For awhile now, I’ve experienced a lack of deep, spiritual connection. I remember hearing about this issue when it was discovered that Mother Teresa wrote in her diaries that she had suffered from what she termed ‘spiritual dryness’ for many, many years. She persevered in spite of spiritual disconnect she felt, but apparently died without feeling any assurance that a loving God was watching out for her. I don’t compare myself in any way, shape or form to Mother Teresa, and my spiritual issues aren’t as serious as hers apparently were; however, I have realized that this issue affects a great many people, and it’s usually trauma that kicks it off.
I drove back through the old neighborhood this morning, having felt compelled to do so over tea. Call it a ‘spiritual phone call,’ but I knew that I had to check on something. I just didn’t know what that was. I drove by the old house, and noticed that the fence continues to fall apart, missing boards like a face losing teeth. It bothers me that the new-ish owners won’t replace the missing boards in our fence–it seems a sign to me of neglect, or depression, or a lack of pride in their house. They have left the gargoyle on the roof, the crosses on the side of the garage, the lanterns on the deck and other assorted items that we left behind. The result is, it looks like our house and they are temporary occupants. I wonder why they never seemed to bother to put their stamp on it, to make it their own; I wonder if my attachment and connection to the house and property was just too strong . . .
I continued on around the corner to the Big Pink House that we used to walk by on a regular basis. We always thought that there was something wrong with the owners, something ‘off’ about the house, and the big, nasty dog never helped matters. We never spoke to them in the past. I wish we had, because maybe we could have supported each other in the sad business of losing one’s home. A red-haired lady was out front, frazzled, sad, sorting through piles of stuff that she had removed from her house. I know from stalking real estate sites that her house had sold a couple of months back. She waved me down, I stopped the car, and she asked me if I had any use for a punching bag. She wanted, she said, to give all this stuff “to Jesus,” or anyone else who might take it. I said that I had little use for a punching bag, but that I would see if anyone else I knew might want to pick it up. “It cost me a hundred dollars,” she said, “all this stuff has to go. I am happy to give it all away.” She seemed confused, overwhelmed; she said that she now has three days to be completely moved out of the house that she and her husband lived in for 24 years.
For the sixth or seventh time in the last two years, I heard the story of broken dreams, lost homes and forced relocation. “My husband declared bankruptcy, and I took the tiny amount of equity I had here and bought a cabin in the mountains.” Her eyes darted from the pile of stuff, to the upper deck where her husband was wrangling the loud German Shepherd and yelling something incomprehensible, back to me: “please take anything you want, it all has to go.” I told her that it will get better, and it will; I said that I had been in a similar situation a couple of years ago, that it’s going to be OK. Somehow, though, there was something profoundly not OK about her situation, or mine, or the situation of all the others in our old neighborhood who were on the wrong side of the economic crisis that still plays out today.
This is something that most people do not want me to talk about, or write about, or even spend time thinking about. Either they tell me that I am not “accepting responsibility” for the situation I found myself in, or they patiently explain that this is how the economy and capitalism in general works (and I need to accept it, or move to a Communist country and starve) or they tell me to distract myself with other things, anything, because to fully contemplate what’s happened to so many of us in the last few years will only lead to depression and frustration. That’s true; I am depressed and frustrated, but mostly because I can’t start a meaningful conversation with anyone about what it feels like to lose your home, live paycheck to paycheck, and watch the homes in your neighborhood go up for auction to buyers who have all cash and plan to gut the house and turn it into a bland, Home Depot special for rent.
It feels like I have somehow failed in this culture, this community I live in. Maybe it’s like this all across the country; you’re supposed to hide any pain you feel about losing a home. You’re not a real adult if you have financial issues. Or, you’re a whining, ungrateful child because, after all, you have a good job and a nice rental home. Let me make something perfectly clear: I AM GRATEFUL that I have a good job and a nice, rental home to live in. I am not trying to turn myself into a victim for anyone’s pity. That’s not the point. The point is twofold: there is real trauma involved in financial hardship and in the loss of a home, and there is real confusion and pain when you watch outsiders come in, kick out families that have lived there for decades, destroy any historical charm the house may have had, gut it, “remodel” it and turn around and sell it for hugely inflated prices or convert it into a rental with a price tag almost no one can afford.
The pain, the loss, the confusion and the grief are real emotions that we have all been forced to sweep under the rug, because somehow, it’s not ‘serious’ enough to deserve anyone’s attention, or it’s our moral failings that created the problem in the first place: we’re irresponsible because we signed up for a bad loan; if we lose hours at work or end up divorced, we don’t deserve help or even support; after all, we are living in a world of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, and if we are on the wrong side of the economic and social system, that’s just too bad. We “lost,” so we need to get over it and try harder next time to ‘win’. This is the attitude of our American culture: we deserve no support–emotionally, financially, spiritually or otherwise–for our losses (which were mostly beyond our control) because we somehow brought them on ourselves, and we deserve our fate.
I see the embarrassment and the shame of the person packing up her belongings and moving away after decades in their home. They have been banished because of lay-offs, deaths in the family, medical crises or other misfortune. At the root of the shame is the idea that we failed at the American Dream; never mind that foreign investors, landlords and massive real estate investment trusts have purchased that dream. It’s not their fault that they’ve displaced so many families, so many people who dedicated their lives to a particular community, who put down roots in a neighborhood and raised their children on a particular street and knew all their neighbors. Those companies without a face, those investors we never meet, are winning the game we call capitalism. Our entire system is predicated on winners and losers, and to question that is to be un-American and suspect.
I am not going to attempt to prove to anyone that I love my country. It’s enough to know that I dedicate my life to my students, I work for the betterment of my community through my church and the community center I founded here. Anyone who knows me knows how much I care about the people in and around my city. It’s damaging to that community when you have to leave your home, when you’re displaced from your neighborhood, when purchasing another home is impossible because housing prices are artificially inflated and when it seems as if the entire real estate industry is not about finding a family a home that they can afford, but about maximizing profits at all costs. People laugh at me for thinking that any business should care about anything else. Is it so naive to think that the American Dream should mean something? Is it so stupid of me to believe that we all benefit from strong and stable neighborhoods?
I don’t have a solution to this crisis, for it’s still a crisis for a great many people in the middle class. We struggle so terribly hard to hang on to that house, because that house becomes a reflection of us, a symbol of who we are, a monument to our dreams and hopes for the future. It’s not a soulless investment or a business opportunity. It’s an extension of WHO WE ARE, our very identity. Americans (and probably most people on the planet) have felt this way about our homes for a very, very long time; and I wonder if the powers that be depend on that very emotional attachment to make money. After all, most financial institutions are well aware that we’ll go broke attempting to save our home and end up losing it anyway. They, so to speak, ‘bank’ on our love for our little castles and our shame over losing them. They amass billions on our fear and shame. That makes me very, very sad.
Grief over loss of one’s home is not allowed, really, because when one compares that grief to losing a loved one, or receiving a terrifying medical diagnosis or even saying goodbye to an adored pet, it seems insignificant by comparison. It isn’t insignificant. I have lost loved ones, both human and feline; I have received terrifying medical diagnoses; I have been on the losing end of a terrible divorce; I have lost a job; I have endured much pain as a parent, and the list goes on. I can tell you that being forced out of a home and a neighborhood that defined you in so many ways as part of a community feels like exile, like a form of shaming. That deep, social shaming is largely unexplored in our culture. We don’t talk about it, we don’t feel comfortable admitting that we have ‘lost’ the game of success and ambition, and we try to hide how much it hurts.
This is why my old neighbors struggling with displacement from their homes and neighborhood avert their eyes when talking to me. This is why they try to end every conversation with something upbeat even if they don’t feel at all hopeful. This is also why, before they start crying, they turn away and end the conversation.
I can’t fix the economy for the middle class, I can’t do anything to help people keep their homes, I can’t stop the foreclosure process, I can’t change how capitalism works, but maybe I can lend a sympathetic ear or give some decent advice about life after short sale/foreclosure/bankruptcy. I can, at the very least, let people know that there is nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to apologize for and no reason to add guilt to all the other emotions that can overwhelm you when you’re packing up your belongings and wondering what’s next. Even if one believes that it’s ‘our fault’ for not fully understanding the 2,000 page contract we signed or how the economy moves in boom and bust cycles, or what real estate valuations have been over the last century or so, or how banks work, or how houses are actually terrible investments for a single family, even if we didn’t ‘get’ that a huge recession was coming or didn’t know in advance that the government programs designed to ‘help’ us were NEVER going to be implemented by our banks, even if we were totally ignorant about how the financial system works, we should NOT be ashamed, embarrassed or silenced. We didn’t understand the rules and lost the game. Most of us didn’t even realize, until it was too late, that we were in the game at all.
I have realized that the ‘spiritual dryness’ has hit me hard because I have repressed my grief, anger and pain; I have put a lid on those emotions because if feels unacceptable to admit the causes. When one’s general culture defines what is acceptable to grieve and what is not, you shut up and put up. When you feel that someone is about to condemn you for expressing pain over something undeserving and points to others much less fortunate than you, your sadness is compounded by guilt. All of this leads you to question yourself, to think that something is wrong with you, that you need to spend your time and energy figuring out how to break into the 1% and stop sniveling about your loser status in the 99%. Spiritual dryness is the result of the forces in the culture that do not acknowledge a reality that you know has evicted thousands, millions (?) of people from the places where they felt safe, from the homes where they were creating their lives.
If you want to respond to this, please do. If you want to tell your own story, please do. Respond in the comments, and if you want, you can have my private email so that we can keep this conversation going. We can help each other, but not if first we don’t hear each other.
Much love to you all,