On day three of my San Francisco visit, among other things, I did a quick copyedit of a description for an upcoming Station 40 event that will bring four anarchist spaces into conversation. The necessity yet near-impossibility of sustaining such spaces over time against the harsh winds of capitalism is reason enough to despair. But trying to do so given the disquieting relations between most anticapitalists has, I fear, severely tried my faith in anarchists. I long for a caring community. Alas, that was so much more present in the nonpolitical space of mid-Michigan during the greater part of the past year that I recently lived there, helping my sick parents live and especially die well in an autonomous (though neither anarchist nor political) hospice, which facilitated a lovely “death on the commons.”
It’s not only that those espousing radical ethics too often fail to tend to those values in practice and compassionately allow for us all to be human (that is, make mistakes). It’s that our spaces too often are instrumentalized, whether as organizing, educational, or social spaces. We forget the “why” of them in the most fundamental sense: to carve out and intentionally — as well as continuously, through thick and thin — strive to bring caring communities to life.
Caring should go without saying. But care is hard to come by these days, except as a hollow commodity or sometimes in zones (like parts of Michigan) written off as expendable, so people have “nothing” but each other. And in those spaces of expendability, it frequently seems to be a church community that steps in, because notwithstanding all the baggage and hierarchy, there’s still a caring congregation at the heart of it, there to offer you respite. Time and again in Michigan, I was “blessed” or someone wanted to pray for me and my parents. Yet they also brought us a jello mold, in case we were hungry or because they knew we were too tired to cook, or they offered a hug and listening ear, or they pitched in without being asked, by helping to clean or run an errand. Mostly, they created a space of mutuality, where we were all in it — life, with its joys and sufferings — together.
On my day one in San Francisco, Xmas Day, I wandered into the Mission Church at 16th and Dolores streets. I’d always meant to go inside over the years. But now it was clearly open, as I suspect I finally was too (death elicits strange things in us). And inside, Christmas service was in full session, with everyone singing together in Spanish as an illuminated star twinkled down from above. I listened, a stranger to this world, though able to feel the shared sensation of melodies reverberating through the walls and my body in a soothing way, in this space where anyone could wander in, sit down, and join in the music freely.
As I turned to go, there in various corners were jars of candles, aglow and sparkling, with Our Lady of Guadalupe serenely gracing each one. Soothing flames of remembrance. I stood close to a group of these simple jars, gazing into the merry light, and taking my time for remembrance of my parents, agnostic Jews and not at all into organized religion; just good people who strived hard to do good and liked a good candle (especially at Chanukkah).
It wasn’t the church or religion that mattered for me in this space. Rather, it got me thinking about what kind of alternative-yet-similar space we think to offer: an open, calm, connective spot for sharing quiet moments of reflection about our ethics and faith in our principles alongside celebrations, and perhaps most crucial, remembrances of all those who tried hard to do good before us, with and for us, reaffirming that we’re not alone and maybe offering us a dose of humility in return.
I’ve found myself walking into random churches more frequently these days, because there’s far less of a beloved community within the anarchist church than I’d thought before I spent the year with parents and because I can’t find an equivalent space that allows me the retreat to be fully present with remembrance and its bittersweetness/beauty. I shouldn’t have to feel this need to go elsewhere, particularly into churches; it’s a glaring shortcoming within our radical circles, anarchist and beyond, that we seem to have lost the forest for the trees.
My new year’s wish: from the ashes or blank canvas of my life, or the dark doorless corridor I’m stuck in (or other images that seem to capture my days of grieving right now), I’ll find a new, renewed self capable, with others, of finding my way to jars of candles with Our Humanity serenely looking up at me, nestled in the corners of all sorts of bold attempts at creating spaces that are first and foremost caring communities.
p.s. On day two of my San Francisco visit, yesterday, I saw a forlorn 8.5×11 B&W poster beseeching people to come to a meeting to save the 150-year-old Our Lady of Guadalupe church in San Francisco — another victim, it seems, to the capitalist drive to snuff out the candles of care, and build yet another cold, unadorned steel-glass high-rise luxury building that “cares” only for profit and pleasure for a few. Hopefully the virgin of Guadalupe has some sort of miracle up her sleeve to keep her community in place — and maybe she’ll even hinder a Google bus or two while she’s at it.
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If you’ve run across this blog post as a reposting somewhere, you can find other blog-musings and more polished essays at Outside the Circle, cbmilstein.wordpress.com. Share, enjoy, and repost — as long as it’s free as in “free beer” and “freedom.”
(Photo by Cindy Milstein, SF’s fading Mission, December 25, 2013)