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Faith in Vermont: Curiouser and Curiouser

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Posted on November 7, 2017 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



“The flags are lowered again! What happened this time, Mama?”

I was driving three of my daughters along Route 7, down to Brandon for a rehearsal of their homeschool production of Alice in Wonderland.

The last time I’d attempted to frame tragedy in age-appropriate terms had been only a month before, when area businesses flew their flags at half-mast to mourn the deaths of 59 people after a mass shooting in Las Vegas. This time around, we were mourning the shooting deaths of 26 people at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

I took a deep breath, and tried to arrange my words.

***

Lately I’ve been interested in how nature seems to be mirroring the prevailing mood in this country. Or is it the opposite: Is the prevailing national mood a reaction, at least in part, to natural events? Further: Am I overgeneralizing when I write of a “prevailing national mood?” Is it most accurate to state that nature seems to mirror my mood, or the moods of myself and my nearest friends?

You see how written expression can become complicated.

Still, the fact remains that there have been devastating hurricanes and devouring wildfires across the country. Natural events here in Vermont have been somewhat less dramatic, but still unsettling: In October we experienced average temperatures about 10.5 degrees higher than usual.

These warmer temperatures have caused a plague-like increase in bugs. Lady beetles and houseflies, which usually proliferate as fall approaches and then die off or go dormant when freezing temperatures settle in, have swarmed around the house for over a month. At one point, it was a nightly routine for my husband to vacuum the flies off of the walls and ceilings of our daughters’ rooms before we kissed them goodnight – at which point, he’d lug the vacuum downstairs to tackle the lady beetles in the mudroom. This demoralizing persistence of bugs has become a regular topic of conversation among local friends.

Then, last week, there was the windstorm. We lay awake as Sunday turned to Monday, listening to the howl of winds that reached 80 mph. These winds laid my daughters’ favorite pine tree flat across our driveway and knocked out our power for almost 24 hours, which was trifling compared to what some other New Englanders endured – to say nothing of what hurricane victims in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico continue to deal with.

Like the weather, my mood and the moods around me seem unsettled. We’re on edge; exhausted by news of disaster after disaster, some natural and some man-made. We’ve been here many times before, of course, but history is long and memory is short. It can be difficult to shake the fear that these disasters may prove to be mere tremors before an approaching apocalypse.

***

Against this background, it seems fitting that my daughters have spent the fall months rehearsing Alice in Wonderland, a play based on Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s book, first published in 1865. Hilarious and puzzling, Alice in Wonderland is full of absurdity, plays on language and logic, and humorous critiques of just about everything in polite society.

For instance, we laugh when the Queen of Hearts shrieks, during the sham trial of the Knave of Hearts: “No, no! Sentence first; verdict afterwards!” 

The Queen’s words are absurdly unjust, yet not so far from reality: Just this past week, our nation’s leader publicly touted the death sentence for a crime -- an undeniably heinous terrorist attack in New York City -- before any trial had occurred or the facts were in place.

Another thing that rings true in Alice’s dream of Wonderland is the way in which nobody can quite communicate. The characters speak at each other without any regard for feelings, they spin each other’s words into tangled riddles, and everyone is offended constantly.

Take, for instance, this exchange between Alice, the March Hare, and the Mad Hatter at the mad tea party:

ALICE: I believe I can guess that!

HATTER: Do you mean you think you could find out the answer to it?

ALICE: Exactly so.

HARE: Then why don’t you say what you mean?

ALICE: I do. At least – at least I mean what I say. That’s the same thing, you know.

HATTER: Not the same thing a bit. Why, you might just as well say that “I see what I eat,” is the same thing as, “I eat what I see.”

This scene, which proves that communication has always been a challenge, nonetheless strikes me as a remarkably prophetic characterization of our fumbling attempts to communicate with each other during the internet age.

***

A lesson I learned the hard way lately is how online communication lends itself to miscommunication. Email, Facebook, and Twitter are quick and easy ways of disseminating information, but their very speed and ease encourage misunderstandings and kneejerk reactions. We skim the ideas that others send into cyberspace, and feel compelled to type out instant responses.

I was recently caught in a baffling email exchange with an acquaintance that, when the other person finally picked up the phone and called me, was revealed to have been a total misunderstanding, resolved easily after minutes of simply talking to each other.

I am a writer: I work hard to communicate clearly through the written word. Yet I did such a poor job of reading, processing, and writing on email that it required a phone conversation to disentangle the web I’d helped weave.

This experience made me wonder how many of the emotionally charged issues in our country are exacerbated because they’re being aired primarily through social media. What if we talked more in person rather than posting articles at each other? What if we listened more and clicked our reactions less?

***

Listening is a skill that I’ve resolved to cultivate as I age: To listen more and talk less.

Last night, I sat at dinner with seven friends and acquaintances, and I tried to listen.

It was a local crowd, so the conversation was fairly provincial. We lamented the high local housing prices, while acknowledging that the $250,000 median sale price of a single-family residence is low compared to some places. We talked about how we heat our homes – endlessly fascinating to Vermonters -- which led to a discussion of the upcoming vote on whether Middlebury should charge Vermont Gas for an easement to lay pipeline through town property. We considered how Middlebury qualified for free summer lunches because over half of its schoolchildren are on free or reduced lunch plans, then meandered onto the topic of school consolidation. We questioned whether there are enough options for local teens after school lets out. We pondered whether Shard Villa is actually haunted, and one friend lamented that her once-prosperous hometown of Springfield, Vermont, is now a “ghost town” since the machine-tool factories shut down. “They put all their eggs in one basket,” she said, shaking her head.

Then, for a moment, the conversation turned to local CSAs and small farms. And in that moment, gratitude crystallized into this realization: “It’s possible to eat completely locally here!”

The wind outside -- gentle now, and bringing with it the chill of fall at last -- skidded clouds across the round moon.

We are overwhelmed by problems, and we fumble to communicate. Still, the hope remains: If we can somehow locate the strand that holds it all together, perhaps it’s not too late to begin the untangling.

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, four daughters, assorted chickens and ducks, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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