One-Liner Wednesday: hope in community

Until we find the communal meaning and significance of the suffering of all life, we will continue to retreat into our individual, small worlds in our misguided quest for personal safety and sanity.

Richard Rohr

Join us for Linda’s One-Liner Wednesdays! Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2022/04/13/one-liner-wednesday-creepy-enough/

a just peace

Last weekend, after I published this post, I attended mass at St. Francis of Assisi, where we offered prayers for those suffering from the war in Ukraine and heard about the situation in the homily. There was also a lovely tribute to the people of Ukraine in the form of a framed artwork with sunflowers on a blue and gold draped table. We are also preparing to take up a special collection to assist the Ukrainians.

I have been continuing to reflect on the meaning of the “just peace” for which we hope and pray and what elements would be part of that. This post is a reflection of those hopes. I realize that it is not at all likely to be a practical course of action but I wanted to share what is in my heart and mind.

The obvious first step is the immediate cessation of all violence. This will enable desperately needed aid to flow to places that have been besieged or occupied, as well as making safe evacuation possible for the sick, injured, vulnerable, and those whose homes and communities have been destroyed.

All prisoners of war must be released so they can return home.

The Russians must withdraw from the entirety of Ukraine, taking the bodies of their dead with them. This includes Crimea which Russia invaded in 2014 when the current war began. Russia should not control any part of a sovereign nation that it took by force. Any residents of Ukraine who prefer to live under Russian control should be welcomed by Russia into its own territory. Any residents of Ukraine who were voluntarily or involuntarily evacuated into Russia or Belarus and wish to return to Ukraine should be repatriated immediately.

There is widespread devastation, suffering, and death in Ukraine for which there is no just remedy as they cannot be undone. The international community will certainly rush in with humanitarian aid but the responsibility for paying for rebuilding should fall primarily on Russia. Because so much of Russia’s wealth is held by Putin, his family, corrupt government officials, and Putin’s select circle of oligarchs, those are the funds that should be tapped to rebuild Ukraine. Some of those assets are already frozen under international sanctions, some of which should stay in place while the rebuilding process continues. I would hope, though, that the sanctions that make life difficult for the average Russian could be eased so that they don’t continue to suffer because Putin chose to break international law by invading a sovereign neighbor and extensively targeting civilians.

I believe that there will continue to be an investigation and an eventual trial for war crimes in The Hague. I also think that Russia should lose its seat on the UN Security Council or, at least, that the UN should change its policy so that a nation brought before the Security Council must abstain from voting on that issue.

There also needs to be redress for the environmental/climate justice issues highlighted by the war. Russia has long used its fossil fuels as a weapon. The best way to address this problem is to move away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible, blunting Russia’s power and moving the planet in the right direction in terms of the climate crisis. I wrote about some ideas for doing so in this post.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine also highlighted the security and environmental risks of relying on nuclear power, with Russia threatening the already contaminated site of Chernobyl as well as the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, which is the largest nuclear facility in Europe. While nuclear power does not emit carbon, the mining of uranium, the lack of secure long-term nuclear waste disposal options, and the vulnerability of the plants to natural and human-caused disaster is too great. As more and more renewable power becomes available and as efficiency gains reduce energy demands, nuclear power plants should be phased out.

The free flow of truthful information has also taken a hit in this war, especially in Russia. Putin has shut down all independent media in print, over the airwaves, and online and many journalists have fled the country. Protesters have been arrested. Apparently, some of the Russian soldiers were not even told what their mission was as they invaded. As part of a just peace, Putin must restore independent media and allow the free flow of information as well as free all prisoners, both Russians and foreign nationals who have been jailed for dissent or trumped-up charges. The Russian people should also have an independent judiciary and the rescinding of unjust laws, such as the recently passed one that can bring up to fifteen years in prison for calling the war in Ukraine a war or invasion instead of a “special military operation.”

The democratic government of Ukraine must have the freedom to choose its own path going forward. It should be able to apply for membership in the European Union, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or any other entity it sees fit. Because the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to condemn Russia and support Ukraine’s sovereignty, United Nations peacekeepers should be assigned after the Russian withdrawal to help give security and support as Ukraine rebuilds.

As I said at the outset, this is my own thoughts on some elements of a just peace for Ukraine. I know the reality is that Putin hasn’t really been willing to negotiate, although a swap of ten prisoners on each side is a very small beginning. My fear is that Russia will eventually force Ukraine to accept Russian control of the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine connecting through Mariupol to Crimea in exchange for not bombing all the major cities of Ukraine into dust. If that happens, I think that all the international sanctions should remain in place. The world must let Putin and Russia know that it will not recognize or tolerate countries taking the territory of sovereign nations by force.

the definition of energy

I wish that US politicians and the media would stop using the word energy as shorthand for fossil fuels. The United States is banning the import of Russian oil, gas, and coal, which, while they can be burned to release energy, are not themselves energy.

Equating the word energy with fossil fuels only distorts our perception of the problems and possible solutions. Politicians and pundits panic and look for more oil and gas to replace the Russian supply, even though drilling for additional petroleum and building LNG facilities are time-consuming processes which we must not expand but scale back quickly and dramatically if we are to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius, as the recent IPCC report alarmingly illustrates.

Rather, if we consider energy more broadly, we can see other ways forward that are cheaper, quicker, and better for the environment. A couple of weeks ago, Bill McKibben published a piece outlining how President Biden could invoke the Defense Production Act to churn out heat pumps to send to Europe so that they can break away from dependency on Russian methane for heating. Bonus: this would create jobs in the US and help our country in its own transition away from fossil fuels after the immediate crisis in Europe has passed. Amazingly, McKibben’s eminently practical and sustainable idea is gaining traction and is being studied by the Biden administration.

It’s also wise and practical to take energy efficiency seriously. It’s been said that the cheapest kilowatt/therm is the one that you don’t have to use. It’s helpful to weatherize and retrofit existing buildings so that their heating, cooling, and lighting needs are lessened, making it easier to run them with available and developing renewable energy resources.

At this point, some of the electricity needed will be generated from fossil fuels and nuclear plants but it is shortsighted to expand these rather than phase them out. Developing new drilling and mining sites is a long, expensive process, as is building new plants, which come with decades of environmental and public health consequences. It is quicker, cheaper, and healthier to move to renewable energy.

The same argument goes for the electrification of transportation. Many countries are already moving toward this goal, which helps in both the environmental and political realms.

While Russia is uppermost in everyone’s minds right now, the truth is that fossil fuels have been used as a political weapon by autocrats and oligarchs around the world. (Rachel Maddow’s book Blowout tells this history in fascinating detail.) Their power will be greatly reduced by a rapid phaseout of these fuel sources in favor of wind, sun, water, and geothermal sources.

These gifts of the earth are a common inheritance.

No one owns the sun or wind.

personal energy independence

With the burgeoning war in Ukraine, which is totally unacceptable and reprehensible on Russia’s part, people around the world expect fossil fuel prices to rise. While this is unfortunate, especially for those in lower socioeconomic circumstances, it will have much less impact on my family than most.

We will be paying higher prices for goods due to increased transportation costs but won’t see much impact on our personal transportation and household costs, due to our years-long efforts to reduce our carbon footprint.

Around town, we usually drive our all-electric Chevy Bolt or our plug-in hybrid Chrysler Pacifica, which only switches to its gasoline engine on the rare occasions that we take longer trips and even then gets much better mileage than a regular minivan. Our home heating system is a geothermal heat pump and our hot water is a hybrid electric/air source heat pump which is nearly always in heat pump only mode. Our appliances are electric. We use a rechargeable electric lawn mower. Only our 50+ year old snowblower which is used a few times a year and our outdoor propane grill run on fossil fuels.

The electricity that powers our homes and cars is from renewable sources. The majority is from solar panels that we own in a community solar installation with the balance bought from a 100% renewable energy supplier. I get a great deal of satisfaction from producing and using clean energy, continuing the legacy of my father and several other members of our family who worked in the hydroelectric sector for many years.

While the driving force for me to move to renewable energy was moral, I do also appreciate the economic impact on our family. Our energy costs as B heads toward eventual retirement will stay relatively low and stable. At the time we installed our geothermal heat pump, the cost of methane was near historic lows, making the number of years that it would take cost savings to make up for the installation cost quite high, partially offset by significant savings in our cooling costs. With the price of methane doubled even before the impact of sanctions against Russia, our investment in our heat pump looks to be an even better economic move, in addition to being best for the climate.

From a moral/ethical standpoint, I also appreciate that my energy dollars are not being used to prop up a fossil fuel system that enables injustice. Certainly, Russian proceeds from fossil fuels go largely to a few oligarchs and government officials, not for the benefit of the public. Saudi Arabia uses its fossil fuel wealth in oppressive ways and is not held to account for fear of cutting off supply. In the US, profits land with oil and gas companies while rural folks and disadvantaged communities bear the brunt of the health and safety problems caused by extraction, processing, and transport. While the entire ecosystem is impacted by fossil fuel use, the heaviest burden falls on vulnerable communities who often did little to contribute to the problem.

I know that the example of my family’s transition away from fossil fuels is a miniscule piece of the solution to help heal the planet, but I hope that we early adopters will show people that it’s possible – and even more economical – to make the switch to renewable energy. Political leaders can develop programs to help lower income households join in and benefit, as well as train workers for weatherization and other energy efficiency projects, for renewable energy jobs, and for the environmental restoration and resiliency work before us.

Real energy independence cannot be pumped out of the ground but can come from the sun, wind, and water that are our common gifts. Let’s use them to create a more stable, just world where fossil fuel supplies aren’t used as a weapon.

healing the earth together

On Thursday, I posted that I had a new poem available on Silver Birch Press as part of their series “How to Heal the Earth.” The prompt for the series read, in part, “Your poem can offer practical ideas of how to heal the earth from a personal perspective (i.e., something specific to you and not didactic or soapboxy) or your poem can offer fanciful thoughts that defy the practical.”

Anyone who knows me will not be surprised that I came down on the practical rather than fanciful side. (I’ll leave it to you to determine whether my poem or this post is soapboxy.)

I wrote a list poem, helpfully formatted into a checklist by Word, that relates some of the things I and my family have done to help combat environmental degradation and climate change. The list blends practical, individual actions, like using LED bulbs and driving an electric car, with social and political actions, like voting and boycotting. Okay, there are also a few more poetic lines thrown in, too.

One of the excuses people use for not taking individual action is that they don’t think that their change will have any impact in the face of such a large challenge as global warming. It’s true that the impact of any one individual action is infinitesimally small but those actions do add up within your household, in your neighborhood, your region, your country to something larger and helpful. If everyone, though, throws up their hands and accepts the polluting status quo, the condition of the planet worsens faster, often harming worst and first those who did the least to create the problems in the first place. As someone from the United States, which is historically the largest contributor to global warming, I feel a particular responsibility to cut carbon emissions as much as I can and am fortunate enough to have the resources to do so.

Individual actions will never be enough, though, unless systemic changes also occur. The political and economic systems in most countries are heavily weighted toward fossil fuels and those companies wield a lot of power. Trying to counteract that is also an example of needing many, many individual actions to create positive change. For example, I and hundreds of thousands fellow New Yorkers worked for years to ban fracking and enact a climate bill in our state. There were protests, public commentary, writing and calling elected officials, court cases, elections, research, networking, meetings, and on and on, but the needed legislation finally passed. Of course, there is still work to be done as it is being implemented but, if so many of us hadn’t made our voices heard, my region would probably look like our neighboring counties in Pennsylvania with large fracked gas wells and the pollution they bring as part of our landscape.

There is still plenty of work to do on the systemic level in the US and around the world, too. Current efforts include boycotting the banks that fund fossil fuel extraction and infrastructure, despite the danger that the companies may never be able to pay the loans back and will go bankrupt with lots of stranded assets in the form of rights to extract fossil fuels that cannot be fulfilled if the world is going to stay under 1.5, or even 2, degrees Celsius in global warming. There is also a major divestment push against fossil fuel companies with some pension funds, universities, and other large institutions refusing to hold stock in those companies. In the US, we are also trying to get more federal funding for the transition to renewable energy and an end to decades of subsidies for fossil fuels.

All of these efforts have an individual as well as a corporate component. Whether you are inspired by prose or by (the much shorter and easier to read) poetry, I hope you will join me by doing what you are able to do to fight global warming and heal help the earth from wherever you are.
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Join us for Linda’s Just Jot It January and/or Stream of Consciousness Saturday! I chose to not take Linda up on the SoCS prompt this week, which is “icing on the cake”, but do want to wish Linda a happy birthday and a peaceful, healthy, creative year to come! You can find out more about #JusJoJan and #SoCS here: https://lindaghill.com/2022/01/21/the-friday-reminder-for-socs-jusjojan-2022-daily-prompt-jan-22nd/

How to Heal the Earth poem

Back in November, I posted that I had had a poem accepted by Silver Birch Press as part of their How to Heal the Earth series.

I’m pleased to share that my poem is now available here!

Please visit and comment either there or here if you are so moved. While you are there, you can read dozens of contributions to the How to Heal the Earth series along with the Thoughts About the Earth series.

Thank you to Silver Birch Press for including me in this series and for the lovely photo that they chose to accompany my poem.
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Join us for Linda’s Just Jot It January! Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2022/01/20/daily-prompt-jusjojan-the-20th-2022/

SoCS: trees

From the time I was very young, I have loved trees. When I was growing up, our house was in the woods, so I spent a lot of time playing and daydreaming among the trees – white and yellow birches, sugar and striped maples, hemlocks and spruce. Our grammar school had a naturalist who visited every week and I remember compiling a book of different trees with pressings of their leaves.

Today, I enjoy the trees in our yard. We have two maples, two cherries, and an oak. We used to have an ash tree but it was killed by the emerald ash borer and had to be cut down. I’m pleased to say that we did add a new tree last year, a dogwood which we chose because it is the flower for the birth month of our daughter E. (We already have an heirloom rose which is the birth flower of daughter T.)

T also loves trees and all plants so much that she has a master’s degree in conservation biology of plants. I don’t think that love of trees is genetic, but I’m very proud of her advocacy and caretaking for our environment here in the Northeast US.
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Linda’s prompt for Stream of Consciousness Saturday this week is “tree.” Join us! Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2021/12/10/the-friday-reminder-and-prompt-for-socs-dec-11-2021/

methane and climate

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last decade plus thinking, writing, angsting, and trying to work on climate change issues. This was especially evident during the protracted battle to ban high-volume hydraulic fracturing in New York State, as we also endeavored to help our Pennsylvania neighbors cope with the damage they were seeing from the industry. I was part of a team that wrote comments on media articles and rebutted industry talking points with facts and science.

Because of this, I read a lot of science and heard a lot of speakers on the topics of fracking, fossil fuels generally, and climate change. Because the Binghamton area where I live was one of the most heavily targeted by the fracking industry, there were frequent rallies that drew experts from the Ithaca area, most of whom were connected to either Ithaca College or Cornell University, which is where my daughter T did her undergraduate degree in environmental science.

One of the many environmental warnings that we sounded was the risk of accelerating climate change, particularly due to methane leakage, which occurs at every point from production through transport, storage, and use.

The powers that be didn’t listen.

Atmospheric methane levels climbed to all-time highs, which has the effect of forcing climate change effects in the near-term. While methane is much more short-lived in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, it is much more potent in trapping heat than CO2, over a hundred times more in a ten-year timespan.

Finally, at the COP26 climate change summit currently meeting in Glasgow, over a hundred countries have agreed to limit methane emissions. In the United States, the Biden administration is finally putting in place regulation of existing fossil fuel wells regarding methane leakage as well as tightening of other rules regarding methane emissions from the fossil fuel industry. Previous efforts targeted new wells only.

One of the sorrows of dealing with climate change is the “what if” factor. What if governments and industry had acted to curtail methane emissions over a decade ago when scientists and activists were pointing out the dangers? What if government and industry had taken global warming from carbon dioxide seriously over fifty years ago when scientists, including industry scientists, made clear the dangers of burning fossil fuels?

If they had, we would not be dealing now with the large increases of extreme weather events, heat waves, floods, and droughts; rising sea levels; loss of glaciers and polar ice; ocean acidification and massive death of corals; weakening of ocean currents; climate refugees; and the threat of even worse consequences in the decades to come.

We can’t redeem the missed opportunities, but we can take action now, including helping those already suffering from climate change impacts.

We can’t afford further inaction.

The American Jobs Plan

At the moment, the Biden administration is meeting with Republican officeholders, including members of Congress, to revise his American Jobs Plan to gain bipartisan support. While many local and state level Republicans support the measure, Republican Congressional leaders are opposing it.

The plan is often referred to as the infrastructure bill and much of the debate has revolved around the definition of infrastructure. Merriam-Webster’s first definition of infrastructure is “the system of public works of a country, state, or region also the resources (such as personnel, buildings, or equipment) required for an activity.” The Congressional Republicans have been using the more narrow “public works” definition and complaining the bill goes far beyond “roads and bridges” which is true, but, while we certainly do need investment in car/truck transportation, the country needs much more than that.

In the transportation sector, we need to upgrade airports and railways, subways and bus systems, and charging systems for electric vehicles. Our electrical grid is antiquated and fragile, leading to horrible consequences such as the Texas blackout this part winter. It needs to be modernized to better incorporate distributed and utility-scale renewable energy and storage, which will make energy systems cheaper and more reliable. Water and sewer systems need massive overhauls to eliminate lead pipes, avert leaks, and bring clean drinking water to places that still do not have access. (One of the truly heart-breaking deficiencies in our water systems brought to public notice during the pandemic was that many people living on Tribal lands do not have access to clean running water needed for the recommended hand-washing protocols and daily life in general. The infection and death rates among indigenous peoples were higher than average, due to the ongoing lack of resources and medical care.)

The pandemic also pointed out the inequities in our communication systems. With so much learning and so many jobs going online, fast and reliable internet access became essential. Those with low income and rural folks suffered when they didn’t have those services available. This deficit has been obvious for a number of years and a few states, such as New York, have been working on it, but it is better to have the federal government involved to make sure that no one is left out.

The US also needs a lot of upgrades to buildings. Many of our schools, hospitals, and housing units are deficient in their heating/cooling/ventilation systems and need insulation and energy efficiency upgrades. Some also need structural work and renovation. Sadly, this impacts low-income areas more than high-income areas. Again, the federal government needs to step in to make sure that all people have safe, functional buildings.

The part of the plan that Congressional Republicans object to the most is support for our care system. There has long been a dearth of high-quality, affordable caregivers for children, elders, and people with debilitating illnesses or conditions, due in part to the low wages paid for this kind of work. During the pandemic, many child-care centers and schools closed, leaving parents with the tasks of 24/7 childcare plus tutoring, often combined with paid jobs. This impacted mothers more than fathers, with many more women leaving the workforce or cutting back hours of paid work to tend to caregiving duties. Now that more employers are wanting people to work on site, parents are faced with difficulties in trying to find child or elder care that they can afford. It’s also worth noting that the US is woefully behind other advanced economies in supporting social needs. The greater support for caregiving, health, and education in the UK versus the US was an important factor in my daughter and son-in-law deciding to settle their family in the UK.

The American Jobs Plan has provisions to support caregiving, such as paying good wages to people who provide care and good wages to other workers so that they can afford to pay for care if they need to. It also offers free access to pre-school for three- and four-year-olds and community college for high school grads. Somehow, Congressional Republicans have twisted this into a negative, arguing that the Plan is against family caregiving and would force more years of mandatory schooling. The pre-school and community college funding is available to all, but not compulsory. The option to choose family caregiving would expand if one salary can support the household, leaving a second adult free to engage in unpaid caregiving or to take an outside job without having all the money earned go to pay the cost of care. For households with only one adult, affordable, high-quality care availability makes it possible to work and support their family. One of the difficulties with the pandemic economic recovery is that many employers are not offering enough hours at a high enough wage for workers to be able to cover living expenses, often including caregiving costs. The answer to this problem is not to cut off unemployment payments as some have suggested; the answer is to pay living wages for all jobs. If a business cannot afford to pay its workers a living wage, it does not have a viable business plan and should not be operating.

What strikes me about the Congressional Republican position is that they favor jobs, like construction, that are predominantly filled by males, while discounting jobs, like caregiving and education, that are predominantly filled by females. In many areas, caregiving jobs are held predominantly by women of color. The Congressional Republican approach to the American Jobs Plan seems to be that physical objects like roads and bridges and the workers that make them are more important than people and the work to care for and educate them.

This is unfortunate. The Plan’s comprehensiveness is one of the things that impresses me the most. It integrates employment with addressing social, environmental, and justice concerns. For example, it creates jobs for workers displaced by the winding down of fossil fuel extraction to cap abandoned wells and clean up mines. It creates a Civilian Climate Corps to help us conserve land and prepare for future conditions. There are provisions to support US research and development and manufacturing within the country to boost employment and make sure we have supplies of important products made here to avoid shortages, especially in crisis situations. We all saw what happened in the early months of the pandemic when masks, gloves, and other medical equipment were in short supply because they were almost all imported goods. The Plan also looks to increased membership in unions which traditionally facilitate good wages and worker protection measures.

While the American Jobs Plan has majority support among the public, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says that no Republicans will vote for it. I don’t know if that will change after negotiations are complete. If the vote fails in the Senate after negotiations because Republicans still are not on board, then the Democrats should pass the original bill under budget reconciliation rules.

I should also point out that the Plan includes a way to pay for the costs over time, mostly through corporate tax reform and enforcement. The Republicans don’t like that. The public does. When pollsters ask about the American Jobs Plan and include the payment mechanism in the description, the approval rating rises even higher.

I do have a Republican representative in Congress and I ask her and her colleagues to think about whether they are there to serve their constituents or their corporate donors. We’ll be able to tell their answer by how they vote on this bill.

How Does JC’s Mind Work? #1

For months/years, I have threatened/promised to write about how I got to be who I am today and what shaped me along the way. This sporadic series will try to unpack my personal history and influences and, I hope, set people to thinking about their own.

So, I seem to have developed a bad habit of starting a new series here at Top of JC’s Mind at the (almost) worst possible time, as I did when starting JC’s Confessions. (Shameless plug. See link to those posts in my main menu.)

Some readers have expressed interest in knowing how I evolved into the creature I currently am and, particularly during these fraught times, there seems to be new impetus for examining our viewpoints and how we came to hold them, so I thought I’d try to break open some of that for readers.

It seems logical to start with one of the early, fundamental parts of my life, which is that I have rural roots.

And I mean, really rural.

I grew up in a town along the Massachusetts/Vermont border with a population of about 200. We had our own grammar school, grades one through eight when I entered, expanding to kindergarten through eighth when Massachusetts mandated kindergarten when I was in fifth grade or so, housed in three classroom in a WPA-built building that also had the town office, small public library, and a gym that was used by the school and for town meetings and events. There was a small general store that included a post office, which we visited every day to get our mail, but we usually shopped in North Adams, which was twenty miles away and offered more grocery selections at lower prices. We also attended high school in North Adams. It’s where my spouse B and I met, although that is definitely another story.

Although the town was small, it had two distinct sections. Down in “The Bridge” lived the people who worked in the mill, which made specialty paper products, like the wrappers for Necco wafers. They were mostly European immigrant stock, drawn to the area to work in the mill. Up on “The Hill” were the older Yankee stock, some of whom farmed or worked for the town itself, doing roadwork, plowing, etc. They also got Rural Free Delivery of their mail, so they didn’t need to come down to the post office every day, which was a blessing especially in the winter when the unpaved road from The Hill to The Bridge shut down for months and could only be traversed by snowmobile.

My family did not live in either section. Our house was about a mile from The Bridge and was owned by New England Power Company, for whom my father, known here as Paco, worked. It was located near an unmanned hydroelectric station so Paco could reach it quickly if needed. It, an observation stand, and one of the first commercial nuclear power plants in the United States which shared the hydro reservoir with the much older station were our closest neighbors.

Like other small New England towns, everyone knew everyone else and co-operated in running the school and the town. For the most part, people took care of themselves and their families, although everyone kept an eye out for a few townfolks who had special challenges due to age or health.

Then, the mill closed.

A few people re-located to Georgia where the company had another mill, but most lost their jobs and, because the whole area was having similar closures in the manufacturing sector which was the backbone of the economy, many moved away. Certainly, people in my generation moved to other places where they could get work. The population dropped to under a hundred. The school closed when they had only seven students in K-8.

Last August, I was back in the area and wrote this post, which includes some photos from the town and a bit of additional backstory.

So, what does all of this have to do with who I am today?

Growing up in the country gave me an appreciation of the natural world, its beauty, and power. I knew the names of the trees and plants and birds in the woods around our house and knew to respect the bears that sunned themselves on the rocks on the hill opposite our house, the deer that came down to drink from the reservoir, and the porcupines, that, for some reason, liked to chew on our back steps. Especially because Paco worked in hydro, we payed attention to the weather; it was important to know how much water was in the snowpack to handle the spring runoff and how high the winds might be with a storm, in case they threatened the power lines. Also, when it is twenty miles and over a mountain to get to a doctor or store or other services, you have to know how much snow is coming and when.

Like most rural folks, we gardened and bought food from local farmers. We did some of our own canning, including making bread-and-better pickles, and freezing fruits and vegetables. We always had a well-stocked pantry and freezer because you couldn’t easily run to the store if you were out of something. We did most of our cooking and baking from scratch and, like most rural New Englanders, made sure to use everything, like making stock from poultry carcasses. A lot of these skills have come in handy during the pandemic when shopping has been difficult and supply chains unreliable.

Living in such a small town gave me an appreciation of community, of working together to accomplish a task with people who hold a range of opinions and viewpoints, and to always watch out for the needs of our most vulnerable neighbors. While there was seldom overt reference to it, you usually knew what struggles families were facing and were respectful of them.

I admit that I also learned what it feels like to be an outsider. I didn’t live in The Bridge or on The Hill. Because my family was Irish-Italian, instead of just having one ethnic background, I didn’t fit in a category, not that this was a detriment because it averted the “dumb (insert ethnicity here) jokes” and what would now be heard as ethnic slurs from getting lobbed my way. I guess I also learned that people can make divisions among what would look to some observers to be a racially and economically homogeneous group. My grade in grammar school was relatively large. Although we had a couple of people move in and out, our core was four girls. The other three were all cousins who lived on The Hill, so I was destined to be an outsider. This was compounded by some academic decisions of our teachers that sometimes had me working with the grade above ours or on my own. I see this tension between community and solitary pursuits continue to play out in my life over time.

Because of what happened to my town when the mill closed and because I have continued to live in an area with a similar loss of long-standing industries, jobs, and population, I can sympathize with other folks who face similar situations in their towns. In my days of frequent interaction over issues around fracking and other energy/climate issues, I would often run into people with fears of what was happening with jobs in their towns. I could certainly sympathize with the issues, but I think where I differed was that they expected that their children and grandchildren would stay in town and have the same jobs with the same company as they, their parents, and perhaps even their grandparents had had. I, on the other hand, always knew that I would need to leave my town and make a life elsewhere.

Some people growing up in small towns dream of big-city life, but I am not one of them. Large, busy cities are overwhelming for me. The traffic makes me so nervous I don’t even like to look out the windows of the vehicle. I’m uncomfortable being in crowds and feel hemmed in with large buildings adjoining each other on both sides of the street. Still, I like the opportunities for shopping, restaurants, medical services, and cultural activities that a city can provide.

I think that is why I am content with the Binghamton NY area, where I have lived for close to forty years. There are small city opportunities nearby, but also rural landscapes, hills, trees, and wildlife. Given where I grew up, I don’t think of this area as “small town” but that is a matter of perspective. People that grew up in or near New York City talk about Binghamton as though it is “the country” but, for me, an actual small town girl, it’s plenty big.

How about you? Do you see your environment while growing up as impacting your life and decisions now? Comments are always welcome here at Top of JC’s Mind.

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