"Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? "Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' and behold, the log is in your own eye? "You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.
My wife is white. The daughter of a doctor, she grew up in the same Northern California home until she graduated. I am bi-racial (black and white), raised by a single mom until she married when I was 8. When it was just me and her we moved often, lived in women shelters and small roach filled apartments and lived off of food stamps and government cheese.
Sarah and I met, dated and married in L.A. She designed clothes, I wrote poems. We have been together for more than 13 years. Although we have grown as a couple - the richness and depth of our life and love together is a daily miracle - occasionally a single comment can touch something deep in us, awaken a quietly held pattern of thinking, and threaten to divide us.
We were at our dining room table, going over the calendar and our finances when the issue of trips to visit our families came up. I thought the trip to her folks was too long. Then, I thought that the trip to see my folks was too short, and that, actually, we rarely see my folks. When I brought this up, she said:
“Maybe if we make more money we can visit your folks next year.”
The comment felt so out of line, that I didn’t feel very hurt by it.
But our back and forth intensified as a shift began to take place. What had started with me feeling pretty in the right began to slip into a conversation about my relationship with my family. Danger zone. My smug piousness began to enter into the unspoken heart space of my family. I tried to regain footing in the conversation, tried to bring it back to her comment, but my face changed. Warning bells clanged amid the distant locking doors of my heart. I began speaking in a way I didn’t recognize as myself; my pain was in full voice.
I have to preface the retelling of this story by admitting that I am borderline estranged from my family and have been since I left the house at 18. I rarely initiate a phone call. I visit, primarily when I am heading back to L.A.; there isn’t a lot of contact between myself, my mom and step-dad, and my 5 younger siblings (ages between 14 and 26). For years, in my mind, and occasionally out loud, I would attack Sarah and anyone else that said a word remotely disrespectful of my folks. It had become a sad, explosive ritual, a theater piece over-demonstrating my care for an abandoned family.
In those few moments over the years, you would hear a dark mixture of love and shame that arose from such a deep place in me that I wouldn’t call what came out of my mouth speaking, as much as emanating.
But now, amid the weird balance of trying to not say really hurtful things, but trying to say hurtful things to my wife, I began to realize that I had taken what she said as a slight, not only on my ability to make money, but moreover, a dig on my upbringing, family and overall economic worldview. It brought me back to our first trips to visit my folks where I was left with the feeling that she found my family distasteful.
I remember the first couple of times I brought Sarah back to my folks house, back when my 5 siblings were still young (2 autistic kids under the age of 8!). The house was messy, unorganized, cluttered, chaotic, kids running all over the place. I could feel Sarah feeling uncomfortable in their home and it made me angry to see my loving, creative, wise family looked down on by her. Instead of addressing the issue, I chose to argue with her while I, sub-consciously, over the years, gradually made the decision to sit back and pretend that Sarah’s family is our only family. It was so much easier.
My wife and her folks seemed like they had a perfect relationship. They talk on the phone weekly, her parents fly out to Detroit, they fly us out to Northern California where they live, they would pay for everything, they’re sweet, no one yells. I wondered, is this the life of all doctor’s families? Does money really relieve pressures on a family to this extent or is it just them? Or is my family just bonkers? Either way, all I have to do is swallow a little pride, let them pay for things, make the decisions and voila: peace.
This was never my single line of thinking, though. I had fought accepting any money from them for years. I didn’t want to be the black husband who married the white daughter and took money from the white parents. No thank you. I had lived without money my whole life, and I had chosen the path of a Christian and an artist (poetry and experimental theater! Yikes) and both paths, I felt, prompted me to explore the challenge and vitality of a life where money is not held as the primary security.
A while into our marriage, I found out that Sarah’s parents had set aside money for her and her sisters when the girls were young. Even after both of her sisters and their husbands had taken out the funds and spent them, I remained hell-bent on viewing that money as “God’s Money”. I figured there could be something that we would spend the money on someday, but in my mind, if we spent it on anything, it would be closer to an orphanage (or something in that painfully heroic neighborhood). It wouldn’t be a house.
But then we moved to Detroit and bought a four unit apartment building for $4,000. And as everyone who has lived in Detroit for more than 3 months knows, $4,000, after all is said and done often means $100k or even $200k.
Although the property, through passive income, would help us pay our bills, we had wanted it to be something more than that. We wanted it to be a place of community. But the deeper we got into the project, and the deeper I learned from the community on our block and the ethos of the city as a whole, the more I realized that if this space was going to be about community, I had to let go of the sense that I could build and pay for everything myself. Again, that already wasn’t the case. The seed money and alot of the ongoing support came from Sarah’s parents. We were, essentially the trust fund kids coming from L.A. and there was a part of me that couldn’t allow that reality to make it’s way into my consciousness. I didn’t think of myself in that way. But building this house with dozens of people changed me. I was humbled by the scope and reality of the work before me. I was too exhausted to care about my image.
One day amid the re-build I walked up into our attic (which we had intended as a prayer space) and I said to myself, “We need all the help we can get.” In that moment, it was no longer about me, through a liberating embarrassment my limits were exposed, pushed to failure, and opened to a larger work that existed beyond my capacity. Now, the only true way forward was through community. That being said, being humbled is all fine and good as long as, afterwards, no one says anything that hurts my pride.
So when my wife says “Maybe if we make more money we can visit your folks next year.” I hear division. I hear hierarchy of value. I hear her family is better than mine. In an instant, surprisingly, I was a poor colored kid from a lower middle class family being looked down upon by an upper middle class white girl.
“That money’s not even yours”, I shot back. “That’s your dad’s money”. “But that money bought this house”, I thought. I was stuck. Trapped. Disrespected. Humiliated. And there, in the moment, a decade long relationship with her parents, getting to know them, overcoming all kinds of issues between us, all of their love and generosity over the years, the mutual growth, my spiritual and economic development melted away before my eyes as this deeper insecurity and pain mounted up through my body. Everything they had given us was tainted. Generosity had become an ugly charity and I felt trapped by other’s mixed motives, other’s humanity. As we sat at the table, I wanted to get out; I wanted to separate myself from this feeling, from these things, these gifts, these people.
“You and the kids can go to your family. I won’t go.”
The truth is Sarah’s family is not perfect, but by holding them up to a place above my family, I unfairly turned them into an idol. A part of me felt like I was too good for struggle, that I deserved an easier life. My proof was my easier life. The recipe was simple: I wanted the artistic chic of poverty, buoyed by creative capital, with just enough resistance to drive my creativity. And secretly, I wanted upper middle class status and comfort. I didn’t want to be rich. Rich is cheesy.
There is nothing wrong with being a part of Sarah’s family. Love is the goal. The trouble is pretending to not be a part of mine. The trouble is pretending. Pretending as if I had been born into the wrong class, as if what I have in my life today is not a vast collection of gifts and influences from others, pretending like I can do it by myself.
I have tried for the last 20 years to distance myself from the pain and struggle of my family. But at that table, across from my wife, after all this time, I realized that it was me who was ashamed. I was ashamed of my family. I was the one who found them distasteful and if anything, I married someone who I thought wouldn’t disrupt my escape from them. Even if my wife felt similarly, her relation to these people she didn’t know very well was a speck to my log.
I dig at “rich” people for their white wine and their sunsets, for their lack of real talk, but in my own way, I have my own white wine, my own cool, relaxing drink that helps me forget the struggle in my roots, gentle sips that help me feel at home in a mansion.
And as far as my family, my judgment was unjust. Unexamined judgment has the power to distance hearts and distort reality. I had unfairly compared two different families at two different seasons in their lives and walked away with a simplistic assessment that I let fester in my heart and spiral out into patterns of being.
I don’t fear for lack of money, my mom raised me better than that; and I work hard like my dad. My mom and I didn’t have anything of material value when I was young, only the love that led a 19 year old white girl in rural Wisconsin to reject the advice of her older sisters and keep the baby after she was raped. What don’t I owe her? And my white my step-dad, my Dad, he married a white woman and accepted and raised a little black 8 year old boy as his son. What kind of love is that?