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Ways of Seeing: Abi Sessions, Take nothing for granted

A few months ago, when Rutland citizens were hoping to welcome 100 Syrian refugees into their community, I traveled to Rutland to hear a woman, Deborah, speak about the culture of Syria. She was speaking to people who were interested in learning more about how to be culturally appropriate in welcoming Syrian refugees to the Rutland area.
At the end of her talk, someone asked whether she had any final words of advice for us. “Yes, I do,” she said. “Take nothing for granted.” Her dark eyes scanned the audience. These were not words of advice for acting more effectively as a neighbor of new Americans; these words went deeper than that. After a pause, she repeated with emphasis, “Take nothing for granted.” What images was she recalling behind those dark eyes? How much had Syrians taken for granted before their world exploded?
Since that evening I’ve been having a conversation with myself about what I take for granted and how it might be lost. Ironically and sadly, that conversation seems more relevant and urgent with each day after the election of Donald Trump. Her warning seems a haunting premonition.
So much I take for granted!
From the moment of waking until the end of my day, I am cradled in infrastructure that I largely have taken for granted. I wake in a house that is warm and dry. When I touch the switch, the lights come on. My water is clean, the air is clear. I fire up my laptop, and the Internet brings the morning news from sources I trust to tell the truth. If I need medical care I go to my doctor and show my Medicare card. I can visit the library and borrow any item in their collection.
This is the infrastructure that sustains me, and much of this feels unsettlingly fragile and precious right now. Could one executive order shut down trustworthy news sources? Information has already been removed from government websites and scientists have been muzzled; is our public library or the Internet the next target for censorship? Clean water and air depend on laws and enforcement, already being eroded. Will Medicare be privatized? The future feels ominous. How easily could this infrastructure disappear?
These are the tangible aspects of my life; perhaps more important are the intangible aspects of life that I take for granted.
I have believed that our Constitution provides an unshakable and resilient foundation for justice in our country. I have assumed that somehow the Ship of State would always right itself because of our brilliant system of checks and balances, and the Rule of Law will prevail. I have believed that openness, tolerance, generosity and kindness are the norm in our country.
Now I’m not so sure. The balance of powers seems skewed toward the executive branch, which shows little respect for the Constitution, the courts, the press, truth, ordinary citizens, the agencies of government, or the Rule of Law. Could we lose what remains of participatory democracy? Could we lose the right to vote? Could we lose the independent press? Could we all lose the right to speak our conscience freely and openly without fear of retribution? Could we lose a Congress that acts as a check on Presidential power? I think it’s possible. I don’t take any of these things for granted any more.
I have had faith that citizens are safe in our nation, that local law enforcement will protect me from harm, that there will be no heavy knock on the door in the middle of the night, no disappearances of loved ones. But I know that citizens of color can’t say that. Nor can immigrants or refugees. How can I take my safety for granted when my neighbors can’t?
Everyone who leaves their country as a refugee has lost what they once took for granted.
Whatever scenes from Syria Deborah was recalling, whatever motivated her warning, her advice is good: Take nothing for granted. When I recognize that what I have taken for granted is at risk, everything I love seems more precious, each day more blessed, and each day an opportunity to work to save what I care about. I’m learning the habit of taking one small action each day to resist erosion of what I hold dear. I sleep better at night when I do.
Abi Sessions is a retired educator who lives in Cornwall with her husband, Bill. If you wish to join others in Addison County with an interest in creating a welcoming community, please email Abi at abi.sessions@gmail.com.

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