Thou shalt not fear thy neighbor

I went for a walk yesterday. I do it a lot here in my town nestled into the foothills of the Berkshires in the Western part of the blue state of Massachusetts. A curtain of mist had settled in the distance upon the hay fields, the bare tree crowns peering out above its straight upper border.

On days like this, when the cold hasn’t yet reached the ferocity of the deep New England winter, a teeshirt with a down coat will do. If cold, I zip the coat all the way to my chin. But when I overheat, there is the option to unzip and let the cold air chill me. And on this ordinary late fall day here in Massachusetts, for the first time since I arrived in the US as a teenager in 1977, I am giving my choice of teeshirts some thought for reasons other than fashion.

You see, when I got up yesterday morning, I put on my Clinton/Kaine 2016 shirt, and its soft blue still envelops me as I lace up my hiking boots. My coat on, reaching for the door handle, I realize the potential thorniness of walking on our roads, coat open, my chest advertising my implicit resistance against what has been elected.

Now, it’s not a secret that Massachusetts is and always has been a blue state, our penchant for electing Republican governors notwithstanding. Yet when parsed, all this means is the majority of our voters overall go Dem. This leaves a substantial swath to support the other side. And generally, it’s good for a Democracy when people don’t walk in lockstep, don’t all fall in line with a single governing philosophy, do challenge each other’s views and convictions. Dissent is patriotic and Democratic, after all. But this election season has been different, and now, with my damp teeshirt clinging to me half-way through my walk, I am reluctant to unzip my coat.

To be precise, over 60% of Mass votes went to Hillary, and the breakdown in my small rural town was roughly the same. And when I walk around here, I always wave to the drivers going by, and stop to say “hi” to and chat with my neighbors. So you would think in a small rural town like mine, inhabited in part by Yanks with deep local roots and in part by city explants like myself, we can handle a political disagreement better than most. Yet I shrink when I see a Trump flag hanging limply on a pole in my neighbor’s front yard, a flag that either wasn’t there before the election day or that I hadn’t noticed in my blind trust in the wisdom of our voters.

I keep walking, and I see my neighbor R., an older man whom I have known for years, though not well. He is walking from the garage to the front door. R. is the one you can see everywhere in our town, no job too big or too small. Need a trail cleared from a felled tree? R. is there with his chainsaw and rolled up sleeves. Looking to place a memorial bench for a beloved member of the community after her unexpected death? R. delivers and installs it. A while ago, he was our animal control officer, driving into our driveways in his pickup, making sure the dogs’ licenses were up to date, and the chickens were treated humanely.

I don’t know for whom R. voted, though if I had to guess… A few months ago, at the time many of us were vigorously protesting the Kinder Morgan pipeline through our state, the sign in his yard urged “Build the Pipeline,” its slogan tinged with something close to hope about American jobs.

Since the election I’ve been wanting to reach out to my neighbors, if only to understand how they deal with the cognitive dissonance of electing a serial liar, racist, misogynist, homophobic know-nothing with self-confessed history of sexual assault to the highest office in the land. I want to understand their priorities, their views, want to convince myself their choice wasn’t driven by the same rank -isms their candidate continues to flaunt. But how to start?

I take out my earbuds and walk up R.’s driveway toward him.

“Hey, long time,” I say. “I haven’t seen you in a few weeks. How are you?”

“I see you all the time,” he says, his green Carhartt jacket open, the plaid shirt underneath covered in wood dust. “You walk here a lot.”

“Yeah,” I say, “You should come with me sometime.”

“I don’t walk,” he replies. I know, he is too busy working on projects, his own and our town’s.

I turn to walk away, but hesitate, move closer toward him instead and pull him into an embrace. He hugs me back for a long moment before we part with a “goodbye, see you again soon.”

Here in my rural town in the foothills of the Berkshires we haven’t been hit with the wave of hate crimes gripping the nation since the election. The similarities in our skin hues hide a number of more subtle differences of religion, ethnicity, sexuality, philosophy. Everyone here still waves back, still says “hello” with a smile. But I feel that cold fear in my gut now, the fear that until three weeks ago would have been an anachronism, a useless left-over of my childhood in the Soviet Union.

I don’t want to live in a place where I have to worry for my safety and the safety of my loved ones. I don’t want to live in a place where accents and different skin tones and opposing views are not welcome. I don’t want to live in a place where I have to question the decency of people whom until just a few weeks ago I knew to be decent.

I will be walking with my coat wide open. I will be hugging R. again, and perhaps my other neighbors with their flaccid Trump flag. I will not let fear determine my actions. Because, as someone very wise recently said to me, if I do, the big nefarious “THEY” has already won.

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Given what we know today

Let’s get right down to it: I have been obsessing about death. No particular reason other than just being alive, and that this life is bookended by birth and death. Birth I’ve done; death is still on the menu. So I obsess, I fear, I catastrophise, I project. I think about all kinds of scenarios, but I cannot quite trace them all the way to their logical ends.

Was it Roosevelt who said “there is nothing to fear but fear itself”? I saw this today, felt it, contemplating my own mortality. What was this fleeting ghost of a feeling? When I queried myself, really pushed, to understand what exactly was so fearsome, so crushing, it was the fear of feeling fear, fear of uncontrollable anxiety. I was actually afraid that it would be the thing without an end. As if anything lasted forever.

What am I really afraid of? My cosmology envisions a grinding halt, the flicking of the body’s off switch, a dissolution of proteins, nucleic acids, organelles into their components, a recycling of amino acids, bases, cholesterol molecules, an enzymatic holocaust sowing the seeds of progeny. Then I realized what was worrying me: consciousness, I am obsessed with my own consciousness. What about it? I know my molecules, atoms, subatomic particles will survive and reconstitute. But what about my consciousness? And why does it matter so much? Why do we want consciousness to go on in perpetuity, like some Faustian contract? Would we want Trump’s consciousness to persist? Hitler’s? Stalin’s?

This being a uniquely human fear, animals seem to ignore the whole conundrum, although how would we know if they weren’t? We obsess and perseverate. We make up stories — heaven, hell, God, devil, saints, cherubim, seraphim, entire pantheons of mythical creatures to help us prop up our need to believe in our own infinity. Heaven and hell are carrot and stick, the price for basking in this laudanum-infused illusion. Just like rats in a maze, it’s primitive operant conditioning, sugar cubes and electricity, heaven and hell, blessed and damned, all biologically determined.

And reincarnation? Another myth I can neither prove nor disprove. As things stand today, as a scientific theory it is decidedly uninteresting; as a philosophy it is seductive but far-fetched. “Given what we know so far…” This should preface any belief, any conjecture, given the state of the knowledge to date. This is true for climate change, origins of the universe, fracking and cancer — given what we know now, I believe… Tattoo this on your forearm and chant it every night before you sleep. The ultimate prayer, a universal liturgy, “given what we know now, I believe…”

I can fantasize, make up parallel universes, alternate destinies for my soul. Whatever follows my last breath should not concern me now. It will be either nothingness, which is the opposite of bothersome, or perhaps my consciousness will join that universal consciousness that people on acid feel, the warm fuzzy belonging that fuels love and war. Or perhaps some acellular incarnation of myself will finally be able to frolic in all ten dimensions at the same time, reach out and touch the edge of space-time with its invisible fingers and weep at the reflection of God. Given what we know today, I believe…