Where There's A Will, There's A Way

Grain elevator on the Niagara River

Grain elevator on the Niagara River

I spent the month of May in transit from Portland to the East coast, first to deliver a talk at Magazines Canada in Toronto, and then, a week later, to Buffalo for my grandmother's funeral. Buffalo, despite its re-emerging art scene and its famously affordable cost of living, is a difficult city for me.

Our family comes from a long line of farmers, factory workers, and house cleaners. My parents were first generation college students, and both went to the local college to get their degrees. There's a story there somewhere: My dad graduated with a BA in theater and my mom with a degree in interior design, but by the time they'd arrived at Masters degrees, he'd turned to information technology and communication and she'd moved on to urban planning. For so many, and certainly for our family, when you come from working class roots, education is a practical tool, not a source of enlightenment. Will it put food on the table? Good. Will it keep you warm in winter? That's all we need to know. And that's kind of the feel of the whole city: If nothing else, Buffalo is a flannel-lined blue collar town, through and through. 

NAFTA emptied out what was left of our factories in the 90s and left a little bit of a ghost town in its wake. Around the same time, a little bit later, actually, I started attending a private independent high school well known for its ties to wealth in Buffalo, whatever "wealth" in Buffalo actually means. During those years, I learned about the way that power works in this world. With a tuition at the time of somewhere around $16,000 annually, you had to have means to send your kid there, or you could be on a scholarship. In my case, we had the means, but I remember looking at the payment options for tuition—you could save something like 20 percent if you paid up front in full for the year, or 10 percent if you paid quarterly or in two installments, or you could save nothing and pay a bit each month—and that's what my parents did. A little reminder that wealth and class are relative. 

The thing about that school is that you could tell who was wealthy—whether it was old money or new money—who was on scholarship, and whose parents were working hard to send them there. Like any private school, I guess. That's how I found out what it's like to be the kid who can afford to be somewhere but who isn't allowed to belong. The school itself almost seems like it doesn't want to belong to Buffalo, like it's proud to be at the top of a city that hasn't ascended in generations, since the grain elevators emptied along with the loading docks and the factories too, but it's not proud to belong to the community. After all, if you're at the top of a pile that keeps sifting away from the bottom, where are you when the dust settles? 

I am grateful to my parents for paying full tuition. It meant that I didn't have to take it when young, insecure legacy teachers on campus told me that I wasn't going anywhere when I didn't agree with them. But the thing about being young and impressionable is that I still believed them. And that's why Buffalo is a difficult city for me.

At 32, with ten years of full-time work under my belt, though work that has been meaningful to me personally, important for a more equitable future, and necessarily challenging professionally, I still know exactly how power works. How it either befriends through camaraderie, neutralizes by sharing wealth, or excludes by positioning you in opposition. It's in my bones. 

I’ll always be a kid from the rust belt. But I don’t have to be an adult who oxidizes.

We buried my grandma in Strykersville on May 7. She rests in a cemetery filled with family, tucked in by trees and long country roads, blanketed by the biggest sky you'll find in Western New York. When she'd pick us up from school, which she did every day for our entire lives, she'd share lessons with us she'd learned from her own teachers during the depression: Not can't but will; Waste not, want not; You learn something new every day; Where there's a will, there's a way.  

I want to believe that that's how power can work: That where there's a will, there's a way. That if we are empowered to search for our whole true selves—to truly understand our legacies of destruction and beauty—and we are allowed to hold them at the same time, we can find a way to will ourselves forward into a more meaningful, less destructive existence.

What's my will? What's my way? I'm working to leave behind the deeply engrained lessons I learned in school, while holding tight to the words my grandma wanted us to live by. I'll always be a kid from the rust belt. But I don't have to be an adult who oxidizes. 

Here's what I've been reading lately: