My mom recently saw an online photo of her daughter, protest sign held proudly high. “Oh, gawd!” Part embarrassed laugh, part groan; her response revealed a long-internalized instruction to be quiet and polite.
Those were the prevailing lessons of my childhood, too. Be nice, be discreet, keep a low profile. Easy values for a painfully shy, awkward kid to swallow. I didn’t recognize their consequences until later in life.
Be nice… For years I denied my need to write, afraid that sharing my truths would infringe upon and hurt others.
Be discreet… Far too often, I failed to speak out against unjust actions or words, choosing to fade into an accommodating background rather than standing up for those in need.
Be quiet… I didn’t know how to speak up when an adult put his hands on my 14 year old body.
In my early 20’s, I made a new friend. A woman who never wavered in her commitment to speak up for herself and others, and showed not a single iota of fear; I’d never known such a ferocious social justice ally. Words fail to express what a life-changing mentor she was, but I studied her every word, gesture, and action with awe. When she gave me this hand-painted Audre Lorde quote for my 23rd birthday, I felt that she’d bequeathed an invisible sword and shield upon me. That she’d blessed me.
I can hear some of you shifting in your seats. “Fine, Tele, whatever; what’s this got to do with fishing? I come here for the fishing stories!”
Fair enough. The point is, it was a slow, painful journey to learn to use my voice, and I still fall short. Most recently, I’ve been adding my voice to the Occupy Wall Street movement. A march here, a rally there; a no more to my bank and a hello, new team to my local credit union.
But some friends have frowned, “I don’t get it. What’s the point?” There’s no shortage of articles on the global grievances propelling this movement, so I won’t reiterate those here. Instead, I’ll offer a few of the more personal reasons why this particular fisherman chooses to lend her voice to Occupy.
Because I’m in a high-risk profession that depends on my body’s ability to respond to the work’s demands, yet I don’t have health insurance. Because all summer long, I fantasize about the consequences of a single wrong step on a slippery deck, or one thoughtless moment with a knife. Because I’m surrounded by fishermen who spent decades spurring their bodies to clean faster, haul harder – there’ll be plenty of time to sleep when you’re dead! – as if death was the only thing that could get in their way. None considered arthritic, gnarled fingers, froze-up knees, carpal tunnel that vined its wretched way from wrist to elbow to shoulders that didn’t move anymore, anyway. Few considered fishing’s absence of a 401(k).
Because I’ve heard critics grumble that those people should just get a job, dammit, and earn their way like the rest of us. But I have a job, and everyone in my circle has a job, and I’d challenge any one of those critics to give our job a try for a single day. Because we don’t work – we worship at a lurching, leaping altar of 18 hour days on our boots, no awareness of our stunning surroundings because all we see are the jewel-glistening entrails of the fish splayed open before us, immediately followed by the next, and the next, for what seems like weeks on end. We know the taste of fish madness, when we’re so sleep deprived yet still have to move so fast that we move beyond exhausted and fall into delirium, where we nod into our cold plates of spaghetti and drop into our bunks, our faces stiff with fish blood because it’s a choice between staying awake to wash or go to bed and we just don’t give a damn. Work is our religion, and we are glassy-eyed zealots.
Because I’ve seen the tragic results of fishermen whose intestines knotted into bowlines of desperation and clove-hitches of silent fear, as they told themselves that maybe they’d find the motherlode, if they’d just fish tougher, drive themselves harder. Maybe they’d be able to make that boat payment, or pay that fuel bill, or send some money home, if they got lucky this one time. But too often, this one time included a nighttime run where they just couldn’t keep their gritty eyes open any longer, or winds shrieking louder and waves grabbing harder than they’d anticipated. If they got lucky, they only lost their boats.
Because the Nerka is only one boat, but we depend on a massive support system to remain in business. Diesel mechanics, fiberglass workers, metal fabricators, gear manufacturers, processing plants and cold storages, freight shipping, grocers, restaurants, and you. For us to make it, entire communities need to thrive.
Because my family’s well-being is directly linked to yours. Because I don’t clean every fish to bloodless perfection, handling each with care and precision, just so my neighbors can’t afford to buy them. I want you to be able to enjoy this gorgeous, heart-healthy wild salmon. I want you to take pleasure in preparing a meal, sitting down with your loved ones, and when you bite into that first, sunset-colored flake, I want your eyes to close in reverence and your lips to curl in delight. Because every day on the ocean is a gift, and I want to be able to make a living while sharing this gift with you.
And that is why I support Occupy.
And you, sweet reader? Does speaking up come easily or hard for you? Where are the places that you use your voice, and where are the places you falter?
Special thanks to you, SB. I heart you.