History Lessons

No one has asked me my opinion. I’m not writing about cancer or grief or memories. I just feel compelled to share these thoughts. Right now, in the middle of a relentless onslaught of challenging news, I am thinking of ways to cope. Acts beyond my control threaten to start wars. Climate change, so clear to me, isn’t receiving the critical attention it needs for all the wrong reasons, led by ignorance and greed. I need a road map to help myself keep from being overwhelmed by all this, without tuning out completely. For me, this is not the time to look away. Actually, for me, there is never a time to look away. As a resident of our planet, I feel a responsibility to pay attention to what’s going on, both locally and internationally. The truth is, that despite being thousands of miles away from some of the most visibly stressed parts of the globe, we are more interconnected with each other than we’ve ever been. And we are having an impact on what binds us together or what tears us apart, whether we’re aware of it or not. I remember living through many scary times. I remember being as angry back then as I am now. It’s hard to keep all the issues and events of the past straight, especially when we feel unsettled and upset. But we have history. We can turn to it for balance, to see how we got here. Then we can take whatever steps we’re able to do in our little lives to affect the direction we’re going. To make a difference. To live mindfully and with purpose. To not feel powerless and overwhelmed. I hate those feelings and I’m looking to push them away, to not feel victimized.

Maybe the big picture feels like too much. I know it sometimes feels that way to me. Taken as a whole, the political problems, social problems, climate problems feel like a giant ball about to roll over me. And that’s without taking into consideration the business of daily life and personal issues. The only way to cope is to break that big ball into smaller, manageable pieces. I’ve always felt that if we try thinking critically, we can find a way to make small changes that are meaningful, even in the microcosm. Multiple microcosms eventually add up to that big picture. At least that’s what I think. So how to go about this process?

I look back. I analyze. I try to learn about what happened in the past, to find whatever logical incident or series of them led to the next event. Some people think looking back means you’re not moving forward. I don’t agree with that. I think examining the past informs both the present and the future. Being both retrospective and introspective can prove insightful, helping to unearth strategies which apply to now. Recently I’ve been trying to reorganize my life’s photos. Sorting through them has been instructive. I see patterns and consistencies. I was taking the same type of pictures in my twenties as I take now. I like sky, clouds, bodies of water, horizons. Although over forty years old and faded, through these old photos I recognize the historical thread of a need to acknowledge perspective, to appreciate my place in the universe. A big sky and an endless horizon remind me that I am only a tiny piece of the world around me. The soaring mountains and fabulous landscapes which have survived for millenia haul me back from the anxiety-producing headlines of the day. I see that certain problems are simply too big and beyond my puny power. That vantage point helps me understand what is actually within my power. Respecting nature, and trying to learn how the marvels around me evolved, gives me direction. I want to be a conservationist. I want to create habitat for the creatures who share this planet. I marvel at the remarkable geological conformations I’ve seen, trying to comprehend that the striations I’ve seen in a place like the Badlands is actually an historic era, a time of water and forests, long since squashed by time into nothing but a thin line in the beautiful hills in front of me.

With that understanding, I realize that I have things to do in the present. I can donate money to organizations and candidates who want to preserve what I want to preserve. I can sign petitions and go to demonstrations. I can teach my grandchildren what I know and try to instill similar values in them. I can engage myself with young people whenever possible to inform and influence them. I can have purpose in the part of my life where I engage with the tangible, physical world.

Then there is the more esoteric life that concerns beliefs and attitudes about the socio-political events which are currently happening in our culture and abroad. Looking back helps with that as well. In looking through that big stack of photos, I realize that our family was always getting educated about the history of our country. While we vacationed for pleasure, we made room for exploring how this nation came to be, going back to Jamestown, York, Williamsburg and Washington. We went to Mount Vernon, Monticello, Montpelier and The Hermitage. We saw the hallmarks of slavery. We read the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. We went to Civil War battlefields from Georgia, Virginia and Tennessee to Gettysburg. We viewed the death toll of war at Arlington National Cemetery. We saw the Capitol, the National Archives and the Supreme Court. As a family, we shared these experiences and hashed out our political views. For us, politics was not something that had little to do with us on a personal level. Politics is how you lead your life. I am infused with my political ideology and I try to live in a way that reflects that ideology. So did my husband and so do my kids.

The history I’ve studied has shaped me and also gives me plenty to do. I can donate money and time to causes and candidates whose views seem correct to me. That means they will provide benefits to the community at large. Locally, I’ve served my community as a volunteer and public official, as did my husband when he was alive. I’m still making a contribution of my time. I try to be vocal and to engage in dialogue that’s aimed at creating a principled and fair society. Some of the issues seem small but taken as a whole, their benefits can add up to significant improvements for many. Going back in time, exploring the past, developing a world view and trying to implement it are a way of coping with the dystopian political climate that has become the norm in my country during the past few years. I was by no means satisfied with my culture during past national administrations but now, we are living in times that are unrecognizable to me and diametrically opposed to my understanding of what we are supposed to be. I don’t intend to fold up and disappear. I want to remain present and unwavering in what I think is a moral, principled approach to this mad hodgepodge of governance. I want to stand with those who feel the same way as me and wrest control back from those who have twisted our country into something that doesn’t reflect the lessons of the past. Except the bad lessons. Being aware of history as it happens is a remarkable sensation. When what we observe is positive, that awareness can feel enriching, elating. The discovery of the polio and smallpox vaccines must have felt that way. I know the signing of the Civil Rights Act felt at least like the beginning of a wave of positive change. The correlating awareness of a negative trend has the opposite effect. Watching the dismantling of environmental laws, laws which reinstate discrimination against women and minorities, and the absence of respect for science and intellect are deflating and despair-inducing. These times demand an examination of history along with the determination to resist what you know is deleterious to a just society.

My husband was a participant in a group called the American History Teachers’ Collective. They engaged in conferences, seminars and presentations which focused on a wide variety of topics during the many years he was part of it. Scholars and authors were brought in to share their areas of expertise. He would come away from those gatherings motivated and brimful of new ideas to share with his students. Those who think looking back is a stodgy old business are wrong – those studies are energizers which stimulate new thoughts and actions. Just what we need in time like these. The photo above was cut from a tee shirt from the AHTC and is sewn into the mourning quilt Michael left for me after his death.

Something else I’ve got a decent history of is my garden. I’ve been keeping a garden journal for many years, noting all the plants I’ve put in, the ones which have lasted, the ones that have disappeared. I didn’t realize that I was studying phenology, the observations of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, most particularly involving climate along with plant and animal life. I’ve been photographing everything that blooms to keep an easy to track visual record.

I’m trying to create a welcoming habitat for birds, insects and small mammals, free of chemicals, with an abundance of food and protective foliage. I’m making a safe space in my small corner of the world. After a polar vortex last year clobbered many of my plants, I struggled to rejuvenate the nectar supply by replacing what I lost. So far, this winter has been relatively mild and I’m noticing early buds on plants that are happening too early. Some of my overwintering birds like juncos were here for a short while but have since vanished. There are flocks of robins that are a bit too early. In my years in my home, my safe planting zone has gone from “3” to “5.”

This past May, I was given a tropical container plant that bloomed and thrived for months. As fall approached, I figured it would die back. But it didn’t. Finally in November, I decided that anything that wanted to live that badly needed to come inside. It’s still alive, green and lush. Will it make it back to April? I have no idea. But adapting and evolving is necessary as we face new challenges.

So that’s today’s set of thoughts. I hope that they resonate out there. I’m going to make the most of my time on this planet, tiny mote of life that I am. And I’m going to keep my mind focused on how much there is to work for that’s still alive and beautiful.

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