I lead a deeply unsettled life.
I have no savings, no spouse, and no children. I have lived in three different places over a period of four months — staying now in a spare bedroom at my cousin’s house. I don’t know where I’ll be living after this winter, though a friend and I are looking for a farm. But I don’t mind feeling unsettled. In fact, being unsettled has been a defining characteristic of my life.
I’m sure it starts with an unsettled mind. I have never been a good sleeper, always lying awake at night reminiscing over days past or fantasizing about days to come. I have been a bad sleeper since I was a baby, some 30 years ago. My parents tell me I needed to wail and rage every night before I would finally get tuckered out and fall asleep. (I was not an easy child.)
When I was about 8 years old, I cried for days when I learned that tigers might soon become extinct. That gave me my first sense of human madness on a monumental scale. When I was 12, my family hosted two child war refugees from Bosnia for a year during the height of the war. One was my age. Suddenly, I had a window into the reality of war, and what had only been an abstraction swiftly became a living, fire-breathing evil. What could account for AK-47s aimed at children? More madness.
Eventually, I became a dyed-in-the-wool activist. A productive day in my life might include organizing a teach-in or a sit-in, or spending a few hours planting vegetables in a vacant lot. Over just the past few years, I’ve marched hundreds of miles, slept on sidewalks, been thrown in jail, run for a seat in the U.S. Congress, and publicly starved myself for weeks, all in the name of causes most Americans would consider obscure, if they would consider them at all.1
I should add that, in addition to volunteer work, I have been gainfully employed too. I worked as a close aide to then-U.S. Rep. Joseph Ambrose ‘Joe’ Sestak Jr. (D-Pa.) in his U.S. Senate race in 2010, and I eventually became a legislative assistant to a Pennsylvania state representative in 2011. But after a few months on that job, I began feeling too settled. I was living in the town where I was raised, working a job with normal hours. I spent much of my time on the phone with constituents, explaining that our office could do nothing to help them, that this or that government program had been cut, and that we’re sorry. Eventually, I quit. Lately, I’ve been spending my time organizing in New Jersey with Occupy Sandy, a grassroots storm-recovery effort that grew out of the Occupy network, earning just enough money on a stipend to survive.
My late grandmother used to tell me that I ran the risk of being seen as a dilettante or a dabbler. She may have been right. But I don’t care how I’m seen. I’m comfortable in my own skin. And I can’t abandon any of the causes I work for, because each cause represents real people. My closest friend and colleague in the Sudan activist community was a slave — an actual slave! — from the ages of 9 to 12, after he was kidnapped by one family and given as a gift to another. Friends of mine in Honduras have seen their comrades murdered before their eyes. When my grandmother, herself an ex-Communist, would ask me why I didn’t focus on one winnable cause, I would respond: “Because I plan to be fighting these fights as long as I live. And after we win one fight, there will always be another.”
I’m under no illusions about the world or my place in it. I know my activism is not going to lead to world peace, or end world hunger (though I do dabble in plant breeding and aspire to develop some useful perennial grain crops one day). My activism allows me to live with myself. I can make some sense of this cruel world only when I’m standing with poor and marginalized people rather than answering their phone calls.
To those who love me, the unsettled nature of my life is distressing — as it was to my late grandmother. They want me to become “a success” — to have security, a well-paying job, benefits. But I don’t measure success with those barometers: I measure success in terms of how many people I help. I measure success in my own fulfillment and my own happiness.
“Settledness” is relative. As I see it, my future is settled. I will be focused on agriculture and social activism, and the great problems that face human society — at the micro-level in my own family and community, and at the macro-level on a global scale. I may spread myself thin at times, but I just can’t help it.
For all the uncertainty about the details of my life, I know that, even at its most unsettled, life in my world has infinitely more stability and security than it does for so many people throughout the world, both known and unknown to me, from Keansburg to Khartoum. Madness still makes itself known on a monumental scale. Yet I have a roof over my head. Those sounds I hear are jackhammers, not machine guns. I do not live in fear. I am not a slave.
I have my health. I am free. I have a voice. What more could I possibly need?
1 In respective order, I marched hundreds of miles against slavery and oppression in Sudan, and in both the United States and Europe. I slept outdoors once while protesting against the Lord’s Resistance Army, and another time in front of financial institutions with Occupy Wall Street. I was arrested once during an impromptu sit-in at Philadelphia’s Department of Public Health following its decision to ban outdoor food sharing. I was arrested another time while sitting in traffic with striking janitors in Houston, and still another while protesting in front of a Bank of America building in Lower Manhattan. The online news agency Politico called me the ‘first Occupy candidate’ when I challenged U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.) in the 2012 Democratic primary for her seat in Congress. I fasted outside the White House for twelve days in 2005 to bring attention to the genocide in Darfur, and then again for fifteen days in solidarity with hunger strikers in Honduras following the 2009 coup d’etat there.