Sunday, June 9, 2013

Courage, Hope, Generosity

No, no, there is no going back.
Less and less you are
that possibility you were.
More and more you have become
those lives and deaths
that have belonged to you. . .

Now more than ever you can be
generous toward each day
that comes, young,
to disappear
forever, and yet remain
unageing in the mind.

Every day you have less reason
not to give yourself away.
  (Wendell Berry,
         The Timbered Choir)

I spent this past weekend in the company of women of great courage, hope, and generosity.

I have been on an interesting journey, and most recently it’s been leading me into political engagement with the League of Women Voters. I’ve been working on a national agriculture study, leading caucuses and workshops about food and farming, and have just been voted onto the local and state League of Women Voters boards.

So, this past weekend, I went to the biennial state convention of the Pennsylvania League in the lovely town of Lewisburg, PA.

The start of the weekend was a wild caravan ride to see some natural gas drilling sites in the hillsides near Loyalsock State Forest. Guided by a local member of the Alliance for Responsible Drilling, our group drove down steep back roads, stopped along roadsides, counted waste water tank trucks in caravans of their own, then hiked across a muddy field for a birds-eye view of six active fracking wells.

One of the members of our group, a woman well into her seventies, carried a small note pad and jotted notes at every turn.

Another, just weeks after hip surgery, gratefully accepted a hand to climb a slippery slope, eager to see and understand further a topic she’s been studying for years.

The conversation never stopped: How many gallons. What happens to the waste water. How far is the nearest stream. How many trucks per day.

From there we went back to our convention site, for meetings about judicial reform, industrial farming, the broken party system, how best to advocate for more open primaries.

Some of those in attendance were younger than I am (57, if you’ve been wondering).

Many were older.

Some much older.

One woman spoke of working for thirty years to find a way to promote a more impartial, well-prepared judiciary.

Another has been studying Pennsylvania politics for almost as long, looking for possible points of reform, showing up for hearings, offering testimony, meeting with legislators, tireless in pursuit of something approaching a more open democratic process.

I sat several times next to a woman working to protect lakes, farms, and a fragile wetland area from the dangers of fracking wastewater being dumped into old, crumbling wells just miles from her home, not far from Lake Erie.

I spoke with another woman working hard to ensure adequate funding for education in rural schools far from any center of political power.

At one meeting we talked about the Pennsylvania Justice Bell and the 1915 statewide referendum on women’s rights. While my county and many western counties voted for women’s right to vote, the majority of state voters (all men) voted emphatically “no.” We were reminded of the 72 years between the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, hosted by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and the final ratification of the 19th Amendment in August, 1920.

At another meeting we recognized fifty-year members – women who joined the league to work for Civil Rights, to advocate for the still-unpassed Equal Rights Amendment.

I was struck by the energy and resolve of these women, and the endless hours they give, showing up to register new voters, writing letters, making calls, trying to understand issues. One meeting paused over a motion about sales tax: Who is harmed by higher sales tax? Who benefits? Why should it matter?

Listening to the passionate discussions over morning coffee, over lunch, between meetings, late into the night, I found myself thinking about this month’s Synchroblog topic: ordinary courage. 
“In her book, The Gifts of ImperfectionBrené Brown has this to say about ordinary courage:
'The root of the word courage is cor—the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage had a very different definition than it does today. Courage originally meant “to speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.'
“The great thing about ordinary courage is that it leads to wholehearted living.”
We live in a world that encourages us not to care: 
Don’t vote, they’re all the same. Give up, things will never change.
 It’s all too complicated, so why bother?
 Look out for yourself, it’s the best you can do. 
It seems unwise to engage our hearts, to let ourselves care too deeply. Somehow it’s okay to be passionate about a TV show, a new restaurant, a hairstyle. But keep your voice level when you talk of politics. Don’t say too much about poverty or prison reform. Don’t offend, don’t insist, don’t dig too deeply.

Please, don’t think too much.
This past weekend, one of the women I was with spoke laughingly of a reporter who wrote of “whip-smart women in comfortable shoes.”

Well yes – it’s hard to visit fracking sites in anything but comfortable shoes. Or to run down hallways lugging laptops and projectors in a pair of narrow high heels.

What kind of culture is more interested in women’s shoes than in what chemicals are in our water, what toxins are in our food?

I’m reminded of a passage from Wendell Berry’s essay “On Difficult Hope”: 
"We are living in the most destructive and, hence, the most stupid period of the history of our species. The list of its undeniable abominations is long and hardly bearable. And these abominations are not balanced or compensated or atoned for by the list, endlessly reiterated, of our scientific achievements. Some people are moved, now and again, to deplore one abomination or another. Others . . . deplore the whole list and its causes.
 "Much protest is naive; it expects quick, visible improvements and despairs and gives up when such improvement does not come. Protestors who hold out longer have perhaps understood that success is not the proper goal.  .  .
 "Protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence.” (Wendell Berry, "On Difficult Hope")
Both hope and courage are qualities of the heart, essential to whole-hearted living, worth preserving no matter the stupidities of the age.

Yet, as I think of the women I came to know this past weekend, I see in them something beyond the  the perseverance Berry describes. I turn back to the poem I started with: the idea of generosity.

What motivates these women of courage is the wish to give something better to those who come
behind us.

The woman living near the waste-water wells, organizing town meetings, writing the EPA, protesting, once again, a dangerous practice she fears will do great harm, said emphatically:
“It’s not about us. Or even our children. It’s our grandchildren. And the children after them. What happens when those well-linings break? What happens when those chemicals leach into the water table, into the lake?” 
It takes courage to look past the economies of today, to spend time, energy, resources tirelessly, generously, in hope of passing on something of value to generations to come.

In a world of self-protectiveness, of turning inward, of looking out for number one, I admire, celebrate, and am happy to walk with those tireless, fearless, generous women who refuse to settle for a life in stylish shoes. 
Every day you have less reasonnot to give yourself away.

This post is part of the June Synchroblog. There are lots of links this month - take some time to visit them and join the conversation.
This Is Courage by Jen Bradbury
Being Vulnerable by Phil Lancaster
Everyday Bravery: Overcoming the Fear of Being Wrong by Jessica
Moving Forward Takes Courage by Paul W. Meier
How to Become a Flasher by Glenn Hager
Ordinary Courage by Elaine Hansen
The Courage to Fail by Wendy McCaig
The Greatest Act of Courage by Jeremy Myers
Sharing One’s Heart by K. W. Leslie
All I See Is Rocks by Tim Nichols
I Wonder What Would Happen by Liz Dyer
What is Ordinary Courage? by Jennifer Stahl
Loving Courageously by Doreen A. Mannion
Heart Cry: The Courage to Confess by Elizabeth Chapin
The Act to the Miraculous by VisionHub
the spiritual practice of showing up & telling the truth by Kathy Escobar
It’s What We Teach by Margaret Boelman