Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Understanding the Uncomfortable

I’m a white cisgender able-bodied straight woman in New England. I am unlikely to get shot by cops, harassed for my religion, deported, drafted for a nuclear war, or, really, have much worse happen to me under Trump’s administration than have more job prospects disappear, the planet melt, and my access to birth control further limited. My chances of being sexually assaulted are still about one in five, although that may increase if Trump’s ascendancy makes sexual predators feel more entitled. So, largely, I can write safely and compassionately about understanding the white working class frustration that fueled Trump. As I find myself saying frequently, understanding is not the same as condoning.

It’s not, exactly, that I am surprised that Trump won—just stunned and saddened because the rhetoric of his campaign was so vitriolic, and I hate that so many people found resonance with that anger. I suspect that the anger of many of Trump’s almost entirely White voters has more to do with a fear of losing identity, of wanting to make sure that, in a growing and changing and browning and gender-changing America, there is still a place for them, for the life and the values they know.

That fear of being left behind, of losing your place, losing a place, in the world, I understand. My father once stood up in a crowded bookstore, in an almost entirely female audience, to ask Terry Tempest Williams a question. Williams was on a book tour for When Women Were Birds, about her relationship to her mother and the women in her family, and my father’s question was, “where is your father in all of this, does he have a place in this story?”

Williams answered warmly that her father did, and my dad sat down, and I deeply regret that I can’t remember now if I ever told him how proud I was of that moment, what I learned in it. To me, that exchange, crystallized my understanding that as movements for social change go forward, that as Progressives work for equal rights, representation, and opportunities for women, Black, Brown, LGBTQ, immigrants newer to America than ourselves, and non-Christian people, we cannot overlook that to change the country—as I believe we must—this is going to intrinsically make, particularly, straight White men feel like they don’t have a place anymore. That lack of inclusion is a disservice, and as it turns out, a disservice that is dangerous to everyone.

I don’t believe that White America is under an assault, that we need to let straight WASP dudes be in charge again forever because they get sad (or dangerous to everyone else) when they don’t get all the seats at the table, but I do think that, as Progressives, we have been narrow-minded and unkind when it comes to this issue. We have not embraced diversity that did not agree with our ideals. We have not been open-hearted, we have not understood that shifting the balance of power is as out and out shitty for some as it is bold and beautiful for others.

That said, it is an unacceptable response to our liberal idealistic ignorance to have misogynistic, climate change denying, White Supremacist billionaires running the country.

I don’t know what to do about it, exactly, but I do know that I am open to almost all suggestions. I think that Progressives like myself will have to change our tactics, because all of the pot-luck rallies, listening sessions, membership drives, candlelit vigils, direct actions, writing letters to Congress, laboring for policy changes in a corrupt system, Black Lives Matter marches, bike lanes, and all the rest that we—that I—have put such idealistic faith in, believing that by doing so we were curving the arc of history so sharply to justice, these activities have not been enough, this time.

Which isn’t to say we should cease to do whatever both feels good for our souls and is socially effective. My faith in that arc of history is shaken and I am appalled at my own ignorance at how long the arc is, how hard progress is to come by and sustain, but I’m not giving up on justice.

How we go forward has been the grief soaked question of Progressives this week. Real things—a registry for Muslims in America, a climate denier at the head of the EPA, a tacit affirmation of White Supremacy at the highest level of national government, Trump selecting Supreme Court justices—are happening. The fox is in the henhouse, and no amount of good intentioned hand wringing will take it out again. For a hopeful people—Idealists, Liberals, Progressives—we need to grieve, and accept reality. Not submit to it, but accept it.

As an environmentalist, I have long been reconciling myself to the reality that we cannot go back in time, that the damage of climate change is irreversible, that all the best energies and efforts cannot hold back the tides already risen and still rising. We can mitigate the damage, we can build for a more sustainable and resilient future, but we cannot erase what we have done. And, we have done this, but failing to understand the perspectives of those who see the world differently. Everyone can embrace the alternate realities of Harry Potter and Westeros, but we cannot understand our own families, our own fellow citizens, and how they world and their eroding or aspirational place in it differently than our own values and experience?

We cannot change the past, we do not get a do over. Instead, we go forward with the best that we can, we do all the things—protesting, rallying, running for office, stepping down from privilege to let others step up, listening and understanding. And this includes understanding why Trump won—because many people were scared of losing what they have, losing who they are, and finding their beliefs unrepresented in government.

I believe that same fear of loss of identity and power is at the root a lot of the Progressive angst and sorrow this week—we thought the world was leaning one way, our way, and it tilted over “against us.” This may be the most uniting force in our country at present—if we can remember that most of us aren’t evil, we just want to be seen and heard, to have a place and a purpose, and the pride of our families. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

How It Happened, What Happens Now

I do not excuse or explain Donald Trump's vitriol, ignorance, violent misogyny, terrifying stances on racism and immigration, or climate denial. He is a nightmare to every tenet of my belief in what a leader of this nation ought to be and do and say. However, I dislike when people speak against his supporters as if all are the same. Here is what I think happened in a lot of hearts and minds, although I am horrified that personal fear came out stronger than any other priority in the voting booths of America:

According to the news and reports and commentary I’ve seen today, Donald Trump won the election because he tapped into the deep frustration and anger of citizens who have had their expectations of their own lives and identities severely shaken up in the past few decades, and got these people to take a chance on him, because the status quo hasn’t helped a lot of people in a long time. 

My sister gently pointed out that these people, who chose a very different president than who she or I wanted, are really not so separate from us, from me. Not in the “we’re all humans, we’re all Americans” sort of way, but in the feeling of having been baited and switched between preparing for and living adult life. I’m not of the political storybook about this—there are no generations of me, relying on the local industry for a guaranteed job at a living wage to buy a house, raise a family, send my children to something better.

Instead, I was raised in the middle class, somewhere on the fringes. I went off to college with a solid student loan debt. It was naïve to borrow so much to go to the school that felt right, rather than the school that was priced right, but this wasn’t a part of the conversation in the late 1990s—you borrowed money to go to college, and your college education would give you the enhanced job opportunities to pay that debt off, within a decade or so of graduation. That, at least, was the deal I understood. There was no talk—with my parents, with the school, with the loan officers—that it might be prudent to pursue studies in fields with more economic potential. I was part of the generation that was told: “do what you love and the money will follow!”

So I did. I studied Environmental Studies. I spent my summers working in summer camps, and then at one of the largest and oldest environmental groups in the country. Although I wasn’t pursuing the straight and narrow path towards immediate student loan repayment, I was still in the field. After graduation, I struggled to find work that both paid my student loan, life expenses, and bore some connection to my education and training. Nothing really bit, and I wasn’t one of the twenty-somethings who know what they want to do and where they want to be, so I wandered a bit—partly because I was sure that somewhere out there, a job that fit my education and paid my loans existed.

I believed that because it was the story I’d grown up with.

Eventually, I decided to attend graduate school because on enough occasions, I’d been passed over for jobs for someone with a graduate degree. Not only was I interested in the material and of continuing to study, it seemed like a better job market would open up.

Again, in hindsight, none of this makes much sense, and I feel like I’ve been duped by a system that favors wealthier people. The thought that only rich people can afford to passionately study something that may never make them any money but is fascinating and beautiful fills me with a white hot fury. That education is, more and more, a means to an income and not a marriage between income, interest, and opportunity is equally maddening.

But, I fell for it. I fell for the idea that education improves prospects, that it is worth the interest rates of student loans, to be able to find a discipline that improves your understanding of how to be in the world and provides employable skills.

And, now that I’ve finished graduate school, I’ve often found myself in the bizarre donut hole of being “too educated” for some jobs, while not having enough “hands on” experience because I went back to school. Meanwhile, the student loans really don’t care if you are working in the field you’re educated in—they just want their money back, which is fair. But there is a distinct sense of failure, personal and systemic, in that I have yet to earn a full-time, year-round, living wage within the field of my degrees.

It’s been twelve years since I graduated from college, six since I got my Masters degree. The economy has gone up and down, and the availability of environmental jobs is closely tied to both the economy and politics. I also have some geographic and family limitations that keep me in the highly populated Northeast. So, yes, of course, I have brought some of this lack of job security on myself through poor choices, bad luck, and the errors of being a human with multiple priorities.

But, some of the reason that I am thirty-four, deep in student debt, unlikely to purchase a home, or save wisely for retirement for a very long time, is because the system I believed in, the system I bought into with my financial and professional future, this system no longer exists. Because of my parents and my degrees, I am not counted as a Detroit autoworker, a Berlin papermill worker, a Rust Belt or Blue Collar anything. All the same, I know very well the exhaustion and fury and frustration that things have shifted, that you are not living the life you were groomed for, that the rules changed while you were mid-play. And I have to think that this is the rage and fear and discontent that Trump tapped into, because it is a potent fuel.

The feeling that what you have been educated to give the world is not wanted, will not feed you, that is one of the worst I know. And I can understand how, for someone with a different worldview, friends, library and social media feed, the answer to this deep sense of identity betrayal would be the loud angry rich white man who looks like Presidents have almost always looked, and says he’ll fix everything.

Other than what connection my personal employment and identity struggles give me to fellow citizens who I might be tempted to further disregard in a liberal fear-fury panic—I find myself today not caring about that as much. Of course, I want to do the work that I want to do in the world, but more than that, I want to keep the country safe for everyone—all colors and faiths and genders. I want healthcare to be affordable. I want there to be jobs that people want to do, that pay enough that the economy doesn’t crumble. I want climate change to be addressed on a personal and policy level, across the world. I want sexual harassment and discrimination to end. I want marriage to be available for anyone who wants it. I want everyone to have the time to enjoy sunrises and sunsets.

And all of that wanting doesn’t go away, regardless of who is in the White House, in Congress, in my local government offices. And if the wanting doesn’t go away, neither does the burning call to action—on all levels—to build the world the way we want it to be.

I believe we can do this, uphill though progress will be. It begins with understanding, and this is my hope of that start. Because I don't know what else to do. Giving up on America isn't an option.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Standing Rock

(Image from JustSeeds.org)

I’m not in Standing Rock, North Dakota. I’m not planting my feet on the ground that contains my ancestors, placing my flesh and blood between the land and our culture’s insatiable lust for oil and the incomprehensible power of profit. I haven’t been arrested, held in a jail cell or a dog kennel. I haven’t screamed at the law enforcement of collected states and departments and representatives of governments and corporations.

And I have been wondering why I’m not there. I know these things matter. I do not want oil to spill into any landscape, upon the bones of any ancestors, into the waterways of the living, into the endocrine systems of the unborn generations. I do not want the dangerous patterns of our consumptive lives to continue unchecked, unchanged. I want the sovereignty and dignity of Native peoples—in North Dakota and across the globe—to be upheld and broadened, not beaten down further and ignored yet again. Colonialism, white supremacy and capitalism—all of these forces have pushed peoples out of homelands and towards the marginal land and seascapes that are now most at risk from the climate change brought about by lifestyles less grounded and intentional that many that were displaced. I don’t treasure an image of indigenous peoples as noble savages—that lack of nuance and excess of Romanticisms covers up far more interesting realities and prevents humans from seeing each other with empathy, and as the hot messes of contradictions we all are. However, I do believe that there are societies that have much more sustainable values than the majority white, post-Industrial Western Capitalist one that destroys landscapes to find the oil that, when burnt in power plants and refineries and gas tanks, destroys the air, the water, the seasons, the planet.

I’m still here in New England, though, not in the Dakotas. I daydream about these actions, these times of solidarity when bodies come together to block pipelines and trucks, but I never go. I stay here because I need to pay my rent, feed my dog, repay my student loans, tend to my family, because my life is here and I feel enough binding me here that I can’t imagine going without creating more, or maybe just different, burdens. Am I just making lazy and selfish excuses to stay comfortable? Do I not believe enough? I wonder these things in the middle of the night sometimes. If I really cared so passionately about climate change, about being in solidarity with a cause I believe in, wouldn’t I be there, linking arms and marching and standing and holding firm despite the consequences, rather than going to the grocery store or making mundane appointments for my car inspection or looking at the container ships come into port and knowing that their oily effluent is mingling in the sea with my father’s remains, and I am standing on the beach, throwing a tennis ball for my dog.

If I really wanted the present and the future to be brighter, better, cleaner and kinder than the patterns of the past, shouldn’t I, shouldn’t we all, be out on parade and picket lines?

I don’t know. It simply isn’t practical—if everyone is arrested, who bails us all out, makes soup for everyone, takes care of the young and the elderly, installs solar panels, plants gardens, negotiates climate and human rights agreements. I admire those who are putting their lives on hold and on the line to stop pollution from crossing national boundaries and poisoning the land and water and sanctity of the place. Similarly, I admire the people who labor through zoning board meetings, who figure out how to live off the grid, who temper their egos enough to carpool or take an inconvenient bus, who raise kind children who love vegetables, who run for office with integrity and practical idealism, everyone who does the thousand quieter jobs that transitioning away from fossil fuels truly require.

And it is not the same to do this small work. I was sitting in my apartment, prepping for a job interview by researching grant writing and best practices for sustainability in higher education, while watching friends on Facebook check in at Standing Rock. And I wanted us all to be there, for real. To be all together, fists high and smiles wide, walking into the fray and saying, firmly, that this dirty way with pipelines and trampling lives and beliefs for profit and out of a lack of imagination of how to implement a cleaner world will no longer be. I wanted the drama and the Romance and the certain solidarity of such direct action.

Because doing the quiet necessary work is hard. Not in the way that having red raw marks on your wrists from zip-tie handcuffs or being violently intimidated or beaten by law enforcement or being a civil disobedience felon or living in a protest camp is hard—and I do believe those are hard things that people chose to do—but because you have to get up every day and find a balance of practical action while navigating life.  It is hard, it is not glamorous—movie stars and Bill McKibben and Terry Tempest Williams and Wendell Berry are not going to join you in signing up for a CSA or doing an energy audit of your home or going to a meeting of the water board—but it is perhaps as vitally important.

Which is what I’ll keep telling myself, as I do what work of the world as I can in Maine, while it remains Facebook official that I’m in North Dakota. 

Friday, July 8, 2016

Dear Anne Frank

I spend a lot of time thinking about the scrap of Anne Frank’s diary where she writes that:

“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”

I think of that, hoping for the kernels of goodness in all our hearts to flourish, and I read and re-read Jill McDonough’s poem “Accident, Mass. Ave.”, where I recall again and again that underneath anger is fear. I do not believe we can address violent anger unless we address the causes of fear at the roots. I think of Dr. Martin Luther King’s words that “the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.”And then I wake up and read that more American black men have been killed by police, that police have been killed by snipers, that no country welcomes refugees with open hearts, that LGBTQ+ friends no longer feel safe, that fear and hate and ignorance are louder than love and patience and wonder, that rather than unifying, everything seems to be fracturing.

I have spent the last fifteen months crawling out of grief, my understanding of the world irrevocably shaken by the loss of my dad. It boggles my heart than so many people are dealing with the shattering logistics of fresh losses—the families of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling and the Dallas officers, along with the Orlando victims and so many others, must face the somnambulant hours of determining what to do with their loved ones’ bodies, what sort of service their loved one would have wanted and when and where to have such a thing, what to do with the coffins or ashes that were the hands and eyes and voices of their dear ones, which of the deads’ clothes to save and which to give away, and then how to go forward into the world without someone who they love, who has always been there.

Of course it matters how all these people died—these were violent and sudden deaths, explosions in a bitter thicket of entrenched hatred and racism and lax gun laws—but in another way, what really matters, is that they are gone today, and did not have to be. Lawmakers who do not work for gun control, individuals and institutions that perpetuate racism…I imagine many have lost family and friends, have had to call mortuaries and write obituaries, scatter ashes and pray graveside, have had to wake up every morning and freshly recall their cast of characters is altered. I can think of no reasons but laziness and greed that personal grief does not translate into wiser actions to prevent unnecessary deaths by violence and desperation. And neither of those reasons are good enough for me.

I want to believe in everything that I have ever believed in—that love is stronger than hate, that the beauty of the world outweighs, outlasts, the pain we cause it and each other, that so much does depend on red wheelbarrows and slants of sunlight on oceans and mountains and lovers’ faces, that the Zen monk who is chased off the cliff by a tiger can still savor a strawberry he plucks while falling, that all of the passion and love and effort and determination to be kind and foster joy that virtually everyone I know pours into the world every damn day in a thousand ways and scopes really will make the planet better and more habitable for all people. I want to believe this, and suspect that underneath the shock and sorrow and tears, I always will, but the evidence of the world does not easily point that way. 

Maybe it’s faith to keep going on this hope in the face of devastating news, maybe it’s stupidly, willfully naïve. And maybe it's all of that, and the best thing we've got.

To run away, to turn off the news, move to an island or deep into the woods, to live in beautiful isolated simplicity, this is tempting. However, the selfishness of the action galls me. So does taking the long view, and forgetting that each statistic is a person, with a network of loved ones. Somewhere between getting your heart broken by following every horrible event to the hilt and fleeing to the comfortable cocoon of divorcing the unpleasant, there must be a shambling balance in how to go forward.

Because, going forward, being mundane with flashes of the normal brilliance of being a human, having the ordinary ups and downs of daily life—this is the stuff of life. This is what the dead are missing. This is what we need to be doing—going on with our lives the way we want the world to be, come hell and high water and both will come. Some of going forward is staring at the sunset and falling in love with the world, and some of going forward is facing the harsh truths and remaining in love with the world.

And yet, I don’t feel better writing this. Maybe because I am still hollow-eyed and teary from recent days events which are rushing in like a too fast tide, maybe because I don’t quite see how pounding out some words fixes any of the holes in the world or my soul, maybe because I’m doubting my faith in humanity and that gives me a pain in my chest because if that goes, I'll be lost. Regardless, I still believe we have to gone on trying, straining, striving, failing, falling short, and howling into the abyss because, goddammit, people and the world deserve the best we can muster together.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

My Our Town

In the rainstorm, just before the wedding, someone forgets their line and whispers, desperate, fuck just loud enough to be heard. And suddenly, all the costumes and makeup and lighting melt away and there is just one nervous little human begging with his eyes for someone to help him.

And the others onstage do, and the show goes on.

I am sitting in the almost empty theater, watching my high school students do their final dress rehearsal of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. The students directing know that I love the play like no other, and have asked me to be one of the participating audience members, asking a question about Grover’s Corners in Act One.

They are in Act Two now, my line has come and gone, and I can’t seem to tear myself away from the story both on the stage and off. I am not Mrs. Soames—a character who weepily gushes that she just loves to see young people happy, that to be happy is the most important thing. I am not watching because I love watching my young students be happy.

I am watching because, to me, the words of this play knit the air together until everyone watching and everyone performing is held in something invisible and tensile and, of course, eternal—the tie that binds, as it were. My heart feels softer watching this play, reading this play, discussing this play. Like most good art, it gives me a better sense of how to be a kind human.

“I didn’t realize. So all of that was going on and we never noticed,” says Emily at the end, after she has died and gone back to revisit her life. The that that she sees, I believe, is love—invisible, tensile, eternal love that holds us all together.

The students who miss their lines, who speak perhaps too quickly, as if they are afraid of forgetting the words spinning off their tongues like manic silk from a spool, I see the color rise in their faces, their eyes get wide in a small panic, and I think: in their stumbling and in the way the other actors catch them, pick up the thread and move along, the play is proven. I love the mark of effort, of the off-script exchange of help perhaps even more than something flawless.

Last summer, for the 250th Anniversary of my hometown, the town put on a remarkable production of Our Town. Act One—“Daily Life”—was on the Town Green, under the flagpole and a Civil War statue and within sight of the two churches, the local grocery store, the Town Hall and the old cemeteries. Act Two—“Love and Marriage”—had everyone hustling away from a thunderstorm and into one of the churches.

Act Three was in the cemetery. 

And, as Emily comes to terms with the afterlife, as George buckles at her feet under the weight of his loss, as Mr. Gibbs lays flowers on his wife’s grave, as Simon Stimson breaks my heart with his unsung melodies and regret, as the thought that the Webbs have lost both their children—it always slays me that siblings Emily and Wally exchange no words beyond the grave—I looked around at the audience in my small New Hampshire hometown.

We, the audience, are living out the same stories that our friends and neighbors and relations on the other side of the lights are telling. As we always are, but sometimes it takes a shift from normal everyday to see what is going on, how held we each are.

I hope that this holding love is eternal, outlasting death and encompassing even the imperfect. Because the line from the play that I ask is “is there much drinking in Grover’s Corners?”

As the daughter of a man who loved New Hampshire’s history and small towns and died of alcoholism, I feel like this convergence of pieces must deserve some sort of particular prize. The students, I don't think, know that my father died recently and certainly not how he did. And so I ask it, and then spend the rest of Act One worrying about Simon Stimson, the church organist and town drunk. I know the play—I know that the answer to the question other characters ask of Simon is that it ends with him hanging himself and leaving a musical phrase as his epitaph. I know he’s supposed to have seen a peck of trouble, and I know that I feel furious and defensive when the character is played for a laugh as he rolls about town.

But I take heart when Editor Webb offers to walk home with Stimson one night, and when Mrs. Gibbs—as she sits eternally in the graveyard—hushes and comforts Stimson who remains hard and bitter in death at all that he regrets doing and not doing in life. Kindness is a lifeline.

I don’t think that I believe in an afterlife, but all the same, when my dad was dying of a failing liver from years of alcoholism, I didn’t want him to die angry at himself—if he did have to go, and if there is anywhere else to go, I didn’t want him to go there angry or hard or bitter, because that just made worse what couldn’t be made worse. And if the afterlife is nothing more than releasing the molecules that made him into the world to be remade, well, no need for those to go out with self-loathing and sadness either. 

One of the last times I was alone with my dad—that I know for certain he knew it was me—I held his hand and read silently Our Town while he slept. Not because of Simon Stimson or because of the beautiful father/daughter moments in the play or because of the way Emily says goodbye to the world, but because through the binding love and the eternal and seeing the unseen that and life being too wonderful to realize, I find enormous comfort, like another might find an official holy book. And because I couldn’t bring Dad to the Seacoast or to an autumn maple tree or Mt. Washington or a stonewall or lilacs, but I could bring the New Hampshire of Grover’s Corners to him.

And now, all of that is going on whenever I read or watch this beautiful play. All of these ties that bind me to these words now makes it harder to watch, puts more at stake but also reaffirms my belief that we’ve only got the short time we’ve got and the people we’ve got, and far better to make the most of all of this wonderful life than regret a second.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

A Numb Fury

Lately, when I hear about coral reefs being bleached, or particles of carbon in the atmosphere, or rabidly migrating invasive species, or any and all of the other news about our changing climate, I find myself a bit numb.

Which is odd. I’ve been so long on the side of the passionately hopeful, believing that if we care enough and act humbly and wisely enough, we can yet pull of this grand trick of saving the world.

And I can still say and write the right the words, but they have an ashy hollow feeling now. I don’t seem to be able to work up a lather for presumed demise and resurrection of the abstract as well as I once could.

What has changed?

Just that I am learning to live with loss and I no longer believe all wrongs can be righted with enough love and elbow grease. My father died in April, my uncle died in December. The shape of my world is vastly altered without these wonderful men in my life.

I hate it. I miss them every day and may never believe that I’ll never speak with either again, never hear my dad’s laugh or make terrible puns with my uncle. I’ll never hug them again.

It is unmooring, to have beloved constants there one minute and then going, going, gone forever.

This, somehow, makes the presumptive loss of life on Planet Earth at once easier to comprehend the scope of and less acceptable to allow to happen unchallenged.

We cannot repeat the past. We cannot turn on a dime to restore old-growth forests, pump crude oil back in the ground, unbleach the Great Barrier Reef, or grow back eroded coastlines. We cannot bring back the dead or live in the past.

Speaking historically and climatically, the past wasn’t perfect. The past was where we learned to haul oil and coal out of the ground and burn it, before we knew what damage it could cause. We learned to put it in our cars and airplanes and factories before we knew it could get in our lungs, before we knew that more isn’t always better. We hunted species to extinction and poisoned our waters. When we talk about protecting and preserving, about re-growing former environments, it starts to sound like an idealized past we are trying to recreate. We’d like, please, a second chance, to hit reset with all of the rainforest, but none of the pollution.

My personal past wasn’t perfect. My father had alcoholism. Living with and loving him was a lot like being in a hurricane zone—the erratic storms of his moods were unpredictable, regular, and unnavigable. I don’t know why he drank—other than addiction is a sort of emotional and chemical parasite that, inside people we love, creates a need greater than any other for whatever substance feeds the monster of the disease. I don’t know if there was anything more we could have done to help him to stop before it killed him. The part of me that may never heal over Dad’s death is that it was preventable, but between his disease and our furious loving ignorance at how to help him, the disease won, rather than all the brilliant and kind and creative and big-hearted parts of my dad. The monster won, not our love. That will always sting.

I don’t want that past back, fully. I want the good parts, with our lessons learned all around, so that we can go forward whole again. I have thought, so many times, that “I get it, I’ve learned how much I love my dad, how fragile and brief life is and how much people matter. I’d like him back now and I know that the man he was in the week before he died learned his own lessons and would like to come back too, please!”

But we don’t get that. No one, no place or species or ecosystem or weather pattern gets to hit restart.

The last thing I heard my father say—almost exactly a year ago—was “it’s going to be okay, it’s all going to be okay.”

As last words go, they aren’t bad. Sometimes I find them comforting, other times so infuriating that I’ll scream. Because it hasn’t been okay, it isn’t okay, and it will never become okay that this was how my father left the people and the world he loved so much.

It has also, with a terribly normality, become okay that he isn’t here anymore. Not always, but the unimaginable has become the daily and the real, and we are all adapting but surviving to this new world.

If my father could have been treated for his disease before it was too late, he would still be here. If there were a treatment for my uncle’s rare and aggressive cancer, he would still be here.

When I think about climate change, I can’t help thinking that we do have all of the information and the science and many of the solutions staring us in the face. And yet we are choosing, with our inactions, not fix the problems before us. I have seen people die for lack of treatment and intervention, and I can't fathom that we're as people letting the world waste away when we have enough of the answers to be smarter.

I think that my numbness at re-hearing the same but worse climate news may just be sleeping fury that what can be salvaged in this world with its biological prerogative for life and survival, adaptation and resilience is not being treasured. Treatments to the causes of climate change are well-known (use less, think more), the science is in that we are doing this to ourselves as a people, life is short and the world beautiful…what else do we need to know in order to act?

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Three Branches in Mud Time

Robert Frost, with an incongruous tool of unity, but he's a poet so it'll make sense somehow.
image from poemshape.wordpress.com

Taylor Family lore is that Dad lulled my sisters and I to sleep as babies by explaining the tripartite system of Federal government. There is something to the idea of imagining us as fussy babies being swaddled up and held by a mustachioed man in a flannel shirt, talking about the differences between the Judicial, Executive and Legislative branches of government, rather than cooing about good-night moons and Pat the Bunnies.

The nuances, of course, were lost on our young minds, but when the system of checks and balances, of the interconnecting functions of a working system of government are some of your bedtime stories, you grow up believing in justice, compromise, and the possibility of good governance. Thanks to Dad’s reverence for the system—and irreverence for many of the players—and Mom’s practical liberalism, my sisters and I all lean towards common sense, fairness, and Socialism. (That is, unless anyone is offering any of us the Executive Queenship.)

Given my history, beliefs and hopes, I found myself in the strange position of running through the roster of GOP candidates to see if there was anyone, anyone, I could vote for in the State Primary this Tuesday. I want a bland but unifying candidate. I want someone who is a unifier, a compromiser, a person who understands give and take, and gets things done. I want a boring moderate, a kind person. I do not need to agree on all their talking points, I care more about how they work—if they work, that they work well with others, for others—than what they brashly promise they will do.

I am a Feminist, I am an Environmentalist, I am a Socialist. I want universal healthcare, I want freedom from religious persecution, I want global equity, I want a clean planet and an educated, engaged fulfilled workforce. I want world peace and the right to be left alone. I want taxes raised and people employed to fix our nations infrastructure. I want abortion to be safe, legal, rare, and paid for by universal single-payer healthcare. I want biologically and emotionally grounded sex-education available to everyone. I want gun use regulated. I want poverty eliminated. I want the stigma of addiction erased so people aren’t to death embarrassed about needing medical help for this condition. I want comprehensive action on climate change. I want us as citizens to stop being such sandy-eyed ostriches about the ways in which our own daily lives, actions, and insulating choices feed the evils of the world.

But, more than anything, I want a government that works, that unites the people, represents our best selves to the world, and takes care of those who are struggling. And for that, I want not a fiery passionate presidential candidate who can rally a base, rock the vote, or rattle the establishment.

I want an adult.

And not just one adult. I want 546 adults: one in the White House, nine at the Supreme Court, a hundred in the Senate, 535 in the House of Representatives, and one Vice-President as a security measure.

Further, I’d like this team of people to do their jobs.

Which is to work together to govern these United States. There are certain responsibilities of each branch of government, things that they can and cannot do, things that they can only do with the permission of other branches.

Being the middle of three sisters, my role was not exactly a peacemaker. I did not mediate between disagreements with a distant sanctity. Keeping peace and good enough relations with a tripartite of sisters is more a mutual dance of calculating compromise, a sororial Machiavellianism. I ate Hannah’s peas so we could all go out for ice cream—if those peas didn’t leave her plate, I wasn’t getting ice cream either. There is sort of a running score card of who needs to get her own way today, and who needs to get her only pair of clean underpants stuck in the freezer on the last day of vacation. The system breaks down when one person takes up all the airtime with tantrums or tyrannical blindness or selfish dramatics. The system functions beautifully on empathy, compromise, and fairness.

Right now, our government is broken. With an even number of Supreme Court Justices, that branch is wounded, unable to play its full part in fleshing out the laws that do change people’s lives, that I non-denominationally pray will pull the arc of history ever more and quickly towards justice.

And then we have the President, who is in his final months in office and, while he hasn’t governed with the spark and fire of his 2008 campaign, has done many things I support. But, that is me, a liberal Socialist from New England with a Masters degree and a fundamental belief in the human necessity of racial justice. The fact remains that it is difficult, has been difficult, for President Obama to accomplish much in part because of the intense opposition of the Republican controlled Congress. I hate to think that some of this opposition is racially, rather than merely politically motivated, but I think so nonetheless. Regardless, we are at a point where the Executive Branch is shorn of the office’s potential.

Meanwhile, the men and women in Congress are so deadlocked that I suspect a bill to rescue kittens from trees would die on the floor. Meanwhile, people are dying of gun violence, disease, post-war trauma, and health problems relating to pollution, and Congress seems as if all it does is point fingers across the aisle and at the White House and at the Supreme Court and yell that it is all their fault, they started it, those horrible Wall Street bankers or Muslims or Women or Christian Fundamentalists or Liberals or Conservatives or Blacks or Whites or Media Elite or Immigrants or The Patriarchy or Welfare Dependents or Unions or Abortionists or Jews or LGBTQs or Multinational Corporations or anyone on Earth who is not me and my little tribe. We are blameless, we are the saviors, and we will yell the loudest and drum up the most support and then we will have political clout and when we get to Washington, we’ll change everything!

Thus, the Legislative Branch yells itself into disfunction.

As for these angry candidates who promise to change everything, unless we are going to have a major political coup—which is unlikely given inherent inability within our geography to gather enough True Believers of any cause to logistically coordinate an effective overthrow—then I find it difficult to put my faith in anyone’s word about fomenting political change based on personal ideology and rhetoric.

Nothing will change if we keep electing people who yell more than listen, who would rather commit seppuku than compromise, who either do not know the checks and balances and responsibilities and limits and realities of the offices they seek, or are flagrant liars. A President cannot—without the cooperation of at least one other branch—build a wall, underwrite college, fund healthcare, stop cancer, go back to the moon, eliminate ISIS, obliterate racism, screen all borders for people of a single and beautiful faith, create jobs, fix dangerous infrastructure, stop climate change, or purify the waters of our country.

Voting, participating in the political system is not an ala carte burrito where you personally get to select and approve all the ingredients. Unless you are running for Dictator of your own country, you will not love everything about a candidate. You can vote for a person who you disagree with on some issues. You can vote for a person who you think, given the realities of the role, would make a good president even if you don’t want to get a beer with them—odds are, you won’t be having a beer with the President. You can vote for a person who’s tie or pantsuit or social media presence or race or gender you aren’t comfortable with—the person and their abilities to listen and  compromise, balance and unify are what matter.

Along with the U.S. Government 101, we Taylor babies were tucked in at night with a healthy dose of Robert Frost. One of my mother’s favorites is from Two Tramps in Mud Time, which contains this line: My object in living is to unite.

I will vote for anyone and everyone who lives by those words.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

How I Learned to Ski

(Skiing with my dog, photo courtesy of L. Zummo)
Somewhat unfortunately, I still find myself in that particularly irksome group of people who, when skiing is mentioned, I must make it clear to those who I converse with that I am a Telemark skier. But, I swear, I’m not one of those snobby cooler than thou people who Telemark and talk about it just to show off. I happen to ski like a stick-insect learning ballet because, after a very long and painful process, it is one of the few things I do gracefully. And because it is humbling how hard it was to learn.

Because it sure as shit didn’t come to me naturally.

For the unfamiliar, there are three basic types of skiing: There is cross country skiing, in which fit people on very skinny skis traipse and race about the fields and woodlands, going both up and down hills as encountered. To do this, the toes of the foot-shaped boots are attached to the skinny skis and the heels remain free, allowing for normal foot movement and such.

Second, we have downhill or alpine skiing. This is what is generally considered skiing. Your foot is in a big boot, the boot is attached at both toe and heel to a wide ski, and you ride the chairlift up and careen down the snowy hillsides. You turn, at these velocities, by sort of dancing sideways, throwing your weight from left to right, hips to knees. (There are variations, and specialized gear that allows for alpine skiers to also traipse up hills, through fields, rocks, and forests in search of better opportunities. These set-ups are called alpine touring (AT) or randonnee.)

Thirdly, in this short litany, we come to Telemark skiing. In this variety, the toes of your big boots are attached to the ski, but your heel is not firmly affixed to the wide ski. To make the turns recommended for descending the hills, the skier lunges into something akin to warrior pose in yoga, with weight balanced on outside little toe and much tension and body weight held in quivering quads.

Tele is hard, it requires specialized gear, it demands absurd combinations of musculoskeletal movements, and it is such a precise set of postures that it is extremely difficult to fake doing it correctly. If, say, you simply cannot figure out how to keep weight in the tippy-toes of your back ski, the ski will skitter totally out of control, cross your front ski between your knees, and you will ragdoll down—to the horror, concern, or amusement of anyone in range.

On the other hand, when you get it right, you become this utterly improbably cacophony of moving angles coalescing into a graceful economy of movement.

No doubt, the appeal of Telemark is clear.

When I was learning, while at college in the early 2000s, Telemark had a particular cache—it was understood to be the purest and most bad-ass way to access any sort of backcountry ski opportunity. There was a strange aspect of Zen snobbery and of being outdoorsierly more holy than the next underwashed Environmental Studies major if you took up tele. Bumper stickers on the Toyota Tacomas and Subaru station wagons outside the Outing Club read “Free the Heel and Free Your Mind” and “Randonnee: French for ‘Can’t Telemark.’

In Bossy-pants, Tina Fey wrote about how the Weekend Update writers are the scary coolest of the SNL writers, who are already cooler than the average anybody. It was sort of like that, with me and the upperclass outdoor program and club people.

The winter of my sophomore year, I decided that I needed a winter sport. Having just spent an entire semester living in a yurt on the edge of a lake, I was feeling ethically uncomfortable with spending so much time inside buildings and around normal American life. I wanted to be in the woods all the time and to become a master of both the quiet ethos of the woods, and to be nonchalantly supreme at the woods’ skills and sports that embodied that. Besides, lift tickets are expensive, so if I could be primarily a backcountry skier, it would be more budget appropriate.

So, officially, that is why, even though I hadn’t been on skis of any kind in about ten years, I decided to sign up for a Beginners’ Telemark ski course offered through the college outdoor program. And it is mostly true.

The other piece, though, is that one of my best friends and I each had a gigantic crush on the two students who were teaching the course. If we’d had crushes on the ice-climbing guides, this would be a different story—I might have gone a different route in search of peace and snowy glory.

This friend, who I’ll call Pete, and I had met the first day on campus when, as he put it: “I was wandering around the dorm looking for girls, but I found you instead.”  Aside from the occasional flare-up of a crush on my end after we had a particularly good chat about Edward Abbey or something, Pete and I were decidedly platonic. And somehow, having a dude-friend’s assistance in how to attract a dude seemed like a real stroke of genius and good fortune. By Pete and my logic, going on Rachel and Bill’s course and learning to tele ski, that was clearly the best path to love or whatever college kids have. 

Plus, I really did want to learn to ski and to be as cool and in touch with pure wilderness as the tele skiers seemed. The trouble is, of course, that no one is as cool as that. And certainly not me, at age nineteen and in a particularly dewy-eyed idealist phase.

I had my first inkling of the reality of this endeavor when I went over to the gear basement on Friday night to collect my skis and boots and poles for the Saturday lesson. It was snowing, because in February in Canton, NY, it is almost always snowing, but is certainly snowing—heavily—if you have any trudging around to do. The school gear was a general hodgepodge, and I left with very long skis, slightly small boots, and a pair of poles. I had seen people carrying their skis around, slung up on one shoulder and the boots and poles tucked neatly up, and had a vision of myself smoothly walking across campus—just a graceful and competent lady, confident and at peace with the wildness of a snowstorm.

Everything I was carrying slipped and slid and I was constantly off balance going through the snow. Probably, because it was that era in my life, I was wearing a new pair of Carhartt overalls, which were like cold wet stiff cardboard while walking through the deep and falling snow, but made it look like I belonged in the woods. Add in the layers of sweater and down jacket, and the frustrating exertion of managing this new jumble of gear literally on top of my hopes and expectations, and I can still feel the horrible sweat on my lower back and the burning shame in my face.

I was at college, a student, in an inherently process-focused situation. And yet, the culture I was surrounded in seemed to be made entirely of finished, flawless product. Even as I took a course in how to be an outdoor program guide, even as we talked about the importance of making safe spaces for everyone to crawl out of their comfort zones and chrysalises and into new experiences and skill, even then, no one talked much about how it felt to be the sweaty student, embarrassed at not being skilled. 

However, because I was deep into an era of naïve idealism and surrounded by other budding young environmental educators who talked about the power of learning, I thought that perhaps I might still be able to do this double-pronged ski mission. That somehow, my persistence and willingness to try to learn an almost completely new sport, this would further endear me to all those cool tele-skiers with their bumper stickers and gear of high enough quality and heavy enough usage to be patched and uncracked veneer of perfection.

Needless to say, things did not go as smoothly and perfectly as I had hoped, as Pete and I had plotted.

Snow under skis, even on the slight incline of a baby slope, is slippery. If you haven’t ridden a J-bar ski lift in ten years—and you are a college student who is too proud to ask for advice—it is tricky. So is mounting and dismounting a chairlift. My ski bindings were adjusted for much larger boots, and—not knowing how this sort of gear ought to work—I had my foot jammed into the toe part but the heel wire was flapping inches behind my heel, so that whenever my foot pressure changed, the ski came out from underfoot and down the hill I spun in total disarray. My skis flew down the hill on their own. Pete, helpfully, retrieving one, commented that: “I think your ski knocked that little kid down.”

After a quick morning of instruction with the gorgeous guides, we new teleskiers were left to roam the mountain and practice alone. I was told that if I couldn’t master the turning and body-bobbling and balancing and all of a Telemark stance, then to just plant my feet on the skis and I could Alpine turn.

Would that I could. When I was little and took ski lessons for a few winters, I never learned to turn and would just bomb down the mountain. Perhaps I had subpar instructors, perhaps I just didn’t listen or choose to learn, but the upshot was that I had no other ski skills to fall back on.

So, of course, I just fell. I remember, particularly, skidding to a halt with my skis sideways, my right hip grinding into the snow, my arms trailing behind me, and my hat sloppily over an eye. Naturally, I landed almost at the feet of Bill, who at that time I found to be the most beautiful person I had ever met. He asked if I was okay.

“Oh sure,” I said—I remember being very perky so that no one, except maybe Pete, would suspect how being this blatantly terrible at something hurt on the inside too, so that no one would see the tears of humiliated rage—“this is great! I think I’m sort of getting it. Like, I can almost remember everything I’m supposed to remember to do, now I just need to do it and not think about it. Sort of like some Zen thing, I guess. So all I need to do now is practice, and that’s just going to be a lot of skiing, so that’s actually kind of awesome, right?” 

I don’t remember his response. I know that it wasn’t to sweep me up and carry me off the hill out of love and admiration for my bad-ass good looks and Viking-goddess skills. In fact, I can’t fully remember his face, just that he was gorgeous, and was kinder than he could have been. A red-faced, teary-eyed naïf speaking too fast and too cheerily while slumped in the snow in a pile of mismatched ski gear is not, I gather, the most alluring of ladies.

It would have been all over after that day, except that I found—under the layers of awful—that it was sort of fun to hurtle down a mountain. I was transfixed by the speed and power and grace of the people who could tele. They were snow cranes and I wanted to be like them, even as I felt like a grubby field mouse.

Besides, I liked, so much, being out in the cold air and the mountains, with friends. Rachel—the ski guide who Pete had a crush on—was one of my other good friends and between the ministrations of the two of them, I managed to survive the entire day. (So, importantly, did everyone else on the mountain.) I like to think that my mishaps allowed them to spend enough time that they did date for a few months, so our experiment wasn’t a total bust on the romance front.

All that winter, I went skiing whenever I could time and money afford to, with whoever I trusted. That turned out to be key. I couldn’t go with anyone I wanted to impress, only with people I could laugh and cry and fall and swear with. Which, really, isn’t a bad way to go about doing anything ever. I was covered in bruises—I remember one in particular was bigger than a grapefruit, and just enough between my hip and my ass that I couldn’t show it to everyone, but I wanted to. Based on the best advice I got from Pete—“if you’re not falling, you’re not learning”—my bruises and cuts and ice-burns were all part of the adventure of learning. I was still personally mortified at how hard it was for me to learn—I seem to lack natural grace and some basic physical coordination—but I almost had myself convinced that the struggle was as glorious as anything else.

It took more than the one winter of weekends to make me an acceptable skier. There were other college ski days and trips where I felt like the uncoordinated slow kid who struggling miserably to keep up with the professionals, where my lack of skill was worrying and probably dangerous. The winter I ski-bummed with my big sister in Colorado, there were falls that had her calculating the distance to strange hospitals before I’d even come to a stop. I still often feel like a hot mess on skis and I have been on the brink of tears because I’ve been out of my depth so many times that I am hesitant to go skiing with new people, to go in trees and backcountry I haven’t seen, to jump off anything. I dislike that feeling of emotional discomfort, of seeming to be the only one babyish enough to be scared or slow or disorganized, more than almost anything. 

And yet, that moment in a tele turn, when your weight is transferring between knees and toes and you pop up to float for what cannot be more than a second but feels like a scrap of forever, this is something to work for. The soft ripping noise of a good turn, the pleasure of pivoting perfectly around a pole. Being able to teach other people and come at it from purest empathy. When I ski patrolled, one of my greatest pleasures was making tidy turns on steep sections, while carrying a giant drill or a cup of coffee or an armload of bamboo. The more awkward the load, the more fun it was to shoot down the trail before the mountain was open, just to feel that I could and have a good laugh at how far I'd come. 

Usually, of course, then I'd fall, but such is the price of learning.