Ordinary things


New school for the new school year

Today on our way home from lunch, J and I walked past Newton’s brand-new Zervas Elementary School. Since Zervas is within walking distance of our house, we’ve watched its construction all summer, just as we’d watched the demolition of the old building last year.

Brand new playground

Curious to see the inside of this brand-new school, J and I peered through windows at the gym, cafeteria, lobby, principal’s office, and one festive-looking classroom. We obviously weren’t the first to have done this, as the new windows were already smudged with finger- and nose-prints from other curious passersby.

Newly built

Although J and I don’t have kids, Zervas is “our” school insofar as it’s in our neighborhood, and we’d voted “yes” to the tax increase that funded its construction. Anything that makes a neighborhood more desirable, like a new school, improves the lives and property values of all residents, so J and I were happy to support that.

Zervas sits on a larger corner lot with two separate playgrounds, an octagonal climbing structure, and a grassy field for soccer or other outdoor games. Today as J and I walked around the grounds, we saw several older kids on bikes peering into windows while a handful of parents watched their preschool children try out the new swings and slides. At the start of a new school year, there’s nothing more alluring than a new school even if you’re the wrong age to attend it.

Nevertheless, Ida B. Wells persisted

This morning, National Public Radio announcers read the Declaration of Independence aloud in its entirety, as they do every year. Like the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence is a document I read in high school and occasionally quote in passing, but it’s not something I have frequent occasion to re-read.

For this reason, today I made a conscious point to listen to the entire Declaration as I was doing my morning kitchen tasks, marveling at the foresight and bravery of the Founding Fathers in penning (and signing their names to) a document that is both radical and treasonous. The United States started as a bold experiment. Could colonists with a range of backgrounds and opinions be trusted to create a civil government by, of, and for the people? Could democracy be the noblest form of crowd-sourcing, or would mob rule rule?

Where the women are strong

Yesterday I took a day-trip to Northampton, MA, a town which boasts of its strong coffee and strong women. In a downtown card shop, I saw a retail shrine to female bad-assery. Alongside “Nevertheless, she persisted” plaques were portraits of early feminist icons emblazoned with the caption “Bitches get stuff done.” One of the bad-assed bitches included in this display was Ida B. Wells, who faced persecution and death-threats to publish a 1900 pamphlet entitled Mob Rule in New Orleans that describes a nadir in American democracy, when lynch mobs replaced civil government.

Any serious, clear-eyed student of American history can recite a litany of wrongs supported by (or at least tolerated by) the majority, such as slavery and white supremacy, the murder and relocation of Native Americans, and the WWII internment of Japanese-Americans. You’d have to be ignorant, deluded, or both to insist that the majority always gets things right.

Bitches get stuff done

And yet…they say arc of history is long and bends toward justice. We no longer keep slaves, women now have the right to vote, and children no longer work in factories. Democracy is a work in progress–too often, populism becomes a popularity contest, and a jury of one’s peers can fall prey to peer pressure. But compared to monarchy, democracy is infinitely preferable as long as the voice of the many takes care to hear and heed the still, small voice of reason.

Only in Northampton:  pussyhats for sale.

Given a choice between one ruler and a collective of the ruled, I’ll opt for the latter. The whole notion of checks and balances rests on the belief that when one group is blind, deluded, or self-serving, those deficiencies will be called out and corrected by others. We all have our blind spots, bigotries, and biases, so I can shed light on yours and you can shed light on mine.

What this means, then, is we need more voices, not fewer. Instead of giving way to complacency or defeatism, citizens in a democracy need to use their voices. Dissent is indeed patriotic, but it needn’t be noisy, violent, or crude. Individual conscience is a small but insistent inkling that worms it way from mind to heart to gut, and our collective conscience should be no less persistent.

Old glory

Today is the 100th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s birth, a centennial commemorated locally with a public radio series about Kennedy’s impact here in Massachusetts. It’s fitting, I think, that JFK’s centennial falls on Memorial Day. Kennedy served but didn’t die in war, but he did die in service to his country. Of war veterans it is often said that all gave some and some gave all, and the latter is true of Kennedy’s legacy of public service.

Pavilion with flag

“Ask not what your country can do for you,” Kennedy famously urged, “but what you can do for your country.” Veterans know full well what they can do for their country, and they do (and did) it. Kennedy, too, knew what he could do for his country, exhorting and encouraging his fellow Americans through oratory and example, urging Americans to reach for the moon and beyond.

I sometimes worry that this ideal of public service–of putting one’s country before oneself–is fading away, at least among politicians. Our current president’s most memorable contributions to American oratory are the phrases “Build the wall” and “Lock her up,” and I doubt he has ever asked anything more than what profit he could make from his country.

Looking up

Last night, J and I watched a television documentary about Kennedy’s assassination, and I was struck by the spontaneous reaction of the assembled crowds in Dallas when Kennedy’s death was announced. Ordinary citizens stood in the streets, weeping, and loose throngs of strangers gathered around parked cars, listening in shock to radio reports. There were no partisan divides, no divisions on account of race, class, or gender. For one day in Dallas, everyone was united in grief, Kennedy becoming in an instance everyone’s president.

Kennedy wasn’t a perfect president, nor was he a perfect man: no man or president is. But JFK is still revered as an American icon a century after his birth for one simple reason. In an era when it seems that everyone is out for himself, Kennedy embodied the noble ideal of giving oneself entirely in service to one’s country.

Thoreau with replica house

I’ve been thinking a lot these days about Henry David Thoreau. This isn’t unusual: Thoreau is one of my favorite authors, and I spent a good deal of my doctoral dissertation analyzing his writing. I have a whimsical portrait of Thoreau over my desk because he represents many of the things I personally hold dear: he was a writer and a naturalist, a walker and a rebel. In a world insistent upon choosing sides, Thoreau was both an artist and a scientist, both poetic and political, both active and contemplative. When I try to imagine a well-rounded, grounded, and self-reliant person, Thoreau is who immediately comes to mind.

Spartan

I’ve been thinking more than usual these days about Henry David Thoreau because of “Civil Disobedience,” an essay published in 1849 that inspired both Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, and “Slavery in Massachusetts,” a lesser-known essay that Thoreau first delivered as a lecture in Framingham on July 4, 1854, after escaped slave Anthony Burns was captured in Boston and sent back south. In “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau describes the night he spent in jail after refusing to pay his poll tax as a protest against the Mexican War and its expansion of slavery, and in “Slavery in Massachusetts,” he condemns Northern cooperation with the Fugitive Slave Act. In both essays, Thoreau turns his eye with all its acuity on the social ills of his day, as if politics were no less interesting than natural history. This politically engaged way of looking at the world seems particularly helpful in 2017, exactly two centuries after Thoreau was born.

Stove and two chairs

Although the popular image of Thoreau is that of a quiet misanthrope twiddling his thumbs alongside a peaceful pond, Thoreau was outspoken during the most politically tumultuous time in American history. When Thoreau wrote “Civil Disobedience” and “Slavery in Massachusetts,” the political debate over slavery was ratcheting the nation toward civil war, and Thoreau was deeply engaged in that debate. Thoreau didn’t just sit back and ignore the political issues of his day; although he cherished his solitude, Thoreau wasn’t an escapist. Instead, Thoreau figured out how to balance engagement and renewal, speaking out on political issues as he was able, but also finding time to unplug.

Desk with guestbook

Ever since the election, I’ve been spending a lot of time following news coverage and political commentary on Trump, Trumpism, and the burgeoning resistance to both. There has been a surge on the left of people trying to learn and understand everything from the demographics of the white working class to constitutional law and immigration policy. While folks on the right raced to buy guns when Obama was elected, folks on the left are now racing to read books. Unlike Trump supporters who shield themselves from “fake news” by plugging their ears to any coverage that doesn’t come straight from the President himself, people on the other side of the political divide have been reading widely and deeply, seeking multiple perspectives in an attempt to stay informed.

Thoreau's snowshoes

This attempt to stay informed, however, can get tiring: sometimes I envy the quiet complacency of the right, who can sit back and trust that America will magically become Great now that Trump is in charge. Had Hillary Clinton won the election, I would have presumably done the same, patting myself on the back for doing my civic duty at the ballot box and considering my job as a citizen to be over. Since the election, however, I find myself moonlighting as an activist, keeping a constant eye on breaking news, receiving daily text messages and emails urging me to contact elected officials on the issue du jour, and otherwise staying vigilant, ready to cancel plans and rush off to protest the latest executive order, unsettling tweet, or constitutional crisis.

Thoreau's bed and desk

In the aftermath of 9/11, people quickly learned that you can’t remain on high alert forever, but that doesn’t mean you should let yourself be lulled to sleep. Beth recently wrote about self-care during the resistance: if you plan to be an effective activist in the long run, you have to prioritize and pick your battles. This is, again, where I find Thoreau to be particularly inspiring. Thoreau spoke out against slavery, the Mexican War, and other political outrages of his day, but he also managed to take daily walks, write in his journal, keep a careful chronicle of wild flora and fauna, and tend his garden. Thoreau, in other worlds, figured out a way to simultaneously exist and resist.

Weathered

What Thoreau didn’t do, of course, was stay inside glued to either CNN or his Facebook feed: instead, he was outside and active. A lot of modern-day critics of Thoreau argue (rightfully) that his activism was largely symbolic: the single night in jail Thoreau describes in “Civil Disobedience” didn’t single-handedly bring down slavery. But just because an act of protest is symbolic doesn’t mean it is isn’t powerful, as many of the accoutrements of power are themselves symbolic.

Peace

Donald Trump didn’t magically become a different man when he raised his hand and took the oath of office, but that symbolic action marked a monumental transition of power. Some of the most alarming news items these days stem not from official policy Trump and his administration has enacted, but the tone-setting influence of angry rants and recklessly worded tweets. Words are nothing more than symbols, but that doesn’t mean words don’t matter.

Adirondack Writers' Guild

By writing about his night in jail, Thoreau preserved it for the ages, reminding generation after generation that “under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” The concept of civil disobedience–Thoreau’s insistence that the government is a machine, and private citizens can strip government of its power by intentionally becoming a “counter-friction to stop the machine”–is not new or earth-shattering: had Thoreau not written “Civil Disobedience,” both King and Gandhi would have found inspiration elsewhere.

Henry David Thoreau's grave

But the fact remains that Thoreau did write this essay: he planted a seed. The tree of peaceful protest would have found some other method of germination had Thoreau never tended it, but he was a faithful servant in freedom’s garden. A solitary and sometimes cantankerous man, Thoreau probably never envisioned the communal movements that both King and Gandhi led: what started as one man spending one night in jail has inspired massive collective movements that have changed the world. Even the largest earthquake starts with a tiny tremor.

February

History is neither a marathon or sprint; instead, history is a relay race. Thoreau did nothing more than pick up the baton of justice and pass it on, and we should expect nothing less of ourselves. It’s important to show up–to engage in faithful, regular deeds, even if those deeds are small–as a way of claiming our priorities. It is not necessary to do everything, but do not fail to do something. As you are able, act. If you cannot act, speak up; if you cannot speak up, listen. If you can neither act, speak up, nor listen, by all means pray. Remain faithful in small things, and trust your acts will be echoed by others, achieving a cumulative effect. We’re in this for the long haul, and there is a need for all sorts of acts and activism.

Teatime

I often take macro shots when I’m feeling uninspired: the act of zooming in to look closely at something feels like an antidote to ennui. I think this traces back to the quizzes I’d sometimes see in children’s books in the dentist’s waiting room, where ordinary objects were photographed in microscopic detail and you were challenged to guess what you were looking at. These quizzes always pointed to the utterly alien nature of even the most mundane objects, a toothbrush or human hair becoming fascinating when you looked at it closely.

Witch hazel in bloom

My fascination with macro shots is also a carry-over from my days as an amateur botanist, when I spent a lot of time looking closely at wildflowers. Most flowers are prettier up-close than they are from afar, the intricate structure of petal, pistil, and stamen being revealed only upon close examination. Some wildflowers are so delicately detailed, you can accurately identify them only with the assistance of a jeweler’s loupe, the four apparent petals of an enchanter’s nightshade, for example, revealing themselves to be truly two only under magnification.

Wooden coffee stirrers

I like the way macro shots force you to look closely at a single thing, the larger context being cropped away. Instead of an entire forest, you can contemplate a single leaf on a single tree, reality reduced to a solitary thing full of hidden complexities. I tell myself that if I can focus on something small, I can understand larger phenomena through extrapolation; the focusing, after all, is the skill to be honed. William Blake’s suggestion that you can “see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower” is deeply comforting to those of us who were bookish children, accustomed to traveling the world from the safety of our bedrooms, the pages of a book being larger than life.

This is my contribution to this week’s Photo Friday challenge, Macro.

Gray day

When you live in New England, you become a connoisseur of light. Yesterday the light was gray, like pewter, the world cast in monochrome with scant shadows and slivers of trees snaking across the sky like veins.

Mixed precipitation

When I was a child in Ohio, winters were long, but so were the days. I’ve lived in New England for more than two decades, and I’m still surprised when the sun starts setting in the afternoon, long before dinner. In January, daylight is scarce and precious, so you make every attempt to save and savor it.

Yesterday was a gray-sleeting day, the ground carpeted in dense, sludgy snow: yesterday, I never saw the sun. Instead, daylight diffused through clouds and wind, the mist falling sideways beneath umbrellas, the damp seeping into pores and corners, and the light landing on shallow surfaces like silver.

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