Tuesday, May 4, 2010

choice and consequence

One summer in the late '90s I volunteered at the Haw River Festival. We camped alongside the river in some open fields and during the day, busload after busload of second graders from all over North Carolina were dropped off to test the water, write poetry about the sycamores, eat the weeds, and watch puppet shows about water conservation starring a huge, handmade Mother Earth and a chorus of wooden flutes. In the evenings, we'd pull out our guitars and fiddles and banjos and play old-time music until the stars peeked out over the river, or engage in earnest debate over whether it's more responsible to spray out our toothpaste over a wide swatch of ground or bury it in a shallow trench. The evening that sticks in my mind as I write this, though, we had tired of our old-time repertoire and settled the Great Toothpaste Debate (spraying, it turns out.) So we all went for a walk.

We were a motley crew of aging hippies, idealistic college students, and traveling artisans. There were a lot of Guatemalan ponchos and no cellphones. That sort of crowd. As we wandered the dark streets of the tiny hamlet on the banks of the Haw I was struck by something: people in this town were all outside. Rocking on their porches, collecting fireflies, drinking in the backyard. None of the windows flickered with that sickly blue television light. In front of the one store in town, several older men had pulled wooden chairs into a rough circle and were pickin' the heck out of "Red Haired Boy". It was akin to stumbling backwards in time. Or forwards, to something better. I was so enchanted that I remember falling out of the conversation and wandering off by myself, up and down as many streets as I could manage before the light faded. Candles flickered in windows. Grandmothers read poetry aloud to grandchildren.

Later I discovered that on that particular night, the town had been without power. (Ironically, it was something to do with the hydroelectric plant on the Haw). At first I felt let down--there was nothing innately special about these people or this place after all!-- but later I learned to take hope from it. If losing power for one night was all it took to get folks fingerpickin' in the streets and reading poetry again, then we are not so far lost as it sometimes seems.

Tonight, walking the streets of Culver City, I felt that hope again. Tuesdays, the farmer's market spills out over Main Street, and the roads are crowded with people bearing sacks of produce, or biking home with kale tumbling out of their bike baskets. Folks smile at one another. Cheerful musicians gather on the benches and try to find songs in common. Children run laughing through the fountain in the central square.

I've been thinking all day about what I wrote in my last post, and wanted to clarify it somewhat. I don't believe that there are vengeful elderberry spirits lurking about waiting to exact revenge on unsuspecting humans. But I do believe that if one is careless with babies---be they of the berry or mammalian variety---eventually, a baby is going to get hurt. Likewise if one hurtles oneself iconoclastically through ancient holy places, one's path may very well intersect with that of a burly Greek farmer and his pitchfork. Oftentimes I've found that what I'd like to interpret as grand signals from fate are really the consequences of my own behavior, coming home to roost.

So, in the end it all boils down to choices. I can choose to be careful and respectful in my actions. I can choose to sit on the porch in the evenings, playing guitar, instead of staying inside. ( I could have chosen to not allow my children to teethe on my expensive digital camera; then I would have been able to take pictures to spice up my boring blog). I can even choose to have a lot of money if I'm willing to make the tradeoffs necessary. But if that's what I really wanted, wouldn't I have made those tradeoffs already? Hmmm.

Favorite thing about my house tonight: candlelight and solitude. not having to hear my own voice saying "no" all the time.

Least favorite thing: I'll have to get back to you. From where I sit, life seems just about perfect.


  1. Yeah. And I want to go collect fireflies.

  2. The power outage story sounds reminiscent of the Big outage in new york a few years back. It was very healing and trans-formative.

    I also hear you on the choices!