Cohabitation for the Common Good

(Published in Vermont Woman, November 2016)

But what if paradise flashed up among us from time to time—at the worst of times? … These flashes give us, as the long ago and far away do not, a glimpse of who else we ourselves may be and what our society could become.

—Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell

It was between the sparrow and me. She built a nest in my new $35 hanging basket of lantana and tickseed flowers. Having hosted birds’ nests in plants and wreaths before, I typically bow to wing over flora. This time I decided to take the nest out immediately fearing the plants wouldn’t survive cohabitation. I trusted Sparrow would rebuild successfully. Elsewhere.

I was right. And wrong. When I visited next, another nest was on the rise. I quickly took out the new base brightened by blue tarp threads she’d salvaged from our woodpile. I was hoping she’d finally get the message and relocate. (I was just shy of “building a wall” and insisting she pay for it.)

At the next watering, a less substantial nest was repositioned complete with five eggs. She won. I regretted how close I had cut it for her and her clutch. At this point, I had slim-to-no hope the plants would survive. I decided to safeguard the eggs and Sparrow’s sense of territory with limited watering. I would stop once the baby birds arrived and let the plant die, if necessary. The outcome was unknown.

What unfolded in the tiny, humble universe of my porch is akin to what is unfolding in our cities, states, nations, and world. How do we coexist in any community and relate across the globe with an awareness of our mutual and fundamental needs for shelter, safety, and sustenance? Furthermore, how do we navigate our increasingly complex relationships beyond the basics? These questions get to the core challenges humankind faces with global issues like climate change, permanent war (i.e., a hybrid of diminishing energy resources, world nations’ shadow wars, terrorism, and refugee crises), to local issues like school budgets and homeless shelters.

As witnessed in Rutland’s recent debate and resolution to accept 100 Syrian refugees, the global and the local can and do interface.
That said, if Earth is our host plant and Sparrow is humankind stewarding in the next generation, what conditions might allow survival and nurturance for all? Can we peacefully coexist and collaborate on ways for everyone to live and possibly thrive? What role does fear play? Economics and competition? When and how do common decency or respect for one another’s lives and ways come into play?

If you’re reading this, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump was just elected president. Their candidacies were marked by lackluster popularity, scandals, and highly conflictual debates. As to the last, high school debate participants have historically been held to higher standards of respect, demeanor, and equitable preparation. At the third debate, Trump called Clinton “nasty,” and Clinton referred to Trump as a “puppet.” Mean Girls hit the presidential debate stage, and as Chris Wallace, the moderator aptly noted at one point in the scuffle: “This doesn’t do any good for anyone.” Really.

Nonetheless, as a citizenry, we were asked not only to vote for national leaders and the outflow to administrative and court appointees, but to consider the tenor and quality of our personal and civic relationships. Within this, we have been called to evaluate the role and use of fear in public discourse, the social boundaries of common decency, and our standards for leaders as role models and change agents based on character, maturity, experience, and ethics. In the long slog to the finish line, it was more ugly and disheartening than not. While arriving postelection allows for a certain amount of relief, an engaged citizenry will be asked to recognize that the real work below the noise of political theater has just begun.

Whether Clinton or Trump leads as of January 2017, we will all be facing the ongoing challenges and opportunities of cohabitation here and abroad. Election results alone will not address the divisiveness in the American electorate or broader society. The prevalence and depth of sexism, racism, and xenophobia and the more generalized and misunderstood suffering that exists (the last deftly channeled by Trump) has been revealed and stoked. But Trump was only the messenger, not the source.

Below the noise is the opportunity. Properly downsized, Clinton and Trump become symbols and opposing figureheads for the lack of communal goodwill in our society and an unwillingness to observe and connect to the suffering of each other, as fellow citizens. This suffering or dis-ease cannot be ameliorated by slogans like “Make America Great Again” or “Stronger Together,” or the simplicity of color-coding one’s allegiances red or blue, Republican or Democrat. Nor can it be met through the externalization of our hopes and agency for change, as if our government leaders were omniscient. To act as such only disavows our personal responsibility for creating healthier community relationships, locally and globally.
It’s time to pause and listen to each other.

Repugnant comments about women, people of color, immigrants, and so on will always be easy to criticize and reject. These demonstrate real social challenges that need corrective action. It is also important to acknowledge the concerns and suffering of all our fellow Americans, especially those not within our immediate social realm or work environment. As the middle class has become increasingly stretched and stressed to sustain employment, afford health care, and pay for postsecondary education for their children, the working class’s mobility or dreams have been put on life support.

Nationally, and in Vermont, we have seen manufacturing jobs that once offered a respectable contribution and livable wage, health-care benefits, and retirement packages shrink in availability or flee communities. In some areas, they have been replaced with box stores that offer unsustainable wages. Likewise, access to college for the working class, which might have been in reach 20 years ago, is now unattainable or a potential bridge to a lifetime of debt.

Turning toward the military as a means for accessing education and/or public service can become one of the only viable post-high-school options for those anticipating living a slim paycheck away from poverty. Without the draft, working-class families are disproportionately bearing the brunt of the full cost of permanent war and the lifelong impact thereof (e.g., trauma, permanent injuries). Public and political words of gratitude and honor only go so far in meeting the depth of their personal sacrifice and the daily challenges of healing and reestablishing a life at home postservice. Beyond the nod of Fourth of July and Veterans’ Day, all of these individuals need and deserve respect, understanding, and concrete support.

Beneath the combatant noise and sometimes hateful drivel of this election, the realities of Americans struggling for pride and security in employment, financial security, and adequate access to education and health care became obscured when party politics reigned, encouraging an us-versus-them mentality. A burgeoning sense of scarcity in the populace breeds fear and discontent, and scapegoats proliferate.

For most native Vermonters (and those who wish they were), there is a long, quiet tradition of core values. We are a state that values fierce independence. We are also willing to help out our neighbors or the stranger stuck in a ditch, be it in winter or in the fifth and fleeting mud season. If you’ve grown up in Vermont, you’ve witnessed firsthand the “I’ve got your back” reassurance of friends and neighbors (without the grope.) Friends who have moved to the state have observed the initial reserve of Vermonters but over time have expressed an equal appreciation for the beauty of community and landscape.

Looking forward, we can choose to listen to rhetoric that divides, oversimplifies, and incites hate or engage in meaningful dialogue that honors the presence of others’ needs and real suffering. Listening and caring about the needs of others, despite individual differences, will only enhance our capacities to connect and collaborate, which will ultimately support the health and sustainability of communities at all levels.

As for the sparrows versus the plants? As planned, I stopped watering when the baby sparrows hatched. The greenery began to show signs of distress through drooping and yellowing, then browning in places. After two weeks, I noticed the fledglings had launched. I watered the plants, pulled out the nest, leaving behind the natural fertilizer, and cut off the dead branches and leaves. Over the next two weeks, the plants made a remarkable comeback and within a month were blooming more strongly than in the beginning. Turns out sparrows make good neighbors.