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Cherry Picking Our Sacred Documents

Monday, July 23rd, 2012

Over the weekend, I heard from a man I went to school with almost 40 years ago. He made a fortune as a stockbroker and in retirement is active in right-wing politics, acting as a significant rainmaker for some high-profile Texas Tea Party candidates. Ralph, as I’ll call him, was miffed at a column I wrote for ChicagoSide sports, explaining why the current Cubs ownership makes me want to stay away from Wrigley Field. “Social Security and health care aren’t part of the core functions of government,” he said. “If people want health care, they should save for it, just as they should save for their retirement.”

This morning, as I walked to the lake with my dog, we passed a homeless couple waking up from a night on a park bench. We know each other by sight. The woman, who likes to pet the dog, only has five teeth, so it’s hard to understand what she’s saying. I’d been feeling grumpy, because in my comfortable home on my high-quality mattress I hadn’t been able to sleep. As the woman and I exchanged greetings and she fondled the dog’s ears, my first thought was, “Count your blessings.”

Callie in Lake Michigan 2009

Callie in Lake Michigan

My second thought was how much happier I would be if I embraced Ralph’s point-of-view. Ralph is a born-again Christian, but he cherry picks his bible just as I cherry-pick mine. I tend to think of the petulant Cain demanding “Am I my brother’s keeper?” or the commandments to leave part of the harvest for the homeless to collect, and feel shame at where I fall short. Ralph tends to think of how he’s been washed in the blood of the Lamb and nothing else he says or does matters.

When I read the Constitution, I focus on the Preamble, which says we’re establishing the United States Constitution in order to “establish justice…and promote the General Welfare.” Ralph thinks the whole document is obsolete wallpaper except for the right to bear arms.

US Constitution

US Constitution

Gail Collins, on tour for her new book As Texas Goes, says no state is willing to let its citizens die by the side of the road. In fact, many states and many people are willing to do just that. Texas itself has decided to eliminate all Medicaid funding for clinics that provide family planning in an effort to get rid of Planned Parenthood in the state. Indiana, Kansas and Iowa have or are considering similar options. Women who haven’t been able to save as much money as Ralph, maybe because Wal-Mart and McDonalds don’t pay as well as manipulating derivatives, now cannot afford health care. Over a hundred thousand Texas women depended on Planned Parenthood for all their health care needs, not just contraception or abortion. In the effort to protect foetal life, these states are willing to sacrifice the lives and health of all the low-income women who live there. But Ralph knows this is the right thing to do. He’s so much happier than I am and I don’t think it’s all because of Jesus. If you know the poor have only themselves to blame for poverty, you can go to the beach with your dog and not worry about the woman on the bench with five teeth. It’s certainly true that I don’t do more for her than Ralph does.

A few years ago I was introduced to the CFO of one of Chicago’s biggest hospitals. He also said health care was a privilege, not a right. My granddaughter’s birth was lying heavy on my mind at the time. Her mother had a difficult delivery, and because my son’s firm didn’t cover obstetrical care, and he and his wife worked low-wage jobs, my husband and I paid their substantial medical bills. I asked the CFO what someone who didn’t have parents with savings should have done? Let the woman and child die? Become homeless? Our fight drew a crowd but other than entertaining the other restaurant patrons, we didn’t resolve anything. We both left convinced we were right, but I must say, it’s easier to be right and happy when you have a lot of cash.

My experience with the CFO led me not to get into an argument with Ralph, since neither of us was going to budge, but I will say he sleeps better than I do.


Monday, July 2nd, 2012

This is a year of deaccession for me. Libraries and museums use the word deaccession to mean gleaning from their collections. I’ve been sorting through clutter; two weeks ago I sent the Newberry Library 22 cartons of letters, manuscripts and miscellaneous papers. I’ve been going through books, and discarding clothes I never wear.

I just got back from visiting my beloved friend, the writer Dorothy Salisbury Davis. Dorothy has been an important mentor to me as a writer and a person for more than 25 years. She’s 96 now, and not strong, but her mind is as vibrant and tough as ever. I realized during the time we were together that she has been deaccessioning in a way that makes me think deeply about life and aging. Two years ago, she moved from the old farmhouse, where her husband, the actor Harry Davis, and she had lived for half a century.

Dorothy's house

Dorothy and Harry’s old farmhouse

She moved into an assisted living facility, which she has treated as a new stage on the road, rather than a situation to be fought against. She had to stop driving, which was among her passions, but she said she doesn’t miss her car, as she thought she would. She doesn’t miss the house; I confess I do. She husbands her strength for the things that truly matter to her.

It frightens me, the thought of unweaving myself from the many threads that connect me to the Now, and it frightens me to watch her do it. Yet here, as so many times in the last 25 years, I listen to her, hope I am learning from her, hope that when my ride up the escalator is drawing to an end, I will know what to hold, what to let go, and let those things go with her grace.


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July 2012