grew up on thirteen acres of rural hillside five miles from the
one-store, one-school town of Lookingglass, Oregon, where my parents
raised me and my four siblings to always try to see the flecks of good
in the bad, the stars between clouds in the night sky.
My father pointed out that even maggots writhing inside the carcass of a stillborn lamb were doing important work in the cycle of life, and he said the bats living in a crevice near our chimney were benevolent creatures that erupted in a fluttering cloud at dusk to keep the mosquito population in check.
My mother would sometimes pause in the midst of her non-stop maternal motion of rearing five children to point out the fact that there is always some small helping of good to be found in the bad. She once pulled the family station wagon over on the way to Good Friday confession to marvel out the windshield at the silvery edges on dark storm clouds that were backlit by the sun, and how the silver was like Easter morning and the dark like that day – Good Friday. I still recall that roadside moment when I hear the term “silver lining.” Another time, our mother ushered us all outside into the pasture on an icy March morning so we could witness the power (and faith) that yellow and purple crocuses had to push up out of frost-crusted mud toward the weak light. And when the creek that drained our property overflowed its banks one winter and carried away dead animals, plastic toys, and two brothers who lived upstream and had fallen in one trying to save the other, our mother made sure we all saw the fertile silt the floodwaters left behind in the low spots along the banks.
All these memories help ground me as I watch financial markets disintegrate, global warming accelerate, and workers from cubicle farms to sawmills receive pink slips then queue up at unemployment offices. It is thanks to my mother that I can’t help but try to see the upside of this downturn, as she would no doubt be doing if she were still alive.
I believe there will be many small, good things that come out of the financial realignment and the environmental crises that, in the end—if we as a human race have the courage to make some fundamental changes in time—might well add up enough to usher in a new era: one based more on community, conversation, and compassion than on consumerism, capitalism, and high-flying careers.
Although the downturn will be downright difficult for many of us, perhaps we can focus on the small goodnesses that will bloom out of these hard times, some of which are already budding. Here are a few where I find hope:
- Borrowing Eggs: As oil prices begin climbing back up, we are turning to our neighbors instead of our automobiles when we’re short an egg or cup of flour for a recipe. There’s nothing that builds community quite like the old-fashioned knocking on a neighbor’s door to borrow a cup of sugar or a stick of butter, or a simple egg. And when the bread or pie is baked, we might return the favor in the form of a warm slice, perhaps delivered by a child.
- Peddling Proudly: We are bicycling more, which pushes blood to our cheeks, slows the pace of our lives, and puts us more in touch with the elements of the natural world. Look no farther than China to see how the simple, but super-efficient bicycle moves masses for next-to-nil. And think of all the bicycle mechanics we’ll employ!
- Growing Good Food: Front yards, porches, school grounds, and vacant lots are becoming vegetable gardens where we’re growing food in pots or on plots the way our grandparents did. At community gardens, we’re sharing the weeding as well as the bounty, relieved our children are learning how to grow food before the whole concept is forgotten by a generation reared on buying it sealed beneath plastic wrap at air-conditioned supermarkets. To wash soil from a freshly-pulled carrot and see that brilliant orange, and then taste the sweet crunch, ranks right up there with miracles in my mind. Every child must experience this.
- Clothesline Confidential: The simple clothesline is making a bold comeback, with backyards, balconies, and apartment-building rooftops erupting with the bright, billowing colors of clothes drying in the breeze—consuming only energy supplied by that fireball, the sun. Clothespin factories will soon employ laid-off millworkers.
- Walking Widely: We are utilizing the twin lower appendages of our homo erectus nature to ambulate more often to more places, seeing and hearing and smelling things impossible to sense from the windshield-walled interiors of contraptions powered by the infernal combustion engine.
- Keeping Coops: We’re keeping chickens in backyards where these feathered friends lay eggs with yolks the color of the sun, fertilize their environs, keep pests in check, and eventually become soup for our souls. We are once more waking to the crowing of roosters and the cackling of hens, and our children are learning that meat doesn’t grow on those Styrofoam trays, and eggs aren’t laid inside cartons in two neat rows of twelve at a time.
- Taking Transit: We have more time for reading and conversation as we ride trains, busses, and boats to our more far-flung destinations. We’re mingling at train stations and bus depots, those ageless gathering places that have been overlooked for far too long. Who knows if airports will even be in the picture.
- Community Canning: We’re learning to put food by again, canning fruits and vegetables inside clear quart jars we line up in steamy kitchens where friends, family, and neighbors gather to participate in this ritual of community and survival. When we open those jelly jars of blackberry jam in the watery light of late-January, we’ll ingest the warmth and sweetness and sunshine of summer, our lips a happy shade of purple. And what lovely gifts homemade preserves make for neighbors.
- Live-in In Laws: As housing markets continue to tighten, we’re opening our homes to extended family members, the way everyone once lived. Grandma Grace or an Aunt Emma are providing childcare, Uncle Joe, an unemployed sous chef, is taking care of the cooking and cleaning, Grandpa George is teaching life lessons by telling stories or taking the kids fishing when mom and dad need some time alone to reconnect and tend their love. In our fast-paced society of soccer moms, drop-off daycare centers, and family dinners that have become rare, the live-in extended family is long overdue for a comeback. This arrangement will also reduce healthcare costs, because living in community is powerful medicine that prevents dis-ease.
- Making Music Live: We are gathering more often with our instruments and voices to make music together, in living rooms and parks, instead of only listening to electronic forms downloaded and pumped via earbuds directly into our brains. We’re attending local concerts that cost just a few bucks, instead of traveling miles to mega-concerts that cost loads of cash (thanks in part to those pesky transaction fees). Until recently, homemade music had been a part of every civilization since forever—from caves, longhouses, and mud huts, to the pioneers moving westward. What have we lost along with our live, local music?
- Shopping Mom-and-Pop: Corner groceries are making a comeback, along with the local hardware store and the neighborhood pub, all of them located within walking distance, while those sprawling malls and big box stores in the suburbs silently fade out of fashion, morphing instead into gymnasiums for pick-up basketball games, community colleges, local concert venues or indoor skate parks.
- For-the-fun-of-it Labor: We’re relearning the value of volunteering, because that’s sometimes the only way to accomplish certain things as pink slips proliferate making regular paychecks rare. Working together – for no reward other than sweat, a sense of community, and the fruits of our communal labor – we will survive, and probably be happier.
- Barefoot Baseball: Instead of driving our children all over the region to compete in high-end sports leagues, we’re returning to playing ball in our local neighborhood lots and playgrounds, where young and old gather to cheer the local team members, some of whom might play barefooted, but grinning. Fans are bringing beer brewed in basements, veggies grown in backyards, and home-baked goodies (containing borrowed eggs) and to share on blankets in the shade.
The list could go on and on. And in the end it all adds up to become a way of life that we’ve lost touch with.
You might call me a dreamer, a sentimental soul who’s longing for the old days when my mother pointed out those persistent yellow crocuses nosing out of mud and my father used a dead lamb to teach his children about life.
But during tough times, like those we all now face, I believe it is vital to dream, to see the bright flecks in the darkness, to feel the potential contained in the tiniest of seeds…and then to get to work. Hard work. Now.
Because it is during our darkest hours that the best of the human spirit surfaces. I hold onto a tentative hope that our human community will have the courage, vision, and compassion to radically change our ways—soon: reduce our footprint on this Planet, turn back to community, and do simple, good things for one another.
So let’s get started: Put up a clothesline. Knock on a neighbor’s door and ask for an egg. Ride your bicycle. Bake bread. Stick together. Play catch, in the rain.