Monday, March 21, 2011

Toward Simplicity and Community

by Zinta Aistars

How often we explore the beyond and miss what is in our own backyard ... I was guilty of it, too. On this pleasant, blue-skyed Saturday, I headed out on a road trip to the very middle of Michigan, that is, the middle of the lower peninsula, known as the "mitten."

Smaller and ever smaller, two-lane roads led me into country. Towns were few and further apart, some flanked by trailer parks and manufactured homes in communities. Income appeared to dip, but then, I thought, so what? If there is one hard lesson some of us have learned in the economic crisis (or at least one hopes we have), it is that the race for more and more income isn't all it's been made out to be. Life is about more than big bucks, more than a mad rat race, more than spending long hours at the office, coming in early and leaving late. Are we working to live? Or are we living to work? The latter seems something akin to slavery ... or a form of addiction, or even an expression of inner turmoil or emptiness. As Henry David Thoreau pointed out, most men lead lives of quiet desperation.

Weaving through the countryside, my speed diminishes without my even being conscious of it. A horizon unmarked by cement buildings soothes the spirit and calms the hurried pace of the work week right out of me. I sense myself taking a deep breath and letting it out with a sigh, and my muscles relax.

I have plenty of big city in me. Born in Chicago, I have spent much of my childhood there, and now frequently visit family in and just outside of the "Windy City." I spent a decade in Cincinnati, and I married a man born in the Bronx and raised in Queens ... he was New York City through and through. Then there were years in a high rise just outside of Cleveland ... so the list goes on and on. Having traveled to 49 of our 50 states, I have probably spent some time in most every major city in the country.

And I like most of those cities. I am still drawn to Chicago. New York City is a world unto itself and like no other. San Francisco is a treat. For a moment in time, I considered moving to Seattle. And Denver.

My recent return trip to my ethnic roots in Latvia had me walking the ancient cobblestones of Riga, the capitol city and place where my mother was born and raised, and that echo called to me in so deep a way that my very DNA vibrated. It's population is around one million souls.

Yet there is nothing like the moment I sink my fingers into rich earth, and stand firm on country ground. While the great cities can give me a shot of temporary adrenalin, it is small town life that calms me. Country life calls me home. The older I get, the more clear that call.

Driving into middle Michigan, I contemplate the peacefulness around me. When I see people walking through the towns, they all seem to move at an easier pace. Weekend, perhaps. But I wonder about what I have read about places that rate higher in happiness quotients (and the United States ranks relatively low in those surveys and studies, at a somber 23rd place worldwide).

According to Sherry Ackerman in her book, The Good Life: How to Create a Sustainable and Fulfilling Lifestyle (Hermitage House, 2010), "A report recently released by the New Economics Foundation ... looked at 143 countries, ranked the United States 114th in terms of cultural contentment and personal happiness, due to its hefty mass consumption and massive ecological footprint. According to the report, the United States was happier - and greener - twenty years ago than it is today." (page 15)

What do they have that we are missing?

Overall, it seems, a slower pace of living. Less in terms of personal monetary value, in some cases, but a higher rate of satisfaction in living. Capitalism does all right in terms of producing happiness, but only when it is paired with strong social services and, yes, health care for all. Smaller is better. Community is key.

When I pull over to walk through downtown Stanton, or the main street of Ionia, or cross the main street of tiny Lowell, I wonder if it isn't the sense of community that draws me to these small towns, and that is missing from bigger cities. When I think of why it is that I am so drawn to Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and to the Keweenaw in particular, surely the physical beauty of the surroundings are a large part of that. For all my travels, Keweenaw is still one of the most beautiful places I've ever called home. I hope to return someday, and this time, stay. I aim for a life of solitude to pursue my art, but a more intimate connection when I on occasion emerge from the wood into that small town just outside.

It isn't just the beauty of mountains and water and rocky shores and green forest. It is also a quiet beauty in the people who live there. After all, there are many beautiful places right where I am now that I could buy a home and call it permanent. No, it's something more. A sense of community. I do feel it in Kalamazoo, where I live now, and so have put down roots, but the folk far up north have a sense of life that appeals to me. Smaller, I sense, at least for me, is better.

I stroll down Main Street in Ionia and my thoughts wander to travel stories my daughter told me when she visited Vietnam a few years ago. She spoke of community, of families living close together, parents and adult children, uncles and aunts, cousins far removed in blood but not in distance. Small children wandered from house to house, at home in all of them, always finding an open lap and a warm hug. One knew oneself supported.

Depression? It seems to almost be a uniquely American concept. We are keen on popping pills to feel better, sitting on therapists' couches, and search longingly for meaning in life. Still, we rank only 23rd in happiness, or a little improved 17th by other measures. How did previous generations do without?

Perhaps they didn't do without. We are the ones who are doing without. Neighbors knew neighbors, communities held their members up, families were forever, and spiritual leaders were lifelong advisors.

Never so connected as we are now, it seems, but never so isolated. We tweet and click and friend and unfriend at a moment's notice, yet true and intimate communication, face to face, is hard to find.

There are few souls on the streets of these small towns. I find more when I wander into a local indoor farmers' market. I stroll the aisles, reading labels, turning produce in my hands, drawn to local fare, choosing a few items and tossing them into my cart. Winter greens grown in this county ... honey from local hives ... a bag of beans grown in another small Michigan town a few miles down the pike.

It's possible, I think, that I may be seeing these small towns through rosy-tinted glasses. Or longing for a long ago, mythologically more golden day. But there is something to what I have learned throughout my own travels, or gleaned from the travel stories of family and friends. We may be losing touch with something, something within ourselves, and some of us have gradually been returning to it even as the economic crisis has burst open to show its infection. I suspect that the local food movements have something to do with community and not just the food grown nearby. It is the exchange of produce from one person to another, a known face greeting a known face, and the conversation wrapped around the purchase.

Connected as never before, yet longing for connection. With others, just a few, and with ourselves, and we are sniffing the breeze for it. Hilary's slogan of "it takes a village" resonates. I don't doubt there are tears shed here, too, in these tiny communities. Plenty. Farm folk suffer, too, and plow their suffering into the soil, perhaps in that way sharing a certain bitter sweetness as nourishment with all the rest of us.

That may be it, then. Not so much an absence of tears, but spilling them together, sharing our sorrows as well as our celebrations. The happiest places are those places where grief is mellowed together, lessened in the process of doling it out among the many. Sadness shared is sadness halved.

Stepping into a local book store, I hear the chatter of a customer and clerk. They talk of nothing more important than the weather, the winter past and the spring to come. It's empty banter, yet rich with local expression, and the two smile wide at each other in concluding their conversation.

"You give my best to Patsy."

"You bet. And you, to Merrill."

Faces that come with names, and names that are attached to familiar faces. There is medicine in that.

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