Like that time Gandhi stole those throw pillows. Only different.


January 16, 2013 by rebelwithalabelmaker

I had this great story I wanted to tell you.  It started like this:

This one time, I called my mom and she answered the phone with “I can’t talk right now, honey, I’m shoplifting a duvet.”

That is a direct quote.

I was in first year University.  Which was a time prior to cell phones.  I had called the landline.  My mother was shoplifting a duvet while in her house.

I sent the post about this to my mom first.  Since I was, you know, posting about her stealing stuff.  Unhappily, she emailed back that she wasn’t okay with it being posted as written and we needed to talk on the phone.  I knew it would be a conversation requiring much delicacy, given the issues at play — for her, it was about reputation, ethics, and identity.  For me, it was about that I really wanted to use the quote “I can’t talk now, dear, I’m stealing a duvet”.  So I knew it would be an emotionally charged negotiation.

“Firstly,” she said, “it was not a duvet.  You always tell the story with it being a duvet ––which just makes me look like an idiot.  It was a wool blanket.”

“Ah.” I said.

“The guy at the store said he wouldn’t accept it back because there was dog hair on it.  If it had been a duvet, dog hair would have clung to it.  There was no hair.  It was a wool blanket.  Also, there was a huge part in the middle that was poorly woven, which couldn’t happen with a duvet.  He promised to exchange it if there were flaws in the weave, and there were huge flaws in the weave.

“Okay,” I said, “I can change that, no problem.  Wool blanket.  Badly woven.  What else?”

The actual method of blanket stealing, my mother pointed out, was more of an “unassisted exchange”.  When the guy said he wouldn’t exchange the blankets, my mom demanded he phone the manager.  When he got back from the phone, my mom was gone.  So he called her at home to tell her “Good news, the manager said the blankets could be exchanged”.  And she said “Good news, I already exchanged them”.  And then she called the credit card company, because my mom is nothing if not meticulous.  She always taught me that whenever you shop lift a wool blanket from a store that has your credit card number on file, you need to tie up loose ends to prevent them billing you.

It was at that point in her activities that I interrupted her by calling on the other line.  Hence the “Can’t talk, I’m stealing a blanket”.  There is nothing as annoying as your kids bugging you when you are trying to get stuff done around the house.

“Be sure to mention” said my mother, as we discussed the blog post “That the guy had no idea that I’d switched the blankets.  There couldn’t have been much dog hair on the one I was trying to exchange if he couldn’t tell they’d been switched.

“Good point.  If I put all that in, can I publish about you stealing the blanket?”

“Of course, dear,” she says, “I don’t mean to be unsupportive, but I do want you to be accurate.  Otherwise you make me sound like the kind of person who steals a blanket for no good reason.

My family has a long tradition of “civil disobedience”.  We were taught to live as Gandhi instructed, and “be the change we want to see in the world”.

In this particular case, the world my Mom wanted to live in was one where she got to exchange the blanket.

One of the many lessons I’ve learned in keeping a blog is about how to tell others’ stories.  I have a general rule that if I have any reason to believe that a story I’m telling will touch a nerve for its subject, I run it past the person first.  I’ve had to modify this rule considerably, as I’ve learned that it is next to impossible to know what is going to touch a nerve for another person.

I have learned that what I think is flattering may not be, and what I think is borderline may be fine.  I have learned that even among those closest to me, we don’t agree on what makes a “good” person.  To my mom, it isn’t wrong to break the law, it’s wrong to break it for no good reason.  My son doesn’t agree, and is very vocal about this, saying things like “Civil Disobedience is what you do to liberate a country or end slavery or something like that.  It is not civil disobedience when you just don’t want to pay movie theatre prices for popcorn”.  I dismiss this point, since he is clearly just going through an “obeying the law” rebellious phase.

“If you want to post about the bed bugs,” Gary once told me, “That would be okay by me.  It would help battle the stigma associated with them if we talk openly about our journey.”

I had published three posts about bed bugs at this point –– it hadn’t occurred to me to ask.

These are the people in my close family.  When we start to imagine telling the stories of people who are very different from us, it becomes even clearer that we don’t actually agree on what makes a “good” person.  At school this month, in talks about shared space, someone mentioned how he feels that it shows a lack of respect for ourselves to allow our school lounge to be cluttered.  This had never occurred to me.  I thought a cluttered lounge said “Real life happens here.  Come on in”.  He assumed laziness and lack of self-respect on my part, and I assumed that he was trying to project a certain “uppity” image at the expense of being welcoming.  Neither of us was actually being “bad” in our own version of the world, we just didn’t agree on what “good” looks like.

Maybe step one is to understand what “good” means for the other guy.  So often, what looks like a lack of one virtue can be seen as the presence of another.  Respect for religious freedom can be seen as an indifference to the spiritual fates of those around you.  “Worrying about what everybody thinks” can be seen as “preserving honour”.  We have to start by understanding what constitutes virtue in one another’s eyes.

It gives new meaning to the phrase “for the common good”.

3 thoughts on “Like that time Gandhi stole those throw pillows. Only different.

  1. Bryan D says:

    Hi all-
    I want to begin at the end of Liz’s story – with the idea of the common good. In my experience, the concept of the common good is the source of much conflict and misunderstanding. I want to suggest an alternative. It’s not an original idea of mine – I read it somewhere a year or two ago. Here’s the plan: what if we try replacing the idea of “common good” with “public good”. Now it may seem that I’m just playing with words in the long tradition of intellectualizing values, but I say “not so”. The problem with the “common good” idea is that very few things in fact are equally good for everyone. Even obvious stuff like the air we breathe is complex. People from dry, or mountainous, or hot and humid places actually have different physiological needs and respond differently to the air that they breathe when they travel to another region.

    “Common good” leads to all sorts of well-meant but harmful Golden Rule assumptions; in other words, you should like what I like and need what I need. The reason for moving to the idea of “public good” is to define spaces (like a school lounge) where it’s understood that negotiation will be necessary and no single value system will automatically apply. Assumptions quickly become more conscious because we know from the start that there may be competing or conflicting needs and desires involved.

    Public spaces are always changing. Consensus isn’t always attainable. Maybe if we openly acknowledge these facts, we’ll already be a step closer to the kind of understanding that Liz is talking about.

    • I really like the idea of “public good”… I know that in our family, we often distinguish between “Good for you”, “Good for me”, and “Good for the family”… there’s overlap, surely, but not complete… i.e. something can be good for the individuals, but not good for the family…

  2. […] At this point I had spent half of the class sessions at the back of the room saying “sorry about this, I’ll join the group again in just a minute–I’m kidnapping a mouse.”  Yes, I am aware that I’m turning out just like my mother. […]

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