Monday, July 29, 2013

Alternatives to Convention

I write these uncomfortably true words with full admiration and support for the forty-five people who were arrested, with the utmost gratitude for the many organizers of who labored for months to pull the event together. I know that everyone who was there—in body or spirit—shares something vital and powerful in the deepest corners of our souls. As we chanted at the property line of the power plant, this is what democracy looks like. Here, democracy is wearing my broken, dissenting heart which still remains loyal to the unifying ethos of the movement.

My heart felt like a bitter raisin as I left the Brayton Point Power Station action on Sunday. What had been so full of hope, of love, was shriveled and heavy as a stone in my chest. The action was entirely successful to its stated goals. I was demoralized on a deeper level.

Friends and family who were not physically present, who followed on Facebook and Twitter and news and radio reports tell me that the action looked wonderful, that they are galvanized and jealous and proud and every good emotion I could wish them to feel. And, at a base level, gathering several hundred people together to walk towards a coal and fossil fuel burning power plant to demand its closure, for those forty-five people to trespass into the waiting zip-ties and unventilated paddy wagons, this is a strong demonstration of public outrage against coal and climate change and all the horrors held therein. On that level, I am proud to have been present. As my brilliant poet friend said as we walked together: “sometimes I guess you just have to be just a body.”

But in that, in being present, in being a body who made it her business to show up and be counted for the social media updates, for the eventual lobbying and creation of policy that will shut this plant and pursue clean and renewable energy, I felt keenly that I was counted, rather than that I counted. But, for the act of being counted, for that physical articulation of one more human for this cause, I'll likely attend  more of these events, in the same dutiful way I answer the Census and file my taxes.

That is not the way I wish to feel about making the world better, though.

En route to the action, another dear and wise friend asked what I hoped to see happen, what I hoped to gain from participating. I answered that I thought these things were a time for the choir to be preached to, for the choir to sing, that I was drawn to the idea of being among hundreds of people who share this passion for a better world, that I was excited to feed from that energy.

And as we left, he asked how I thought it had gone. “There was no joy,” was my deflated reply.

I am new to organized activism, to public actions and protests and rallies. I appreciate the efforts organizers made to communicate positively and proactively with the local police. I appreciate the intentionality and planning and structure of the event so that it was a safe space for infants and elderly and everyone in between. But, I also think that all that planning, all that negotiation, all that “dialoging” and agreeing and compromising and organizing, has sucked some beautiful vitality and fun and goddamn spirit of rebellion out of the revolution! 

Emma Goldman wrote: “I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from convention and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy.”

Granted, the entire climate movement certainly not anarchy, and very much is an intergalactic step away from most conventions, a huge release towards a life of joy. To me, part of this joyful life is where people don’t die of lung disease in one corner of the country so people in another corner can plug in their computer and blog to their wrinkled-bunny soul’s (dis)content. Or where polar bears aren’t drowning because I need to get from place to place. A joyful, unconventional life where I can laugh a lot and also be reasonably sure my daily actions do not have catastrophic repercussions is all I truly want. I know that there are private revolutions towards this kind of life. And I love that there is a public movement moving towards this life, or at least part of it.

But I worry that even climate actions and rallies and protests are becoming disturbingly conventional. We are trying, I think, to foment a revolution away from conventional ways of being in the world. We are looking, we are hoping, we are struggling to find our way towards those better lives and futures that are freer from corporate pollution and corporate control. I do not advocate violence or aggression against innocent or ignorant parties. I do not advocate for the damage of the property of citizens, or public property. (Corporate property I am more okay with damaging.) To have these sorts of safe, polite actions were every second is pre-scripted and planned, where we sing about taking to the streets while walking in a dignified manner down a narrow sidewalk past bored cops, to have all but eliminated spontaneity...this may all be entirely unconventional and effective as actions go, but it also speaks only to me as a body. 

It does not touch those deep places of my soul that I share with the other hundreds gathered there. 

I do not know how we create a strong movement of social change, of opening doors to other—joyous and unconventional, with dancing and laughter and undignified love and clean sources of power—ways of being. I have been on the brink of tears since I left Brayton Point trying to answer, even for myself, how to go forward.

After the march, I stuck around at the jail to drive the released arrestees back home. I saw three things there that spoke to me about how we proceed, that began to unwrinkle my raisin-heart:

First, the parents who did not want their college-aged, climate-organizer, daughter to get arrested, but came to the action to make sure she was safe and to see what she is so passionate about, and then came to pick her up from jail. The mother danced down the sidewalk to embrace her daughter. I don’t know that I have witnessed a purer articulation of love.

Second, a gray-haired couple with radiant smiles, both having been arrested, had a quick, sweet kiss upon being reunited. For all that the climate change movement is often viewed as a youth movement, I am continually impressed by and wanting to learn from those who have been fighting this fight, with stamina and passion, for longer than my entire life.

Third, one of the last to be released was a man about my parents’ age. He came out, laughing and clicking his heels together. It was the most joyful thing I’d seen in the entire action.

Based on those moments, I’ve got is this as a starting manual for going forward: 
1) We need each other. 
2) We need to love what we are doing, and to do what we do out of love above all else. 
3) Whatever we do needs to defy convention and definition and bring us joy.

How this happens, what this looks like, I do not yet know. But I trust it is possible. And that is the alternative I want.

(Photo is of the soon-to-be arrested folks as they set up models of solar panels and wind turbines on the Brayton Point property line. Well done, truly! Photo is from


Friday, July 26, 2013

Actions and Words

I am writing this while toying with the idea of being arrested.

This weekend, I’m heading to Somerset, Massachusetts to participate in a climate change action at the Brayton Point Power Station. It burns coal. I do not like this.

Thankfully, a few hundred other people don’t like this either. Last I looked, Brayton Point has 12 likes on Facebook. has 283,000. Boo yah. Sunday, many of those faces will grow hands and feet and bodies and hearts, and will be there, thanks to the organizing efforts of We will demonstrate for the closure of the plant, for the hope that a peaceful gathering of well-intentioned people can provide a few hundred more people with the awareness that change from the status quo is possible. And from the awareness grows the spark of making that knowledge live.

I love that we are now calling such things actions, rather than protests. A protest is loud and angry and frustrated. Make no mistake—I am all of these things when I think of the damages wrought on the earth, my home, by broken systems and coal and fossil fuel reliance and ignorance and apathy. But say: “I am participating in an action.” This is a stronger set of words, this is forward momentum. Protest is a raised fist, alternately petulant and bloody. Action is a rising tide, inescapable and unstoppable.

I’ve read and reread Orion Magazine’s “What Love Looks Like”—a conversation between Terry Tempest Williams and Tim DeChristopher. I have Walden and The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail on my bedside table. I have said that I would place my life on the line if it would protect the landscapes, the world, I love. A coal and fossil fuel burning power plant, this is an obvious a Goliath as anyone could find. 

And yet, I’m not getting arrested, there, this time. 

We live in a society that, on paper, values human freedom above all else. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” as they say. To willingly give up that liberty, in the cause of something you believe is greater than your own ability to come and go as you please…this is not something that should be undertaken lightly.

Or perhaps it should. Perhaps we should all run out and chain ourselves to doors and gates and trains and fracking equipment and oil derricks and blockade coal ships and anything that threatens our vision of a better world. Perhaps if enough people do this, we will finally expose the lie of the ideal that we—American culture—value life and liberty above corporate profit and the ensuing devastation of all life as we’d like it.

That is the third of my heart that is actively wrestling with the question, that wants to, or wants to want to, get arrested. One third is, of course, occupied with the practical—how long would I be arrested, what are the fines for whatever the chosen charge might be, would there be incarceration, who would watch my dog if I spent time in jail, could I explain where I had been and keep my job, will it make it harder for me to find another job when the garden season ends, could I tell my student loan officers that I had to miss a payment or two because I had been arrested for enacting the lessons of my education, and so on. Things like could I ever run of public office are of less of a concern—chances are good that anything I’m willing to get arrested for will be central to any platform I ever run on.

And here, under the logistics of that third, lies the heart of the heart of the matter: the arrests that will happen, I do not see them as the only true measure of commitment to this cause. I want there to be other ways to register passion for this cause. Perhaps I am just chickenshit or perhaps I am only pretending to care about fighting climate change and creating a better world. Perhaps, I lack the passion and commitment and conviction of those who are willing to put their free bodies in service to this cause.

But I do not think so.

If a police officer zip-tying my wrists together, if my mug shot and booking papers, if my wading through the logistical bullshit of being arrested, if any of this would be truly weighed out and used to protect the landscapes and lives I love, then I would be there in a heartbeat. My freedom for the pure air of the mountains, for cold winters and reliable growing seasons, for more icebergs and fewer droughts, for a way of life that doesn’t hurt the earth or another human…Please, if I give up my most precious liberty, give me a better planet in trade and I will call it more than even.

But, the (alleged) justice system doesn’t work that cleanly. I admire those who get arrested for the peaceful demonstration of their beliefs, for following their hearts above the laws. But I do not think that this is the only way to demonstrate passion. And I see, above all, passion as the magnet that will draw more and more people to this movement, which is what it needs. We all need to be shaken awake that it is yet within our power to create a new and better future. There are terrible threats out there, and much has already been lost. But, not everything. And we need every ounce of passion and drive to hold and reform what is left into something that can be great. We need to not frighten people away with either dire predictions of fire and ice or promises of certain arrest. Not being willing to pay fines or go to jail, I and others must find other ways to demonstrate our passions, to call in the troops who stand still silent, unsure of how to join. Arrest frightens people—it frightens me, for all those logistical reasons, for the reality that I do not think my freedom will barter for what I would it could. We need to demonstrate other options of how to meld our love and fury for the state of this world into effective tools. Arrest is almost predictable, expected, part of the tired patterns we must grown beyond. 

Dr. Sandra Steingraber, who was jailed for ten days this year for her acts of civil disobedience while fighting against fracking in upstate New York, continually says that: “it is now time to play the Save the World Symphony.” Everyone has a different instrument, a different key and style and tone that suits their passion. But played together…

In her phenomenal piece, “The Clan of the One-Breasted Woman,” Terry Tempest Williams writes of being arrested at a nuclear test site. She tells the arresting officer that the pen and notebook in her boot were weapons. I just love that.

And yes, both these women who I idolize have been arrested. But, I am more drawn to the Save the World movement by the power and passion of their words than by the legal representation of their convictions. I see my own instrument more clearly for their words. And that gives me hope that the instrument I choose can and does work. All instruments and ways of being matter here, matter now. Actions are not always louder than words. And it is important, vitally, to not become pigeonholed into thinking that arrest is the highest, best, sexiest, rawest, rightest, sole way of demonstrating the depth of one’s convictions, one’s passions.

Not to discount arrest in the spirit of heartfelt belief. It is a crucial instrument for the symphony, and my heart is full for those who will and do go down this path tomorrow and other days. How lovely, though, and how magnetic, to have more voices singing, freely, in a variety of keys. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A Love Letter and Invitation

I have met most of my best people through the mountains. Having this literal common ground is one of the brightest things in my life. We continually stumble over words to describe what it is that connects us—today I think that it’s as if we all discovered that parts of our hearts were painted in the same palette as the sunrise over a mountain range. Not identical, of course, but so coordinated and complimentary that the sum is ever greater than the individual parts.

If the world has any sense of justice, then I hope everyone has a place and community of this sort—like-minded people meeting and gathering in joy over an interest as common as breathing to this community. In the world of my mountain people, there is a combination of unspoken awe at the surroundings, a grateful delight in the strength and capabilities of our bodies to bring us to these places, a sweet riot of relief at having found others who share all this, and more. Somehow, believing that our hearts match, we open and are able to see and love each other deeply and easily.  The knowledge of that common core, this rides out the stormy times, the silent times, this is what, after years of absence, allows us all to pick up right where the friendship left off, as if it had been the blink of an eye.

We are, as one of my dearest friends noted a decade ago, the best versions of ourselves in these places. But here is the trick: we can, none of us, stay statically in these places. Practically, the needs of life—water, food, shelter—are brutal when the temperatures drop and the snows come. Also, these places are somewhat obvious constructs, simulacrums of life. At times, the simplicity starts to feel limiting, like one is coloring with only the original eight Crayola colors. These places, they comfort, and after a time, they do not challenge us much—if we could stay, there would be a marked danger of complacency. And so, eventually, and with full hearts, we leave the woods and mountains for the real world.

I am increasingly disturbed that this “real” world is built in such a way that almost requires us to seek out refuges. My friends and I, we try to make the tensile strength of the community the refuge itself. Sometimes we succeed. We come together, unquestioningly, in times of joy and sorrow, we often keep our non-mountain lives still close to each other, and we flee to the mountains together as often as we can, touching the touchstones, reassuring ourselves that this other way, this other world, is real and possible.

What I see now, as we grow up and are puller farther away from this place, is how deeply we all crave it. People grow and change, other parts of our hearts pull us all over the globe, and thankfully so. But there is always something, when we return to the mountains, something that falls back into place. That, whatever it is, is the thing that we crave, the thing that we are almost always seeking and lacking in the world beyond the woods. I do not know what that thing is—I suspect it varies as much as the complimentary colors of our hearts. But this I know—we share the place where our things come alive.

And that is what I do not know how to bring out of the woods, down from the mountains. I try, as best I can, to keep that fire burning in my own heart and bones, to carry the haven I seek in how I act in the world. But, when what I find most lovely is the concert of hearts and bodies working together, I cannot fully bring this way of being, this possibility of a better, more authentic world out of the mountains, alone.

I have thought of communes, of farms, of founding schools, of any of a thousand schemes were my people and I could live and work beside each other, but nothing seems quite right. I am not seeking to go backwards—the paths we have all taken from the mountains are magnificent and diverse. But, nothing else seems to have come close to offering anyone the joy, the peace, the unspeakable thing of communal life and work in the mountains. What I seek now is a way to live the good life of those places, amid the salt and challenges of the world beyond the woods.

And I am open to suggestions and co-conspirators on how to do this. On that front, as they say, the latchstring is always out. Please, come in.

(Photo by the incomparable Mary Kuhn)

Thursday, July 18, 2013

A Bunny Nest

One tries to not assign any sense of Destiny or anthropomorphic projection onto whatever wildlife crosses one’s path, but I don’t think it’s exactly a secret that I take something of an interest in bunnies. So it is amusing to me that bunnies—Eastern Cottontail Rabbits, Sylvilagus floridanus, if you must—are a common sight in my current landscaping career.

Further, I am endlessly amused that the bunnies are sort of irritating and twerpy, what with their nibbling of the ornamental flora and digging holes in the pristine beds and general mucking up of the fine gardens of suburban Boston.

Today while pruning and weeding, a co-worker uncovered what looked like a middin or a partially decayed animal. Startled, and not much liking to handle dead rodents, she asked if I would mind clearing whatever it was out. I don’t fault her for not wanting to dig around for a presumably desiccated animal corpse. After long years of experience killing and disposing of mice, I have no qualms with such activities myself. So I stoically picked up a trowel and a rubber bucket and set to. I did bury half of a dead bunny in another garden last week, so it seemed fairly acceptable and balanced that I’d have to deal with at least another half ex-bunny. Blah blah blah, in the midst of life we are in death, blah blah blah. I would have left the animal buried and let the bones of the dead feed the life of the plants, but I guess that is not protocol in a manicured hedge alongside a fancy deck and hot tub.

So it goes.

Under the loose leaves and duff, I found and shifted aside a layer of very soft gray-brown bunny fur. I nudged the trowel a little deeper. The dirt squeaked. I checked the fur, thinking that maybe the resident dog had killed and buried a squeaky toy. It was definitely fur, not plush stuffing.

Tentatively, I brushed the remaining fur and grass aside.

At least two baby bunnies were frantically burrowing deeper and deeper into their nest. Yes, they were completely adorable.

I know that baby bunnies are not a particularly safe bet in terms of survival, or as a symbol of anything legitimately viable. Parent bunnies will eat their own young if a threat is imminent. I am worried that my accidental invasion of the bunny-nest will leave too much of a human scent and the mother bunny will never return to her baby-bunnies, that my stagger moment of delight at seeing them will lead to their death. I don’t know if this sort of poetically grotesque action comes from a wish to save the offspring the coming misery, or if the parents are simply cramming in calories to ward off the hard times. But the brutal, biological reality does make any attempts at cyclic imagery sort of moot.

However, this is the thought I’ve been turning over all day, like a lucky coin or rabbit’s foot: I expected death and found life. Reality, again, defies preconceptions and that surprise of what truly is proves sweeter and more beautiful. (Or, if not more beautiful, about a kajillion times cuter.)

Most of the people I know are trying, constantly, to live better lives. Not better with the bigger house and the faster car, but better with making the world a kinder place. How they all, we all, go about this is a gorgeous kaleidoscope of passion and talent and courage. I know people working to saving ancient gardens in Istanbul, people on glaciers in Iceland, people teaching students how to be in this world, people reaching their hands out to the world in everyway possible and straining to give their best to others, and to receive the best that others can give. None of us know how this will pan out. This seems to be a new and twisting path, a way without expectations and benchmarks and moulds and models. The old paths and expectations are not working, largely. So we're doing something else, uncertain as it is. As the French say: bonne idée!

I love what we are capable of finding beyond expectations.

(Thanks again to Abby King for this adorable bunny photo.)

Friday, July 12, 2013

Wedding Lessons

It has been said that when your tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Conversely, when your quest is to bump the world out of all our dangerous ruts and devastating patterns, every action, reaction, and interaction becomes a potential model of how to go about this.

I am skeptical of the ordinary. Traditions have a solid place in my heart, but I shudder at actions performed by rote or done under the auspices of the twin scourges of "should" and "supposed to." A lot of good will come from erasing these words from our vocabularies, washing them off our souls and going forward with only the thoughts of doing what is right by our own lights.

This is the time of life where I attend friends' weddings with intense regularity. While I still have zero interest in dancing the Electric Slide and maintain mixed feelings on marriage personally, I feel incredibly fortunate to witness so many dear friends choosing and committing to building a loving life with another good human.

I have yet to attend a bad or boring wedding. One friend--married last summer at an air field--says she thinks because people are getting married older than has been traditional, everyone knows themselves better and makes the wedding in kind. Personally, I think it is because I am friends with the greatest people on earth, people who are joyfully allergic to inauthentic bullshit, who do not lose sleep over temporal details, who don't care what they are supposed to do, what a wedding should look like, but know that they want to celebrate the hell out of their partner and their new life together. It makes for some fun times.

At the most recent wedding I attended, the d.j. couldn't get the music to play for the bride to walk down the aisle. I suppose at some weddings, this would constitute a major emergency. Mascara and eyeliner would be running down the bride's face, someone else would be red-faced and screaming that "this is bullshit!," and that lovely, quiet time when one human walks towards another in utter love, would have been shattered.

To mar that moment would have been criminal. So, after a long few minutes of waiting, the bride began to walk, unheralded. Her beautiful adaptability, her willingness to walk against expectations, at that moment was breathtaking. And, as she neared the guests assembled under the trees, the altar, and her now-husband, someone began humming "Here Comes the Bride." And everyone, halting and off key, joined in.

I can think of no sweeter response to the presumed disaster.

Our answers to the troubles of this world will come from the same place as whoever began to hum. And it is time to recognize that we must hum. We will usher new ways of being forward with that same upswelling, organic spirit of delight, of support, of utter joy, and love. The technology, the supposed to and the should, these will break, they are breaking and broken. From oil trains to pipelines to fraying infrastructure the true disasters are pooling up. What happens next, we cannot know. But, from somewhere deep within, the right things are starting to rise up and be seen, be heard. We may be off key and imperfect, but we are far, far more capable than we can yet know. It is time to join in.

Friday, July 5, 2013

The Fifth of July

The final scene of “The Graduate” was stuck in my head today. Just the last minute or so, after they run away from the wedding, the long shot away as they sit on the bus, trying to reconcile the enormity of their choice, their actions, with whatever happens next.

Today is the Fifth of July. My many compliments to Eddie from Ohio for their song titled for today, and I’ll re-ask the question—“now what?” I heard the song for the first time this morning, while contemplating how we should could will act on our glorious independence and make lives of equality and happiness. (An apt and constant quest, I think.)

What happens on the morning after something big? Living in Boston—and wanting to foment a revolution of sorts—I wonder about the immediate moments after John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and their Continental drinking buddies signed the Declaration of Independence. Historical records will give a pretty dry account of the particulars of who signed where and when and how many broadsides were distributed, if this sacrosanct piece of our American identity ever made it to King George’s desk, and all the rest. In those details, we get a little closer to seeing these Founding Fathers as men, as mortal and human. We can understand the time it took, to see that coming to truth with one’s claimed liberty is not as easy a process as a history test would make it seem.

I want to know of the twin-knot of apprehension and exhilaration that must have been roiling beneath their broadcloth coats and homespun shirts. Were their feet hot and nervously sweating and tapping in their boots, looking for the next step? Imagine the impatience, the nervous stomachs of these men whose names and signatures on a document demanding the world be more just, of calving away from the known like an iceberg, floating away in the icy sea. To think of their fear and nervousness makes their actions braver. I prefer my heroes be mortal, fearful, fallible, daring humans pushing a little beyond the known systems of the world. In that light, I try to do things that scare me a little, to dare myself past my comfort zone, and sometimes promise more than I safely can, all of this just to force myself towards what I sense may be possible. Sometimes, I find myself stronger or more flexible or more capable than I had previously thought. Sometimes, I fall, bruise my knees, fail and cry and maybe break a bone or my heart or something irreparable, but really, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

I’d like to think of the Founding Fellas wandering around the hot streets of Philadelphia that summer, daring themselves to, and then creating this document, while still unsure that they could pull off their revolution, and further, if they could pull off the trick of founding a free and fair country, of throwing off the shackles of tyranny and make a better world. (Just for today, I’ll leave off most of my opinions on how my definition of free and fair seems to differ markedly from what those chaps decided in 1776.)

There is undoubted greatness in the act of declaring. It takes enormous courage to break away from the normal patterns, as much in our own lives as in a political sense—if you still persist in believing that politics are not personal. To come to the place of knowing that a system is broken, this takes time to admit. This takes the hard effort of convincing oneself that you are not losing your mind, because you find the status quo flawed. This takes finding others who share your questions, who will search for answers with you. And it takes a brave voice to say, “The emperor has no clothes” or “We hold these truths to be self evident” or “I won’t be paying my taxes if they are going towards a war I do not support” or “I won’t move to the back of the bus.” We may begin our revolutions in whispers among friends, but there comes a time when the truth must rumble louder and disturb the peace.

But, here, after the statements have been made, the dramatic moments and seeming climaxes of the stories, what happens? What do we do, after the party dies down?

I believe that the answer is that we do the often unglamorous work to back up our passions and ideals and demands of freedom. To do otherwise would be dishonest to the courage it took to make our stand. To not hew closely to the wild truth, once spoken, undermines the power of the words. Most flag poles are not weight bearing—flags and words may be our guides and totems, but they are not the whole of the work to build better worlds. 

The work is hard. Creating a fair, free, kind, and somewhat simpler world will (does) take love, time, commitment, and laborious effort. It will be may be brutal and, sometimes heart or back breaking. It will also be beautiful, and we will wonder why we ever lived any other way. And it will not be quick. This is a marathon, not a wind sprint. We are heading into undiscovered country, our declarations thrown out before us like kites tied to our hearts. What we do on the Fifth of July is take a long, hard look at what we have declared, what we have promised ourselves, if no one else. And then we begin to live accordingly. “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.” That is what Ghandi said, that which has been watered down to the usual quote.

Today, and everyday hence, is time to be brave, to be passionate, to think of what could be, and then change ourselves accordingly. And to be committed, in the hard times, when the work we have chosen is a struggle, to the promise within our own passions.

To end where I began: Shakespeare’s comedies and Jane Austen’s canon all end with the wedding. We do not see much of the marriages. Not being married, I can’t know for certain, but it seems that the life after the declaration, after the action, is where the heart of our revolutions and new lives can be found. Two dear friends were married last summer. Months before, when I rsvp-ed, I gushed, “Golly! Your wedding is going to be so fun!”

“Yeah,” replied the bride. “I think the marriage is going to be pretty great also, and I’m really more excited about that part.” If I ever trot down any aisles, it'll be in that spirit.

So, by all means, let’s set off our fireworks and celebrate and declare and do passionate and daring and frightening things! And, then, let us wake up in the aftermath, find our feet and hands and hearts and together begin the joyful struggle of making the world a truly free, fair, and kind place. If we are nervous and unsure at times, as we dare ourselves towards something unknown, then so much the better. How else will we learn just how much we are capable of?

Happy Fifth of July!

Monday, July 1, 2013

Educational Values

It is July 1, so student loan interest rates are now set to double. This only applies to Federal Stafford loans, and I can assure anyone out there that there are plenty of other groups and banks and sharp-toothed lenders out there who are already operating at high interest rates, but it is still bad.

I was driving home today, listening to NPR. WBUR, out of Boston, specifically. Radio Boston was the program in question, and listeners were calling in to discuss their views on the recent, as of today, hike in student loan interest rates. The program is here:

I started listening just about when a woman called in who seems to be in the same boat I am: expensive education, loans taken out with the promise that: “with your education you’ll pay these back probably in less time than the life of the loan,” a terrifying mountain of debt, and a constant struggle to find work that pays a living-with-loans-wage, never mind employment in the vague field of said education. I’ve been her, the tears catching as you try to tell the story of your education, of your life, hoping that maybe—if you say the truth enough, it can change. I admire this lady's courage for calling in, for announcing where so many of us are.

I’ve filled out more “Economic Hardship Deferment” and “Income Based Repayment” forms than I like to remember. While grateful for these programs—and for the abolition of Dickensian debtors prisons—my stomach feels slimy at these times, as if I’m cheating, or trying to steal my education from the government, from the banks and institutions who hold my tens of thousands of dollars of debt. And I’ve cried hot tears, before swallowing my veneer of pride and taking a loan from my parents during the various hard times and emergencies. I love my parents very much, and not least for being able and willing to help, but I do not like to admit to failing. Moreover, grateful as I am, I am 31, have two degrees and live cheaply, so feel that I should be able to find the jobs that will make ends meet without occasional assistance. At least, that was the system I agreed to when I took out the loans, but something seems to have changed. I've talked with others, and there is a terrible sense of feeling a failure because you cannot seem to make good on your end of the promise to take out a loan and pay for your education. I have to think that people in this boat with me are not failing, that the system is failing us. I know too many people who are striving to be both the person their education has made them, while paying back the loans.

And so, the woman who called in, who was gently guided off the air before she fully wept or gave a battle cry, was talked about in the abstract by the panel. There was talk about how her debt load, how future students’ debt loads will hurt the economy because the payees will be forced to delay milestones like buying a house and having children and then paying for those children's education and then paying for their (our) retirement. There was talk of how, unfortunately, many people are in the same situation and that the thousands of dollars that my brethren and I pay back to our crediting institutions represent a lost disposable income that could be poured into the economy more effectively. I agree, but even the passivity of the conversation, as if no one involved has the power to change this "unfortunate situation"is not what bothers me most.

The conversation moved on. Someone said how families and student applicants need better counseling about the financial realities of what taking out college loans looks like, in practice, after graduation. And, that if students knew what they were getting into, they would make different choices. And, again, I agree about the better financial counseling. What I take issue with is the idea that my people and I are willfully in this boat, that our indebtedness is solely the product of a conscious decision on our part, that we chose to have these chains. I personally received somewhat false assurances from my graduate school when I mentioned my concerns about taking out more loans to better my brains, and in theory, better my odds on the job market. I could go on about who is to blame here, but that is beside the point, wasted energy, and distracts from the largest elephant in the room here.

Specifically, what we’re not talking about, what no listener or expert or legislator or host said on the program today, is that education is too fucking expensive. Representative John Tierney, of Massachusetts, did mention that the Federal Government is now willing to loan money to banks at a lower rate than it is willing to lend to poorer students, and that didn’t seem to him like a good representation of American values.

Friend, I worry that it is.

It seems that we value money, above everything. I have friends who are still deep in Academia, slaving after PhDs. Their undergrad students, frequently, seem to abandon fascinating courses of study, abandon knowledge for the glorious sake of knowledge, for a major that will make them more competitive on the job market. Rightfully terrified of how to pay for their education, people seem to be funneled away from anything involving passion and learning and opening of understanding of oneself and ones place in the world, and towards lucrative majors and careers with made up words like ‘re-branding’ or ‘cross-market-fluidity.’

I think of the dusty corners of libraries, of the rare books and forgotten, brilliant poets and scientists and writers and thinkers and historians and theologians and artists. I worry that we’re selling out the torch of knowledge, and I believe, deeply, that this will come back to bite us in the ass, as a country, as a global society. As much as we are a global society—I’m going to throw this rant up on the world wide web and people on all continents could read it, if they chose—we seem to be increasingly narrow and self-interested, as opposed to self-aware. Our educations, such as they stand now, are teaching us to be concerned only with our own skin, with our own abilities to find a job, to compete in a harsh job market. We're made to feel like guppies, swimming with sharks.

We’re placing a higher value on the job, on the salary, than we are on the person. This is troubling.
Almost as troubling as the little spoken class system at play here. Poor students should take out loans, and focus on courses of study that will enable them to pay the loans back. Rich students will need to get jobs also, but they’ll be coming out debt free, vastly opening their job market. And, armed with that security, they have a wider range of appropriate majors. If poor students don’t want the loans, they should either go to cheaper schools or work and save until they can afford the college of their dreams, which may be hesitant to accept a "non-traditional" student.

And yet, we’re still raising kids on the axiom:  “you can be anything you want, if you work hard.” Which, when that mindset is basically the American Gospel, makes you feel like a failure when you work very hard, and still don’t get where you want to be.

Does the game seems a mite rigged to anyone else? (See Violent Pedagogy post.)

At this time, I have no answers, no plan for creating legislation that would cap tuition at some reasonable percentage of average national income, and no plan for razing the gap between rich and poor in this country. (Yes, I am more Socialist than average.)

But I think we can do better. Step One, I think, would be looking the root of the problem squarely in the eyes.

Or perhaps, that’s Step Two. Step One, then, is realizing that none of us, working minimally paying jobs that may not pertain much to our educations and scrabbling around to build lives and pay loans, none of us are alone in this. I find that thought helps, when nothing else does.