Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Fear and Thanksgiving in Lancaster County

courtesy of jblaha, via flickr.comDriving to my parents' house through central Pennsylvania, we passed a billboard that read, "Without Coal, Most Cities Would Be Dark." In an alternate universe, I turned to Jeff and asked him to pull over. I popped the trunk, rummaged for my anti-propaganda protest gear, and scurried up the sign's scaffolding through the chill, foggy night. In an alternate universe, as we pulled away again, we left behind a sign that now blazed in bright white graffiti lettering the addition: "And We Could See the Stars."

But in this universe, we drove on without stopping. Four hours in a car with no radio. Just the two of us, the kitten in his carrier in the backseat, and the humming silence of tires on pavement. Long road trips always make me think about the future. Maybe it's the metaphor of traveling, rumbling through the dark towards that ever-receding horizon....

Growing up in the rather-well-off suburbs of Lancaster county, my family would often drive the two hours west to visit family living in the heart of Coal Country, PA. There was the highway known locally as the "Road to Nowhere" because the town it had once led to had dwindled away with the collapse of the coal industry. There was the ghost town of Centralia, whose underground coal fire has been burning since 1962, releasing toxic fumes into the surrounding landscape, and could go on burning for another century yet. And there was my grandmother's old house, tiny and dirty, where she managed to raise six children despite her poverty, the house where she lived alone and slowly losing her mind to poorly-medicated bipolar disorder until she died more than a decade ago. This is where my father grew up, who was raised partly by the local Catholic Church community that provided clothing and food when his family had little else to survive on. A local church community that was so far out in the boondocks that none of the higher-ups could be bothered to enforce strict conformity to doctrine. So my dad grew up believing all that nonsense about love-thy-neighbor and service to the poor, but never learned, like a proper church-going lad, to fear homosexuals or kill abortion doctors. My father never learned the lesson of inventing enemies. Cold and hunger were too real, poverty too obvious, and the relationship of an individual to the community was, in a very real sense, my father's literal source of salvation.

But all this is the past, the history of my family, the history of my father. Traveling as a child to visit our relatives still living in central Pennsylvania hadn't been about returning to "where my family came from." It had been about gathering for Christmas or Independence Day parties, getting together for birthdays or to meet the newest puppy adopted into the family. As a child, traveling was about anticipating what next fun thing was about to happen, seeing how the cousins had grown up while we were parted, or trying the new cakes or cookies my aunt had been experimenting with baking. And the drive home was the classic quiet, slightly-bumpy ride in the backseat, half-asleep, gazing up at the stars while my parents listened to soft rock on the radio and shadows of silos, barns and rolling farmland rushed by along the horizon.

Now when I drive through the dark, making the four hour trip between Pittsburgh and Lancaster, I think about the future. And usually, the conversation turns to politics. And I wonder if the kids will grow up in a world where it's possible for them to live ethically without sacrificing basic needs. Will they be able to eat good food that came from a local farm that didn't use petrochemical pesticides and genetically-modified seeds? Will they be able to earn a living doing something that doesn't fundamentally compromise simple principles like "don't exploit the impoverished," or "don't bombard the public with billions of dollars of marketing in order to brainwash them into buying your product," or even just "try to make the world a better place"? Will they be able to live in a world where war isn't inevitable at every drop of a hat or a pin or a tower or a word? (The second-oldest is reading Zinn's A Young People's History of the United States; when I asked her how she was liking it, she shrugged and pursed her lips, saying, "There's a lot of war..." And there I was, brought back to myself, realizing that I had been experiencing something close to glee until then, a kind of excitement or pleasure at the idea that we were helping her be strong and knowledgeable, that we were "fighting the system" and showing her that America is not the world's Savior and we do not always do the right thing. But what we are doing, really, is asking her to confront the fact that, yes, there is a lot of war, and violence, and greed, and senseless hate in the world. "Yes, but there is a lot of goodness, too. And courage, and compassion, and beauty.")

During our trip this time, Jeff and I talked about how we don't know what is going to happen. Nobody knows. Before 1989, everyone knew the Cold War and the USSR would go on forever. Just after the first World War, the Great War, everyone knew there would never again be such a devastating conflict, and yet in 1910 everyone knew there could never even be such a huge, continent-wide war in the first place, or if there was Britain would find it an easy victory. Now, actions no longer seem to have consequences. We have been at war with Iraq for more than six years; we have been living in a post-9/11 world for almost a decade. Is it just going to go on like this forever? Every year, the same tug-o-war to convince people that the earth is dying, that we're killing each other needlessly with both poverty and guns? Every year, the same worry, the same hopes, the same sense of uncertainty? Is it just going to continue? It couldn't possibly.... but can you conceive of an end, can you really believe that suddenly one day, we'll all wake up and come to our senses? Sometimes I really don't like my country.

And yet, I love this land, this landscape I grew up in. I love the family I have here, although they're scattered and imperfect. I love the rolling hills and fields and the random awful farm smells wafting across the highway that let me know I'm headed home again. There is a lot of goodness and beauty and love in the world, too. Very small moments of meaningful brilliance are going on all the time. For instance, Friday afternoon, after a typical wearing day at work and a late lunch, Jeff and I returned to the car to discover a tiny stray kitten hiding behind the front wheel. After more than an hour of gentle coaxing and tempting with smells of hot clam chowder, after strangers passing by sometimes indifferent and sometimes all too eager to help in loud, clumsy ways that only terrified the poor creature--the four guys who had parked behind us returned to their car and were more than happy to help. On their hands and knees, these young men who could have been college football players or barroom brawlers were cooing and whispering and reaching gently, with all the tenderness in the world. Finally, they managed to herd the startled animal out from under the car onto the sidewalk, where I caught it up in a sweatshirt and scooped it into my arms, cradling it against me. Trembling and terrified for only a moment, it soon began to purr in the warm dark safety, and peak its tiny head out to gaze at me curiously. So now, there is a tiny black kitten as part of my family, a brave, playful, cuddly little boy named Cu Gwyn.

And although the car ride was devoted mostly to politics and worry about the future, there was Cu Gwyn in his carrier in the backseat, curled up in his blankets, his ears twitching to the rising and falling of our voices. "Cu Gwyn" is Irish, and translates roughly as "white dog." In part, our choice in naming the kitten was ironic, stemming from a nerdy sense of humor and a suggestion by a friend who had just adopted a small white dog herself (whom she proposed to name Cath Dubh, or "black cat"). But the white hounds of Irish myth are also creatures of the Otherworld, guardians of the gateway between realms, hounds with glistening white fur and red ears, who hunt the great stag through the wild forests. And the stag is a solar symbol, an animal of the sun, of light and enlightenment. So I name our new kitten Cu Gwyn, in honor of that hope that we all hunt for our children (biological, adopted, or abandoned to hide beneath cars in the gutter), the little bit of light like stars in a night sky, like the little bit of white wisps of fur showing through the black. And in hopes that, like the man tossing starfish back into the ocean after a terrible night of storm, even if I cannot save the world... I can make a difference to this one.


  1. And what do we say to our children when our own country, that so shamelessly exposes the damages done by land mines planted by other countries, refuses to sign a treaty to no longer use land mines ourselves because it would negatively impact our ability to keep ourselves safe in the US? Disappointment isn't the word. Neither is disgust. Tremendous sadness comes closer to approaching how disheartening this recent news is.

    Congratulations on and to your new addition. May he be loved and know it without a doubt and may you be fur-baby owned to your hearts' content.

  2. I enjoyed your blog. I also grew up in the countryside, probably one of the reasons I so love the woods and hills. Your discussions about politics and worries about the future are understandable. But we did those things when my kids were small and my parents when I was small. It is always easy to look back on the past of our youth with kinder eyes, a more gentle time, a happier time. We wonder how our parents did it with so little. But then your memories and Zinn's book reminded you that those times were no less difficult than today, just different.

    None of the problems we face are going away easily. We cannot retreat behind our borders nor can we police the world. Iraq and Afghanistan are different than Vietnam and Korea, but let us not forget that we have had a military presense in Europe since WWII and divisions in Korea and the Pacific since the cold war conflicts. Going into Afghanistan with ground troops and back into the game of nation building was and is a blunder we are paying for. And for Pom, a lack of understanding of military strategy and defense in depth means that you will not be able to understand why the land mines treaty is so flawed and why we will not sign. It would be a better idea to push for funds to find ways for our military to develop personnel systems that can be deployed effectively and recovered quickly without friendly deaths. Just remember that nothing we do will make an enemy or an insurgency honorable.

    Organic farming benefits the middle class more than the poor who must stretch every dollar and do not have the luxury of paying premiums for better food. Water will become a greater confict in the future. Even here at home, we have only to look at the growing wars over water rights in the SE and western states. We can easily start replacing coal fired plants with natural gas but we are a long way from the green causes of solar and wind which have more problems than a leaky rowboat. Cap & Trade is a failure even before it happens for it would not solve the problem and only worsen our capability to continue R&D to make the green choices viable. Congress should take a more hypocratic oath to do no harm.

    The goals and dreams of a better world are never wrong. I can only do what I am able: to continue to make my home more energy efficient, to plant trees, to continue learning to be a better gardener, to give to charities and help my friends in need, to watch my children and grandchildren grow and take their own place, and to be involved.

  3. I love the calm, reflective tone with which you write. Even when you're discussing the world's problems, it's done with such gentle respect it makes me feel like the problems are soluble, rather than overwhelming.

  4. Pom, I've passed along your congrats to Cu Gwyn, who blinked at me and then promptly pounced on his own flicking tail (which, i swear, has been growing an inch overnight for the past week!). :)

    And yes, tremendous sadness, whatever the middling details of the current debate over how much violence is justified, by whom and for what cause. I'm reminded over and over of the loneliness and sadness that Chogyam Trungpa spoke of as the heart of the warrior's path.

  5. Jim, I think you're right that, in the end, we do what we can and we have to begin here and now, in our own lives and the lives of our family and close friends, long before we start planning complicated solutions imposed from the top down. And yet, I also understand and very sympathetic to the viewpoint that longs to make the world a better place in some real substantive sense--not only for ourselves, but for everyone--and the kind of politico-existential malaise that can set in. While we are perfectly capable and often very successful at governing our lives by a few very simple principles such as love, kindness, respect and honor, the world is such an amazingly complicated, complex and diverse place that it is easy to get lost in the details of the big picture and lose sight of our real values along the way. This is what I mean when I ask myself how our children will learn to make ethical decisions in a future dominated by huge, complicated systems of out-of-sight exploitation fed directly by daily personal living. Systems that weren't in place only a few generations back and that do present a new problem on a global scale that our grandparents and great-grandparents did not have to deal with.

    One thing humans are excellent at, from what I've seen in my still-rather-short-life-so-far, is finding reasons for the things they do. Whether it be war, or greed, or fear, or shopping. To give just one example, this past week while visiting my parents and revisiting my much changed and now horribly overdeveloped hometown, my father drove me out to see the newly-renovated local high school, now one of the "greenest" public schools in the country with many various technologies from geothermal heating systems to natural and solar-powered lighting, etc. What my father was most proud of, however, were the new sports fields: they were made of plastic grass. To me, this is mind-boggling, the idea that a school so committed to the "green revolution" would install fields and fields of material manufactured from petrochemicals that will never breakdown within the lifetime of our civilization. And yet, to my father, they were a marvel of human ingenuity and innovation. When I objected, he said, "Yes, but, it's much smoother than real grass, so kids won't turn their ankles." When I talk about getting lost in the details, this is what I mean. If we value life and ecology, and not merely efficiency and chic energy alternatives that will let us keep living however we like for just a little bit longer, how can we justify replacing life--even a non-native monoculture, but still life--with the deadness and permanence of plastic? Only by focusing on details like turned ankles and the saved expense of eliminating groundskeeping maintenance. (Meanwhile, my brother, who played sports all through high school and college, hates plastic-grass fields; the surface feels physically suffocating, he says, because plastic, unlike living plants, gives off no oxygen.)


  6. ...

    So I think that, while we must always remind ourselves that the babysteps of personal change are the foundation of making a better world, it's also important to call a spade a spade. We shouldn't make excuses for actions or innovations that merely continue to do harm, albeit to a lesser extent. For instance, oil-addiction is an overwhelming problem, but while solar and wind power are not feasible yet, natural gas is not a babystep in the right direction... it's merely a smaller step backwards than those we've been making for the last fifty years. It continues the bad habit of consuming resources instead of seeking a cyclical ecology of energy production.

    It is a difficult task, coming to terms with our own imperfection, realizing that sometimes what we do is not for the best despite our best intentions. We want either to be sure that what we are doing is right, or not to do it at all. But that puts us in an all-or-nothing frame of mind that often asks us to compromise our real values and justify obvious mistakes with trivial details, rather than face the fear of our own impotence. Then we find people willing to kill doctors over the "right to life," or escalate foreign wars to secure domestic prosperity, or install plastic grass so that their sons and daughters won't turn an ankle. Better, I think, to learn how to live with uncertainty, ambiguity and mystery, and to thrive as an ethical, creative, loving being despite that uncertainty, or perhaps even because of it.

  7. Elizabeth, Thank you very much for your comment. I have actually spent quite a bit of time thinking about it since you left it yesterday, and I don't know if I could summarize those thoughts here at the moment, but it struck me that this "gentle respect" for the world's problems is something... well, worth thinking about. It means a great deal to me that you found this aspect of my writing meaningful and helpful. I'm sure my thoughts will be congealing into a blog post sometime soon, at which point I would very much like for you to come back to read and respond then.