Ways of Seeing by Laurie Cox: Togetherness is a formula for civility
On the last Saturday in October, 28 people gathered near the Ripton Fire Station to split and stack firewood. As snowflakes (and, later, raindrops) shared the air, workers filled up the woodshed for REAP, the Ripton Energy Assistance Project. This project was formed in 2008 at a time when the economy had tanked, fuel prices soared, and fuel assistance programs were underfunded. Ripton’s response was to set up a non-profit to help fill the gaps. Saturday’s “wood bee” was an event that has taken place every year since then.
The work was not easy and the weather less than balmy, but the people gathered there worked hard and processed a huge amount of wood. Some were property owners, some renters, and some had grown up in Ripton, returning to help. It seemed a small yet joyful thing, giving a few hours of sweat and sore muscles to help neighbors stay warm within their budgets. Many others had provided the wood or donated money towards propane or fuel oil needs.
On that same morning, a man walked into a synagogue in Pittsburgh, shooting and killing people, spewing the hate he had ingested from internet and airwaves.
During that week, local 5th and 6th grade students took up the cause of refugees after reading a fact-based book about refugee children. They raised over $500 to help a migrant family from Honduras. Too many people in some Central American countries have had their lives disrupted by violence and economic hardship. Even if they successfully manage the trek northward and receive asylum, they face many struggles to gain safety and stability. A huge effort and extraordinary motivation is required merely to reach our borders. Those are qualities our country can benefit from.
Meanwhile, some of our leaders choose to demonize these refugees as they flee terror and seek hope for their children.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free …” — the inscription on the Statue of Liberty was once a major symbol of our country and is often sung by Maiden Vermont chorus at Naturalization ceremonies in Vermont. Seeing people from all parts of the world become citizens, throwing their lot in with us, is always incredibly moving. It is clearly inscribed in our Constitution: any child born in this country is a citizen of this country. The desire of refugee mothers-to-be for their children to be U.S. citizens could be a source of pride for us.
The chorus recently rehearsed for a concert, 40-plus women filling the risers as their voices filled the room. Together we made harmony, and not just in the musical sense. Studies have shown that people singing together, especially singing in harmony, are healthier both physically and emotionally. Through the blending of voices comes the blending of ourselves. We can find the things that bring us together, that connect us, that help us feel a part of something larger than ourselves. Two opposing candidates for the Vermont House in Cambridge sang together last month, as they ended their political discussion, making national news for their civility.
In Cornwall, a group of dedicated volunteers have been laboring for months, building a home for — and with — a family. They enable that family to buy their own home, yet these people never met until their involvement with this Habitat for Humanity of Addison County project.
In Florida, a man spent the last several weeks building and packaging bombs to send to people who were not even in his focus until 2016.
I would like to feel that here, in Vermont, we find ways to be a community with real connections, real concerns. I would like to believe that we are immune to the hate speech and actions, the divisiveness, the encouragement to bully, attack, and dehumanize.
Alas, a book about the Bosnian War just reminded me of how long-time neighbors, school friends, and business colleagues ended up attacking, torturing, and killing each other. This also happened in Rwanda and Nazi-held Europe, and right now in Myanmar. In each circumstance there are a few people who help “others” — even at great personal risk — but so many take active part in the violence.
It seems that we humans can easily be persuaded that certain people are not fully human — to believe others are the reason for problems or hardships we face or fear we might face. A certain kind of leader can demonize the few or the few million, offering them up as prey to the crowds who heed the leader’s call. Even in our little town of Ripton, it would be so easy to cast aspersions on those needing fuel assistance rather than pitching in to help them.
We are not immune in our state, but perhaps we can be immunized. Joining with our neighbors, joining in song, joining others person-to-person, not based on political or even religious ideology, or social media, but on group efforts to build, create, discuss, and serve just might offer us some protection from the vitriolic storm. Creation takes more effort than destruction, but consider the results.
Laurie Cox is a retired school counselor and long-time Ripton selectboard member. Besides occasional writing, she sings with Maiden Vermont, pursues art, takes long hikes with her dog(s) and seasonally gardens. She also is about to become more actively involved in things political, environmental, and just.