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Faith in Vermont: For Shame

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Posted on January 27, 2015 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



shame, 1  a: a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety [Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, 1986]

***

I am not a member at the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op.

There! It's out!

I have absolutely nothing against the Co-op. It's a lovely place filled with lovely food -- much of it locally produced -- and staffed by lovely people. I do, on occasion, shop at the Co-op; just last week I needed two cans of garbanzo beans and I had only one child with me and the Co-op was on my way.

When I took my two cans to the register, the clerk asked, "Are you a Co-op member?" I hung my head in shame and mumbled, "No." She looked disappointed in me.

Most people are shocked to discover that I'm not a member at the Co-op. It's a topic that's come up a lot lately in conversations with friends and acquaintances from all walks of life: new neighbors, my husband's colleagues at Middlebury College, and life-long Vermonters. We'll be discussing some food product or recipe, and they'll say, "Oh, you can get that at the Co-op. You're members at the Co-op, right?"

When I confess my outsider status, jaws drop. Conversation screeches to a halt. At last, broken by their silent judgment, I start babbling an explanation.

I have what I consider to be a decent explanation: I do care about the environment and local, sustainable agriculture (We belong to a CSA!). I do care about feeding my family healthy food (If only they'd eat it!). But I have four young children; during a normal week, I have exactly two daytime hours when I am without a single child, and believe me: I'm not  spending any of those 120 minutes grocery shopping.

This means that I usually shop with at least two children under the age of five. In this situation, shopping cart logistics are everything: I need a cart that can hold two children plus a week's worth of groceries for six people. Based on carts alone, the Co-op -- with its one-seater carts and narrow aisles -- is out. The clear victor is Hannaford's, where I can buckle both children behind the side-by-side steering wheels of a "car cart," and still have an enormous basket free for groceries. It's like driving a tractor-trailer, but it's my only hope.

This will change as the children grow, of course. In fact, I have a Co-op member application in my to-do pile right now! And I promise to fill it out soon!

***

I can blame my Co-op shame on the children; I can't do that when it comes to our wood stove mess.

I gave up attempting to keep a perfectly clean home two children ago, but our wood stove detritus is in a category by itself. Because we still have toddlers in the house, we enclose our wood stove with a child-proof gate. You'd think that would help contain the mess, but you'd be wrong: For the five or six months during which we run the wood stove, our living room appears to be carpeted with mulch. Wood chips, ash, and chunks of bark spread across the floor, get stuck in corners and cracks, and cling to our pant legs. I imagine my daughters, decades from now, will still find splinters working their way out of feet and knees: mementos of winter afternoons playing "My Little Pony" by the wood stove.

I'm reasonably good about sweeping up around the wood stove, but here's the thing: We know a lot of people with wood stoves, and none of them has anything like the mess we do. It baffles me; the rest of their house might be chaotic, strewn with toys and pet hair and used tissues, but there's not a speck of sawdust around their wood stove.

I feel ashamed: What do they know that we don't?

***

Shame is an awful feeling; the sense that one has done it all wrong, missed the train, gotten on the wrong train, or failed to notice that train travel was expected.

And shame's almost impossible to avoid when it's delivered directly to your mailbox each month.

I'm talking about the monthly Efficiency Vermont mailing, of course.

Efficiency Vermont is a program run by a private nonprofit organization, the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation, under an appointment from the Vermont Public Service Board. According to their website, "Efficiency Vermont provides technical assistance, rebates, and other financial incentives to help Vermont households and businesses reduce their energy costs."

The first step towards achieving this mission apparently involves shaming Vermont homeowners about their energy use.

Our monthly mailing includes a bar graph, which compares our family's energy use (a black line stretching across the entire page) with that of "your neighbors" (the merest speck.) I've never made it past the shock of that graphic to the text, but I imagine it says something like this:

Dear Homeowner: You are a terrible person. Look at all that selfish energy use! The sum of the world's environmental problems are being caused by YOUR HOUSEHOLD. Why can't you be more like your neighbors?

I couldn't figure out what we were doing so wrong. We use CFL and LED lights, power strips, and the previously-mentioned wood stove. I felt alone in my secret shame, hiding the Efficiency Vermont mailing in the bottom of the recycling bin each month.

Then earlier this month, during a conversation with friends, we realized that everyone's getting the same letter from Efficiency Vermont!

At least we think so: Our friends represented families far smaller than ours, people who aren't home all day, a couple that built their house to be energy efficient. All of us were being told that we were in the 90th percentile of energy usage compared to our neighbors.

The person who raised the topic in conversation is a local pastor. That's right: Efficiency Vermont successfully shamed a minister.

Here's something I've learned from parenting: Shame doesn't usually make people change; it makes others feel ashamed, which generally results in their ignoring and/or reviling the shame-r.

Just a little tip from your neighbor!

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. Since moving to Addison County in 2011, her work has involved caring for a house in the woods, four young daughters, one anxiety-prone labradoodle — and writing for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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