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The Art of Sitting and Being

“Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass on a summer day listening to the murmur of water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is hardly a waste of time.”  (Sir John Lubbock)

[Author’s note: I think of this as the ultimate summer post, which is my way of saying it first appeared on May 31, 2016. Even writers need to pry themselves loose from their laptops and kick back once in a while. If you see me on my deck, give a wave. Enjoy the fine weather.]

Some years ago, after a day of rambling through the 300+ booths of the Paradise City Arts Festival, I suggested to my husband Ed that we sit and be for a while. This was one of our early excursions together, and he had yet to master the lingo of his beloved. “Sit and be?” he echoed. “What’s that?” Somewhat taken aback—how do you reduce the irreducible?—I stammered, “Well, you just sit … and you be.”

Most of us feel keenly the press of time. Deadlines lurk around every corner. The rent is due. Taxes are due. Biological clocks are ticking. Careers must be launched and once launched, must be advanced. Running through it all, like a Greek chorus whose role it is to underscore the message, are advertisements exhorting us to Act Now. Don’t Waste Another Minute. Hurry! Be The First To …

timmybrister.com
timmybrister.com

The MO of modern life is constant motion. There must be something to show for every moment. Like some throwback to the 16th century, we have an almost Calvinistic need to justify our existence through keeping busy. What were you accomplishing on the night of June 6? Woe to the person without an answer. When did you last hear someone confess to doing nothing?

Sleep Bah, Humbug!

As a kid, I was horrified when I learned that fish lack eyelids and so cannot sleep in the sense that mammals do. I walked about for weeks trying to imagine what it would be like to be awake 24/7, unable to take a break from the demands of the onrushing world.

Yet, by an extension of logic, if no moment of life must be “wasted,” then we waste 6-8 good hours every night sleeping. Totally unconscious. Not producing one damn thing. (Note: I just googled “guilt about wasting time sleeping” and a whole slew of forums on the topic popped up. People worrying they are wasting their lives by sleeping. People worrying they are wasting their lives over worrying about sleeping. Even one insomniac who confessed to suffering guilt about trying and failing to sleep. People, get a grip.)

But we know we need sleep. Without it, the systems that power all that frantic waking activity break down. Our brains turn sludgy and after a while, we know not what we do. So, we accept (some of us grudgingly) that some portion of every 24 hours will be sacrificed to catching ZZZs. SIT BE CROP deadlines magnet

We have a harder time with the concept of resting when we’re awake. And yet, there is a powerful body of research that suggests we accomplish more when we take frequent breaks. Barreling through our to-do list like automatons on speed stresses virtually every system in our bodies, lowering our mental capacity and performance.

We pretty much know this, that our brains are in danger of frying from the endless rush and craziness, so we seek various compromises. We meditate while jogging. Strap music to our heads while raking leaves or cleaning the kitchen. Keep up with Facebook and Twitter while (ostensibly) vegging with a movie.

But stopping, truly coming to a FULL STOP—we hardly know what to do with ourselves. How can we sit and be? Wouldn’t we go nuts with the boredom?

What’s So Great About Doing Nothing

Calvinist hustle aside, history offers us some compelling examples of the riches to be mined from sitting and being:

SIT BE Newton_appleNewton was not “busy” searching for gravity when he first got the idea of it. No, he was just sitting under an apple tree, doing nothing in particular, when the notion of gravity hit him on the head, so to speak.

In the summer of 1916, Mary Gordon and her future husband, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley were just hanging out watching a thunderstorm with their friends, the poet Lord Byron and author John Polidori, in Geneva, Switzerland, when one of them proposed a contest to see who could write the best horror story. Mary Gordon Shelley won with her little gothic tale Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus.

I would argue that just sitting and being has inspired more discoveries and literature than any outburst of manic energy. It simply opens up your head once you shut off the distractions.

But what if you plunk your derrière down and nothing genius comes to mind? The workable design for a teletransporter is not revealed to you, nor the plot for a sequel to War and Peace. That’s okay. In fact, that’s really the point of sitting and being. It doesn’t require you to do anything.CROP LEAP NET charybdis and scylla

We used to be a nation of porch sitters. People would hang out on their stoop or veranda and just be. If there were two of them on the same porch, the conversation might go like this:

Person #1: Stars are out tonight.

(Minutes tick by.)

Person #2: Yep.

What I recall most clearly from that crafts fair with Ed is nothing about the fair itself—not the sprawling warehouses crammed with hundreds of booths, nor the vast selection of foods, not even the band. My memory of that day centers on the 15 or 20 minutes (we weren’t checking our watches) we sat together on a bench outside the exhibition buildings, relishing the early October sunshine, letting the hum of a busy world pass us by. Maybe we exchanged a few words. Laughed at something.

What I know for sure is this: We were completely at peace.

Dare To Bare Yourself

“So let it out and let it in, hey Jude, begin
You’re waiting for someone to perform with
And don’t you know that it’s just you, hey Jude, you’ll do
The movement you need is on your shoulder.”
                                           (Lennon/McCartney)

A few months back, I was watching an episode from the first televised season of This American Life. In one part, Dr. Brad Blanton, a psychotherapist, talked about his self-improvement program “Radical Honesty.” He mentioned a group workshop where participants disrobe and discuss how they feel about their bodies. It struck me that stripping down before an audience of our peers is the perfect analogy for being one’s true self in the world.

While most of us would not relish going the “full monty” in a roomful of strangers, it can be just as intimidating to bare our soul to the unsparing judgment of others. What if they don’t approve of us or reject us? Find us foolish, or unsophisticated, or just too weird?

Well, sometimes, some people will. But trying to psyche out what others want or expect of us, and then act that role is draining. It’s like living in permanent interview mode. The part when you’re asked where you see yourself in five years, and though your honest answer might be Sitting in Barbados, sipping rum and having sex on the beach (the activity, not the cocktail), you spout some corporate-babble about rising through the ranks, assuming ever more responsibility, and increasing company profits.

It’s a great recipe for depression and self-loathing, but not for happiness and health.

So Why Do We Do It?

Why do we hide who we are when the most natural thing in the world is to be exactly ourself?

As a species, we’re not innately, purposefully self-destructive. A considerable number of theories argue that we do things—even seemingly outlandish things—because we perceive a benefit. So, what are the perceived benefits of traveling in disguise?

1. Popularity. We all want to be liked. By aping the opinions and values of people we aspire to connect with, we hope to win their approval and friendship. Ironic though it is in this context, imitation is often thought the sincerest form of flattery.

2. Validation of our own worth. Some people look no further than themselves for confirmation of their own worth. Others look to a partner, a parent, or a few close friends for the occasional ego boost. But many people allow a wide array of strangers to adjudge their value.

3. Enhanced economic status. Money. Power. Fame. These siren songs of our material culture lure us to ditch who we are in order to pursue the acclaim of the high and mighty. Look at me. Look at me. I must be important. I’m a hedge fund manager.

4. Safety. To be our true selves is to risk others discovering our weaknesses and flaws. To be laughed or jeered at for our choices: clothing, pursuits, opinions, music. By adopting what is popular, we hope to escape the censure of others.

 The High Cost of Faking It

If everything comes with a price, the highest price may be the one we pay to win the approval of others.

1. Relentless suppression of own feelings, ideas, likes and dislikes. Not all of us are extroverts or leaders by nature, but each of us knows whether she’d rather eat Chinese or pizza tonight, watch La La Land or the latest episode of Black Mirror, go dancing or read a book. When we always defer to other people’s opinions or preferences, we lose touch with how we really feel. We fade. Compromise may be the bedrock of all good relationships and world peace, but true compromise is both give-and-take, and eternal compromise is never being who you are or doing what you love.

2. Misery of being self-conscious. When we’re faking it for others, we never get to relax; we’re always on high alert. It’s exhausting. And self-defeating, in every sense. Self-conscious people make everyone uncomfortable.

3. Wind up chained to a job, social network, or lifestyle that feels like a straitjacket. Years ago, I was struck by the fact that I have the skills to be an accountant. I’m good with numbers, organized, detail-oriented, responsible to a fault. But I have no love for the job. In fact, there are few things I can imagine loathing more. My temperament’s all wrong for it. I’d make more money but I’d be thoroughly miserable.

Just because we can do something, or act a part, doesn’t mean we should, whatever it gets us.

4. Danger of becoming someone the real you would actually loathe. It happens.

Who Has The Power?

The cost/benefit analysis of concealing our true self begs two questions: Who are these people we’re performing for? And why do we give them so much power?

The answer, in part, is found in our hardwiring. Acceptance by the group meant life or death in the ancient nomadic world where humans were prey as often as predators. Survival rather than happiness trumped all considerations.

But that world is far behind us. The depression, anxiety, and emotional stress that can zap us when we suppress our real self are far greater threats to our well-being than a saber-tooth tiger. As for chopping and changing oneself to fit in, the greatest loneliness often occurs in a crowd. If you’ve ever found yourself in a group wondering who are these people and what am I doing here, you know what I’m talking about.

And those people we think we have to impress, we’re the ones giving them power. A casual acquaintance of some years recently gave me the brush-off at a social event. Although this person had never struck me as a soul sister, her warmth and regard had seemed genuine on the occasions we met. So when she curtly cut me dead in public, it was not only a shock but a sting in that first moment, and then an anger, and finally a shrug. I had given her too much credit. Obviously, she was far less secure than I’d guessed if she felt her social stock would rise or fall on talking to me.

A good rule for us all: Anyone who doesn’t respect me for who I am gets zero power in my life.

Toward More Genuine Interactions

Of course, it’s difficult to be our true self with people who are false with us, and there’s a lot of pretense out there. But someone has to take the risk, break the chain. Be the change we wish to see.

If we want a culture that is more accepting, we can start by refusing to boost our own egos or cement group bonds by making fun of or excluding others based on their appearance, occupation, education, economic status, or preferences in films, books, and music. And we can refuse to “go along” when others do so.

Many years ago, I saw a video of an assisted living community. People in their 70s, 80s, 90s at a dance. They were having a great time talking and laughing. No one was sitting on the sidelines. No one seemed worried about their clothes or their dance moves. One of the beauties of old people is that they are DONE with all that. The posturing. The pretense. They just are.

How wonderful it would be not to waste all those decades before, hiding, worrying.

On a planet of more than 7,000,000,000 people, none of us needs to abandon our true self to find acceptance. There are many people who will share our passions, appreciate our strengths, value our love. How will we find them? By pursuing the things we honestly care about, and living in a way that speaks to who we are. If we do that, one by one those kindred souls will appear.

 

 

 

 

From One Moment to the Next: Turning Points

“There is only one you for all time. Fearlessly be yourself.”  

(Anthony Rapp)

Recently, I was having lunch with my husband at Uno Pizzeria. As we exited the restaurant, a large wall poster caught my eye. A bright, stylized train in a bucolic setting, the bulbous nose of its engine speeding toward the viewer, promising at any moment to break past the frame and emerge in real life: The City of New Orleans. Illinois Central Railroad.

Lawrence and David Barera

Decades dropped as I stood, transfixed, gazing at the embodiment of this thing that had changed my life. That moment when I understood what I could never be, would never be, and said yes to everything that I am.

Turning points. We all have them. They are the revelations that open our eyes to a truth right before us, the moments when the road forks, and trusting solely in our gut, we plunge forward and never look back.

I’ve had my share of revelations and forked roads, but I would choose two above the rest as life-defining moments—all the past on one side, all the future ahead, only awaiting which way I would leap. The first occurred at the beginning of 8th grade.

A Fool for Cool

Is there anyone alive who would wish to be back in middle school? Thirteen. It’s not just an unlucky number. It’s an abominable age, and I was no exception. Painfully shy and self-conscious (and at 5’8”, taller than all the boys), I was, to boot, a good student in an era when girls were advised to play dumb because “boys don’t date girls who are smarter than them.”

Peggy Lipton, the ultimate cool girl.

Mine was not an auspicious résumé for someone who longed to be popular. And I did yearn to be one of the chosen few. All through 7th grade, I rolled my (uncool) wavy hair on Coke cans to straighten it like The Mod Squad’s Peggy Lipton. I bought my clothes at Terri’s, the local teen shop where the cool kids bought their clothes. Finally, in desperation, I cut my long hair super short after they all bobbed theirs.

This last effort (regretted immediately) actually won me my trial spot. On a warm October afternoon, one of the golden girls, Julie, took notice of my slavish devotion to all things cool, and invited me to go to the 8th grade football game with her and three other Cools. As we trooped across autumn fields on our way to the game, they babbled on about some “cute” clothes they’d seen and the “cute” things Doug (class hottie, captain of the football team, 5’2”) said at lunch, and the “cute” shade of lipstick Donna was wearing.

Halfway there, I knew: I HAD NEVER BEEN SO BORED IN MY LIFE. Imagine the worst cocktail party you’ve ever endured, multiply it by a power of 1000, and you’ve got the picture.

I never saw the game. I left them before we even got to the football grounds, mumbling something about suddenly feeling unwell. But as I ran back across the fields, I’d never felt looser, freer, happier. A light bulb had come on: I didn’t need to win these people. There were better people for me out there. And I began to find them. I also began to say what I thought, to laugh out loud when something struck me as funny. To write my own stories. Sing my own songs. I grew my hair long again and let the curls fall where they would.

Graduation Daze

Nearly a decade later, after a heady semester abroad studying Shakespeare and contemporary British theatre in London, I returned to college with two trimesters left. I loved college. My crazy, wonderful friends. The all-night confabs about life. Discussing Borges or Faulkner in seminar on spring afternoons, a lazy breeze wafting through the open windows (yes, I was a lit geek, still am). But as the days dwindled to graduation, I wondered: What would happen next?

I couldn’t really picture a life “after.” For the better part of four years, I’d read literature and history. Studied psychology and comparative religions. Written reams of short fiction, essays, analyses. Even a few one-act plays. Once again, I found myself with a CV that wasn’t quite what the moment demanded, the moment being one where I turned my 180 college credits into a rent-paying job that would launch me on some sort of brilliant career.

I sat up late into the night, every night, and scribbled reams of poetry. I offer sample verses from two here to give you a flavor of that time:

(1)

3 ayem, the suicide hour

You can’t go back to yesterday

Can’t hang on until tomorrow

The bars are all closed

And the cupboard is bare  

(2)

So that you will know my face

The next time we meet

I was the one with the epic visions

And a few loose nickels in my worn jacket pocket

WHAT was I going to do with my life? All around me, it seemed, were people who had majored in marketing or advertising or some other field where you line up for interviews with the big companies who visit campus to fill their work cubicles.

I could write mighty anything (distress-poetry excerpts aside). I had a good sense of humor. And I knew the lyrics to virtually every song written since 1964.

It seemed highly unlikely that any enterprise cutting paychecks would beat a path to my door in the immediate future.

Besides, the thought of “suiting up” made me cringe. I loathed the idea of making widgets, of becoming a widget.

So there I was, full circle back to the beginning: What was I going to do?

Moment of Truth

There are moments you don’t expect. You didn’t see them coming. Didn’t set them up. But they arrive anyway.

Days before graduation, I went to my neighborhood pizza pub with my roommate Lorna. Weekend nights, they had folk singers, and I knew most of the musicians. There was a group of us who hung out after hours, along with the bartenders, just talking and laughing.

On that Saturday, my friend Dennis was playing, Lorna and I were sharing a pizza, and I was hoping a beer or two would take the edge off my near-paralyzing fear of the future.

And then Dennis played City of New Orleans, a song made famous by Arlo Guthrie but actually written by Steve Goodman. That song, that night, changed my life.

Steve Goodman

Riding on the city of New Orleans
Illinois Central Monday morning rail
There are fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders
Three conductors and twenty-five sacks of mail

There all out on this southbound odyssey
And the train pulls out of Kankakee
Rolls past the houses, farms and fields
Passin’ towns that have no names
And freight yards full of old black men
And the graveyards of rusted automobiles

Singin’ good morning America, how are ya
Saying don’t ya know me I’m your native son
Yes I’m the train they call the City of New Orleans
And I’ll be gone 500 miles when day is done…

I can’t point to a line or a verse. There’s no one thing that explains the moment I knew, but I did know. That I would never be a suit, never climb “the ladder.” That, faced with the choice, I would always choose freedom over security. And that, one way or another, I would land on my feet.

Maybe it’s like tea leaves. We see clearly at some crossroads the blunt truth in our gut, and give ourselves permission to go with that truth. It seemed to me in that moment that if I didn’t follow my heart, I would silence it. That what I loved most in myself would be lost forever. So I followed.

The Shape of a Life

To pay the rent, I got a job waiting tables. I began writing articles for a local political/arts rag The Lansing Star. No money, just a bunch of young writers enthusiastic about reporting on what was happening in the world and eager to get their words down in print. The editor soon gave me a weekly column and I started writing theatre reviews for the arts section. I also volunteered as a counselor at the women’s shelter, helping women who’d suffered domestic violence to break free of their abusers and build a new, independent life. Everything I was doing felt like me.

There was some blowback. My parents thought I was throwing my education away: “If we’d known you wanted to be a waitress, we wouldn’t have wasted the money sending you to college.”  But you can’t throw a thing like education away. You can’t make what has enriched you un-enrich you.

In the years since then, I’ve cobbled together a living, writing and editing and teaching. Not a grandiose living, but I have a roof and food and more consumer junk than I really need. I travel widely, rummage through used bookstores, and root for the Yankees, all with a husband I love dearly. I have a son and a daughter I cherish. I write novels.

What City of New Orleans gave me on that long ago night, when I really needed it, was courage. What I made of it is a life.

John Prine called City of New Orleans “the best damn train song I ever heard.” When Arlo Guthrie recorded it in 1972, its popularity made songwriter Steve Goodman enough money to fulfill his dream—a fulltime career in music. Goodman died at age 36 after a long struggle with leukemia. He left behind something like a dozen albums.

I wish I could have thanked him for … everything.

Remembering Our Mother: The Beauty of Earth

As we prepare to celebrate the 48th annual Earth Day, I’m reminded of a line from John Keats: “The poetry of earth is never dead.”   

I grew up along Lake Michigan, a mile as the crow flies from its shore. It was a rare summer day when one mother or another did not gather up the kids of our block and head for the beach. I remember the burn of hot sand on bare feet as we raced to the water’s edge, then plunged into its blue chill with the whoop of the saved. On a breezy day, white caps formed. You could hear the roar of them rolling, thundering, breaking before the shore. We loved white caps. We leapt like wild frogs, jumping high to avoid their slap, then sputtered, laughing when they knocked us over anyway. It was a real shock, when I went off to a landlocked college, to realize not everyone grew up on a lake.

When we weren’t at the beach, my friends and I often roamed the vacant wooded lot at the end of our street. Among its prodigious Queen Anne’s lace, honeysuckle, and grape vines, butterflies darted and swooped. Monarchs, Little Yellows, Swallowtails. We chased their flight, eager to see where they’d land next, and checked plant stalks for their cocoons. Vulnerable caterpillars found edging across the footpath or along the road were offered a stick or broad leaf as transport back to safety. As summer faded, we ate the wild Concord grapes straight from the vine. Of all grapes, Concords are the “grapiest.”

“Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.” (Gary Snyder)

My dad spent part of his childhood in North Carolina. As a young boy, he used to go camping for weeks on end with his older brother. Just the two of them living in the summer wilderness of the Smoky Mountains. In his teens, he built a boat with a friend and they sailed the 300 miles from St. Pete to Havana. I loved hearing those stories, imagining those experiences. The vastness. The freedom.

One of the indelible memories of my life occurred during a two-week stay at the Girl Scouts’ Camp Shawadasee when I was ten. After dinner one evening, the counselors told us to fetch our sleeping bags. We were going to spend the night on the beach. On arrival, we scavenged for wood and built a sizable bonfire. As the summer dusk turned to a dark shot through with stars, we told ghost stories and sang songs.

The ash grove how graceful, how plainly ’tis speaking
The harp through it playing has language for me.
Whenever the light through its branches is breaking,
A host of kind faces is gazing at me.

Sometime before midnight, we unrolled our sleeping bags in a circle around the dying fire and fell asleep to the gentle slap-suck of water on sand. At the edge of our dreams, a counselor strummed her guitar and sang.

If you were to ask me the definition of peace, I would recount that story. When I moved to the East Coast, I went down to Boston’s North End the very first day to dip my hand in the Atlantic and breathe in the expanse of that ocean. Echoes of a night on a beach almost 20 years earlier.

“If we surrendered to earth’s intelligence we could rise up rooted, like trees.”
(Rainer Maria Rilke)

The family vacations of my childhood took us to historical places and natural wonders. I guess my parents thought they had a duty to improve our understanding of the world.

So, as a kid, I wandered through Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave. It was my first venture underground and it started with the kingpin of them all. To call Mammoth Cave impressive is like saying Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups are “pretty good.” With passageways totaling 405 miles, it’s beyond enormous. It’s also OLD. The original part of the cave began forming about 10 million years ago. But the sea that made it happen, the sea that laid down the soluble limestone, then sandstone and shale, that sea covered the central U.S. 325 million years ago. Those are some serious numbers, even for an 11-year-old. Mammoth Cave gave me my first understanding of my puny self in relation to nature.

I was reminded of that years later when I took my own kids to hike the Flume Gorge in Franconia Notch State Park, one of several vacations spent in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The Gorge got its start almost 200 million years ago, at the beginning of the Jurassic period. Molten rock formed The Flume’s granite walls. As the granite cooled, it fractured vertically, allowing liquid Basalt to rise up in the cracks with a pressure that pushed the granite apart. Over time, erosion exposed these Basalt dikes, fissures formed, and water flowed in between the rock layers. Softer than granite, the Basalt eroded leaving a deep valley where the Gorge is now.

And this all happened before the Ice Age.

 “The earth has its music for those who will listen.”  (George Santayana)

The Flume Gorge hike occurred on our last trip to Franconia Notch. The first visit took place when my kids were 5 and 3. That week, we hiked the park’s easier trails. Autumn comes early in the mountains. The first fallen leaves carpeted our path, crunching underfoot as we walked. Its magic invited poetry, and I recited Robert Frost, Wordsworth. I wandered lonely as a cloud that floats on high o’er vales and hills… We rested on rocks to watch a waterfall. In truth, you hear a waterfall more than see it. The rush of so much water, tumbling from such a height. Close your eyes and it is the only sound on earth.    

If you have kids or can borrow a kid, take them outdoors. Throw some old boots and a couple of water bottles in the car, and head out. I used to hike the Quabbin Reservoir with my kids. As a water supply for Boston that caused the Swift River to be diverted and four towns dismantled, the Quabbin was a source of tragedy for its former residents, many of whom had lived there all their lives. But its generous watershed continues to protect 56,000 acres of woods and fields from suburban sprawl development. In the Quabbin, we spotted tree frogs, encountered wild turkeys, watched bald eagles soar. Hiking in the wild, there’s time to talk, the space to listen, permission to just shut up and breathe in the view.

“There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”
(Rachel Carson)

When I taught first grade, I frequently took the kids into the woods behind our school. There, we looked for nests, counted the rings on tree stumps, examined seed pods. But what really got them cranked up were the snags (standing dead or dying trees) and rotting logs. From the moment Nicole peeked inside a snag to find a nuthatch nest, we left no dying tree unexamined. The kids figured out that all the insects feeding on the tree, in turn served as dinner for the birds who nested there. They also found caches of food that mice, chipmunks, and squirrels had wedged in the crevices, and were amazed by an outcropping of mushrooms, growing straight from the rotting bark. Together, we witnessed the way a tree breaks down completely at its end, returning to the earth as fertile soil for new plants and trees. The cycle of life, the connectedness of everything.

“If you cut down a forest, it doesn’t matter how many sawmills you have if there are no more trees.” (Susan George)

The statistics aren’t good.

More than 34 billion gallons of raw sewage was dumped into Lake Michigan from 2000 to 2013. Some 50 beaches tested positive in 2012 for mercury, E. Coli, and polychlorinated biphenyls used in coolant fluid.

The Monarch butterfly population has dropped by 90 percent over the past 20 years.

More than 30 percent of Honeybees, so critical to our food chain, have died off in the last half decade, largely due to climate change and neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides.

Camp Shawadasee was auctioned off in parcels in 2011, most of them touted as “potential building sites.”

Almost half of the world’s forests have been cleared. Each year, another 32 million acres disappears. In particular, the ever-increasing demand for cheap palm oil is decimating our rainforests, upping carbon emissions, and threatening many species with extinction.

The natural world is under fire in all directions. And with it, our own survival. I don’t particularly feel like dying so that fossil fuel magnates can make another hundred billion, or companies that use non-sustainable palm oil practices can pocket a bigger profit.

On one of those educational vacations, my parents took us to Gettysburg. Standing in that green and peaceful place, I tried to imagine the Civil War battlefield that Lincoln spoke of so movingly in his most famous address. The dead and dying, close to 50,000 men and boys, their life’s blood, their final moments, spilling out among the muddy carnage. In that instant, so silent and serene, I understood that whatever befalls us, Earth will continue, heal up, perhaps to start over with some less contentious species.

For now, I am turning over the earth in my garden, feeding the soil, coaxing green shoots from last year’s dead brown. This season, I’ll plant Orange Milkweed, because milkweed is the only caterpillar host plant for Monarch butterflies. In summer, I’ll sit on the deck in the evening and marvel at the stars splayed across the heavens. What a miracle the world is.

And how lucky I am to be a part of it.

Every Man For Himself Leaves All Of Us Helpless

“The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation.”                Bertrand Russell

 

Like a warped record you can’t get to play true, America seems stuck on repeating the myth of the rugged individual.

He’s a self-made man.

She pulled herself up by her own bootstraps.

In a free society, it’s every man for himself.

Herbert Hoover was a big fan of rugged individualism. He invoked it frequently in the depths of the Great Depression. It was his way of telling millions of hungry, destitute Americans that as far as the government was concerned, they were on their own.

But what is this thing called America? Is it really just a random collection of 350 million individuals, rugged and not so, butting heads in a zero sum game to see who survives?

 The Pioneer Spirit

The much-lauded “pioneer spirit” of America paints a picture of the hardy individual, musket in hand, blazing a trail in the New World (his woman and babes tucked somewhere safe offstage). He’s a guy who likes to go his own way, live by his own rules. It stirs people up, this portrait of our fearless forebears, mavericks all.

Except it never happened that way.

When the first non-native settlers arrived, they took one look and understood the situation: It was gonna take a village to build a colony. The land had to be cleared and plowed for planting. Ditches had to be dug for irrigation. Roads had to be made. Barns raised. Houses built. The rugged individual did not do these things with his little shovel. As European Americans were to do for much of the next 150 years, the settlers accomplished these tasks as a community.

And those Westward Ho-ing pioneers didn’t travel across the plains as individuals in the family’s little covered wagon. They formed wagon trains, BIG wagon trains, because the unknown road was dangerous and people got sick, wagons broke down. Under the best of conditions, the array and amount of labor still demanded many hands. Someone had to hunt for fresh food and someone had to cook it. Someone must fetch the water and feed the animals, repair the wagons and tend to the children. Going it alone, for all the fabled glory of the intrepid individual, would have posed a slew of serious challenges. America might never have made it 10 miles west of Philadelphia.

Our Ancestors Had This Nailed Long Before the Wheel

When our nomadic ancestors began to settle down 10,000 -14,000 years ago, they did not pitch their tents as nuclear families or individuals. My tent here. Your tent in the next valley. They settled in communities. And before they turned to agriculture, they had hunted in groups. Why? Because for all they didn’t know about the wonders to come over the next dozen millennia, they understood this: It sucks to be alone. It’s dangerous and difficult and you don’t do too well.

To thrive and grow requires a society. As legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi said: “Individual commitment to a group effort—that’s what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.”

So, what is this animal, society?

A quick google of the question turned up the following:

“Society describes a group of people who share similar values, laws and traditions living in organized communities for mutual benefits.” (Reference.com)

“Humans are stronger as an organised group than they are as individuals. Humans in societies survive longer, breed more successfully and dominate resources. Therefore society is a survival mechanism and we have evolved for it.”  (S. Spencer Baker)

“To love our neighbor as ourselves is such a truth for regulating human society, that by that alone one might determine all the cases in social morality.” (John Locke)

And my personal favorite:

“Many times a day, I realize how much my outer and inner life is built upon the labors of people, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received and am still receiving.” (Albert Einstein)

Today, in our fast-paced digital world, with its glut of consumer goods and endless distractions, it’s easy to miss what our ancestors saw so clearly: We need each other.  If we don’t support higher education, we won’t have the doctors we need to care for us when we’re sick or injured. If we don’t fund science, we won’t have the research we need to discover cures for our diseases or environmental solutions to save our planet. If we don’t spend the tax dollars to replace our aging infrastructure, we risk repeats of the 2007 I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis that killed 13 people and injured 145.

Look Around You
  1. If you had a bowl of cereal this morning, federal safety regulations (OSHA) protect the workers in the factory who packaged your cereal, and federal food standards (FDA) ensure that toxic substances are not floating around in your cereal bowl.

Enjoy a tomato in your lunchtime salad? Farm workers picked those tomatoes, and trucks delivered them to your local supermarket over Interstates built by the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. (The $25 billion, 41,000-mile highway system was the largest public works project in America up to that time.)

  1. Borrowed a book from your local library recently? Public libraries are funded by local, state, and federal tax dollars. And to get there, you don’t have to take your chances weaving between cars in the street because local and state tax dollars, often matched by federal funds, have provided sidewalks for your safety.

3. Enjoy walking in the sunshine and having a cold glass of water afterward? The air we breathe and the water we drink are subject to federal regulations that monitor and establish limits for pollution on both. Though these standards are under attack right now and may be eliminated, they evolved as a response to the growing concern in the 1960s and 70s about the impact of human activity on our environment. The kind of concern that inspired Randy Newman’s 1972 song “Burn on Big River” about Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River, so polluted it burst into flames.

Scott Shaw/Cleveland Plain Dealer

Some 30 million Americans in eight states depend on the Great Lakes for their drinking water. But urban growth has overwhelmed marshes that once filtered runoff, and fertilizer from intensive farming has filled rivers with highly toxic algae blooms. The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, begun under President Obama, provides federal dollars to help protect and restore the Lakes area. The highly successful project hopes not to get the budget axe before it finishes cleaning up the decades-old toxic sites and restoring the necessary ecological balance.

Thanks to EPA automobile tailpipe emissions standards, our children can play outdoors without having to wear face masks. Even LA’s smoggy reputation has improved.  According to a 2015 Wall Street Journal article, “… researchers at the University of Southern California say … pollution in L.A. has declined significantly over the past 20 years … and as a result, residents here are healthier.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) adds: “The cleanup of California’s tailpipe emissions over the last few decades has not only reduced ozone pollution in the Los Angeles area, it has also altered the pollution chemistry in the atmosphere, making the eye-stinging ‘organic nitrate’ component of air pollution plummet.”

4. Deposited a check in the bank lately? If it was under $250,000, you don’t need to worry because the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, created under Roosevelt in 1933, insures deposits up to that amount. Imagine what folks would have given for that in 1929.

5. Glad there wasn’t an outbreak of the Ebola virus in the U.S.? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the leading national public health institute in America, was there on the ground in West Africa when the epidemic developed. They are still there, working to improve public health and prevent another epidemic.  

6. Ever been a victim of a tornado, hurricane, or other natural disaster? Then you were probably mighty glad to see the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) personnel arrive on the scene to handle clean-up. Even the most diehard opponents of federal  programs, like New Jersey’s Chris Christie, change their tune when disaster strikes their own house. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Christie was only too happy to take the billion-plus dollars that federal agencies like FEMA and HUD poured into his state.

7. Are you 65 or over? Have parents or grandparents that age? Thanks to Social Security (1935) and Medicare (1965), the people who taught our children, built our roads and bridges, staffed our hospitals, and kept the world turning in one way or another during their working lives are not left to starve by the roadside. Why should people under 65 care about this? Because one day, with any luck, we will all get to be “old geezers.” Because a society does not throw people under the bus when it’s “finished” with them.

The bottom line is this: When your house catches fire, do you really want to try dousing the flames with buckets of water from your kitchen sink, or do you want to call the fire department?

What Price the Public Good? 

Donald Trump said Meals on Wheels was slashed from his budget because it “doesn’t work.” Meals on Wheels uses volunteers to deliver hot meals to housebound people, mostly the elderly. Research shows that the program greatly improves both diet and quality of life for its recipients. And it keeps many of those folks out of hospitals and nursing homes.

So, people get a hot meal, feel happier, and stay healthier. How is this not working? Because it doesn’t make a profit?

In his 1940 novel You Can’t Go Home Again, Thomas Wolfe addressed this notion that what serves the public has no worth because it doesn’t make a buck:

I think the enemy is here before us with a thousand faces, but I think we know that all his faces wear one mask. I think the enemy is single selfishness and compulsive greed.

America is a BIG country. It is not possible for each of us to provide all we need. It never was. The myth of the self-made man and the rugged individual are, at root, excuses for not making that individual commitment to the group effort that Lombardi spoke of.

President Obama addressed this eloquently during his 2012 campaign:

“If you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own… I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there …

“….there are some things we do better together. That’s how we funded the GI Bill. That’s how we created the middle class. That’s how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam … That’s how we sent a man to the moon. We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people … You’re not on your own, we’re in this together.”

Warren Buffett, clever lad, nailed it in one line: “Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.”