Just Apples. A New Year’s Resolution.

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New Year’s is one of my favorite holidays. Not the debauchery.  I love making resolutions.  I find personal maintenance challenging so my list begins with things like sleep, exercise, and healthy food.  I tend toward isolation so I make rules like: if you spend one day alone you have to get out and be with people the next day.  I am happier outside, but I forget that easily so I make it a rule: spend time outside everyday.  I even tell myself to breath. Basic maintenance.

I can usually hold myself to a resolution for a week, but that does not mar my enthusiasm for the process. In my heart of hearts however, I know such individual efforts at self-betterment, without social structures that support our human welfare, are of limited value.  I know that thinking we can be “good” all by ourselves, or that every success is a result of personal fortitude, is not only false, but dangerous.  It leads us to categorize ourselves and others as inherently good or bad, to think we can eliminate the bad apples without upsetting the apple cart.

In the United States the number one personal resolution at New Years is to lose weight. It’s always at the top of my list.  Yet the Blue Zone folks have incontrovertible evidence that creating healthy community structures, not individual will power, is key of solving obesity.

Same goes for everything else we want to do as a society.  It’s not about rooting out bad eggs or apples and encouraging individual will power.  It’s about creating healthy, equitable social structures, systems and policies that encourage all of us to do better.

We are not the good guys if we resort to bombing the “bad guys.”  We won’t solve domestic gun violence by mental health screening because all humans are susceptible to mental dis-ease.  We won’t create a just policing system by routing out bad apples; the cart is rotten.

We are all just apples, capable of sweetness, permeable to worms.  As a society we need to develop the structures that encourage us humans to take good care of ourselves and each other, to share our collective wealth, to care for our earth, to mete out equal justice.

This year I resolve to meditate every day. My mantra will be: I am just an apple.   I look forward to joining all you other apples in 2016, to make a better cart for all of us.

“Sometimes You Just Gotta Give.”

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Four years ago this week, six months into a fourteen month bike trip.  

I had a bad feeling about the Imperial Motel in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, but the manager told us there was nothing else for miles. It was already dark, with wind chills in the 20s. Too cold for camping.

In retrospect, camping would have been a better choice.

“Cash only”  the manager said.
Most of the motel “guests” were permanent. They paid $40 a night — exorbitant for what they got.  Everything about the place was disgusting. The walls were oily. The smell was overwhelming, a putrid mix of mold, dust, body odor and smoke. After the owner put a screw driver to the heater  I could still see my breath.

The bathroom floor had the topography of a pit mine. Climbing into the slippery tub, Dave fell, slashing his hand.

The hospital was a mile away. We walked our bikes slowly, in a daze, Dave trying to keep his hand elevated. A jovial doctor from St. Paul, Minnesota gave him ten stitches.“When I was a kid, we’d cross the river chanting M. I. S. S. I. S. S. I. P. P. I. as fast as we could. I never thought I’d end up living there. I came down to work in Louisiana. When Katrina took the hospital in Chalmette, I transferred here.”

On the TV at a Vietnamese café blocks from the hospital, a slick anti-immigrant ad played between updates on a second Virginia Tech shooting. I thought about the guests at the Imperial and an emergency room patient who coughed blood and had no insurance. I looked at Dave’s drawn face, holding his bandaged left hand up, picking at his food with his right, in his own pain-medicated twilight zone.

Behind him, in stained glass was the likeness of a turtle.

Fifteen miles down the road, between Biloxi and Gulfport, we found a beautiful room for $35.95, checked in at 2pm and spent the afternoon at the IHOP eating whole grain pancakes that had become a comfort food for us.

Our route to Louisiana the next day hugged the Mississippi coast line. In Waveland, a town of 5,000 — over 90% white — we met Baptist Minister Ben selling oranges and apples on the roadside with a team of recovering addicts. The town was leveled by Katrina. I asked the Minister about post-Hurricane recovery. He shook his head.

“Recovery? There’s been none. The recession and oil spill destroyed what was left of our fish and tourism industries. All city workers — police, fire — were laid off a few months ago….”

While Dave chose apples– pointing with his bandaged hand– I shook my head sympathetically, encouraging Pastor Ben to continue.

“Without jobs, drug abuse and alcoholism has become so rampant the fast food companies stopped giving drug tests. Not enough sober workers to fill positions.” He pointed at the fruit. “Proceeds go to my Anonymous programs. My first meeting no-one showed up. The second week, three people came. Now 165 are coming every week.”

A pale man with shaky hands took our coins.

“We need good jobs,” Pastor Ben concluded, handing us three apples and three satsumas, “but the addiction problem is so bad, people will be in no shape to hold them when they come.”

In Pearlington, Mississippi, on the Louisiana border, we stopped at a gas station to use the bathroom. A spare, toothless Black man selling collard greens and garage sale items offered us chocolate bars and peppermints. It looked like he was more in need than us, but we were learning to take offerings from strangers graciously.   In Lakeland, Florida, at a gas station adjacent to a homeless encampment, a skinny man with stringy blond hair clutching a twenty-ounce can of beer insisted on giving Dave two dollars and got angry when he tried to refuse.

The collard vendor seemed to guess what we were thinking: “You can’t always be asking. Sometimes you just gotta give.” He shifted his gaze to the heavens. “I just lost my wife of forty years, but she did not leave me without. We had five children.” He listed them by age.  “Oldest, 38 …  baby, 28. The Lord’s been good to me.”