s passing. And thank you to everyone else who has brought joy into my life and helped make life worth living. I hope to live another 50 to 100 years in good health and good spirits, but even if I were to pass on tomorrow, I would feel very blessed with the richness of relationships and experiences I’ve had so far in this lifetime. I thank all of you for your presence in my life, and look forward to spending more time with you on this wild and crazy journey we call life.

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Plan B

So, I haven’t heard any official news yet about my most recent job interview. However, signs indicate that I’m probably not getting this job. Therefore, I’m putting renewed thought and energy into developing a Plan B.

Plan B is a long shot. It involves doing everything that I’m doing now, but better. Instead of writing occasionally, I will write daily, and submit at least one work of fiction and non-fiction per month. Instead of waiting for John A. Logan College to respond to my requests to submit more class proposals, I will organize and promote my own classes at another local venue, possibly in cooperation with other people who want to teach professionally in a non-traditional setting. Instead of waiting for people to invite me to give talks and lead workshops, I will promote myself as a public speaker and workshop leader.

This certainly isn’t the “standard” or “traditional” approach to securing a full-time income. But the standard approach really hasn’t worked for me. It’s time for me to develop a plan that plays to my strengths. It’s time for me to let go of the belief that earning money and pursuing my life’s ambitions are two separate things. It’s time for me to start believing that I can earn a living doing the work that I actually want to do, and that I have the skill and the passion to do, rather than limping along at an unpleasant minimum wage job in order to earn someone else a profit.

If you have any other suggestions, I’m open to them. I’m very poor right now, so I’d be willing to work a part-time job unrelated to my writing/teaching/speaking if I could find one. Here are my limitations and strengths:

LIMITATIONS

* I’m currently unable to do heavy lifting or manual labor for an extended period of time. I won’t be able to finish rebuilding my core strength until I have more food money.
* No Wal-Mart and no McDonald’s. First of all, I doubt they’d have me, given my hair/beard/beliefs. Second of all, I have vowed not to support either of them, and I would rather go hungry than go back on this vow.
* No Multi-Level Marketing or similar direct sales schemes. Period.
* I currently have no transportation and have never had a license. I intend to change both of these facts, but that will obviously require time and money.

STRENGTHS

* I have many miscellaneous computer skills, mostly focused around web design. Not enough to secure a full-time web development job, apparently, but enough to meet most people’s needs.
* I have the communication skills and patience required to tutor and/or teach. I have taught professionally before and enjoy doing so.
* According to my grade school IQ test, my IQ is around 145. I’ve scored between 135 and 145 on shorter IQ tests I’ve taken as an adult. In other words, I’m a quick learner, and complex intellectual activity is second nature to me. In fact, I love doing challenging intellectual work to ensure that my mental acuity doesn’t diminish over time.
* I can walk anywhere in Carbondale city limits and can take Jackson County Mass Transit to anywhere in the county.

Ideally, I’m looking for work related to writing, teaching, or public speaking. But I need the money, so I’ll do any work that plays to my strengths and is not ruled out by my limitations. Unless I get any impressive suggestions from friends, though, my current plan is to see if I can get any more hours of part-time computer work and earn the rest of my income by increasing my writing, teaching, and public speaking.

Yes, I know this is a long shot. But as the saying goes, crisis is opportunity. My difficulty finding traditional employment has given me the opportunity to embrace my passion for my own creative approach. I’m confident that if I can make enough in the short-term to survive, I can build my career over time and eventually make enough to live quite comfortably.

If I’m wrong… well, then I’ll have to develop a Plan C. In the meantime, I’m going with Plan B. Thanks for listening, and as always, let me know if you have any questions, thoughts, suggestions, or other random comments to share.

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Superhero Festival

A few weeks ago, I started talking with people about the possibility of organizing a Superhero Festival (SuperFest?) here in Carbondale, IL this summer. Right now, my whole schedule is a big question mark because I’m waiting to hear back about a full-time job I recently applied for. If I get the job, I’ll be short on time, but not money. If I don’t get the job, I’ll be short on money, but not time. Either way, I’ve decided to start organizing this Superhero Festival ASAP. Therefore, I’d like to know your thoughts on a few of the details, including any ways you’d like to be involved.

Here’s what I have so far:

(1) Purpose. I’m organizing this for a few reasons. First of all, it’ll be fun to have a big superhero-themed event here in Carbondale. Second, I’d like to use it as an opportunity to promote and fundraise for local community groups mentioned on my Causes page. Third, depending on my financial situation at the end of July, I’d like to do fundraising for my trip to Superheroes Anonymous 4, a gathering of Real Life Superheroes happening in Portland, Oregon in September.

(2) Date. Tentatively, I’d like to go for July 31. This gives over a month of prep time while still holding it before SIUC closes for intersession.

(3) Location. This is still up in the air. Current suggestions include Town Square Pavilion; the Civic Center; Gaia House Interfaith Center; Turley Park; and one of the ballrooms in the SIUC Student Center.

(4) Activities. Current suggestions: superhero costume contest; info tables for local community groups; kid’s activities (games, drawing pictures of themselves as superheroes, learning about community involvement, etc.); a talk about what Real Life Superheroes are and how to make community involvement fun; live music; speakers during music intermission about ways to get involved in the community; and a raffle and other fundraising efforts for local community groups.

So, what do you think? I’m particularly interested in any suggestions you have about the above four points, or any help you’d like to offer in organizing the day’s events.

If you’d like to get involved, please comment on the Note on my Facebook profile or contact me directly. Together, we can make this a fun, informative, and empowering Superhero Festival!

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Universal Health Care

As you may remember, we in the U.S. just had an extremely contentious debate about health care and health insurance. During this debate, I forwarded a few key articles and commented on a few key threads, but I never really wrote an entire article of my own explaining my perspectives on health care.

Now that the “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act” and the “Health Care and Education Reconciliation” bills have passed, many people think that the issue over and done with. These bills, however, are not what many people think they are, and certainly not a good solution to the problems at hand. Therefore, I still feel an urge to speak out in favor of universal health care.

Why do I support universal health care? There’s a short answer and a long answer. The short answer is that I want to be sure that everyone has access to health care, regardless of their income level. The long answer is — well, long.

I believe that humans have rights. How rights relate to non-humans is a topic for another article. In the meantime, let me say that I believe that humans have natural rights based on their innate qualities as humans. I also believe that humans have legal rights based on their natural rights as interpreted by the social contract of their community. In other words, legal rights are (on a good day) a community’s best effort to identify our natural rights as humans and articulate these rights into a set of laws.

Some of these rights derive from our nature as individualistic creatures. For example, our innate capacity for self-awareness, observation, and decision-making supports our right to freedom of choice. We are born to be free, and any action that cuts against that freedom is an affront to our very nature as humans.

Other rights derive from our nature as social creatures. For example, when humans are born, we are virtually helpless, unable to care for ourselves or make our way in the world. As social creatures, we take care of our own young, and we often take care of the young of other members of our community. Leaving a helpless child to starve, or to be killed, or to die of exposure, runs contrary to our basic humanity and is an affront to our very nature as humans.

Of course, there is plenty of variation in behavior in the natural world, and some animals behave in far more brutal ways than others. But this social dimension to human behavior is a strong and clear tendency in our evolutionary heritage. We can look to this tendency when considering who we are and what aspects of ourselves we focus on while forming our social contract with one another.

Universal health care is a human right that derives from our nature as social creatures. Adults who are fully capable of caring for themselves shouldn’t expect to rely on the aid of other community members in the way that a child does. Such behavior demonstrates a lack of responsibility that will lead to displeasure and shunning in even the most social of communities. But when someone has difficulty meeting their most basic needs, members of their community often help them. And if someone is sick or hurt, and the community has some way of helping them, they do so. This is because social creatures empathize with one another and consider what they would like members of the community to do for them if they were in a similar situation.

People who oppose universal health care often believe in individual rights, but not social rights. Or, they believe that when individual rights and social rights are in conflict, individual rights must prevail.

But this is a false dichotomy. This is “zero sum” thinking which assumes that in order for me to win, someone else must lose. When we realize that humans are inherently social creatures, however, we can get past this zero sum thinking.

Individual freedom and social cooperation can go hand in hand. In order for this to happen, though, a majority of people in a given community need to recognize that humans have both individualistic and social tendencies, and that the best way for us to live together in a community is to formulate a social contract that nourishes both tendencies simultaneously, thus allowing individuals to live together in a community of free cooperation.

How does this translate into health care?

Health care addresses our most basic survival needs. If we’re sick, or injured, or otherwise not well, we have limited ability to ensure our continued survival. Depending on the severity of the situation, we may go through a prolonged period of inability to work, severe suffering, or even death.

If someone is able to secure their own health care, then more power to them. But if not, then they have a right as members of our community to ask for our assistance, and we have a responsibility to assist them.

Even in today’s rather insane times, most people agree with this basic idea that members of a community choose to cooperate toward common goals and help each other in times of need. The only question is when and where to draw the line in terms of what constitutes a common goal and what qualifies as a time of need.

Maybe we need to fund grade school education, but not high school education. Maybe we need to fund high school, but not college. Maybe we need to fund fire departments and police departments, but not health departments.

This type of debate is completely understandable. People can, in good conscience, have different opinions on this topic. People can also exercise their free will and choose to form social contracts that deny our social nature entirely and reject social service programs such as universal health care that address some of our most basic survival needs.

Yes, we can choose to reject universal health care. However, I would argue that this choice bring us out of harmony with key aspects of what it means to be fully human. Perhaps more importantly to some people, though, this choice leads to undesirable consequences for all members of the community.

Some choices lead to more desirable communities, and some lead to less desirable ones. If we choose not to create systems of free cooperation that empower us to share our medical expenses and ensure universal coverage, then the consequence of that choice is that a certain percentage of us will always be suffering and dying from preventable illnesses.

Do you want to live in that kind of community? Do you want to live in a community where your neighbor, or your relative, or your friend, will be sick, or suffering, or dying, because they are unable to pay for health care? Even if you believe that you will always be wealthy enough to pay for your own health care, and wealthy enough to help any friends or relatives or neighbors with their health care, consider the effect on your community and society.

The newly passed health insurance legislation doesn’t solve the problem. Instead of establishing universal access to health care, it mandates almost universal purchasing of private health insurance. Instead of giving our health care money directly to health care providers, we are forced to funnel it through corporate middle-men who skim a high percentage off of the top. And people who are too low-income to buy private health insurance will be given subsidies to help them do so. In other words, instead of spending your tax dollars on health care, they will instead be given to health insurance corporations, which in turn will spend part on health care and part on pure profit.

Why are we accepting this? Why are giving billions upon billions of our tax dollars to the very corporations that willfully subverted the democratic process by destroying all efforts to establish a universal health care system?

I believe that we’re letting it happen because most of us don’t grasp what exactly has happened, and most of the rest don’t think we have the power to fight back against this corporate tampering with our democracy.

But I disagree. We do have the power to fight back. It may take days, weeks, months, years, even decades. But we, the people, have the power to break free of the propaganda and economic stranglehold of the insurance companies and other large corporations. And we have the power to recognize that people who want to live in a better society will choose to support essential social services like universal health care. And once we have recognized this, we the people have the power to make it happen.

I know that a lot of us are feeling “debate fatigue” over this issue given the extensive health insurance debate that just took place in this country. But now, as the plan is implemented step by step, we need to be there step by step to call for a more sane plan that ensures universal health care.

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My name is Treesong. I'm a father, author, talk radio host, and Real Life Superhero. I live in Carbondale, Southern Illinois. I write novels, short stories, and poetry, mostly about the climate.

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