Driving out of Somerbridge to go apple picking yesterday, the construction along Route 2 was staggering. In places, the road swells to more than four lanes, cutting a wider and wider swath through former forests and fields. A few houses are still standing beside the road, amid the piles of culverts and gravel and the ripped down trees. These houses look surprised, as if they were napping in their trees and are now unsure of how to face the strangeness of this new world at their doorsteps. A little like a headlight stunned moose, really.
Earlier in the day, my new supervisor was training me on some aspect of my job. “That does work,” she said, “but let me show you how we’ve always done it.” I can’t remember what particular task we were working on, but the response has been the same for a few. I don’t have the cockiness to be sure that whatever new system I’ve happened upon is better than what has been done for the last twenty years, but I am suspicious of the assumption that the way it’s always been is the way it always should and will and must be.
In all contexts.
Perhaps this particular road expansion wouldn’t tug at my heart so much if it didn’t run by Walden Pond, if I didn’t imagine the ghost of Thoreau having to cross lanes of traffic if he wanted to go visit the ghosts of Emerson and Hawthorne across the way in Concord. Perhaps the tasks at the library would not compel me towards creative solutions if there were less learned and wooed reliance on plastic tape and book covers and computers and barcode scanners and all the other consumptive pieces that—to my eyes—are not truly enhancing anyone’s engagement with and learning from the materials at hand. The books are solid and beautiful, to me, and it hurts to see them bypassed by iPads and wikipedia. I am asked for laptop chargers more often than I am asked for books.
It every direction, it seems as if we’re simply entrenching ourselves deeper and deeper into a dying (and planet and people killing) system. And this is what bothers me. Rather than fix the national infrastructure problems at their core, we simply expand the roads. Rather than take responsibility for deeply damaging our planet with unnecessary crap and irresponsible habits, we churn out more and more and newer and newer devices that are filled with horribly harvested metals, coated in plastic, and demand higher and higher per capita energy usage. I own more electronic devices than my parents and grandparents—combined—did at my age. And I'm a relative Luddite among my peers.
In Tina Fey’s book, Bossypants, she talks about lessons learned from doing improv. That a good improv-er will respond to any situation with “yes, and…” rather than the obstreperous words “no, but…” “Yes, and…” allows the other players space to react, to maneuver, and for everyone to collaborate on something funny and free-formed and unexpected.
I’ve spent a long time in a lot of contexts saying “no” and “but” and it has never led to anywhere but frustration and me feeling alone against something too big for one person. I said “no” because I was scared, often, because I couldn’t know the outcome. I said “but” as a way to throw a wrench into the works, to give me time to think. However, I’m finding that it is usually more fun to say “yes,” more interesting to explore “and.” And, yes, this way of responding and improvising through life (what else are we all doing?) does seem to be more useful and less limiting in the “world salvation/personal happiness” movement.
My sister read recently that the average American commute today puts as much stress on the body as our ancestors experienced in a week. So, all those roads are not making our lives better, I suspect. I rode the train from Salem, MA back to the city last weekend. I got on at 6:30, just as the sun was in the most golden phase of setting. As the train went along, I watched that clarity of light hit on the ugly industrial backsides of the little cities. It was beautiful, and I had nothing to do for an hour, except soak all that beauty in. I’ve found the same while bike commuting—although that is fragmented by the stress and terrors of cars. To go a slower pace, or to give yourself that time…this feels like a solution, rather than a continuation of the problem. “Yes, I’ll take the train AND have some time to myself!” rather than “No, but I have to drive because otherwise I’ll be late for all I should be doing…” (Should is a filthy word, in my opinion.)
This is a different way from what we’ve been habituated to for a long, long time. That system is broken, and it is time to improve-ise something new. Let’s make it fun and various and beautiful with different little routes and paths this time around, instead of one all encompassing superhighway.