The Lantern Waste

"Let us then be up and doing
With a heart for any fate..."

There's a triumphant, stirring theme that wends its way through Longfellow's "Psalm of Life." I've skipped right to the end, because those were the lines that first came to mind. But I could have just as easily rattled off the first stanza - "Tell me not, in mournful numbers, / Life is but an empty dream!-- / For the soul is dead that slumbers, / And things are not what they seem" - or the second - "Life is real! Life is earnest! / And the grave is not its goal; / Dust thou art, to dust returnest, / Was not spoken of the soul."

I've been finding brilliant red leaves in the drifts of dead brown lately. Metaphorically, that is, since autumn is coming slowly to Pennsylvania. I mean that by keeping my ears open, by listening around the edges of the negativity, I've been hearing some things and meeting some people who are doing the kinds of things that give me... dare I say it? A little hope.

I was listening to an interview with Rebecca Solnit in which she talked about communities rising from the ashes of disasters, and I jotted down a thought.

The future belongs to the hopeful, who have the strength to see through the present reality to a possible world built not in spite of, but because of the tireless, daily work of flawed human beings who are, though aware of their shortcomings, nonetheless willing to try.

That's not to say that everything will turn out alright, not tomorrow and not ever. We have no guarantees. There's a darker side, too, because while some of us may hope for beautiful things, others hope for destruction. A contorted hope, perhaps, but there even so. For example, I've been reading about Germany in the Zwischenkriegszeit, the period between the two wars. Here is a "community," or at least a great mass of people, who rose up amidst the ashes of an angry, hurting nation, and they built something, realized a hope, but it was a twisted hope that gave birth to a dark world.

Yet it could have been otherwise.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt writes of how the elite were brought within the mass of the totalitarian movements, that they despised the hypocrisies of bourgeois morality, and while they perhaps saw through the propaganda and the demagoguery, in their bitterness they wanted nothing short of complete destruction.

I have to admit that I have expressed similar sentiments: that sometimes I think it would be easier if the whole thing would just burn. If we cannot repair the mounting harms against each other, against the earth, then why not just let it all go before the remote justice of the meteor?

But there's something (forgive me, Rick) a little cowardly or even perhaps lazy in that sentiment. The elites may have been correct in identifying the rotten core behind the living face of society, but their willingness to commit an even greater crime hardly improved the situation.

"If we abstract from thick conceptions of courage that a culture may put forward in a particular historical period - whether martial valor or counting coups or maintaining a stiff upper lip or being true to one's conscience - and ask in the most general terms what it is about courage that makes it a human excellence, the answer, I think, is the capacity for living well with the risks that inevitably attend human existence. [...] In different times, in different cultures, there may be different risks; but as long as we are alive and human we will have to tolerate and take risks. The courageous person is someone who is excellent at taking those risks. That is why courage counts as a virtue: it is an excellent way of inhabiting and embracing our finite erotic** nature." {Radical Hope, Jonathan Lear}

Hope is mere wishful thinking without courage, and courage is that virtue which does not back down in the face of the awful, the unimaginable. Courage keeps someone working toward the world they want to see by living, insofar as it is possible, as if that world were already the way things are. (This, by the way, is why the end cannot justify the means: we can never rise to the ideal if we live down to our present poverty.) But to do so is, of course, to take a great many risks. To live openly trans is to be subject to a social and too often physical violence. To simply be black or female is, as we've been so recently reminded, to live with consistent threats to our every attempt to assert agency in a world built out of entrenched hierarchies of power.

And these are my red leaves, made all the more visible against the backdrop of current events: that there are still courageous, hopeful people, finding practical ways to live the reality of a better world. Perhaps if we fix our sights on those beacons, we'll find our way back home.

** For anyone wondering what the hell that's supposed to mean: "By erotic I follow a basically Platonic conception that, in our finite condition of lack, we reach out to the world in yearning, longing, admiration, and desire for that which (however mistakenly) we take to be valuable, beautiful, and good."


The Other Half

When you think that you know exactly what you believe or, worse still, that you know everything you need to know: stop. Find someone who disagrees with you, but who can coherently explain their beliefs through the use of reason. Or who can explain how they feel without resorting to hate-filled rhetoric. And just listen to them.

This is something I've had to do recently, and no, in case you were wondering, it isn't easy. I don't know what the past two years have been, aside from intensely polarizing, but what they felt like was a constriction, with every passing headline, Onion-like real life moment, and political debate drawing tighter around me until I could barely breathe.

When it's us vs. them, we lose half the world. Am I the only person who is grieved by this?

I don't want to miss out on so much that's good and true and beautiful. Because, newsflash, "we," whoever we are, don't have the monopoly on those things. My brother and I will (probably) never see eye to eye ideologically, but today is his birthday, and when I called him he and my dad were helping to distribute food at a food bank. That's something that's good and true, and I wouldn't have it if I were to shun him in the face of our differences.

I've been thinking about this ever since I listened to Glenn Greenwald's interview with Tucker Carlson on the podcast Intercepted (you can find it here at Glenn Greenwald on the New Cold War or via iTunes). Carlson is precisely the sort of person that I'm told I should never listen to - and he absolutely has said things that make me cringe, just to be clear - but he's also not a completely unintelligent asshat speaking solely to fill silence. He said one thing that I keep coming back to because I've rarely heard it put quite so well in conversation*:

"The law of unintended consequences is never gonna be repealed. Like, you don’t know. You think you know what’s gonna happen when you do something, but you really don’t. And so, humility is a prerequisite for wise decision-making. And whenever you have people telling you — people like Max Boot, for example — we know exactly what’s gonna happen when we do this, that’s a tipoff that these are very unwise people who shouldn’t have power."

And I appreciated his ability to articulate exactly why people might feel threatened by immigration:

"And I’ve seen this exact thing happen there [rural Maine], where Catholic Charities or Lutheran Social Services or some group that thinks it’s doing good moves refugees into a depressed community and then leaves. And it’s massively disruptive for the people who live there. Massively. And nobody cares. [...]  I feel like the middle of the country is just a dumping ground for refugees. And the point of it, of course, is to make the people facilitating it feel virtuous, and then they never deal with the consequence. So, what about the people who live there?"

The point isn't so much that I'm ultimately going to share Carlson's views. But he makes some solid criticisms that starry-eyed liberals and progressives like myself would do well to heed. Refugee resettlement en masse does tax local infrastructure initially and can be daunting when you've had a homogenous culture for over a hundred years. I'm still stubbornly stuck on the belief that we should welcome people in as long as they need a safe place to flee to, and to hell with the consequences, but I can see how we could be wiser in our procedures and gentler in our rhetoric.

Maybe it doesn't matter much what I, one individual, actually think about any one political issue, at the end of the day (I don't believe this, but maybe). But it goes back to that first quote from the interview, that humility is a prerequisite of wise decision-making. I would take it a step further and say that humility is a prerequisite of wise life-making. You can't consistently make good decisions, build sound relationships, and navigate all the perils and pitfalls of life if you're closed to wise counsel, headstrong, and rigid in your ideas and beliefs. If your beliefs are sound, they will only be sharpened by coming in contact with opposing views and the hard facts of reality. If they are not, then you will fall less painfully: the humble stay close to the earth, rather than building themselves tall soapboxes with no steps to descend by.


Radical Freedom

Every morning of every day, I choose my life.

There are many degrees to which I could mean this. As someone who certainly believes in the power of environment and chance circumstance to shape our opportunities, I do think there are "passive" choices. For example, a prisoner can only actively choose her mindset and not the broad routines of her daily life. Even her mind may be under great strain, however, if, for example, she is in solitary confinement. On the other hand, while I cannot force my mother to take medication or be a sane, balanced human, I do continue to engage with her (though sometimes I am better at that than others) and have not "coldheartedly" shut her out of my life completely. I put coldheartedly in quotes to pick out that there is a reason for this: there is a social judgment that I choose not to have passed on me, and thus, I do choose.

But mention this at all?

Because #1: I see people who resent the success of others and regret their own choices, but make no move toward altering the patterns of their lives in a way that might enable them to excel in the attainment of their desires.

Because #2: I have achieved some level of comfort, but it's a comfort with a price - "we but level that lift to pass and continue beyond." I am at a particular salary point that will permit me to pay off bills, buy a better car, put something by in savings... And yet, even amid my gratitude, it becomes painfully clear that this is not work that I can do for the rest of my life either. Among other things, maturity and adulthood means, I think, taking on greater responsibilities for making decisions, charting a course, and accepting the burden for mistakes, none of which are a significant part of my current job. Nor does work provide me with the sort of stable community I crave, even though it may suggest the illusion of that after 40+ hours a week spent in the company of the same four people.

So, who do I want to choose to be? What do I want to choose to do? What life am I crafting for myself with each day that dawns? When each moment feels inevitable, it's good to remember that it could be wildly otherwise and that what keeps it in this track is, oversimplified, my will that it should be so.


City Mouse and Country Mouse

I once read a criticism of Wendell Berry that, I think quite validly, pointed out that we cannot all abandon our cities to return to the land, and nor would Berry even want that. Good stewardship of land is not merely a matter of having an infinite number of small holdings, each with a farmer who farms no more than he can see from his front porch. It's also important to have some knowledge and training. The damage that might done, while perhaps not of the same type as modern factory farming, would still have the potential to be substantial. And even were all the arable land to be sustainably farmed under the tender care of a seasoned farmer, I suspect that many of us would find ourselves without a plot of land. Besides, an appreciation for pastoral life does not exclude the acknowledgment that there may be something of value to towns and cities.

But I do think that Berry's work has some redemptive merit against the charge thus laid. That is, while most of us will not run out to become tobacco farmers in Kentucky, we can still find something  there that might guide our understanding and our plans. Because so much of what he writes about also deals with the question of local economies.

I'm thinking about this right now because I was recently reminded of a woman I met on the last leg of my journey home from the Netherlands. My adventures rarely feature people, because I am not very skilled at engaging in conversation with strangers and accidentally rebuff most of those who try. But on this occasion, I was stranded at the Trenton Transit Center, within what felt like spitting distance of home, at 10:30, and nary a train to deliver me home.

Whilst I checked my phone for alternatives, I discovered that I was inadvertently by the taxi stand and a taxi had pulled up. A woman got into the cab, but the driver hopped out and asked if anyone else needed a ride and would they mind sharing. I was too tired to figure out something cheaper and so I took him up on the offer.

We dropped off the woman first, because she was headed to a local destination. She works night shifts cleaning at a psychiatric hospital in Trenton. The driver knew where she was headed - he's picked her up before - and when she got out of the car, he told me that he thought that another cab driver had avoided pulling up to the stand, because he didn't want to take her on. It turns out that Trenton is a "distressed" city and there are restrictions on how much the drivers can charge. Something like $9.75 a trip.

That was all very interesting, although I didn't give it more than a moment's thought at the time, being rather exhausted. In thinking about it a month later, though, I was struck by a different detail.

This woman is on janitorial staff. She can't be paid very well. I max her at $12 an hour, if she's lucky.

She had to take a train and then, because there were no buses, a cab that cost her almost $10, to get to this low or minimum wage job. I don't know if she could catch a bus back whenever her shift ended in the morning, but she's probably spending at least $15 per shift and possibly more like $25 with train fare factored in and having no idea how far she comes and what the options are.

Meanwhile I'm whining because I'll have to pay about $5 per workday on a pass, instead of the $2 I pay now. And I'm making... double her salary? At a job that literally sits above a regional rail station and a subway stop and one of the busiest bus stops in center city? I will never have a reason to take a cab home, unless SEPTA goes on strike again.

But no, that's not actually the main point, although conviction can be a healthy thing. I was thinking about that in the broader context of structural problems relating to transportation, access, and isolated communities. There's a body of literature that highlights the issues for especially people of color but anyone poor and trapped in an urban ghetto: many people flocked to the city for manufacturing jobs and found themselves stranded when those factories fled. Jobs relocated to suburbs or maybe city centers, but generally places far from where these people called home.

Lacking resources for a vehicle, they have to rely on public transportation or walking. Not just for work though. For literally everything. Kids need clothes for school? Bus trip to the mall, with a transfer, and two of your kids are over 12 years old, so you're shelling out half your budget just on bus fares and transfers to get you there and back. Big grocery stores may be located on the fringe of your neighborhood, but if you're older, even walking a half mile with a rolling basket can be agonizing and the stores are often along major roads that are lined with strip malls. They're great for cars and terrible for pedestrians, who have to cross busy four lane roads at dangerous intersections.

So where does Wendell Berry come into all this? Alongside his commentary on politics and farming, there's also this emphasis on a diverse, thriving local economy. There's this idea that money spent should circulate first and foremost in the community, going to the people who will also spend it there and not to the Waltons in faraway Arkansas or to Aldi's parent corporation in Germany. It provides jobs locally, lends strength and durability to weather hard times, and gives the next generation something worth staying for and building into.

Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods, as is true, I am sure, of many cities. For outsiders, center city and Old City may be the extent of their experience, but Philadelphia is much, much, much more than that. Honestly, after living here for a year and a half, I find center city to be a false face, a dead heart, compared to the thriving, at times ugly and messy, at times beautiful and unique and goofy life of the neighborhoods. Kensington, West Philly, Bella Vista, Point Breeze, Fairnount, Bridesburg, Oxford Circle, Roxborough, East Falls, Mt. Airy, Port Richmond: all of these places burst with life in a way that center city can't compare to. But that's where all the jobs are.

Oh, not all. There are a few restaurants, coffee shops, laundromats. Mom and Pop corner stores that have been hit hard by the soda tax and are struggling. Grocery stores crop up here and there, on Aramingo, on Columbus, on Gerard, on Oregon, on West Market under the El. But the office buildings and the enormous network of lunch spots, food carts, dry cleaners, shoe polishers, couriers, valet parking attendants, security guards, window washers, 9000 coffee shops of an incredible range of qualities, all of these are located in center city.

We all have to leave our communities to work. And in the process, we contribute to an economic structure that means other people, who are maybe less able to afford the commute, also have to do so. And how much of that benefit really pours back into the community? How much more would we care about and lobby for better streets, more parks and green spaces, greater accessibility, if we actually spent more of our time where we live? How much more of an investment would we have in our neighbors if we actually knew the woman who owns the store that we buy our produce from - and cared to step up when it hits a rough patch or there's a fire, because we recognize the value of having her market nearby, where she employees two full-time clerks and takes on a few teenagers over the summer.

I've run out of time and energy to keep waxing on this theme, but hopefully there's something coherent buried in there. That spending money locally might, in some long term, actually help the woman who has to leave her community and spend $15-25 per shift just to get to a low wage job. And maybe it will help us too, if we can set down our devices long enough to discover that there's something worth experiencing, preserving, stewarding, and developing right outside our front doors.


Sabbath poems

I do not come into this home as an invader,
Arms piled high with boxes
To weigh the floorboards down
Beneath the oppressive yoke of my material existence.
Instead, I come with a gentle touch,
Slowly accommodating the shape of my presence
To the shape of the space
Through tactile intimacy: one
Window sill and one cabinet door
At a time, cleaning
As my grandmother would have cleaned:
All of it, thoroughly, as though
To prepare communion
For the moment to come
When lives are brought together into one life.

*Sabbath poems are a Wendell Berry thing, but I like the idea, so thanks to the master and all credit where credit is due as far as that goes.