Flipping the Question

The summer I had my second daughter in 2005, the term “peak oil” surfaced in my world, first from a neighbor who came to see the baby. The term itself wasn’t so disturbing, but the potential social unrest was mightily so.

I’m sure Vermont has more than its share of the country’s population battening down the root cellar hatches and stocking the ammo cabinet to bursting. While I’ve been joking for years that my garden isn’t merely spiritual succor but also our homeland security project, I sometimes wonder if these hard-core survivalists just might be right, and I should be mapping a route out. What’s my reluctance? Laziness? Immersion in magical thinking?  Lack of ready cash to invest in an underground bunker equipped with a five-year supply of Spam? Or just, where the heck would we go? 

Evan Osnos writes in the recent New Yorker about ultra-rich disaster preppers, then winds up chatting with Stewart Brand, hippie cult creator of the “Whole Earth Catalog.” Osnos writes:

At seventy-seven, living on a tugboat in Sausalito, Brand is less impressed by signs of fragility than by examples of resilience. In the past decade, the world survived, without violence, the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression; Ebola, without cataclysm; and, in Japan, a tsunami and nuclear meltdown, after which the country has persevered. He sees risks in escapism. As Americans withdraw into smaller circles of experience, we jeopardize the “larger circle of empathy,” he said, the search for solutions to shared problems. “The easy question is, How do I protect me and mine? The more interesting question is, What if civilization actually manages continuity as well as it has managed it for the past few centuries? What do we do if it just keeps on chugging?”

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Morning commute, West Woodbury, VT

A New Compact?

Snowed and iced in today; no school. My teenager, lying on the couch, reads the news aloud, then shows her sister and me image after image. Although I’m hardly ancient, photos were never so prolific in my childhood. In her hand, she scrawled through the nations. It’s mesmerizing.

And yet.

Lying on the rug before the wood stove, listening, I thought of the Mayflower Compact, when those pilgrims, faced with starvation and illness, in a foreign and bitterly cold country, pledged to hold together for their survival. One of the aspects of small town Vermont politics I like best is coming together on metal folding chairs, looking directly at each other, and determining the course of our future, face to face. In these little towns, open meeting laws rule – not email and certainly not Facebook.

Don’t we need a contemporary version of the Mayflower Compact? Here’s a single mighty sentence.

Having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and honor of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God, and one of another, covenant and combine our selves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.

– Mayflower Compact, 1620

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Who Shows Up

What’s for dinner and politics fill a chunk of our household conversation these days. My Facebook-loving teenager keeps me abreast of the social media world, while I’m in the world of Democracy Now.

As we hurtle towards this contentious presidency, I keep remembering Gandhi’s insistence that politics begins in the house, among the most intimate of relationships. I see that in the wider circle of my own world as well. At school meetings, who doesn’t show up is as important as who does, and tips the balance of those conversations in uneven ways.

As we head into these uncertain times – times that are bound to get even more dicey – I want my daughters to understand both their actions and non-actions make a difference and that passivity does not equal patience. More than anything else, I pose this as a challenge for myself. And to remind myself that even in the bleakest of times – personal or politics, or where the two mix – that we live in a world of laughter, too.

Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.

– Paulo Friere, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

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Antidote

A substance taken or given to counteract a particular poison.

Ingredients of today’s antidote:  discussing a local school board plan while those mysterious blue flies re-emerged from frost-trodden greenery in the unexpected balminess, the tiny creatures hovering in the balmy air, trimmed with daffy fuzz like bits of milkweed. Oatmeal raisin cookies.

 It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Abraham Lincoln, November 19, 1863

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Woodbury, Vermont

A Sharp-Edged Sword

In my novel, I’ve taken a line from my daughter and woven it into a teenager’s dialogue: “What the flip?” the adolescent says, over and over, a tepid variation of an obscenity. At a tense junction, the girl uses obscenities, hammering her dialogue like a weapon.

In our house, we have a phrase that language can be both tool and weapon. To my great satisfaction and joy, I’ve honed my literary skills as tools of beauty and hopefully some measure of illumination – but I’ve also witnessed myself parsing writing in the sharpest and most cutting of ways, with keen intent. Truth is, I can use language as either, but striking out has never brought me any pride.

On this eve of this election, may what musters as democracy in our country emerge as tool, and lessen our divisions.

People rescue each other. They build shelters and community kitchens and ways to deal with lost children and eventually rebuild one way or another.

 

– Rebecca Solnit

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