I have been thinking a lot about interdependence, which, really, I do think about a lot. So then I started thinking about the uncertainty of identity, and how identity is shaped by interdependence. Our culture’s focus on independence has taken us in some strange directions, which haven’t worked for many people, and yet are not often questioned. Surely independence is a good thing? It is perceived to be the opposite of dependency, but the negative connotation of that is in itself a social construction of capitalism.
Today I was trying to think of an example of something I do alone. Laundry: the nice people at Sears helped us choose our machines, and their nice tradespeople come out if anything goes wrong, and the people at the environmentally friendly detergent company are working hard to make things as green as possible. Not to mention the clothes we wash and all the places they come from and all the people involved in making them. I remember when we adopted our son and the realization a few months in that we were trying to do everything alone, and that we weren’t doing him any favours – in fact, we were decreasing the safeguards around him and increasing the risks. Although we had intended a closed adoption his foster mom and all her assorted rainbow of children made it clear that they were coming too – we suddenly were part of the most amazing family of choice. And we had someone to call at 3:00 a.m. when we weren’t sure what to do. 12 years later we are still calling her. And both our birth families jumped in as well, not even questioning whether or not they, too, had adopted another nephew, grandson, cousin. Grandparents flew across continents to buy ice cream and play ball; cousins showed up in their Barbie cars to take him for a spin; Aunts came by asking what his favourite place to go was and took him there (the Vancouver courthouse). Welcome, welcome, welcome. So at the end of a one hour drive in rush hour traffic I hadn’t been able to come up with a single thing I do without others.
And yet I am one of those people who is said to be very independent. I have been, in essence, my own boss for 20+ years; I organize my time; I take on projects; I attend classes outside work; people say I am a self-starter and self-directed. I do a lot of things in what seems are really independent ways but which are, really, interdependent. I was thinking of some of the classes I’ve taken – where I show up someplace not knowing anyone, to study something new, and how in many of those places I’ve met some of my favourite people. Perhaps this is part of embracing uncertainty? Who might be there? But it’s a bit of guided tour – there will be others who love to do what you love to do, and we will be doing it at the same time, in the same places – a great way to make friends and find colleagues.
The learning I do almost always turns on these relationships. It goes places I didn’t expect, and I’m sure those I’m learning with do as well, because there is a synergy happening – we are more together than the sum of our parts.
I read a definition of disability recently that said something like a person with a disability requires assistance. What’s unwritten in there is the assumption that the rest of us do not and theoretically this is why systems of support are created – because the idea that people will be supported by those who care about them is uncertain and undependable. What if no one shows up? The implications of this kind of statement privileges those of us who do not seem to need assistance, as Simi Linton has said, using language in ways that differentiate and are deterministic. Fraser and Gordon, in “A Genealogy of Dependency: Tracing a Keyword of the U.S. Welfare State,” say that discourse of dependency is as “an incomplete state in life: normal in the child, abnormal in the adult. In a world where completed men and women stand on their own feet, persons who are dependent – as the buried imagery of the word denotes – hang” (Moynihan 1973, 17).”
Raymond Williams, like Linton, says that language not only describes but actively shapes the social conditions it refers to, and Fraser and Gordon’s examination of the concept of “dependency” allows for a de-familiarization that makes it possible to see that the word and concept derive from the idea that referring to individuals as dependent de-politicizes the potential of minorities, such as people with disabilities (although this is not their specific topic), while reinforcing a hierarchy of control. They point out that with the rise of industrial capitalism dependency becomes the opposite of a touted concept of “independence.” In a kind of cyclical process of othering and labeling as dependent, race and gender minorities are embedded within a stigmatized state leading to policy decisions which address groups of people described as dependent.
Or, as Michael Oliver states of the relationship between dependence, independence and interdependence, people with disabilities are “marked” as different through a process of labeling that is not logical:
…independence suggests that the individual needs no assistance whatever from anyone else and this fits nicely with the current political rhetoric which stresses competitive individualism. In reality, of course, no one in a modern industrial society is completely independent: we live in a state of mutual interdependence. The dependence of disabled people therefore, is not a feature which marks them out as different in kind from the rest of the population but different in degree. (p. 84) (quoted, Carnaby 221)
Jan Walmsley particularizes this when she writes of caregivers who are “[w]omen with learning difficulties . . . usually portrayed as dependents, people in need of care, not care givers” (Walmsley 129). She interviews a woman who had just gone through a demanding care-giving period with her mother, and spoke of herself as a carer, although she was known as a recipient of services and someone who was cared for: “I began to notice how often in the literature care-giving by people with learning difficulties was casually mentioned but rarely commented upon as being worthy of note” (130). She summarises: Caring relationships are complex and multi-faceted. Recognition that care and dependency are part of a continuum allows us to acknowledge diversity. In some carer-dependent relationships one person is clearly dependent on the other, but overall the picture is far more diverse than the rather monochrome one often painted. It is impossible, and unproductive, to look at carers in isolation from those they care for. . . . (139). The difference between care and dependence is a “false dichotomy,” she states, that must be examined. This idea reminds me of a conversation with a friend, a woman with an intellectual disability, who was caring for her mother who had become ill. Her mother, years and years before, had not thought her daughter should be independent and living in the community, and would follow her around as she cleaned and made dinner and did all the things that allowed her mother to not have to leave her home, saying, “It’s just not safe for you to live alone. You don’t have the skills. You have a disability. It’s not right.” I asked her how she felt about it all and she said that she knew that if she did not go over to care for her parent, her mother would have to go into a care home, and she was used to hearing about how her life would not work out. “I’ve been hearing that for 25 years now!”
The idea that we are all parts of circles of support presumes reciprocity and relationship, each of us with gifts and strengths to share. However, this implication of dependence on each other also requires reconsideration of all of us as dependent, which may be a more political act than one expected on entering into a relationship.
I was reading Jenny Mackness about her experience of the last week in #rhizo14, what comes up for me is that I recently went to a conference about community building. On the plane I was thinking about what I might hope to learn there – what was my goal, given that it was costing a whack of money and taking up my weekend etc.. I decided what I really wanted to learn about was a BIG question: how do we be in the same rooms with people we don’t like / respect / want to spend time with? I was thinking here of rooms I am constantly in where social service people talk about inclusion but haven’t invited the entrepreneurs and bankers or the racists homophobe fundamentalists – and we’re having a conversation we all agree with, with each other, but not with the people we might need to try to understand if inclusion is the actual goal.
At the conference I ended up being busier facilitating in different ways than I expected; I was grabbed for an extra panel; I did a presentation that turned into something else and then facilitated a dialogue. And through it all I was connected by the organizers with another facilitator that I hadn’t worked with before but knew by reputation – everyone loved him. People kept signing us up to do things together. Reputedly, he was thoughtful, creative, open, a great listener. Every time I wanted to talk to someone, he came along and joined in and it turned from whatever it had been about to being about him, and then he’d go and they’d say, “He’s so thoughtful / creative / open / such a good listener.” And I kept thinking there must be something wrong with me, or something I was missing. Every conversation facilitated by him that was supposed to be about community, ended up being about him, somehow. I started diagramming in my mind how he was turning things this way – and yet somehow leaving an impression of thoughtfulness, creativity and openness and listening. He didn’t want feedback, or accept it (nor want to give it). So I decided to use my time with him to learn how not to roll my eyes when he opened his mouth. I tried to learn how to listen and let go… I’ve been learning how to listen closely but after realizing that I had nothing to contribute to what constantly became, essentially, a conversation about him, I started trying to listen to the flow of things instead – how could I look engaged but surf what I wanted to consider? when would he stop talking? and then instead of being angry and resentful (responsive), or even feeling the need to jump in, how could I hold a space of openness and intentionality which invited a continuation of the conversations I wanted to have about equity and inclusion? undistracted by personality, resentment and ego.
On the plane home I opened my notebook to the goal I had set: “I will learn how to be in a room with people I don’t like / respect / agree with because in community everyone is included, even if they are not like me.” And even though that hadn’t happened in the way I expected, it had happened. I think it was in one of your (?) FB posts that Jenny wrote “diversity isn’t something you get, it’s something you invite” (you attributed it to another post but I couldn’t find it there).
The title “breakfast with the enemy” comes from a two year program I was part of, in business management. My friend and I were the only non-profit / social service people and everyone else (two dozen of them) was an entrepreneur. We would meet for breakfast and then study together for two ten hour days. I wanted to learn what they knew, but I didn’t expect to “like” them. And yet they ended up being some of my favourite people to learn and work with, even though we were coming from different places. We found things in common quite quickly. One business owner was also an adoptive parent, and while we talked about that another one said that he was also an adoptive parent, and had an open adoption… This class challenged a lot of my assumptions and, in turn, by the end of the two years they were no longer saying, “So, let’s get this straight… you don’t *want* to make a profit? is that what a non-profit is?” And they’d shiver…
So, embracing uncertainty – going into situations with others who love what you love, who you might or might not know before you get there, who you will learn with. Who will they be? Or, going into situations and holding oneself accountable for one’s learning, even if it is not the learning one expected or doesn’t take the shape one expected – I might have just gone home on the plane thinking I’d failed in my own learning goal because it looked so much different than I expected. Or, going into situations where one doesn’t expect to find commonality and finding things to appreciate…. in the end it is all about being accountable for one’s own learning, but perhaps assuming it will not be done alone.
An example of a really great class that I like to follow on Tumblr is comic artist Lynda Barry’s course In one assignment they had to color pages, and then say how they felt about them. She then took the results and turned them into something… rhizomatic?
All these images have been taken from her Tumblr blog and place here at random (montage).