Thursday, December 1, 2016

Personal Reflections: I Grew Up In Grosse Pointe

Homeless child
Homeless vet

 The Journey Home, Home To My Heart

In 2003 I told Michael Moore that I grew up in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, but escaped in 1975 when I moved to the Pacific Northwest. Michael said he would forgive me.

It is not that all was bad or wrong in the wealthy suburb of Detroit I knew as my childhood home. Indeed, there was much beauty there and opportunity and many experiences I had that blessed me deeply. We had a beautiful home. I went to Grosse Pointe High School, where my mother had graduated 25 years before me. Our family traveled to Bermuda and Europe and other places. I spent summers swimming in Orchard Lake where my dad and his parents had grown up. My great-grandfather, Willis Ward, had built a home on Orchard Lake's Apple Island, where I would marry my first husband in 1974. And my great great-grandfather, David Ward, had built one of the early homes on Orchard Lake.

The home of David Ward, Orchard Lake, Michigan.
It wasn't until several years after moving to Oregon that I learned that my great-great grandfather was known as the wealthiest person in Michigan at the turn of the 20th century. David Ward had managed to amass great wealth by putting claim to land all over the Orchard Lake area, all over Michigan, in the hills of West Virginia, the redwoods of California, and beyond. When I was younger I used to proudly think of myself as having come from a family of "timber barons." Then one day my cousin broke my bubble and asked me how I thought David Ward acquired all that land? I hadn't thought of that. I had just absorbed the unconscious story in our family that we had just earned our wealth. We were entitled. We were "old money." And we were special. I was special. I hadn't thought to peel back the curtain and see that there was blood on David Ward's hands. And mine. I sure didn't recognize how I was unknowingly colluding in the myth passed on down through the generations by affirming rather than questioning the unwritten family story: We were entitled. We were better than. We were Wards/Strongs.

Recently I had the privilege of meeting Chuck Collins when he came to speak in Portland. The world is so small. We are all so connected and I really connected with Chuck Collins. Today Chuck lives in Massachusetts, but it turns out that he also grew up swimming in Orchard Lake. And his parents also belonged to Orchard Lake Country Club, which my family belonged to and which stood on land donated by my great great-grandfather. Chuck also went to Cranbrook, the all boys private school that my dad graduated from in 1932, that my twin brother went to for 1-1/2 years, and that my uncle and all my male cousins went to. Chuck also grew up in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, which is where more of my paternal relatives lived. Chuck actually has a chapter in his latest book called "I'm From Bloomfield Hills".  His book is Born on Third Base: A One Percenter Makes the Case For Tackling Inequality, Bringing Wealth Home, and Committing to the Common Good - For Chuck, it was his great-grandfather who had the great wealth. Chuck inherited that wealth at age 21. At age 26 he gave it away.

The beginning of Chuck Collin's chapter on being from Bloomfield Hills begins with a quote: 
"Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety. And at such a moment, unable to see and not daring to imagine what the future will now bring forth, one clings to what one knew, or dreamed that one possessed. It is only when a man is able, without bitterness or self-pity, to surrender a dream he has long cherished or a privilege he has long possessed that he is set free he has set himself free for higher dreams, for greater privileges." —  James Baldwin

It is a long and courageous, frightening and humbling, and amazing journey - this breakup of the world as we have known it. Growing up with wealth has its privileges, for sure. And it has its costs. My twin brother and I had everything we could have dreamed of, everything material that is. Yet John committed suicide on January 30th, 1978, ending his tortured life alone in a motel room having overdosed on vodka and Vallium. He's buried at Pine Lake Cemetery right there by Orchard Lake and Cranbrook and next to our dad and other paternal relatives and some of the Lindbergh's. It's a beautiful cemetery. I always visit several times each trip back to Michigan. I visit all the places from my childhood. At 65, I'm still integrating, healing, and transforming the truth of the losses of that world.

I had no idea that Grosse Pointe was known for its high rate of alcoholism until I heard some people from New York talking about it in an ACOA meeting outside Portland, Oregon  in the late 1980's (Adult Children of Alcoholics, a 12 Step Meeting). It had taken me a while to figure out that both my parents and my twin were alcoholic, and I was the last one to see my own alcoholism. Crazy how blind we can be to something we've been immersed in our whole lives! I was also blind to my biases. Has that ever been a process uncovering these not so pretty parts of myself. There are so many illusions to awaken from! Often not fun! That said, I am beyond grateful for each new understanding, new awareness, and new ways of seeing and experiences that are beyond the familiar ground I had known.

Over the years I have sought out many experiences and teachers and opportunities to grow, heal, learn, and open my heart up bigger and bigger. I remember going to a two day training I attended many years ago now with Donna Beegle called "The Culture of Poverty," which I attended through my last job as a social worker working with first time parents. For two days I was immersed in an experiential process of peeling back more layers of my biases and what I had absorbed as a child growing up in the wealthy community of Grosse Pointe. Yes, I already knew that I had learned that image management was key. I learned to pretend and to be happy and good, except for when I was pissed off and rebellious and damned well not going to be a good girl anymore! (I'm glad I survived those years!) I also had attended some diversity trainings and uncovered some of my fear of blacks and, dare I say it, racism. Yuk. Not fun to come face to face with. Now here I was uncovering my biases about poverty and those Others who many believe are just lazy and want to be bailed out and screw them! They just need to get a freaking job! Yuk. 

That training on poverty broke my heart wide open. Again. There is so much that can break our hearts open if we are brave enough and seek to grow our hearts bigger. I uncovered my biases and then my shame about my biases and how I hadn't a clue in the world about institutionalized poverty and how many live in poverty and why. I had never thought to wonder what is is like to be YOU? What a life changing and supreme gift of a question that is! What is it like to be you?  

I also had never thought to question why there is poverty and what the origins of poverty are. What little thought I'd given it was only poisoned by cultural stories that blinded me to the truth. My belief system also stood in the way of imagining that we could create and live in a very different world, one which values people over profits, generosity over greed, caring over cruelty, connection over separation, kindness and understanding over our critiques and assumptions and judgments of those Others.

So I learned, as Donna Beegle says, that"poverty is resolvable, however, making a difference for people who live in the crisis of poverty requires a paradigm shift... A shift that moves us beyond stereotypes and judgement to a deeper understanding of the causes of poverty and its impact on human beings. With this awareness, we can work together to provide genuine opportunities for people to move out of poverty."  —
I had no idea how much my heart had been impacted in ways that stunted me due to growing up in a wealthy community where you were supposed to be white, Christian, and successful in following the "American Dream" or something was wrong with you. Of course, this was also the unconscious mantra of our culture, unconscious to those born white and doing okay materially anyway. Today I very much appreciate this quote, also found in Chuck Collin's latest book, by Debby Irving: "My glorification of independence and individualism made me an easy target for the myth of meritocracy, and overshadowed in my heart what I knew to be true; the deep interconnectedness I longed for with family, friends, colleagues, and even strangers is core to human survival. Interdependence is our lifeblood."

I am tired after a very long day as a caseworker with Child Welfare. I should also state that after work I stopped by and visited with my son Brian and Marita and their son and my grandson, Oliver. So I didn't get home till later tonight. But I love seeing my family, especially my grandson! What a treasure! Despite being tired, despite wanting to be sitting with my husband instead of upstairs writing away on my computer, here I am. This felt more important. It feels important to make this time to write because I am a mother and a grandmother. I am also now an elder and with that, to me, comes great responsibility to all the young ones of today and those of the future. I was also in this place of having this heartfelt essay come pouring through me tonight. This is something that wants to come through and out! My heartfelt reflections tonight are in part also a response to a conversation between a few people on Facebook today, some of whom also grew up in Grosse Pointe. I also write for them. And I write for the woman - older than myself! - who I saw recently standing on a street corner. My heart broke as I handed her a dollar! I also write for all those who are houseless and whose tents I passed on this wet cold day dotted along the sidewalks in Portland. Because my heart breaks for them all! I have allowed them into my heart. And once we allow others into our hearts, then their suffering becomes ours. As does their joy. We are all related. 

I come back to that again and again - we are all related. These are our brothers and sisters who suffer. Can we all care enough to learn more of their suffering? Can we replace our judgments and belief in our rightness with curiosity and some effort to try to imagine walking in their shoes? Can we try to work at expanding our circle of caring? Can we look deeply into what our relationship with kindness is?

So am I a bleeding heart liberal? Hell no. And I'm no democrat. The Democrat Party has been taken over. Thomas Frank writes brilliantly of this takeover that has been occurring over the past 30-40 years in Listen Liberal Screwing over our nation and shifting wealth into the hands of an obscene few has been equally brought on through the collusion of both major political parities. I've been doing my homework for a while now and I'm not about to point my fingers righteously and say it's just the fault of that other political party. That would be a lie. Here's another quote I can deeply appreciate today: "Our inequality materializes our upper class, vulgarizes our middle class, brutalizes our lower class.” Matthew Arnold, English essayist (1822-1888)

Where I stand today also has nothing in the world with wanting to bail out lazy people who just need to get a job. It is an act of violence to obstruct people from reaching their potential. Pity and "bailouts" would only add to the suffering of those who live with poverty. It is also a lie to think that people who call for economic justice just want to bail out the poor. This is a lie and part of the propaganda that keeps us stuck and separate and cut off from empathic understanding. I want to see all empowered to live lives of meaning and purpose and joy and connection. AND I want to end the economic systems which violently oppress people and cause the horrific suffering of institutionalized and generational poverty. I want to see immoral and profoundly unjust bailouts of white collar criminals stop! I want to see corporate welfare stop! I want to fight fiercely for new stories to live by, for a transformation of the redistribution of wealth, and for a whole new and never before seen in America economic system that values life.

This does have everything to do with looking beyond those old stories that keep us separate from understanding the suffering of others and instead truly learning empathy. As Chuck Collins says, "Try to scale the empathy wall. You can't hate people you understand."

David Korten is yet another visionary who offers us the reality of where we are today and images of what new stories could look like. David writes:
We humans are on a path to environmental and social collapse.
  • We now consume at a rate 1.6 times what Earth can sustain. 
  • Wealth has become so concentrated that the world's 62 richest billionaires now own as much as the poorest half of humanity--3.5 billion people who struggle to survive on incomes of $2.5 or less per day.
Yet we manage the economy to grow consumption to grow financial returns to the already rich.
Our future depends on navigating the transition to a living Earth economy that self-organizes in support of three essential outcomes.
Please go here for the link to David Korten's work on a New Economy:
My home is full of books from these great authors and visionaries and many, many others. Every chance I get I go hear the wise and courageous ones when they come to the Northwest to speak, the ones who open my heart and mind and push me further along in my awakening. I have been passionately pursuing and deeply and soulfully committed to opening the eyes of my heart wider and wider and wider. I am committed in my deepest being to unearthing the obstacles to my loving and compassion. I want to know what I do not know! I want to be kind! I want to be inclusive and intervene on my judgments and finger pointing and shutting others out because I haven't let them in. I don't want to add to the violence of the world! And that is hard to do, truly hard. 

Our American culture is not healthy. We are fed stories and belief systems that keep us distracted and addicted and ignorant and turning away and shutting out. I know all this because I've been there! This has been me - apathetic, addicted, distracted, propagandized, indoctrinated, ignorant, asleep, separate, disconnected, just only part of who I am. I want to be whole! I recognize this beauty in myself today and in you and you and you and that's what I want to feed. Beauty and love and the wisdom and compassion and fierce caring that comes from our hearts when we allow them to break open rather than wall up.

There are different things that are breaking my heart open now. One is that someone I love is dying..... Another is everything that's happening at Standing Rock.... I'm aware in this moment of tracking a fleeting bit of shame, just noticing it coming in and now passing. Shame that Indigenous peoples have been among us since this country was first violently settled by my ancestors and likely yours. My shame is that I never noticed their suffering before now. Not really. I did not let it in. I turned away. No more! My heart breaks open! This is a good thing - to allow our hearts to break open! Otherwise we're shutting out, shutting down, and just plain fooling ourselves. And we're not being who we are capable of being in the wholeness of our hearts.

Elizabeth Lesser writes in Broken Open (another quote in Chuck Collin's newest book):
"I have tried both ways. I have gone back to sleep in order to resist the forces of change. And I have stayed awake and been broken open. Both ways are difficult, but one brings with it the gift of a lifetime. If we can stay awake when our lives are changing, secrets will be revealed to us - secrets about ourselves, about the nature of life, and about the eternal source of happiness and peace that is always available, always renewable, already within us."

I am so grateful today to understand that there is always another larger picture beyond the one I currently know, and one beyond that and another beyond that. What a gift! This awareness is reflective of hard earned wisdom and is something that sits on my shoulder reminding me that I get to be a lifelong learner. And it reminds me to be humble, compassionate, kind, curious, and brave.

All this brings me back to poverty in America and around the world. Just looking beyond our borders to see how it is that America is comprised of 4-5% of the global population but consumes 25-30% of its natural resources is beyond heartbreaking to learn about. But that is a story for another day. So let's start here, in America and in our own hearts and minds. Let's dispel the story that places blame for poverty on the poor. Let's actually stop blaming altogether, which is never helpful and just contributes to the polarization that is taking us all down. Asking for accountability, for new stories, for hearts that are brave enough to break open, for scaling the empathy wall, for the courage and integrity and commitment to look beyond what we think we know, and to never stop following the thread of truth and love - these things, to me, are reasonable. And so deeply needed. Desperately needed, and needed now. For the children, for other species, for our Mother Earth, we humans simply need to come together. And we can do that by bringing down the cultural walls and the walls we build in our hearts that keep us from the healing and transformation and peace and kindness and consciousness that we all need and deserve.

I want to thank all who triggered this passion and love to move through my conscious awareness and the words that come flowing out here from my heart. There is much we can all do to work together toward a more peaceful, just, sustainable, kind and loving world. It is time. It is past time

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere... A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring." ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
"Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it." ~ Rumi

 Love, peace, and blessings,


With David Korten


Pamela Melcher said...

Thank you. This is very courageous...a bright light :) Blessings <3

LAURA said...

I love you Molly. You inspire me so much. Thank you for being so courageous and for being such a bright light to all you touch. ❤️ - Laura Magrone

Nick said...

Thank you sooooo much for sharing this! We all need to reflect on things like this more and more. Empathy, compassion, removing ego. This is an awesome post. Thank you Molly!

Molly Strong said...

Thank you, Pamela, Laura, and Nick. Love & blessings to you all. Molly

Chuck Collins said...

Wow, this is beautiful, Molly. THANKS for writing it and sharing it.
May the waters of Orchard Lake and all the waters bring us safely home.

Molly Strong said...

Thank you, Chuck. You inspire me. I appreciate your work and your beautiful heart. Many blessings to you and your loved ones.