A Girl Dies Searching For Hope
It occurs to me that at this time last year I was closing up shop in Lewistown. At that time it was a great relief. The financial burden was breaking me, and the driving back and forth from New York each week was getting very boring. I was just exhausted by it all.
The Lewistown experience was a side-journey from life. When I bought the apartment building in Lewistown I had to make many trips there to work on the property. When I would drive around Lewistown I would feel sick. The place looks like it’s in ruins. The poverty, the heroin, the prejudiced views, and the lack of hope for anything better that undermines everything. The only place where there is any energy is at the Wal-Mart.
It reminded me of my years growing up there. Conformity rules. If you have the wrong haircut you are a Satanist. (of course the right haircut is a mullet underneath a baseball cap)
The Christians are obsessed with Satan. They love to talk about Satan. Anything you do you’re called a Satan worshipper. I was surprised to see someone opened a yoga and massage center. I spoke to the owner and she told me that she wanted to offer yoga classes at the YMCA, but was told that they don’t allow devil worshipping at the Y.
To be an artist is very suspect. An artist might likely be a communist, a homosexual, or of course, a Satan worshipper - unless you are painting a nice cabin by a stream with a few deer grazing in the brush.
Art is considered an impractical waste of time. They miss the point that art brings culture, education and new ideas. They certainly dismiss the value of creativity as an outlet. And a town with so much violence, alcoholism and drug addiction, certainly needs a creative outlet. Creativity gives a sense of purpose and a personal goal, a sense of accomplishment, and therefore self-esteem.
I have known a few truly talented people in Lewistown, but in the end their talent goes to waste. Their talent has no value within the community, and in time they begin to believe their talent has no value. Certainly in has no economic value in that area. All the artists seem to suffer from low self-esteem, which eventually causes them to lose their spirit.
If you are a Republican and Christian, who loves high school football and drag racing, Lewistown must be a wonderful place to live. If you’re not, you’re an outcast with little value.
To give an idea of the situation, the local movie complex only shows the most mainstream of mainstreammovies. The mindless violence of action films is fine, but they would not show Fahrenheit 911, even though it was the number one movie in the country. The even refused to show Moulin Rouge because it was ‘too racy.’ And that’s a PG-13 movie with no nudity or rough language.
The local art store caters to church-lady aesthetics, No abstractions, let alone controversy. Photos of Amish children are fine. Paintings of rabbits and deer are fine. But anything else is too controversial to handle.
Each year there is a local arts festival, but it is really more of a crafts festival where people hawk bird feeders and pottery. All very safe and proper.
The economic situation there is a disaster. The town was founded around a steel mill that has been limping along for the last twenty-five years. In a note of white-trash irony, a major employer during the 60’s and early 70’s was a polyester factory. Needless to say, that went away along with the associated bad-fashion trend.
Everyone shops at Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart forces the manufacturers to close their American plants and move them to China. In Lewistown there are very few good jobs and little hope for better times. Likewise, most people have no hope for a better life. This nihilism infects people’s spirits, leading to drug and alcohol addictions. (you’ve got to have some purpose in life)
The churches feed prejudice. All non-Christian religions are condemned as Satanic. The media is completely controlled by the corporations. There is not even NPR available as an option. Howard Stern is not allowed because he’s not ‘family oriented’ enough. Rush Limbaugh is the king of radio. The main radio station starts it’s day with ‘ditto-head updates’ and keep it going every hour. Rush is piped through car-radio-speakers like Chairman Mao through loudspeakers in Chinese peasant villages.
The other option for talk radio is Bill O’Reilly, but people prefer to wait to watch him on Fox news in the evening. The prejudiced attitudes Limbaugh and O’Reilly promote helps keep ignorance and division in place. It’s the worst traits of America collapsing in on itself.
I spoke with one of the town’s business leaders and he told me that they have commissioned multiple studies to find out why Lewistown is not prospering. The answer they got back is always the same – low self-esteem among the population. No one believes they can do or achieve anything. You can see it in every person you meet.
When I would drive through Lewistown these would be my thoughts. I would get a feeling of nausea. I was gripped by a malaise of disgust, sadness and inspiration. I felt like there had to be something I could do to help the situation. The last thing I wanted to do was go live in Lewistown, but I felt a sense of duty to use whatever I have learned to try to make some kind of difference there. My mind began to dream – in the end, I felt compelled in way I could not ignore.
I took one of the apartments and installed a group of computers. The Materials For The Arts foundations in New York donated two computers and I supplied the rest. I got the local newspaper to do an article stating that our non-profit organization, Arete Living Arts, was offering free computer classes in graphic design, web design, and video editing. In December I started doing interviews with potential students. In January classes began.
It was a brutal schedule. I was the only teacher. I would make the five-hour drive from New York Sunday morning. Sunday afternoon I would have a five-hour class with four students. Monday morning there was another five-hour class with four students, another Monday evening, and the last Tuesday morning. I barely had a chance to get a bite to eat with the tight schedule. It was harsh, but invigorating.
The students were something of a freak show of outcasts and lost souls. On the first day a young woman of 19 told the class that she was a heroin addict since 13, had recently spent two years in prison, and now was a single mother with an infant and was living with her parents. She looked completely out-of-sorts. After the first class she never returned. A few months later her mother called and said the girl had gone missing. She thought she had been attending classes all these months and wanted to know if I knew of her whereabouts.
There was an old alcoholic man who couldn’t remember anything for more than a few seconds. He would get very angry because all the computers were Apple. He lasted about three classes.
There was Jason, an overweight man who claimed to be a hermaphrodite.
Jason was a problem. All the wires weren’t connected quite right. I was trying to
teach him Adobe Photoshop, a computer graphics program. He seems able to
learn the technical issues, but his design skills were a train wreck. It is like
he was from another planet. I don’t know if he just couldn’t get it, or as I
suspected, he really wasn't trying.
He was a nightmare to look at. His head seems transfigured and he bled from
his gums. And when you ventured too near to him, the stench was sickening.
Jason was obsessed with cars. Each week he had a new used car he was going to
buy the next day. By next week it would never have happened, but that wouldn’t
dampen his enthusiasm for next week's car.
He was disconnected from normal conversation. The group could be discussing
a political election and he would suddenly break the flow of conversation to
announce the details of the car he was going to buy – repeating the story the
third or fourth time during a single day.
One day during class I overheard Molly, the second of two Mennonite schoolteachers say to Jason "I don't mean to be rude, but are you a man or a woman?"
As surprised as I was to hear the question, I was even more shocked when
Jason replied, "my birth certificate says male, but…"
I didn't hear the rest of his answer, but obviously there was some question
about his actual gender. For weeks I thought about the exchange and
wondered how the nice Mennonite girl could have the audacity to ask such a
rude question. Later I found out that she asked because Jason said he had
given birth to two children!
(For those that don't know – a Mennonite is something between the Amish and
a normal modern Christian. Mennonites can wear normal clothes and drive
cars. The joke in Amish country is that when the Amish get too rich they
There was also Tracy, a 30-something single mother who worked a day job at a drug store. Her face was worn and tired beyond her age. She was traumatized because her brother recently died of a drug overdose and she found his body. She carried an old package of photography work she had done years before. Clinging to some semblance of a past creative life. Tracy had real graphic design skills, but dropped out after a few classes.
There was a woman whose name I have forgotten. She was the first of the two Mennonite schoolteachers. When she came for the interview her preacher husband came along to see if Satan might be involved. You could see their relationship just by looking at their postures as they sat in the office chairs. He appeared combative and disdainful. She appeared beaten, but trying to hold herself with dignity. After three classes she quit because her husband didn’t approve of the Sunday evening classes on the Lord’s day-of-rest.
Some of the students were really extraordinary people. Small-town outcasts who felt the same alienation and frustration that I did when I lived in Lewistown. Most artistic people there end up living in poverty. Working for minimum wage at boring, degrading jobs.
Often the classes would turn into energetic rap sessions where we discussed art, local politics and culture, and anything at all, but usually centered around ‘the problem’ of Lewistown. At these times you could see that everyone felt inspired by the conversations and warmed by the sense of community created from groups of very different, yet like-minded people. In Lewistown is seems that the creative people have a hard time finding each other so they feel a sense of isolation.
My plans for what I wanted to do in Lewistown extended beyond the classes. I had plans to present gallery exhibitions to show works by New York artists and have accompanying lectures at the high schools. I planned to work with the local movie theater to present some documentaries and art films. Perhaps even have a director come to speak. Anything to bring arts and culture to the area.
It is here where I really ran into a brick wall. No one seemed to care enough to try to make things better. Everyone is suspect of someone who tries to do something for the community. There was no community support from local business people.
The local cable TV station refused to donate any public access time to present work by local filmmakers unless paid for as advertising. As a woman from the cable company put it, “there are no local filmmakers.”
The cable company also offered free ads on their community bulletin board to non-profit organizations. When I tried to place an ad offering the free computer classes the same woman acted like a mad woman. She called me a fraud. I told her that Arete Living Arts was a 501c3 organization accredited by the federal government. She said she didn’t know what that was, but she was still sure I was a fraud. As she put it, “I know someone’s making money off this.”
The local movie theater had no interest in trying something new or doing someone thing for the public good. What makes this odd is that on an average night the mainstream movies usually only bring in one or two people. Yet it is too much of a risk to try an art film or two?
The local Wal-Mart advertises claims of how much money they donate to community charities. My father worked for the Wal-Mart in the years before he died. He used to raise money for their charitable donations by asking for dollar donations from customers. For years he was the top fundraiser in the entire region. In one year alone he raised $12,000.00 in Wal-Mart’s name.
We appealed to Wal-Mart for a grant but were refused. It turns out they only donate to national organizations such as the March Of Dimes.
We did not succeed in raising any grants or other funding trough the non-profit to help pay for the classes, so all the expenses came from my pocket. Six months into the program my financial situation was a disaster. On any given day the electricity or phone might be shut off until the bill was paid. I was sinking further into debt each week.
I guess the students who stayed on in the classes seemed to get a lot out of them. Some signed up for the second set of three month classes. But after two three months sessions I was discouraged and exhausted. I felt like I was hitting an unmovable wall. I had planned to carry on the classes for one year, but I felt like a failure. I felt as if my efforts had come to nothing. I wanted to leave Lewistown and never return. I closed up shop and returned to New York with my tail between my legs. Grateful that my life was now simplified.
A couple weeks later I got an email from the parents of a girl who had interviewed for the next set of classes. (I will still planning to do the next group of classes almost to the end)
The email said that the girl had died of a blood disease. They thanked me and said that in her final weeks, thinking about starting the classes had given her a lot of hope.
I didn’t know this woman personally, but I as devastated. It shook me to the core. I felt like I had left her down by not going forward with the classes. One thing I know, in a place where there is little opportunity, hope is the greatest thing you can give someone. We never know how our actions affect others, or what meaning it has to their lives. People usually don’t express those things.
I have always seen myself as a dream-weaver. Someone who lays out a vision and asks others to believe in that vision. It is how something is made out of nothing. It is how things are created and change is made. But it takes faith from a community of people to achieve things. Sometimes I wonder what responsibility one holds when we ask others to place their faith in us. To put their life and energy, their hope, in one’s vision. Human life is fragile, and our spiritual life, even when unconscious, plays a powerful role in our well-being.