Ways of Seeing: A traditional meal and democracy

This is a short reflection on the way celebrating Lunar New Year has expanded my view of Town Meeting. Early this year, my mother passed away at about the same time as the grandfather of our host daughter, April. When April returned from the funeral in Shanghai, she suggested celebrating Lunar New Year on the farm as a good way for us all to begin the coming year.  She offered to bring her friend Qian and to make the traditional eye dumplings. We did not realize that the two young women were actually planning to bring ingredients for and prepare the full traditional 8 course meal!
It was an event comparable to the preparation of a full traditional Thanksgiving dinner in the United States. April had prepared it once with her grandmother when she was in third grade and Qian once with her mother when she was a child. But they said that it is so much work that most families celebrate by going to a restaurant.  The girls worked for hours, mostly from early memories and modern smart phones.
My kitchen lacked the right kinds of pots and utensils and the nine members of our family, eager to participate, were probably more hindrance than help. Yet it was a magical evening. My mother would have loved this awesome meal and especially the way the shared preparation brought us all closer together. Surely April’s grandfather would have been so proud of the way she and Qian implemented a traditional meal in a non-traditional place.
After supper, we were discussing cultural differences, especially related to holidays. Ethan asked about New Year’s Resolutions, which are such an important part of the American self-improvement mentality. April replied that many Chinese people celebrate the Solar New Year with personal resolutions, but for the Lunar New Year people make positive wishes for others. Doing so helps ensure they will pay attention to the well-being of their friends and neighbors in the coming year.
It got me thinking about the role of Town Meeting in my life and feeling guilty that I had made plans to go to the polls but would miss the open discussion. When we first arrived 40 years ago, issues were vociferously and endlessly debated. It was sometimes scary to hear people disagree so violently, and yet the next day, it seemed as if we could live together in harmony again.
In the early years going door to door to get petitions signed was one important way I met people whom I didn’t know and who often had ideas very different from my own. Now we sign petitions at recycling — very efficient and no risk of being bit by a guard dog — but we don’t really have time to exchange ideas. Most of our voting now takes place in closed booths rather than open shows of hands.
A few years ago, deciding I needed to do more for my town, I joined the Library Board and now the Conservation Commission. I learned so much about our communal history, landscape, dreams, and ways of working together. Hopefully someday I will be able to contribute something valuable in exchange. I read the Town Report cover to cover, and vowed that next year (in addition to going to the polls) I would go back to attending meetings as my parents did diligently for most of their lives.
My dad had been raised in an orphanage and felt it was an incredible privilege to give back to whatever community he lived in. My mom’s father was employed throughout the great depression and her family home was always open to others in need. They loved going to Town Meeting, just to listen and learn, mom working on a quilt in her lap and dad following along with all the budget pages. It was a tradition they deeply valued.
So I’m hoping to continue the personal resolutions of Solar New Year by getting more involved with my town, but also the Lunar New Year focus on protecting and celebrating Town Meeting as one of the most effective ways we can put our well wishes for others into practical action; good schools, good roads, protection of our environment, supporting the organizations that help all of us, and careful planning for the future. Living in a place where Town Meetings are still vibrant is a gift I will no longer take for granted.
Cheryl Mitchell is president of Treleven, a retreat and learning program located on her family’s sheep farm in Addison County. She does freelance consulting on issues related to children, families, social policy and farm to community work.

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