This morning I woke with a disorienting sense of despair that’s unusual for me. The world seemed wracked with unsolvable problems and going to hell in so many ways at once that it felt impossible to imagine we’d ever be able work our way forward to a better place. I was at a loss to know what part I could play with the time and tools I have.
After stumbling around for a while, I picked up a short essay I’d written in the spring of 2016. I’d been inspired by an opinion piece published in the New York Times a few days earlier. The column’s author, Jon Grinspan, is an historian at the National Museum of American History who describes the focus of his research as, “politics and youth and comedy and food and booze in 19th and early 20th century America.” He likes any subject, he says, “that makes the past feel human and immediate.” And “immediately” is how fast his piece jerked me out of the little stupor I’d fallen into this morning. Reading his column today reminded me why it caught my attention in the first place. I was buoyed again by what he called “history’s most beautiful lesson: The world we know is not our only option.”
His op ed told the forgotten story of the days in the 1800s when young people voted in droves and were the most engaged demographic in U.S. politics. They “speechified” and rioted in wild elections from the 1830s to 1900. “Reading 16-year-olds’ diaries,” he said, “you can see the way they bundled political involvement with their latest romance, their search for work, and the acne on their foreheads. Public participation soothed private anxiety. Youth politics worked because it was so messy, blending ideology with identity, the fate of the country with ‘fun and frolic’.”
He tells the story in his book, The Virgin Voter: How Young Americans Made Democracy Social, Politics Personal, and Voting Popular in the Nineteenth Century. “Millions of children, youths, and young adults forced their way into the life of their democracy,” he said, “while their democracy forced its way into their personal lives.” What in the 20th century often felt like a weak link in our political system was once the strongest. “Young people did vote,” Grinspan wrote. “They could do so again.”
In our 2018 mid-term elections, young people began to prove Grinspan right. In April 2019, the Washington Post, carried a story with this headline: “Young people actually rocked the vote in 2018, new Census Bureau data reports.” The news piece began, “Voter turnout spiked to a 100-year high in last year’s midterm congressional elections.…turnout rates jumped across nearly all groups, but the shift was particularly notable among young adults.” The number of voters aged 18-29 jumped 16 percentage points since 2014. “Last year’s election marked a clear break from the past two decades of anemic turnout among the youngest citizens.”
Knowing that things have changed in the past assures me that they they can change again. Young voters proved that in 2018. What we see today doesn’t have to be what will be tomorrow.
Grinspan’s insight mirrors Rebecca Solnit’s words about hope. “Hope for me,” she has said, “is deeply tied to the fact that we don’t know what will happen. This gives us grounds to act while being clear that terrible things are happening.… One of the great conundrums is that unless we believe there are possibilities we don’t act, but the possibilities only exist if we seize them.… We’re not talking about a future that’s already written.”
The forgotten past and a future that’s unknown both open up possibilities. We just have to be convinced as we face today’s realities that new options are possible and that it’s up to us to imagine them and act on our commitment to make them happen.
“Come wade through history with me,” I wrote, hoping to entice students to apply for an internship with me. I’d been appointed to be Alum in Residence at the University of Washington School of Art + Art History + Design for the 2016-2017 academic year and had decided that one way to put this opportunity to use would be to get help organizing and inventorying the many boxes of files and ephemera I’d accumulated over the years. During my residency, five remarkable students worked with me.
Of the many projects that produced the boxes filling my storage unit I chose one and carted nine of the sixteen banker boxes of Arts Wire material to my office at the school. Arts Wire, which I founded in 1989, was an early online network for the arts community nationwide – artists, arts organizations, arts funders, state arts agencies, and more. It introduced many arts folks to this “new” communications technology and provided an essential national connection for us during the tumultuous challenges we faced during those years – the culture wars around censorship, the rise of the AIDS crisis, fierce congressional debates about arts funding, and the sometimes contentious rise of “multi-culturalism” (the term of the day).
The students tackled the job with enthusiasm. And they didn’t just inventory the material. As they went through it they also talked about what they found, both among themselves and with me. We considered what the contents meant, whether archives matter, and how what they learned connected with the world we know today. Their interest prompted them to create ancillary projects. Along with two exhibitions, an Instagram feed, and reflective essays, the students decided to produce a podcast series based on interviews with intriguing people they discovered in the files. David Mendoza was on their list.
David is a long-time advocate and activist on behalf of artists and was an important early member of Arts Wire. At about the same time that Arts Wire was gaining momentum, David was leading the charge against censorship as director of the new National Campaign for Freedom of Expression. Three of my interns – Karen Beech, Jessica Capó, and Lizzie Trelawney-Vernon – contacted David and conducted the interview. The hour-long conversation – with David in Bali where he now lives and we in Jessica’s apartment near the university – threaded its way through many of his experiences. His creation, in the 1980s, of a button with a message particularly caught the students’ imagination.
DAVID: I created that pin because I got so tired of people using the word “public” and saying, “I’m against public funding for the arts. I’m against public funding for this, or public support shouldn’t go for that.” At some debate I was in, I said, “Wait a minute! Iam the public!” I pointed to people in the room and said “Youare the public, and youare the public.” The anomalous idea that a public means someone who is not me or not many other people…I just wouldn’t accept that. So I created a pin that said, “I AM THE PUBLIC.” And we distributed it widely. People loved this pin because they knew they were not being included when the word “public” was used.
What public funding for the arts did, what the National Endowment for the Arts did, what the New York State Arts Council and many other arts councils did, was diversify the arts in America. They realized that not just a few major European-based institutions were the arts in America: there were all kinds of others. Just last night I was listening to PBS NewsHour and learned there’s a revival of Zoot Suit, Luis Valdéz’s play that he created with Teatro Campesino in California, which went on to Broadway and a movie. Now it’s being revived again. And once again, it has relevance, to the Chicano community especially. Teatro Campesino was supported by both the California Arts Council and the NEA. People who were known for their private philanthropy gave big money to what they liked. Nothing wrong with that, but there was nobody to give money to Teatro Campesino. That’s what public support for the arts did. And, that’s why we created that pin, “I AM THE PUBLIC.”
Everyone who wore that pin was part of the public. I’m telling you, it was amazing. I remember, for example, a Gay Pride March [in Seattle]. We were marching and had bags of them and were handing them out. People loved this pin! They got its message immediately. Then I’d see it on people all over Seattle.
JESSICA: I just want to chime in… Anne has one of these pins in the office. And when she told me the story about it, it really spoke to me and I tend to tell a lot of people about it. Personally, I am myself Hispanic and a lot of my co-workers are minorities as well, you know, Pakistani, Taiwanese. I mentioned this same pin to them, actually just today. I mentioned it to them in the art context but also in terms of what’s happening today. And they loved it, and they were just, like… YES, this is exactly it.
DAVID: Yes! Maybe your first activism after this podcast could be, just make some. I think it’s a very good thing to revive! They’re not expensive…just reproduce it. Just make it!
JESSICA: It’s so funny, I was just thinking about this today. After mentioning them to my co-workers, it was, wow! I just want to make more and start giving them to people. Just helping them realize they are part of this whole debate. They are the public. “Yeah! I am, and I really should have a bigger say in what’s going on.”
KAREN: It’s an affirmation of our own value. This understanding that, like, wait a second, I’m culpable. I’m responsible. And that means that I also have power and I have agency. That is really important! We so often become isolated in the sense that we think, well, it’s only my opinion. But the point is not that. The point is that my opinion is as valid as the “public’s” opinion, that everybody has an individual opinion, and that, all together, is what creates any group, right? Even on the scale of the country!
DAVID: And remember, you have to always be aware that when you hear someone talk about the “public,” they probably have an idea of it that doesn’t include a lot of people. They’re excluding part of the public.
JESSICA: Yeah, we need to revive this!
DAVID: Yes! I have one in my little treasure storage chest in Seattle. It’s time, it’s time again. We’ve come full circle with what’s happening right now.
AFTERWORD: At one of our weekly meetings a month or so after the podcast recording, the group of interns surprised me with several hundred brand-new pins. You can bet that one way or another, they’ll make sure David gets some of the new ones.
Penny University at Town Hall invites you to join the conversation!
Tackling the Climate Crisis
Thursday, August 22, 2019, 7:30pm
The Town Hall Forum
1119 8th Ave (west entrance)
Doors open at 6:30pm
The latest edition of Penny University asks all of us to imagine ourselves in positions of power to make radical political or economic decisions in response to the climate crisis.
Imagine that some great shock has galvanized the world at last, and made it clear that we must address climate change as an absolute emergency—every moment counts. The UN General Assembly and the Security Council have voted unanimously to convene a Climate Crisis Response Team. You’re on it. You have deep pockets and a blank slate, but very little time. How do you allocate money, attention, time, policy, and legislation? What are your top priorities? How do you trade off between mitigating damage that’s already been done, preventing new damage, and reversing the causes of damage to make it possible for the climate to improve?
Discuss, listen, and learn from one another as we envision a better world!
Edward Wolcher, Town Hall’s curator of lectures, and I created the Penny U conversation series to flip the script on a standard Town Hall event. Instead of presenting the ideas of an expert, Penny U prompts you to become a participant and explore big ideas through community conversation and popular education. This edition of these conversations has also been framed by John Boylan, Tom Corddry, Theresa Earenfight, Carolyn Law, and Warren Wilkins.
The cafe and bar will be open, cafe tables will allow talk in small groups so everyone can be heard, pens and paper will let each table capture highlights, and we’ll wrap up back together in one big conversation.
If you register (red button above), you’ll receive a “Know before you go” message containing additional information, including lists of known solutions. You can also register by going to Town Hall’s website here.
Penny U’s name is borrowed from 18th century London coffeehouses called “penny universities.” For the price of a penny, people got coffee, pamphlets, the latest news and gossip, and lively conversations on politics and science, literature and poetry, commerce and religion. The low cost led to a mingling of people from all walks of life. Anyone of any social class could frequent the coffeehouses, which became associated with equality and civil society. Penny universities became safe havens for political discussion, exchange of ideas, and civil debate. More about Penny U at Town Hall here.
Many thanks to Anita H. Lehman for the picture of ravens in active conversation. You can learn more about her here.
“Well, I guess that one was all wrong, wasn’t it.”
When I was a kid, it seemed like my dad had to go out of town for work every other week. I remember trooping off with my mom and four younger brothers to the San Diego airport to see him off. We’d all stand with our noses to the chain link fence, facing the wind from the propellers as Dad’s plane took off.
Other than knowing that he worked as a physicist who studied sound traveling under water and through the earth, I knew very little about the work that took him away so often. As kids we knew that Dad worked for the military in Washington D.C during the second world war, and we knew that throughout his career with the military he remained a civilian and a scientist. We also learned that he studied explosions (sometimes up close) and that he had something to do with “top secret” projects, including one, we found out later, to test an underwater nuclear explosion in the early 1950s. It’s curious to me now that, back then, I just accepted the secrecy surrounding his work and didn’t feel compelled to learn any more details about it.
Instead, what I remember most about my dad the scientist was the time he spent with us answering our questions and describing how things worked – what the seismograph in the corner of the dining room did, how a polaroid camera worked, how molecules and atoms were like worlds within worlds, and what forces held them all together. He was our own “Mr. Wizard” at the dinner table.1 He loved the process of science – coming up with a theory, testing it, finding it doesn’t work, trying another, maybe another and another, and in time finding the one that’s true. And he got special joy in seeing that click of discovery in our faces when we understood whatever he was explaining at that moment.
Another thing we knew about our dad was that he’d met Albert Einstein. The proof we had was a photograph that I’ve carried in mind since I first saw it. My brother Karl, the one of us who took after Dad and became a physicist, recently tracked down and annotated a copy of the photo for me. Taken in 1931 at Caltech where Dad got his doctorate and where Einstein was an occasional visiting professor, the picture shows a large group of faculty and grad students surrounding Einstein, the unmistakable focus of attention in the center of the front row. Also unmistakable to us was our dad in the third row right behind Einstein.
In 1959, the year I started high school, Dad accepted a position as chair of the Physics department of the then-new Harvey Mudd College. He told me he could no longer work under conditions where top military brass had the final word over technical work, regardless of their scientific knowledge. He stayed with the college until he retired in 1971 and remained active as emeritus professor until he died in 1986.
Recently, another brother, Ted, gave me a transcript of a long interview with Dad. Ted and his wife Vicki are the unofficial historians for our family. Part of a larger project titled, “Harvey Mudd College Oral History Project on the Atomic Age,” the interview was conducted in 1975 by Harvey Mudd and the Claremont Graduate School.2
At the first opportunity, I read all 167 pages of the interview. Not only did I learn more about Dad’s once “top secret” past – hinted at on the first page with a notice, “This manuscript is authorized as ‘open’” – I discovered there was more to the story of Dad and Einstein than just the gathering at Caltech.
Two-thirds of the way into the manuscript, the interviewer asked, “Al, you said you had an additional anecdote to tell about Einstein and the explosion work you had done earlier.” Dad described a time he and a colleague were sent to visit Einstein in his office at Princeton. They spent the better part of the day with him, Dad said. “We met him in the morning, had lunch with him, spent two or three hours in the afternoon, then went back to Washington.”
The interviewer asked, “How was he to converse with?”
Oh, very pleasant. Very easy, no problems. He was a remarkable person. Very retiring. To meet him on the street or talk with him, you wouldn’t have thought of him as someone with the mental power of an Einstein. He was gregarious and very much concerned with social problems, religious problems. He was really a very deeply religious person…sincerely in communication with his creator.
The interviewer then asked, “Why were you sent to meet with Einstein?”
The people at the David Taylor Model Basin [site of much of Dad’s explosion research] brought to my attention the fact that the Bureau of Ships had asked Dr. Einstein to develop a theory of ship damage resulting from non-contact underwater explosions. One of the basic principles that he used to develop his theory was the assumption that steel, under the sudden impact of a shock wave, would break in brittle fracture. Just the way glass breaks.
Now I had some data that indicated this was not strictly true. So the Bureau of Ships asked Dr. Hartmann and me to go out to Princeton and interview Dr. Einstein and give him the information we had.
So we made the trip on the 2nd of August, 1943. This was a very hot day and Einstein greeted us very pleasantly in his office, but he looked awfully hot. If you are familiar with Dr. Einstein’s pictures, there is a halo of white hair around his head, and on this particular day there was no halo. The hair was sticky with sweat and curling around his ears and around the back of his neck. He looked like a very hot and uncomfortable person.
He proceeded to tell us about his theory, and he had worked it out on a blackboard which was right behind his desk. Then, after showing it to us, he asked what the information was that we had. We had brought along some photographs of a bomb in the process of detonation. These were photographs taken at very high speed with a movie camera, and the first two or three frames showed the bomb case expanding like a rubber balloon. Now this is anything but brittle fracture.
Dr. Einstein took one look at that set of photographs and turned around and rubbed off his theory. [Laughter] He said, “Well, I guess that one was all wrong, wasn’t it. Now let’s see what we can do.” And in the process of the next five minutes, he worked out a completely new theory developing it right there on the blackboard, using the deformation of steel at first, followed by brittle fracture, which does occur.
I thought that this was one of the best examples that I have ever heard of the ability of a man, who is truly great, to say, “My theory is no good, I’ve got to start over again,” when someone brings up a fact that is contrary to the theory. Somehow, sure, Einstein is always accepted as a great man because he developed this theory and that. But to think of his ability to just scratch it, wipe the slate clean, and start over again is something that you rarely have an opportunity to see.
My brother Karl added a footnote to this story. Apparently, when Dad went to Princeton that day, he took a copy of Einstein’s textbook. After showing that Einstein’s theory was wrong, Dad asked him to sign the book, as if to honor true greatness, “See, your theory is wrong. Can I have your autograph?” The textbook is on Karl’s bookshelf.
It’s not just scientists who need the ability to say, “Oops, I’d better scratch out that idea and try again.” Can we non-scientists cultivate a similar capacity? Are we willing to shift our views given new circumstances and insights that cast doubt on our theories? The proof of error in our social, economic, and political ideas is seldom as clear-cut as a photograph demonstrating that steel can expand like a balloon. Though more difficult, the ability to acknowledge our errors or misconceptions and make adjustments in our social and political ideas is just as crucial as is the ability to change our scientific theories.
I constantly have to fight a stubborn streak in myself that wants to be right, even when I should probably question it. And that stubbornness is not the way I like to see myself. I want to be open to hearing different, even contradictory information and being flexible enough to revise my ideas and my action. Perhaps I need to cultivate my dad’s sense of delight at the click of discovery – even if the discovery is that I’m wrong – and remember Einstein’s words: “Well, I guess that one was all wrong, wasn’t it. Now, let’s see what we can do.”
“Now let’s see what we can do.”
Watch Mr. Wizard was a TV program for children demonstrating the science behind ordinary things (1951–1965).
The oral history interview was recorded on three different days. This excerpt begins on page 112 of the manuscript, at the beginning of the third day, March 14, 1975. The interviewers were Enid H. Douglass, director Oral History Program, Claremont Graduate School, and John B. Rae, Professor of history, emeritus, Harvey Mudd College of Engineering.
“HISTORY IN THE MAKING. The City of Eureka is the first in the ENTIRE UNITED STATES to return sacred land to an Indigenous People without provocation of the judiciary system. THIS IS PROGRESS.”
Pilar James posted this news on her Facebook page on December 4, 2018. Pilar, a 2017 graduate of Fortuna Union High School, is a member of the Wiyot Tribe and participates in traditional Wiyot dances. On that Tuesday evening, the City Council of Eureka, an old industrial town in Northern California not known for having a liberal past, voted unanimously to begin the transfer of more that 200 acres to the Wiyot Tribe in the Humboldt Bay region in California. Not only is this decision not the result of legal action, the tribe is not being asked to buy the land. It is a transfer. It is the return of sacred land.
Speaking to a packed council chamber that night, Wiyot Tribal Chair Ted Hernandez expressed gratitude to the city for transferring the land, which includes almost all of Indian Island. The island is Wiyot sacred land and was home to two ancient Wiyot villages. For centuries, the Wiyot have considered one of these, Tuluwat, to be the center of the world. It was the site of their annual World Renewal Ceremony, and also, 150 years ago, the site of a horrendous massacre of Wiyot people. Hernandez was asked whether the tribe would develop the land. “We wouldn’t put anything there,” he said. “Why would we disturb the land? It’s been disturbed enough. Our ancestors need to be put to rest. It’s time to heal.” 1
“I’m moved and excited to be a piece of this,” said Eureka City Councilmember Kim Bergel. “I’m grateful that we are at a place in our city and in our world where we can move forward in such a positive direction, such a healing direction in such a divisive time.” 2
Indeed. The news from Eureka offers an inspiring counter to much of what gets covered in the media today. The decision and its significance spread through local media – the Eureka Times-Standard, Lost Coast Outpost, Redwood Times, North Coast Journal, Humboldt State’s KHSU radio, and local television news – but it wasn’t even a blip in the crush of what a friend recently described to me as “the multitude of tributaries framing the unjustness/ugliness/stupidity/etc. of human beings and nations.”
To my mind, the story of the Eureka land transfer is every bit as big as many others that capture our attention. Journalists and researchers should be flying in for interviews to figure out how this happened, and how it happened without rancor, lawsuits, or big pockets of money. If they did fly in, they’d find that the action is part of a long trajectory. The stage was set for this decision by events of even greater consequence that came earlier. The December 2018 decision by the Eureka City Council is the latest chapter in a much longer story of hope that I’ve been following for at least a decade. And its roots reach even further back.
Fed and flanked by rivers – the Mad, Elk, and Eel rivers and the Freshwater and Jacoby creeks – the Humboldt Bay is the second largest protected bay in California. Its complex system of rivers, marshes, and grasses creates a fertile estuary that is home for hundreds of plant, animal, fish, and bird species. The area is also the traditional homeland of many Native American tribes. The coastal mountain range as well as its frequent rain, fog, and mist contribute to the area’s relative isolation. The two largest towns are located on the edge of the bay, the historically conservative Eureka to the south and the more liberal Arcata six miles to the north.
In 2010, my friend Peter Pennekamp, then head of the Humboldt Area Foundation, invited me to work with him on a paper about what he referred to as “living, breathing, on-the-street democracy” as he had begun to see it in this region.3 Behind Peter’s gentle face with its graying goatee and ready grin is a man fiercely committed to equity. He’d come to the foundation in the early 1990s from NPR and before that the National Endowment for the Arts to see if he could learn what beliefs and practices build equality and reinforce democracy at a community level. Scrupulous in not taking credit when he felt credit belonged elsewhere, his aim in the work was to distribute power not acquire it. He wanted to connect lofty aims with real people in a specific place.
The paper Peter and I worked on was written to tell stories of communities in this region who took a strong role in determining their futures and to distill from their stories principles that established conditions for what he and others came to call “community democracy.” One of these principles was the “dynamics of difference.” When we wrote about it, the principle seemed solid, and it stuck firmly in my mind. A year or so ago, though, as I tried to describe it to others, I realized that, in fact, I didn’t know how it worked. The idea it embodied, that working with our differences could bring about positive outcomes and build community democracy, seemed significant, but how the principle actually worked baffled me. Its new language offered the promise of new practices. We desperately need both right now, language that names our differences and practices that help us move beyond the snarls that tangle us up today.
When I talked with Peter recently about “dynamics of difference,” he spoke first of Amos Tripp, a Karuk ceremonial leader and one of the major forces behind the renaissance of Native culture in the region. Amos dedicated himself to working with others to restore Karuk culture and was known for bringing back the Brush Dance, a major cultural accomplishment and contribution not only to the Karuk people but to other tribes in the area.4
Being struck by polio as a child, Peter told me, meant that Amos, whose father was a timber faller, was unable to work in the woods. He subsequently went to college and became an attorney. An obituary published on his death in 2014 in the Lost Coast Outpost referred to him as “a true Indian attorney” who honored both traditional and legal values.2 Tripp, the obituary said, was proud of the legal work he did on behalf of Indian people and was known for accepting payment in many forms – fish, crocheted hats, and deer meat and hides.
A year or so before he died, Amos participated in a workshop on community democracy near the Klamath River that I helped facilitate. He spoke of the inspiration he and others gained from the African American-led Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Little might have happened for the tribes in the region and on the river, Amos told us, if the Civil Rights Movement hadn’t given them the confidence that, “we could do it.”
In the late 60s, after years of inadequate health services and the removal of federal assistance, American Indians, as Native people in Humboldt and Del Norte counties identify themselves, came together to build their own health center. United Indian Health Services was incorporated in 1970 with Amos as its first director. Due in large part to Amos’s careful negotiation of an agreement among nine tribes in the region, UIHS was recognized as a tribal organization in 1984.5 The nine tribes continue to be part of the organization. UIHS is “an enormous intertribal success,” Peter said, “and Amos was a holder of that flame.”
The tribes began by building their own health center in the woods near Trinidad, north of Arcata. At first jury-rigged, built on several sites at different times, and put together to meet changing needs, UIHS services were known to no one outside the tribes themselves. Hiding away was nothing new to the tribes. “We survived by isolation,” Amos told Mim Dixon and Pamela Iron, authors of a report sponsored by the National Indian Women’s Health Resource Center.5“In a span of 50 years, 90 percent of the indigenous population of California disappeared,” Amos continued. “The 10 percent who survived did so by running away when someone knocked on the door.” They hid so they would not be murdered, or taken to boarding school, or exposed to deadly diseases. But, he said, “The isolation that allowed people to survive also kept the culture from being passed along.”
The tribes spent almost two decades in the woods, focusing on internal work – relearning and practicing their culture and health traditions, and studying the ways of the white community and the benefits and bureaucracies of American medicine. “We were isolated there,” said Maria Tripp, chair of the UIHS board. “This was our incubation period. In this place that was not so visible, we learned to govern ourselves.”6 They also learned to live their traditional belief that “good health goes beyond that of the individual. It must include the health of the entire community, including its culture, language, art, and traditions.”
Eventually, the tribes reached a point, Peter was told, when they knew enough about how to renew their own culture and improve their own health that they were no longer willing to be considered second-class. The UIHS board, comprised mostly of the women – mothers, daughters, and granddaughters – who started the organization, decided to “come out of the woods.” They felt experienced and strong enough to “move downtown and do so with confidence.” They began to look for a new clinic site.
In 1995, their search led them to a 40-acre dairy farm just south of the Mad River, and the owner was willing to sell. With open space, swale wetlands, and a desirable location at an important intersection of transportation routes, the property allowed the tribes to think about something more than just a building. A “village” of buildings could integrate Native and Western medicine and also be part of a restored natural wetland, prairie, and forest.
Dale Ann Frye Sherman (Yurok) put it this way: “The concept for the Health Village came from the idea that the people of this area, their cultures and their communities and their family life all revolve around rivers… and from the concept that the environment is important, that people aren’t well unless their environment is well also.” UIHS sought advice from environmental scientists who felt confident that the site could include trails, wetlands, a prairie with native grasses and perennials, orchards, and gardens. “Health of the Environment = Health of the People” became a slogan for the project.7
Although the land had been farmed and ranched by white settlers since the 1870s, it was once part of a coastal prairie where the Mad River meandered and where the Wiyot people, one of the nine UIHS tribes, made their homes. As recently as 1850, four Wiyot villages were located along a large bend in the river.8 The UIHS named the consolidated health center Potawot, the Wiyot name for the Mad River.
The first step for the UIHS was obtaining permits from the City of Arcata. This proved more difficult than buying the property. The tribes faced strong opposition. At the first public permit hearings, the lawn in front of Arcata’s city hall was filled with signs reading, “Save the Ag Land, Stop UIHS.” In our report Peter wrote:
As plans for the project proceeded, prejudice crawled out of the woodwork. City permit hearings in 1997 provided a focus for an outpouring of objections from neighbors about the tom-toms they assumed would keep them awake at night and about the casino they believed the project was a ruse for. Most startlingly, they objected to the loss of the land’s “traditional” use for dairy cattle grazing.
In the paper that Peter and I wrote, this is the story he used to illustrate the “dynamics of difference.” Among other things, he says we must first be clear about what the differences are – in this case, differences in notions of what constitutes good health and how to foster it, differences in how agreements are made through Indian traditional values or using the U.S. legal system, different understandings of “traditional use.” The 1997 Potawot hearings brought the “dynamics” of this principle into high focus.
The Wiyot had lived in the Humboldt Bay region for thousands of years.9 The official website of the Wiyot Tribe reports that they lived in permanent villages along the waterways, which also served as travel and trade routes. The annual fish runs of coastal cutthroat trout, steelhead, and coho salmon on the Eel and Mad Rivers enabled them to smoke enough fish for the winter months. Seasonal camps were made on tribal lands and prairies, and the mountains provided berries, acorns, pine nuts, wild game, and basketry materials. Wiyot people actively managed the land, burning for open grasslands, cultivating edible bulbs, and following strict hunting and fishing protocols.
Lucy Diekmann, then a PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, acknowledged the role the tribes played in shaping the land. “Early settlers often commented on the abundant game animals and the ‘natural’ prairies and meadows to be found on the hillsides, which they found suitable for farming.”10 Her 2011 dissertation, “Ecological Restoration for Community Benefit” drew on the experiences of two communities in northwest California, one of which was the American Indian community that formed UIHS.
The first big wave of white settlers came to Humboldt Bay during the California Gold Rush. After the discovery of gold on the Trinity River in 1849, a group of miners, headed for the gold fields, found Humboldt Bay west of the river and established a permanent supply center where Arcata sits now. From 1850 to 1865 the territory of the Wiyot became home to the largest concentration of white Americans in California north of San Francisco. By the spring of 1850, reported an essay by the Historic Sites Society of Arcata, “ships from San Francisco loaded with opportunity-seeking men converged on this large, natural harbor and the small one at Trinidad, bringing European civilization to California’s last frontier.”11
Before the arrival of Europeans, the region had supported a Wiyot population of about 2,000. The Gold Rush proved devastating to them and to other Indian people in the area. Relationships between the Indians and the outsiders became hostile, marked by raids and vigilante justice. The “Indian troubles” culminated in a series of brutal massacres of Indian people in February 1860, the worst of which took place at Tuluwat on Indian Island in Humboldt Bay. The Wiyot tribal website tells what happened:
The Wiyot people had gathered at the traditional site for the annual World Renewal Ceremony, which lasted seven to ten days. At night, the men would replenish supplies, leaving the elders, women, and children sleeping and resting. Under cover of darkness, local men armed with hatchets and knives rowed to the island and brutally murdered nearly all the sleeping Wiyot. Estimates of the dead ranged from 80 to 250 in that night’s series of orchestrated massacres.12
Bret Harte, then assistant editor of the Northern Californianbased in Arcata, wrote a scathing editorial condemning the slayings. After publishing it, his life was threatened and he was forced to flee. In the end, and despite evidence, no charges were filed against the perpetrators. The tribe was decimated, rounded up, and moved to reservations in other parts of the region. After 1860, their population declined to about 200 through disease, slavery, constant relocation, and loss of access to traditional resources. By 1910, their numbers had declined to about 100. But they did not disappear and often tried to return.
Farming by the new inhabitants increased throughout the Gold Rush days, and diking the Arcata Bottom around 1892 set the stage for a commercial dairy industry. Commercial logging got its start, and the college now called Humboldt State University opened in 1913. Timber mills, after declining during the Depression and World War II, became active again after the war in response to the demand for housing. Veterans began moving to the area to work in re-opened mills and in home construction, and to attend the college.13
In our conversations, when Peter described Arcata and its citizens, he used phrases like, “a generally progressive city politically” and “protective of its small-town character.” People joked, he said, that it was “Berkeley North” or “Eugene South” or they called it the “Socialist Republic of Arcata.” He also referred to it as “the liberal college town of Arcata.” Among other contributions to the town, Humboldt State University has a strong, long-standing environmental studies program. In fact, Arcata’s reputation as a progressive place may come partly from its history of local environmental activism: it fought to keep a federal freeway from bisecting the town, stopped an adjoining redwood forest from being clear-cut, started an early recycling program, and took 30-40 acres of industrial brownfields that nobody wanted and turned them into the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary that, at the same time, served as a cost-effective alternative for wastewater treatment.14
Nonetheless, Peter explained, in those days “it remained OK to make racist jokes about Indians even though that would have been completely unacceptable for people of other races.” White society’s increasingly liberal attitudes toward other racial groups did not extend to Indians.
It didn’t help, according to Diekmann, that when the Potawot Village was proposed, “there were no other visible signs of the Indian community in the North Coast’s urbanized area.” Paula “Pimm” Allen (Karuk-Yurok) told her that, at the time, American Indians were seven percent of the population of Humboldt and Del Norte counties. As Allen explained, “This is huge. In most places across the nation, it’s less than one percent. Even with that, other than casinos, there was no Indian presence here, not in any of the major cities or even anywhere. There might be a tribal library hidden somewhere, but there was nothing that said, ‘This is the Indian space.’”
No doubt the “survival by isolation” that Amos spoke of had also played a role in the Indians’ invisibility. Surprisingly, this invisibility was probably reinforced by the town’s history of environmentalism. As Peter noted:
The area was a hotbed for young environmentalists who were driven by images of nature as a pristine landscape, images created by people like photographer Ansel Adams and author John Muir, images of a pure landscape empty of people. For the most part, they had a profound lack of knowledge of the land, and their norms did not include the Native people who had inhabited the land for centuries. They had yet to learn there were people in the picture.
As the population of Arcata grew, the area’s farmland came under pressure. Prior to the 1980s, the conversion of farmland to other uses had been steadily increasing. A General Plan, adopted by the Humboldt County board of supervisors in 1984, provided facts: nearly 100,000 acres of farmland had been converted to residential and commercial subdivisions over the previous several decades. The County’s plan sought to slow down this loss.15
The 40-acre dairy farm that the UIHS hoped to purchase for their new facility was zoned “agriculture exclusive.” For the Potawot project to proceed, the property would need to be rezoned for “planned development.” UIHS had proposed that half the site be zoned for planned development – the health center – and that the other 20 acres be protected in perpetuity through a conservation easement, held by the City, to protect its natural value.
A group of Arcata citizens, dedicated to saving the city’s agricultural lands, had recently organized successfully to prevent a housing development in the Arcata Bottoms, just three miles west of the dairy farm. They were ready to fight again.
In spring 1996 the plan for the Potawot Health Village was presented to the Arcata City Planning Commission and the City Council. At the time, Jerry Simone, who Peter described as “a 5-foot-2-inch fiery Italian,” was the executive director of UIHS. When all hell broke loose in the permit hearings, Simone later reported to Diekmann that one young Arcata citizen jammed a finger into his chest saying, “We’re going to stop you!”
Peter, who‘d been present, told me that at one of the many hearings, Simone in his anger tried to jump up and tell the council exactly what he thought. “But Amos and other Indians quietly but explicitly pushed him down saying, ‘You have to let it go. It doesn’t work to just jump in their faces.’ The Indians had seen it all before. They were totally used to the bigotry of well-intentioned arguments. They had 150 years of experience.” In fact, this was part of the internal work they’d been doing for decades. “They were ready. They knew what they’d face.”
The hearings stretched over 13 months, generating rancor and controversy, provoking news stories and letters to the editor. Some advocates for UIHS sought to show how race relationships over the previous 150 years had changed the landscape in ways that had come to seem normal. Other supporters focused their arguments on the multiple benefits of having a health village integrated with a restoration area. Planning for the conservation easement intensified during the hearings and became an important element in debates about agricultural preservation.
As a central strategy, UIHS launched a major communications and community involvement campaign. An elegant report, A Place of Our Own, published for the dedication of the Potawot Health Village, described the effort.16
Internal strategy meetings were held nearly every Monday morning. The tribes created a brochure featuring the health village concept and information about UIHS. UIHS representatives started giving presentations to City Council members, service clubs, and groups affiliated with Mad River Hospital and the nearby elementary school. The goal was to help local people understand the organization and the dream for the health village. Between December 1996 and July 1997 there were ten separate Planning Commission and City Council meetings. UIHS made certain that its supporters always filled the meeting chambers, each wearing a sticker proclaiming support for the health village. “One glance around the room made it clear that the public was supporting UIHS by about a 95% majority.”
As Pimm Allen said:
When the day came, we filled Arcata City Hall with Indians. I don’t know if that had ever happened before. We had to tell them that sometimes there is an exception to the zoning rules. It wasn’t like there hadn’t been a price paid for that ag land. This is an indigenous community coming back to reclaim the land.
Through patience, organizing, and constantly showing up, the tribes got their story out. Peter elaborated, “Not having had the preparation that the tribes did, the white community had to respond quickly. But, as they heard the story from a Native perspective, they gradually came to understand what the land and its history meant to the Indian people. They began to realize how bigoted their initial responses were. And they were ashamed.”
By the end of the hearings, both Arcata’s City Council and its planning commission unanimously approved the Potawot Health Village and the associated zoning.
Through the long process of meetings and hearings, Laura Kadlecik, the Potawot project manager, reported, “A large percentage of the local community came to know, trust, and appreciate UIHS and their proposed project.”17 The tribes had come out of their isolation. They were no longer invisible.
For such a long time I think we lived our lives separate from the larger community in many ways. And I think this Potawot represents turning the corner – because it shows that we can successfully work with the larger community in these efforts…So, it’s not the end, it’s just the beginning. – Amos Tripp, Karuk leader18
At this point in the Potawot story, what I’d learned about the term “dynamics of difference” from Peter earlier began to become clear again. The best outcomes arise, he wrote in our paper, when we don’t ignore or eliminate our differences but when we work with them. This often means sitting uncomfortably with people who hold very different beliefs. “Tension,” he went on, “between individuals and groups with different experiences, cultures, beliefs, or backgrounds can either be the foe of democracy, keeping hostility high and blocking the path to common ground, or it can be transformed into a powerful source of creativity and innovation and a motivator for action and community improvement.”
To work productively across our divides, Peter told me, we can’t start with the assumption that everything will be rosy if we just sit down and listen to each other, any more than we can start by shoring up our defenses and preparing for battle. We have to identify and clarify our differences, embrace the conflict inherent in the differences, accept the discomfort they cause, and allow productive growth to emerge from there.
When Peter wrote that the “dynamics of difference” could be a transforming force for democracy, it’s important to know that the context for him was community democracy – “grassroots engagement where people uncover, activate, and energize their community’s own assets, take responsibility for their formal and informal decision-making processes, and further their ability to work constructively with conflict and difference.” This is not simply a democracy limited to casting a ballot. It cannot, I believe, be illustrated, as democracy often is, simply by a voting box or an image of raised hands. To be effective, it must also be active and engaged.
As inspiring and hard-won as the Potawot decision was, even this isn’t the whole story. It doesn’t tell of all the ways the differences began to be identified, preparing the ground for the decision beforehand, and it doesn’t tell of all the ways that the differences continued to play out and the reverberations continued to echo in subsequent years.
Many small steps toward understanding were taken over a long period of time while UIHS was still in the woods and before the Potawot hearings. By the time the conflict over the use of the dairy farm land heated up, Indian and white “bridge builders” had already been quietly opening doors and lowering barriers. In a footnote to her dissertation, Lucy Diekmann writes that earlier work done by local American Indians to revitalize their culture gave them a foundation for their activism. She quotes a community member (Yurok-Pit River-Maidu):
I know in other communities the racism and fear are deeply entrenched, whereas here we’ve been fortunate that there have been a couple of generations now of Indian culture bearers, linguists, academics, traditional singers and dancers who have continually shared about their perspective and shared their perspective in many different venues.So [in the Potawot hearings] the fear and racism that was exhibited by a few was overwhelmed by the acceptance and encouragement of many more non-Native people for the project to be here.
Long before the Potawot hearings, these culture bearers were not only strengthening their culture internally, they were sharing their perspective with allies in non-Indian, white communities. One of their first allies was Libby Maynard, co-founder in 1979 and still director of Ink People, a community-based arts organization. Peter said, “She created a place where Indians from multiple tribal cultures could come together under their own leadership and, at their discretion and when it made sense to them, to collaborate with white people.” The Ink People and their engagement with American Indians continues today. This past November (2018), the Ink People hosted From the Source, a recurring exhibition of both traditional and contemporary art that began in 1990 as a collaborative project between the Ink People and UIHS.
When he started at the Humboldt Area Foundation in 1993, Peter observed that the foundation didn’t fund Native people, reasoning that the tribes got lots of support from the federal government. When the foundation board and staff learned how much this misrepresented the truth of Indian lives, he said, “They could see their own prejudice and were embarrassed. We began to bring American Indians into the foundation, and it became a place where intelligent white people and intelligent Indians could work together.”
These smaller, direct and in-person connections illustrate another principle in the community democracy lexicon, “time and convergence.” Different cultures and segments of a community, Peter says, have different clocks. “Widespread, sustainable cultural change happens only when different timeframes come close to alignment and, at critical junctures, converge.” The low-key, fairly quiet efforts of the Indian culture bearers, the Ink People, the Humboldt Area Foundation, and others played an important role in bringing the cultural “clocks” of white and American Indian communities closer in line with each other and helped foster trust between them.
When the hearings were over, the UIHS had to design a large facility and raise capital funds. Attention turned to the massive fundraising task ahead. UIHS had a long history of successful program funding but had never undertaken a major capital campaign. The report produced for the center’s dedication noted a critical aspect of the endeavor:
A fundraising task force was created to guide the effort with help from a local community foundation. The thing that was important in the funding process was achieving our local support. We couldn’t have gone to outside sources of funding without local support, and so [the UIHS] Board and the community provided that initial support.10
In our own paper, Peter wrote, “The Humboldt Area Foundation provided enthusiastic encouragement from the earliest concept phase, support for planning, and space to meet. We were able to partner with then-president of the Ford Foundation, Susan Berresford, who had ties to the area, to help UIHS attract private funders who needed reassurance about what they perceived to be ‘lack of a track record.’” Fundraising efforts were successful and the first major contribution was received in 1998. Groundbreaking ceremonies were held before construction began in 2000. Construction was completed nearly on schedule, and a blessing was held in August 2001, just before the UIHS board held its first meeting at the new facility. By spring 2002, UIHS had settled into its new home.
The health clinic is built to resemble the redwood plank houses of a local Indian village. It is arranged around a circular connecting hallway and a central outdoor Wellness Garden, with all doors oriented to a spring in the center that flows out into the restored wetlands that surround it. The clinic is now a thoroughly modern, full-spectrum health service agency with medical, dental, pharmacy, vision, and behavioral health services. It also incorporates traditional values and customs into daily activities, prominently displays its collection of Native art and basketry, and is now partly powered by solar energy.
Ku’wah-dah-wilth, the name UIHS gave to the restoration area, means “comes back to life” in the Wiyot language and describes the revitalization of the site’s natural resources and the effect this is meant to have on the local Indian community. The restored land has a basket and textile demonstration garden, tree snags that create bird habitat, trails for passers-by to explore, and a community garden that supplies fresh produce for the weekly farmer’s market. The restoration exemplifies the tribes’ cultural philosophy that the health of a community and its environment are integral to the health of an individual.
In addition to the subsequent development of the health village site, knowledge of and trust between Native and white communities in the region has continued to increase. “What was not apparent immediately after the Arcata City Council’s Potawot decision,” Peter wrote in our paper, “was the degree to which the tension and conflict faced there and the public discourse it created would be a springboard for other developments.”
Many events helped increase communication and trust between white and Indian communities. In 2001 the Wiyot Tribe opened new channels of communication by inviting the Humboldt County community to join with them to heal the county for past wrongs. A consortium of local churches responded by hosting a three-day “apology and reconciliation conference.” Over 15 Native American churches and tribes, and 15 Christian churches attended, a total of more than 700 people. The main focus of the conference was to apologize to the Wiyot tribe for the atrocities of the 1860 massacre and the ongoing oppression of the Wiyot tribe.11
Over time, relationships between individual Indian and white people also had opportunities to grow. In about 2003, for instance, Wiyot Tribal Chair Cheryl Seidner and then-mayor of Eureka Peter LaVallee attended leadership trainings together, hosted by the Humboldt Area Foundation. Through these trainings, Seidner and LaVallee had had a chance to develop an understanding of each other’s point of view.11 They could build on this understanding in developing a relationship between the tribe and the council.
Along with other connections and community actions, the growing relationship between the tribe and the council led, in 2004, to the transfer of 40 acres on Indian Island to the Wiyot Tribe by the City of Eureka. Though smaller than the transfer 14 years later, this decision was symbolically and emotionally powerful. To take nothing away from the historic significance of the land transfer in 2018, Eureka became the first city to do this in 2004.
Together the land transfers of 2004 and 2018 mean that the whole of Indian Island, minus a few private residences, is now held by the Wiyot Tribe. Seidner, currently cultural liaison for the Wiyot Tribe, spoke to the Eureka City Council at its December 4, 2018 meeting.
I’ve known about the massacre of 1860 since I was about five or six years old. My parents were very informative, telling us what happened, and also telling us that what happened in 1860, happened in 1860. Those you live with today, they told me, were not responsible… In about 1966-67 we started talking about the island more seriously, and in 1968 we started talking about having the island returned to the Wiyot people.
As she finished speaking, she requested time to sing a song. Two Wiyot tribal members, including the tribal chair, joined her at the dais to sing. By the end of their singing, everyone in the room was standing to show respect. They sang the tribal song, “Coming Home.”
To achieve real progress toward solutions to community problems, Peter told me recently, we have to change our relationships with each other. For the Potawot Health Village, changing the relationships relied on American Indian people having done the internal work that prepared them for the encounter with white society and that gave them the ability to share their history and culture. Their internal work helped them learn to work with their anger, anger they had carried forward through 150 years of near annihilation, racism, and fear.
Changing the relationships also required white policymakers to get up to speed on the difficult history of the region where they lived. They had to understand what it meant to Native people. Residents who were passionate about the environment had to learn to see Native people in the landscapes they cared about. In fundamental ways, white people had to change the way they’d come to understand their identity, history, and place in the land over the last 150 years.
It’s also important to add that the work of building relationships in the Humboldt Bay area remains unfinished. Old tensions remain and new differences and conflicts arise. This work has no easy end.
The big story, the one with the most significant potential consequences, is one of changed relationships. Sadly, I can see why the Eureka City Council’s decision didn’t make for splashy, front-page news. After all, the real change happened incrementally over a span of 50 years in a fairly isolated region. What happened in December 2018 is not a grab-your-attention story of scandal or conflict. Fundamentally, it’s a story about healing. It gives me hope and a sense of possibility.
“Occurrences like these in Arcata and Eureka,” Peter has said, “which often began with confrontation and ended in reconciliation, have led to increased and lasting coordination and communication between tribal, municipal, and county governments as well as between public and private organizations and individuals.” As he also likes to say, change comes at the “speed of trust,” and the development of trust is not linear. It can sometimes develop easily, but more often it comes slowly. It’s about moving forward despite and because of all the ways we differ. We have to work with, not against, the dynamics of our differences.
To write this piece I needed lots of help. I’m especially grateful to Bonnie Swift, my wise and imaginative editor, and to Peter Pennekamp, my primary Humboldt area source and truth checker. I’m also grateful to have worked for two years (2012-2014) with Peter and many others in the development of the Community Democracy Workshop, a valuable way that this work keeps going. Finally, for the time to write this essay, I’m extremely thankful for support from the Jini Dellaccio Project, a sponsored project of Artist Trust.
United Indian Health Services, Potawot Health Village: A Place of Our Own. Documentation, Evaluation and Dissemination, funded by the California Endowment, 2002.
Lucy Ontario Diekmann, Ecological Restoration for Community Benefit: People and Landscapes in Northern California, 1984-2010, doctoral dissertation in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, University of California, Berkeley, 2011.
Now and then in upcoming months, you’ll see pieces I write tagged with the word “cartwheeling.” The series responds to a cluster of questions I’ve struggled with since the 2016 election. As I’ve puzzled over how I can best contribute in a changed and changing world, I’ve written essays with questions as titles: “What should a concerned citizen do?” “So many ideas, so much to do – what’s next?” and, “What’s my piece of the puzzle? Is resistance enough?” I’ve thought of these as my “puzzle pieces.” The Cartwheeling series is one way I’m answering these questions.
So why cartwheels?
As I’ve tried to figure out my role, I’ve had to accept as given my stubbornly positive disposition. This has been its own kind of stumbling block, which I explore in “Pollyanna?” As I wrote that piece, I realized that the sense of possibility I get from leaping into things feels akin to my 8-year-old granddaughter Livia’s cartwheeling spirit. I can learn from her. Livia can and does cartwheel anywhere, even on the way home from school in the winter while wearing her huge, flowered backpack.
“Cartwheeling” as a rubric works for me. I loved the feeling of doing cartwheels as a kid, though the idea of this 73-year-old trying it now is daunting, if not a little scary. Mentally though, I like the idea of cartwheeling as another way to carry on. After all, you have to turn upside down to do a cartwheel. And to find our way to a better future we need to turn many of our ideas and assumptions upside down, then right side up, and upside down again.
Cartwheeling isn’t just a solo act. It can be an exchange, a conversation. I ran across a news story from Washington DC about a “conversation” between a kid and a cop by cartwheel and backflip. The kid’s challenge came first. The cop followed in kind.
Cartwheeling can be done anywhere, in Westminster Abbey by a joyful clergyman after the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton and in Antarctica by a team of graduate students taking a break from McMurdo Station.
It can also be teamwork. We can learn to double cartwheel and everybody-all-at-once cartwheel.
Cartwheeling is moving by revolving. How many revolutions, or kinds of revolutions, will it take to get there, to get where we want to go? It’s not the fastest or the easiest way, but working together a Canadian team of ten doing cartwheels travelled 31 miles in a single 24-hour period to set a record.
The road can’t just be about efficiency and how fast we’re going. It also has to be about where we’re going and how we get there. The phrase “doing cartwheels,” after all, means to feel good about something. We might even get farther and accomplish more if we know where we’re heading and if we move with spirit and joy in the possibility of finding ways to get out of this mess.
I’ll use the Cartwheeling series to share stories about work done and action taken by friends and others who inspire me and give me hope. I have many examples already; more will come. Two follow here. “Honestly, you have been very patient with me” was originally posted as a comment on my “Pollyanna?” piece. Then, Boting Zhang writes, in “Beneath Partisan Politics,” of her shocked response to the 2016 election. Bo didn’t wait to take action. Born in China and raised with images of America as “Meiguo– the Beautiful Country,” she writes, “the America of my young imagination compelled me to facilitate a year-long conversation across the red-blue divide.” With Between Americans, a conversation that involved 12 people who voted for Clinton and 12 who voted for Trump, she wanted to understand and perhaps help bridge the polarization in this country. What she learned is not what she expected.
In Cartwheeling I’ll look for connecting threads, broad ideas or theories that tie the various stories together and add to their power. I’m finding books and other materials that may help. At the end of 2016, in “A bigger choir – a countervailing force,” I expressed my frustration with the, usually disapproving, expression, “You’re just speaking to the choir.” It’s one of the assumptions we need to turn upside down, a small one perhaps, but for me a beginning. At the time I suggested that instead of being critical of speaking to the choir, “We should work to expand the choir, build connections with other choirs, welcome different voices in our own, and allow for differences since dissonance is a powerful part of music.” I wondered whether we can create a force that incorporates the strengths of both our differences and what we share.
As we start to understand these connections and their potential power, we have to figure out how to move together with them. Cartwheels are all about movement, but backwards cartwheeling is nearly impossible. We can’t go back. We need new ways to understand where we are and, as importantly, we need to imagine how we want to move and where we want to go.
I was thrilled to find this letter from a friend as a comment on my piece, “Pollyanna?” Because online comments can easily get lost on a site like this, I moved it here with an OK from its author. I’ve also tagged it as part of my “Cartwheeling” series. The series is meant to be a place to share stories of places where I and others find hope in the face of the current state of the world. Many entries will be stories of extraordinary things that are already happening. My friend’s letter tells of his own quiet but extraordinary act, here in my own community. I’m grateful for it.
June 19, 2018
Tomorrow is the last day of detention school and I thought I would write a letter to the students. After reading your essay I felt a connection between our themes.
To My Students,
Thank you for all that you have taught me these last four months. I have become a better listener, a more patient, forgiving and fearless person. I came into the detention center not knowing what to expect. I made a few mistakes along the way, but each time I tried to correct my missteps. Honestly, you have been very patient with me.
I have been a teacher, tutor, and youth advocate for many years. I enjoy working with young adults. The detention center seemed like a place where my skills might be of some use. Now, I know that is true, and I know many of you have appreciated me being here, because you have told me so.
As the regular school year ends I would like you to consider two things:
First, keep practicing hearing your own, true voice. Your true voice can keep you out of trouble. Your true voice can keep you on the path of becoming a wise and happy person. And, your true voice will inspire you to love and help others.
Second, use every opportunity you are given to strengthen your education. The detention center is a great place to do this! The teachers here are dedicated to your success. Let them in—they have many wonderful gifts to give you.
I believe each one of you has so much to offer your families, your community, and the world. Most of you don’t know this yet! I didn’t know it when I was your age either. I believe the very best about you, and I will continue to work with you to bring that ‘bestness’ out.
As many of us did, after the 2016 election Boting Zhang asked herself, “What’s a plebian to do?” I’m inspired by how quickly she responded. Since her childhood in China, Bo had carried in mind a dream of America as meiguo, the Beautiful Country. In late 2016, this dream from her childhood compelled her to leap into the polarized space that divides much of this nation. To try to understand the divide and, if possible, help bridge it, she developed a year-long conversation – by phone and online – that engaged 12 people who voted for Clinton and 12 who voted for Trump. What she learned is not what she expected. Instead, as she says, “I learned a few things about our political climate today and a lot more about what it takes to live a fully connected life in our modern age.” In what follows, she tells this story and threads through it glimpses of her own and her family’s experience in China before coming to this country.
Destined for the Beautiful Country
I was born destined for the opportunity of America. As the only kid in daycare lucky enough to have parents studying in Meiguo – the Beautiful Country – I heard about it constantly. Meiguo sounded like an amazing place. I imagined Americans to be grinning all the time, just proud to belong to the nation that’s best at everything.
Months before my fifth birthday, my grandparents and I took the two-day train journey to Beijing. There, I boarded a plane alone for JFK. My parents would be waiting when the plane landed. I’d never see my grandmother again.
The American Dream tells us that success lives just on the other side of individual hard work and self-sufficiency. Three decades in, my family has lived that dream. But the proud and happy Americans that I’d expected to find on this side of the fairy tale? Turns out that we’re more complicated than that.
This is also a time when, around the world, cities and their surrounding countrysides find themselves at heated political odds. Many people seem resigned to the conclusion that their political opposites must be selfish, myopic idiots. Researchers and others have analyzed the causes of our political polarization, and I will neither rehash nor dispute these analyses. Our polarization has a complex history.
Through my year-long conversation I learned a few things about our political climate today and a lot more about what it takes to live a fully connected life in our modern age of individual ambition. My question about modern America now is this: How can we find the sense of belonging together that encourages people to work through their differences?
Twenty-four voters from around the country participated in the year-long conversation online. Half had supported the woman I’d voted for; the other half had chosen the man I didn’t understand. Most participants were strangers to each other, but all were introduced to me by people I know.
At the start, the project was called “Into the Schism.” Then, in a fit of hope, I changed its name to “Between Americans.”
At this time in American history, it takes a lot of hope and trust for people to even come together. My hope was that the year-long conversation would encourage greater mutual understanding. For most participants, the experiment didn’t succeed in the way they, or I, had hoped. It succeeded in a totally different way.
Through mistakes that I made and through what participants shared with me at the end of the year, the project helped me see that political dialogue is hollow if it doesn’t address the creeping loneliness and floundering sense of purpose that lie under our nation’s polished surface.
America the lonely
Underneath a veneer of pearly-white smiles, modern Americans are lonely. Even a former Surgeon General, Vivek H. Murthy, has rung alarm bells about our epidemic of loneliness. He wrote, “The world is suffering from an epidemic of loneliness. If we cannot rebuild strong, authentic social connections, we will continue to splinter apart.” Although “loneliness” implies being alone, my conversations with participants surprised me by making it clear that busy Americans with lively social networks can also be intimately familiar with the feeling.
What’s more, this loneliness, this underlying stress to our collective whole, may be driven in no small part by our own restless individual aspirations for success. We’re industrious, ingenious, and interconnected, but these traits also lead to conditions that keep us apart: an extreme busyness, no room for serendipity, a craving for certainty and simple answers, and a crowded Internet.
The Between Americans conversation began in January 2017. Here’s what a few people wrote early in the project.
Immediately after the election, I felt like I needed to get more involved in the political process…. I kept coming back to the idea that I wanted to have a dialogue with people who think differently from myself.” — Participant A
I’ve never seen our country as polarized as it is right now. I don’t think that supporters of either major candidate in the last election are as blinkered as social media memes would suggest. One way to bridge the divide is conversation. So, let the conversation begin!” — Participant B
The project planned to use a combination of online writing and phone calls among small groups of participants. Almost immediately, participants and facilitators found themselves swept back into the urgency of everyday life. We only managed to schedule one small-group call with just five participants before everyone became too busy.
Yet, many participants didn’t lose interest. They still believed in the idea and wanted to continue – they just hadn’t expected to be so busy. This led me to wonder about the phenomenon of American busyness itself.
Our nation is home to two kinds of busyness. The first is a busyness of scarcity; many people are still working hard for survival in a nation of abundance. But graduating from scarcity often only brings Americans into a different busyness of abundance. The busyness of each participant seemed essential: responding to family needs or unexpected events in the context of overwhelmingly busy jobs. But in the aggregate, it formed a striking pattern. Something is wrong with our collective capacity for a functioning togetherness. This is a catastrophe that warrants deeper exploration.
To give you an idea of how hard modern Americans work, we forfeited 206 million vacation days in 2016. If an average worker works for 45 years, that’s over 12,500 lifetimes of paid leisure, thrown away in just one year.2
I certainly relate to busyness. Workaholism is in my DNA. My dad grew up in a farming community where poverty and hunger were well-known. Especially in the famine years of his childhood, the purpose and meaning of life was fairly straightforward: to survive, and to help others survive if you can.
Loneliness was impossible. It was an environment that could only be survived together. His community pooled resources to help my dad become their first college student, to leave poverty behind. After she and my dad moved to this country, my mom cleaned houses and packaged chicken eggs as the two of them worked their way through grad school in Connecticut. That is how, layer by layer, our family made its way into the American Dream.
The opportunities of reaching the Dream present an entirely different challenge: not to survive, but to remain fully connected in community. In the world of the American Dream, neighbors each have separate lawn mowers and kitchen stand mixers. Friends respect each other’s busyness and avoid asking for big favors. We buy insurance policies. We avoid surprises. The farther we move up in the social classes of the ever-less-burdened and more self-reliant, the harder it becomes to see our vital contributions to each other’s survival. But the less immediately necessary we feel, the more deeply we succumb to the stresses of uneasy belonging.
We humans go crazy in solitary confinement. We’re like single cells that shrivel up and wither away when separated from the larger organism of community. To the extent that humans have a baked-in desire beyond survival and sex, that desire is to belong together.
No room for serendipity
Shortly after college, I worked for two years in a guesthouse in a sparsely populated Japanese mountain village. My parents were bewildered at why I’d be so eager for the rural poverty that my elders had labored to leave behind. How to explain that I was enchanted by the serendipity of shared humanity that arises from moments of idleness and curiosity?
“Mornin’, Bo-chan!” I heard one early morning, faintly in the distance, as I picked my way downhill through the lingering darkness to our log-cabin office. My eyes searched the empty road and fields until I finally spotted our 76-year-old neighbor, cheerily hanging from the upper trunk of one of his Japanese cypresses, chainsaw in hand.
“Morning, Omo-san!” I yelled back.
“What are you up to today? More emails?” It seemed to always astonish him that there could be so many emails.
Later that day, he stopped by for a visit. Irritated by the interruption, I served tea anyway and paused for a long chat, having learned the hard way that busyness isn’t an acceptable excuse anywhere in this village, and certainly not for Omo. After all, he’s spent entire afternoons showing us how to better tend to our potatoes and eggplants.
Ten years later, these memories are bittersweet when I recognize that I don’t spare that kind of time or curiosity for strangers at home.
We’ve created this culture where there’s no spaciousness in people’s lives to energetically take time, reach out, connect, have community with people outside their immediate philosophical, political, socioeconomic groups.” — Participant E
In moments of spaciousness, people are almost reliably surprising. In busyness, people rarely are. Thread by thread, busyness tugs away at the serendipity of community until, collectively, we reach a threadbare state of diseased loneliness. Busyness crowds out surprise.
A craving for certainty and single answers
At the beginning of the Between Americans project, I’d imagined my facilitating role to be something like that of an engineer helping shape a river. I wanted to help the conversation land on the right balance of conflict and harmony—not so much conflict that the water becomes turbulent, not so much harmony that the water stagnates.
But it turns out that dialogue doesn’t need such careful physics. Dialogue simply requires the spaciousness of uncertainty and vulnerability.
One of the strongest personal characteristics that any person can have is the ability to be vulnerable. And it’s one of the things that I think as Americans we’re the worst at. We all put on this suit of armor that protects us. And when we talk about politics and community and growth and unity, those suits of armor actually protect us from solving the problems that we have. And I guess with my personal history of poverty as a child, and homelessness…that vulnerability and those experiences, those are strengths.” — Participant F
I once worked in an office where our leaders never agreed on anything. It was a running joke. But our team thrived on these disagreements. Unless something was on fire, we didn’t feel compelled to end every conversation with a resolution. Our disagreements forced us to reckon with the competing paradoxes of efficiency, quality, cost, creativity, relationships, and so forth. Difficult conversations challenged us to find a higher synthesis that could resolve competing needs.
But in the trap of political punditry, ideas are either right or wrong; there is no higher synthesis. When I buy into this trap, I fail to see the point of a conversation that won’t easily end in agreement or a meaningful insight. This also helps the schism grow.
I hate political discussions…. Even when someone sides on ‘your side’, it seems like they still argue with you on hair-splitting issues, just to be argumentative…. It almost makes me afraid to have an opinion on anything.” — Participant G
Communication lets us borrow each other’s brains so that we can think together. When politics becomes reduced to trading answers back and forth, we lose the full potential of dialogue. We each respond to conflict in our own ways, and each response can hold a piece of the truth. It’s in the very incompleteness of our individual truths that we can reach a wiser togetherness. Having all the answers would be terribly lonely.
By the end of the year, I was learning to be more comfortable with the honest unknowingness of true conversation. In that open space, the conversation made some progress. Along with uncomfortable moments, the river of dialogue began to find its natural flow. Participants shared some daring truths, displaying trust even if understanding was shaky. I was beginning to feel a larger kind of American belonging that I wasn’t finding anywhere else in the political landscape.
A crowded Internet
From the beginning, I knew that phone calls were different from online discussion, but I was surprised at how much more I connected with each Between Americans participant in hour-long telephone exit interviews than in the entire year-long online conversation.
A short excerpt from the online conversation earlier in the year was about environmental issues:
So I have posted some stuff that’s environmental. And there was actually a lot of thought that went behind that…. I would agonize over what I should post … like, what is something that I [can] talk about meaningfully, without getting too emotional to the point where I can’t talk about it anymore.” — Participant A
Referencing the same conversation in an exit interview, another woman reflected:
I remember there was one, that someone had written about the environment…. I saved part of the post in my notes and I got back to it later…. And I got a very thoughtful response back…. And then I dropped the ball – I think it was the Fourth of July – and I never wrote back. And I was like, ‘Damn … I lost an opportunity to really keep this conversation going and learn about something that I don’t know a lot about.’” — Participant I
Before these phone calls, I’d forgotten how much of our human complexity remains below the surface of the Internet. When we type, our backspaces and pauses – the vulnerable hesitations that connect us as humans – disappear as unwritten words. And what’s more, the Internet often acts like a crowd, and crowds carry their own distortion.
At the start of the Cultural Revolution, when my mom was 11 years old, she watched from a crowded plaza as student leaders on the stage kicked, hit, and bit her dad’s colleagues in order to force public confessions of academic privilege and oppression. The crowd chanted slogans in support of class struggle.
When my grandfather took his own turn on stage, my mom slipped away from the square. She avoided future “struggle sessions.” Away from the crowd, she got used to feeling alone. Only decades later did she begin to hear how uncomfortable others had also been in these public meetings.
What my mom saw – the people, the emotions, the chants – had been real. As she witnessed, crowds readily amplify extremism. This is the landscape of mass communication. Not only can written conversations filter away our humanity, but the crowded Internet also suffers under the simplifying distortions of crowds. When we forget the limitations of the Internet terrain, when we allow it to draw our attention away from the real people right next to us, we filter out our true complexity, and our loneliness grows. When I forget that we are deeper than the Internet, I conclude, wrongly, that everyone has gone crazy.
Beneath partisan politics
Between Americans was started as a way to understand and perhaps help bridge the polarization that was so apparent in the 2016 election. What I found instead, beneath partisan politics, is a shared struggle to be fully seen through the haze of each other’s busyness, ready answers, and hyper-connected networks. In my exit interviews especially, I glimpsed a tender layer of our nation that wants to know itself better, but that feels stuck, stuck in our polarization. It’s lonely and frustrating to be in a conversation that’s stuck, and yet, we Americans have together created a polarized, disconnected outcome that few of us want..
In Tribe: On homecoming and belonging, Sebastian Junger writes, “Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary.” Modern ideals of self-sufficiency have gone a little too far.
In this modern world of bewildered belonging, political warfare offers a rare gift – an experience of shared purpose with other people. As Junger also says, in addition to all its destruction, “war inspires ancient human virtues of courage, loyalty, and selflessness that can be utterly intoxicating to the people who experience them.”
But belonging is a heavy load for politics to carry. Political conversations often echo strains of an exasperated belonging that can’t be solved through politics.
I think we’re actually damaging the structure that allows people to be individuals, because now they have to associate with these labels. Are you a Republican or a Democrat? Are you a feminist or not a feminist? And they don’t even come close to touching on the complexity of the actual human…. I think this creates a sense of isolation and loneliness because here you can name all these containers, but you’re not really known. Nobody actually really knows you.” — Participant N
As our democracy matures, the very qualities that brought us this close to success – our busyness, our conviction, our production-line innovations – could be the very things that hinder us from moving forward.
Looking back from the future, I hope we’ll see this time in history not as a struggle between competing ideologies, but rather as an awakening to the complexity of our problems and a gradual rejection of ideological answers. Generative, inclusive disagreement isn’t something we need to remember how to do. It’s something we’re learning for the very first time.
My conviction for bridging divides is not about finding peace and harmony, or even common ground. Rather, I believe in talking more so that we can begin to become, perhaps for the first time in American history since colonization, a whole that’s truly greater than the sum of our parts.
Boting Zhang works at The Bramble Project, “joyful and conscientious urban development.” Of her work she says, “I work to support collective wisdom and agency in the complex civic and social dynamics surrounding urban change and belonging. I offer ideas for how our polarized society can heal itself in a parallel essay, ‘Our Political Polarization: Heartbreak and healing,’ on the Bramble Project blog.”
Between Americans began as a commitment to remember how the 2016 election felt. Since art is the only way I could think of to record an emotional time capsule, I committed to an art piece about that election night. My commitment was a seed that grew into this year-long conversation. To see and hear the full art piece telling the story of the year’s project, please go to: Between Americans Timeline. I invented the format you’ll see as a way to display the conversation. Among other things, it includes about three hours of audio. Scroll to the bottom of the page for links if you’d rather listen to it as a podcast.
Where in hell are we? Judging from our national politics, international tensions, and the suffering described in news reports and visible on sidewalks in my own neighborhood, we’re in pretty deep. Like many people, I struggle to shape and reshape the way I take action in this post-2016 era without completely losing my balance in the maelstrom.
My vision of hell probably looks a lot like Dante’s Inferno (1320), an image I encountered in college when Dante’s long poem of his journey through the nine circles of hell was assigned as an essay topic in a philosophy class. I remember liking the premise I’d come up with, and it has stayed with me since then. It pops up especially when I get to wondering just how bad a particular incident or situation is – could it be worse? what could I do to help make it better? Given the current political, economic, and social climate, I’m not surprised that the premise of that 54-year-old essay is on my mind again.
A few weeks ago, a folder of college papers surfaced in one of the many boxes I’ve stashed away over the years. This essay was among them and I was eager to see it again. As I started reading, I remembered the panic I felt when I turned the essay in. Not only had I, a generally rule-abiding student, not read the whole book, but my essay was only about a page and a half, double-spaced. The suggested length was ten pages. With no prefatory comment and no helpful title, my 19-year-old self just leaped straight into my basic contention:
The severity of punishment in Dante’s Hell does not vary from one circle to the next. There only seems to be a difference to an observer, like Dante, passing through. But all souls in Hell are suffering and all are in agony no matter which circle they are in. Each soul has no other punishment with which to compare its own agony, and with this lack of comparison, that soul’s punishment would feel just as severe as any other. Each soul receives the worst and most appropriate punishment for the sin that soul committed. The soul of a thief is punished by having nothing, not even a form, that is not stolen from it. A glutton’s soul is punished by having to wallow in mud, an appropriate punishment for one who wallowed in material things on earth.
Dante says, “The more perfect, the more keen, whether for pleasure’s or for pain’s discerning.” A person evil on earth will not be as affected by a punishment in hell as will a person less evil on earth. The souls in the Circles of Incontinence, because their sins were not thought to be as bad, would be “more perfect” so the suffering they felt would be “more keen.” The souls in deeper circles do not suffer any more than the ones in higher circles. It just takes a stiffer punishment to make a sinful soul suffer the same agony.
After all my trepidation, the professor gave the paper an A with a hand-written comment, “In three brief, brilliant paragraphs you have touched the soul of the Inferno.” Only now do I appreciate her use of the word “soul” in the comment, which seems apt given that I used the word 13 times in the three brief paragraphs. I have no doubt, though, that her note played a part in how firmly the idea that my 19-year-old self took from a medieval text got planted in my mind.
The power of comparison burrowed into my thinking. If souls in the upper circles of hell had been able to compare their punishment with the punishments received in the lower circles as Dante had, might they have felt a little better about their plight, might they have suffered a little less? I suppose, though, that this wasn’t the point. In fact the upper levels only seemed better if, like Dante, you were able to walk from one circle to the next and observe the comparison, but not if you imagined being caught in one of hell’s circles suffering its specific punishment.
About 15 years ago, an editor I admired used a quote that felt true to me. Purported to be from Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, though I can’t find proof, it said, “The root of all unhappiness is comparison.” Memory of the idea planted by Dante may have helped this quote feel right to me. I pinned it on the wall over my desk and it stayed there for years. I tried applying it to my life.
If I could let comparison go, I reasoned, my sense of worthiness or even happiness would not depend on comparing myself to others. It wouldn’t matter how I or anyone else judged my life against the lives of others. The amount of stuff or money or fame I had, whether or not I had a partner or children, how I expressed my activism, or any other of the many measures I’ve used, consciously or unconsciously, to judge myself – wouldn’t have so much influence over me. I’d use the quote over my desk to remind me that I’d be happier, more at peace with myself, and more able to be active and useful, if I could quiet those comparisons.
This expands Dante’s lesson to include pleasure along with pain. In hell, the pain experienced is appropriate partly because the souls in each circle aren’t aware of the pain felt in other circles. In my lived experience, I’m fuller, happier, more ready to be and act in the world, when I can stay in my own circle of pleasure and pain, keeping comparison away.
The impact of comparison takes a different but at least as powerful a turn when I step into the turmoil of the world around me. Much as Dante considered the circles of hell when he moved through them, I’m acutely aware of the widely differing conditions of people’s lives as I move through and act in the world today.
More than two decades ago, I discovered an exchange between Hannah Arendt, a German-born American political thinker, and Mary McCarthy, an American author and political activist, in a book of their letters from 1949 to 1975.1 The ideas they discussed have stayed with me over the years, but only now am I making a connection with the Inferno.
On June 9, 1964, McCarthy wrote to Arendt about an idea she longed to write about.
The present idea has to do with equality. I’ve long thought that this is the spectre that has been haunting the world since the eighteenth century. Or at least it has been haunting me all my life. Once this notion was introduced into the human mind, existence became unbearable, and yet once there it can never be banished.
The only people who remain happy or content are those who haven’t yet heard of it, for one reason or another – at either end of the social scale. The beknighted squires (and there still are a few) who don’t have a guilty conscience, and the beknighted peasants (and there still are a few) who don’t suffer from envy. Both these groups, as it were, don’t question God’s disposition of His favors, whether He smiles on them or frowns on them. But everyone else is only pretending if they claim to take inequality for granted. On both sides. “Why should I have this and not he?” or “Why should he have this and not I?”
…I have the sense, maybe subjective, that the worm of equality is not only eating away at the old social and economic foundations but at the very structure of consciousness, demolishing the “class distinctions” between the sane and the insane, the beautiful and the ugly, the good and the bad.
Arendt replied on June 23, 1964.
Let us talk about the equality business; most interesting. The chief vice of every egalitarian society is Envy – the great vice of free Greek society. And the great virtue of all aristocracies seems to me to be that people always know who they are and hence do not compare themselves with others. This constant comparing is really the quintessence of vulgarity. If you are not in this hideous habit you are immediately accused of arrogance – as though by not-comparing you have decided to be on top.
McCarthy’s words, like ideas sparked by Dante, are firmly planted in my mind. McCarthy’s “worm of equality” digs through layers of class, health, beauty, and morality, just as Dante’s downward path draws him through the circles of hell.
But what of Kierkegard’s root of unhappiness or Arendt’s vice of envy? What if we long for the satisfaction and joy that might come from living in a world that allows us to know who we are without the envy and arrogance that can come from the habit of comparison? Can we imagine such a world without assuming that it requires returning to a medieval realm inhabited by beknighted squires and peasants?
If we’ve found such a place, why would we venture out to see and feel the inequalities in both suffering and joy in the world around us? Why venture into a world that demolishes the distinctions between classes and between “the sane and the insane, the beautiful and the ugly, the good and the bad”… the truth and the lies?
Why? Because the suffering is just as unbearable today as it was in the past. The violence now may be less but the pain remains as keen. Perhaps our hell, the circle of suffering being experienced right now, is exactly matched to the conditions we’ve created, just as the punishment in Dante’s hell was perfectly matched to the sin. And if, in absolute terms, today’s conditions are better – “more perfect” – and the suffering less than in the past, as some research shows2, the reason the world has improved must be because many people have ventured out, seen the differences, and insisted that things get better. Digging through the layers of class, health, beauty, and morality and comparing what we find, one layer with another, can be a source of energy to act. Things would not be better now if so many people in the past had not been restless, dissatisfied with what they saw, and determined to be part of making things better.
Choosing to work to reduce suffering or strive for more equality doesn’t have to mean living without joy or pleasure. We just have to engage in two apparently opposite ways of living a life, one that digs down through layers of inequality, taking action as we can, and one that allows for the pleasures that come from being ourselves, avoiding envy and comparison with others. In The Crack-Up (1936), F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.”
I see it as a matter of continually weaving back and forth between stepping outside the dynamic spiral of action and into a more constant awareness of our own groundedness, then getting up and leaping back into the fray…then stepping out, then back in, and out, and in.
Excerpts from two longer letters in Between Friends: The correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, 1949-1975, edited and with an introduction by Carol Brightman. Harcourt Brace & Company, 1995, p163-167.
I was named after my two grandmothers, Alice Ross Crawford and Anne Bosworth Focke. My parents liked the sound of Alice Anne much better than Anne Alice, but Alice lived with us for most of my life through high school and having two Alices in the house would be confusing. Whenever my parents felt I needed a strong talking-to, they called out both names. And these were almost the only times I heard them together. So, except as warning or reprimand, I was Anne.
I developed strong attachments to literary and historical figures with each of these names, girls who led colorful, exciting lives. I was called Annie as a kid, and two Annies especially fascinated and influenced me. One was Annie Oakley, a famous sharpshooter in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and featured in Irving Berlin’s musical Annie Get Your Gun, which I heard as a girl at San Diego’s Starlight Opera. (Recalling this, Annie’s song, “Anything you can do, I can do better,” is now stuck in my head.) A second seminal Annie was Little Orphan Annie of the long-standing comic strip, who in the background had a protector, Daddy Warbucks, and who foiled evildoers by herself with her dog Sandy.
The most influential of my heroines, though, was probably Alice from Alice in Wonderland. She never seemed afraid and instead was simply curious. She followed the White Rabbit in a hurry and fell down a rabbit hole. She landed in a strange and magical place where she got larger and smaller, swam in a pool of tears, shook hands with a dodo bird, watched Father William balance an eel on his nose, conversed with a hookah-smoking caterpillar on a large mushroom, watched the smiling Cheshire Cat in a tree disappear, had tea with the Mad Hatter and Hare, tried to play croquet with a flamingo and a hedgehog, and had to testify before the court of the fearsome Queen of Hearts.
I went on those adventures with her while my dad read the stories aloud. Her story and Sir John Tenniel’s original illustrations provided beginning points for imaginations of my own Although Tenniel’s drawings are the source for my strongest visual memories of the story, I’m sure the characters in Walt Disney’s movie have a role in my memories as well.
Alice, Annie, and Annie taught me the special powers of imagination, believing in myself, and the thrill and adventure of catching evildoers.
My grandmother Alice died after I left for college. From my youngest brother Ross’s brief descriptions of her last years, I now assume she died with dementia or Alzheimer’s. Years later, my mother did also. Looking back on it all now, I’m saddened by how distant I was from gran’s death and in many respects from mom’s death as well. She died in 1997. My brothers Frank and Ross – especially Ross – were the true caretakers of my mom in her last years. They’ve become bright stars for me as I remember their caregiving role.
The few times I was with mom by myself toward the end of her life, I remember wondering how to enter her world of dementia. I felt I had to be carefully present-tense, consider things that were right in front of us, that we could see and touch, not things that happened yesterday or that might happen tomorrow. Being unable to remember yesterday or think about tomorrow made her feel bad or angry and just increased her confusion. I didn’t understand the disease well enough to know that if we’d jumped much further back in time, we might have opened up older, more enjoyable memories for her and for us both.
Perhaps influenced by my Alice-in-Wonderland past, I’ve always found it easy to jump beyond present circumstances, imagining ways of being that might be but aren’t yet. I wondered how I could see my mom’s and her mom’s dementia – perhaps my own in the future – as interesting or useful, or simply as another acceptable way of being. I thought about historical tales of the wise fool, the wisdom of the village idiot, the ancient oracles, or the mystic seer.
Today dementia is an evildoer. At a 2010 symposium of designers and developers of senior housing, a speaker referred to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease as the biggest fear of aging boomers, a fear he urged his colleagues to acknowledge.1
What are we losing by not including in our lives – personally and societally – relationships with and insights from people who seem to exist in other realities? Are we losing their special powers in our super-rational world? How do we understand the edges dividing dementia and wisdom?
A year or two ago, I discovered a book by Dana Walrath, Aliceheimer’s: Alzheimer’s through the Looking Glass.2
In Aliceheimer’s, Walrath, a medical anthropologist, graphic artist, and writer, tells the story of her mother Alice’s journey with Alzheimer’s, especially during the two years when Alice lived with Dana and her husband in their Vermont home. In the introduction, Walrath says that the biomedical story of dementia “is in desperate need of revision.”
The dominant narrative is a horror story. People with Alzheimer’s are perceived as zombies, bodies without minds, waiting for valiant researchers to find a cure. For Alice and me, the story was different. Alzheimer’s was a time of healing and magic. Of course, there is loss with dementia, but what matters is how we approach our losses and our gains. Reframing dementia as a different way of being, as a window into another reality, lets people living in that state be our teachers – useful, true humans who contribute to our collective good, instead of scary zombies.
Wow, I thought. I’ve been waiting for this. Perhaps this begins to show how to slay the evildoer.
Alice in Wonderland seems to be as important to Walrath as it was to me. She uses Lewis Carroll’s book as an emotional frame for her book. “I found the story’s voice the day I cut up a cheap paperback copy of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, using the page fragments to make her bathrobe, Alice’s favorite garment.” Alice falls slowly down the rabbit hole of her memory loss and disappears gradually like the Cheshire Cat.
Walrath’s book is part of the Graphic Medicine series.3 She chose the graphic narrative form in the belief that it could reach someone with dementia. She writes, “Graphic storytelling captures the complexity of life and death, of sickness and health. Going back and forth between the subconscious and conscious, between the visual and the verbal, lets us tap into our collective memory, an essential element of storytelling.” It allows us to “better understand those who are hurting, to feel their stories, and redraw and renegotiate social boundaries.” She made her Alice drawings in part “to process my own grief after placing my mother in an Alzheimer’s residence…. But I was also drawing to remember the magic and laughter of that time.”
With a community of help that included pirates, good neighbors, a cast of characters from space-time travel, and my dead father hovering in the branches of the maple trees that surround our Vermont farmhouse, Aliceheimer’s let us write our own story daily – a story that, in turn, helps rewrite the dominant narrative of aging.
Most of the book alternates between graphic and written pages, each two-page spread telling of a day in Alice and Dana’s world.
“Dana, am I going crazy? You would tell me if I had lost my marbles, wouldn’t you?”
I’ve heard these questions many times. Repetition. Anyone who lives with Alzheimer’s knows from repetition. As her rudder, I always supplied Alice with the same steady answers. “No, you’re not crazy. You have Alzheimer’s disease so you can’t remember what just happened.”
“Oh. I forgot. What a lousy thing to have.”
One story, early in the book, tells of Alice losing her home. The accompanying drawings count Dana’s days with Alice. “Alice is disappearing. Soon there will be none.”
Often the “internal governor” of people with Alzheimer’s also disappears; they say exactly what’s on their mind. This disappearance lets new things appear. Alice found parts of herself that she had kept hidden, from her children anyway. She wished out loud that she had gone to medical school instead of becoming a biology teacher. Her years of pushing me in this direction and away from creative work made sense at last.”
One of the reasons Walrath moved Alice into her home was “our unfinished business of finding a good close.” They had never been close. In gentle, surprisingly direct ways, they found resolution, “at last.” After one quiet but deeply felt exchange of apology and forgiveness, Walrath writes, “I knew that if I wanted it, Alzheimer’s would let us have this conversation every single day.”
Alice remembers all the songs from The Music Man and countless others from her youth. The present is more elusive. These days she doesn’t remember that she has Alzheimer’s. But she used to. And she always sings.
One May morning, she stood by my dining room windows, looking out over the rolling field, and she sang this bit from Babes in Arms:
It seems we stood and talked like this before
We looked at each other in the same way then,
But I can’t remember where or when.
The clothes you’re wearing are the clothes you wore.
The smile you are smiling you were smiling then,
But I can’t remember where or when.
She stopped and she smiled and said, “That should be the Alzheimer’s theme song.”
As a medical anthropologist, Walrath’s broad, cultural and historical understanding of sickness and health reaches beyond the medical system that so dominates the understanding of health in the U.S. today. She writes in her introduction:
Biomedicine locates sickness in a specific place in an individual body: a headache, a stomachache, a torn knee, lung cancer. Medical anthropologists instead locate sickness and health in three interconnected bodies: the political, the social, and the physical.4 The prevailing political economy impacts the distribution of sickness and health in a society and the means available to heal those who are sick. …The social body constructs the meanings and experiences surrounding certain physical states.
Some cultures locate sickness not in individuals but instead in families or communities. As any caregiver knows, we live the sickness too. And while biomedicine can cure diseases, it flounders with permanent hurts, troubles of the mind, states present from birth or that are incurable or progressive. In biomedicine, these states are stigmatized and feared. We medical anthropologists have a term for this: social death.
The role of “social bodies” – that is, communities – in the health of individuals is being discovered and described more and more often. Alzheimer’s is one kind of “social death,” and British writer George Monbiot identifies another. Loneliness and isolation constitute a “disease of epidemic scale today,” he writes in Out of the Wreckage: a new politics for an age of crisis.5 “Of all the fantasies human beings entertain, the idea that we can go it alone is the most absurd and perhaps the most dangerous.” Monbiot is constantly on the lookout for ways to combat this disease. He begins a recent column for The Guardian, “The town that’s found a potent cure for illness – community,” this way: “It could, if the results stand up, be one of the most dramatic medical breakthroughs of recent decades. It could transform treatment regimes, save lives, and save health services a fortune. Is it a drug? A device? A surgical procedure? No, it’s a new-fangled intervention called community, as results from a trial in the Somerset town of Frome [England] show.6
Although Monbiot warned that the findings are based on what he termed “provisional data” – that is, not yet published by the academic press – he also wrote that “this shouldn’t stop us feeling a shiver of excitement about the implications.” Results of the Compassionate Frome project, begun five years ago, appears to show that when isolated people who have health problems are supported by community groups and volunteers, the number of emergency admissions to hospital falls dramatically. Sometimes the help took the form of handling debt or housing problems, sometimes joining choirs, lunch clubs, exercise groups, or writing workshops. The point was, he said, “to break a familiar cycle of misery: illness reduces people’s ability to socialize, which leads in turn to isolation and loneliness, which then exacerbates illness.”
When [Alice] was certain that her own mother, who died in 1954, had just been sitting on the sofa in the living room and talking with her, she would say, “You see her, don’t you?” I’d say, “I can’t see her, but I’m sure you can. You have special powers. You can see things that we can’t.” For her that was enough.
What Walrath offered her mother was a way to break the familiar cycle of Alzheimer’s misery. And it’s telling, I think, that Dana and Alice’s “wonderland” – the community they made together – offered gifts to them both.
1 Robert Kramer, founder and president, National Investment Center for the Senior Housing and Care Industry, speaking at the Senior Housing Design and Development Symposium at the University of Maryland, 2010.
2 Aliceheimer’s: Alzheimer’s through the Looking Glass, Dana Walrath, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2016.
3 Graphic Medicine book series, from the Pennsylvania State University Press. “Books in the series are curated by an editorial collective with scholarly, creative, and clinical expertise, and attest to a growing awareness of the value of comics as an important resource for communicating about a range of issues broadly termed ‘medical’.”
4 From Walrath’s introduction: For more on this see Nancy Scheper-Hughes and M. Margaret Lock, “The Mindful Body: A Prolegomenon to Medical Anthropology,” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 1, no. 1 (March 1987): 6-41.
5 George Monbiot, Out of the Wreckage: a new politics for an age of crisis, Verso Books, 2017.