Portland Update, September 2015

Martha Grover

 

David said in his last update from Amsterdam that he is receiving so much attention and care in Amsterdam that it feels strange. He felt privileged, and simultaneously, he felt he deserved it. He’d earned it. The truth is none of us deserve privilege.  Nor have any of us earned it. At the same time we all deserve it and we’ve all earned it. It’s that weird thing about capitalism: the unfairness of wealth, and the feeling that on an individual level, we’ve earned it.

As I’ve mentioned many times before, there is a housing crisis in Portland. I hear about it all the time and in the renter’s rights groups I am a part of, the rhetoric has reached a fever pitch and for the first time we are hearing from people in the groups who are legitimately homeless or who are in the process of being evicted. I feel lucky that I live with my parents. I feel privileged.

I used to have a painting that I bought from an artist in 2003. It was huge and I felt like I had gotten a good deal for the one hundred dollars I paid for it. The painting depicted a girl striding over a flat blue background. She was wearing these booties and they were made of what looked like newspaper images of women in head-scarves screaming and wailing. I took the painting as a metaphor for the first and third world, or really the United States and any country that gets in our way. I don’t have the painting anymore. I had to sell it to pay some medical debt. Ironic, but also not that sad. It was just a painting after all.

I’m housesitting out in Corbett this weekend at an old farmhouse near Women’s Forum. I realized today that it’s actually called Portland Women’s Forum, but no one in Corbett calls it that. I’ve been taking daily walks below the park, where an old trail switchbacks down the side of the cliff.

I grew up in Corbett and it’s a little weird being back in your hometown; I walked down to the country market today to get a head of lettuce and some steak. I went to high school with the woman behind the counter but neither of us could remember each other’s names. So we were just extra nice to each other in that way you are with people you used to know but don’t really want to talk to.

 

At night the traffic is heavy on the Columbia River Highway and I keep hearing people holler and hoot out of their car windows. I guess I would holler too, if I were young and out for a joyride at sunset; it’s fucking beautiful here. Sometimes it’s overwhelming and sometimes I forget that.

It’s a little lonely here and I had a bad night last night; I lay in bed and remembered going to a Cushing’s Conference in California a few months before I got my adrenal glands removed. I met a woman in a wheelchair who said that I shouldn’t be afraid. She’d had hers removed in the seventies. “I’m fine,” she said. “Well, except the peripheral neuropathy.”

Another woman came up behind me and said, as she kind of hit me on the shoulder, “You’re a Cushie.”

I frowned. This is not a compliment. “Yeah, I’m not cured yet. I’m probably going to have my adrenals out.”

“Yeah, I looked at you and thought: that woman has active Cushing’s!”

The woman was kind of jerking around and talking very loudly. I could tell by looking at her that she wasn’t cured either.

“They say I’m cured, but look at me!” She pointed at her face.

I just grimaced. The other women at my table (nearly all Cushing’s patients are women and the experts don’t know why,) started asking her questions about her surgery and how much hydrocortisone she was taking. I kind of zoned out. Specters all around.  I went back to my hotel room, took some vicodin and watched cable television.

Last night, before my dark mood descended I’d sat and watched a couple documentaries about the Cappadocia region in Turkey.  Several million years ago there was volcanic activity in this region giving it a unique geology suitable to rock carving and cave architecture. The area has something like 200 underground villages and cities. The largest is estimated to have housed many thousands of people in its underground caverns. One goes eight stories into the earth. Humans living like ants.

According to historians, the underground cities were built for security reasons; this part of Turkey was located on the profitable silk road and raids were common. Invasions from the Romans, and later the Turks, also put the ancient Cappadocians in harm’s way regularly. The underground cities were built like medieval castles in reverse, with huge stone wheel doors, holes and cavities especially built for sabotaging invaders at every turn.

But sitting there in the darkness of the farmhouse living room, I couldn’t help but think of the deepest chamber of the deepest underground city, the one where they kept their hoard of grain, their gold and treasures, gleaned from centuries of passing caravans. How long did the Cappadocians sit in the darkness waiting for the siege to end? What stories did they tell each other? What songs did they sing? As the lamp oil and the grain dwindled, did they ever wonder if it was all worth it?

It’s not a question the “haves” often stop and ask themselves: what am I willing to sacrifice to avoid becoming one of the “have-nots”?

I may have mentioned before that my steroids were recently increased because I was exhibiting signs of something called Nelson’s Syndrome. Nelson’s Syndrome is a rare condition that turns your skin dark and ruins your liver. My levels of a hormone, ACTH, had been elevated and my doctor had noticed how my knuckles were turning dark. The melanin gathers first around your joints – where the skin gathers and bunches. I recently had a blood test and I’m fine now; the increased steroid dose fixed the problem. But for a brief moment this summer, I wondered what life would be like for me had my skin turned darker, browner, uniformly, all over my body.  I had joked with my friends that it would have been an odd primer in social justice and racism. I said if I wasn’t cured, I might look like a member of a “different race.” The words felt strange coming out of my mouth. A different race…. it wasn’t exactly what I meant to say. I think now, what I really wanted to say was “It might be interesting to see how it feels to lose my white privilege.”

The added steroids are making it very difficult for me to lose weight. I am also trying to quit smoking and generally to become healthier in my daily habits. I decided today that I do want to live into old age, whatever that looks like, even if I end up in a wheelchair with peripheral neuropathy.

I took a walk behind Women’s Forum and on my way down the trail I thought about the article I’d read over coffee, “Holding the Tension : Whiteness vs. European Cultural Identity”. I’ve been reading a lot of material lately about the historical origins of the “white race” and as a result the beginnings of white privilege and white supremacy. I have educated myself on the ways that this privilege has been systematically expressed throughout America’s history. It goes way beyond slavery, and of course I don’t have the space to address it here.

After my research, I didn’t want to call myself white anymore because the whole idea of whiteness was created as a precept of white supremacy; you can’t separate the two. I thought that I’d rather say that I’m of “European Descent.”

But it doesn’t matter what I want. I can’t really say, “I’m not white.” I am white. It would be kind of like saying “Money is just paper, man.” Yes, race is a social construct and so is money, but it’s a pretty powerful one that controls nearly every facet of our lives.

I’m still walking down the hill as it gets steeper and steeper and I think about the beginning of paper money, what an ingenious development that must have been. And before that, the beginning of trade in gold coins. How it then took privilege and an army and a city eight stories deep into the ground to guard wealth, to protect that system of keeping more than you need for any given day.

 

I feel like here in this moment in time, we are like those Cappadocians under siege, half a mile under the earth guarding our treasure trove of privilege. We can hear the invaders above and wonder what will last longer: their will, or our supplies. And even if we wanted to give it up, it’s beyond us now. As an individual I have no control over any of this.

It’s that paradox: I am a financially vulnerable person with a chronic illness who simultaneously lives a life of great privilege.

I felt smaller and smaller as I turned around and climbed back up the hill.