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Ways of Seeing by Cheryl Mitchell: Mingling with neighbors pays off

When I was a child growing up in New Jersey, I loved Saturday mornings. We started the day with my mother’s waffles — slathered in butter and real maple syrup. (Even before moving to Vermont mom was a purist about that). 
The real highlight of Saturday, though, was going to the dump with my father. It was located on the edge of town abutting Camp Tamarack, the day camp where I later learned to build fires without matches, lash tables out of branches, and sing songs of hope and sisterhood. 
The dump itself consisted of huge piles of rubbish that were constantly smoldering and nearby piles of discarded household goods that were up for grabs. People from all walks of life gathered there to get rid of what they didn’t want, to pick up someone else’s discarded stuff, and mostly to gossip and argue about whatever was going on in town or in the nation. 
Like most of the other kids, I was too young to follow the grown-up conversations, or to appreciate that this was a place people met without regard to class, race, occupation, or political orientation, or to understand that this was where grown-ups could share and often resolve conflicting opinions, without the spotlight of the press and reporters who covered such controversies when they were formally debated. 
We kids just ran around, playing tag, selecting treasures to wheedle our folks into taking back home, and most of us — like me —relishing this special time with fathers who were usually too busy during the week to pay attention to us. 
Environmentally, the dump was not such a good idea, and gradually it was replaced with curb-side trash pickup that you could pay for and incinerators that were one step up on the trash disposal hierarchy. But my dad and I kept going to the dump for as long as we could. Perhaps it was the draw of free recycled stuff. My dad grew up in an orphanage and lived through the depression so he was always mindful of making do with what he had for as long as he could. More likely our continued jaunts on Saturday morning had more to do with the sense of place where people could come together naturally to learn from (or try to convert) one another.
When my parents moved to Vermont, my dad took over doing the recycling for both of our households. He was also the go-to person for many social service agencies when they needed signatures to get on the ballot for Town Meeting. He gathered names for Meals on Wheels (where he volunteered for 25 years); for Mary Johnson Children’s Center and the Parent/Child Center (where I worked); for the John Graham Shelter, (where my mom was board chair); and for Women-Safe (an organization he deeply believed in). 
As his driving skills declined, we started recycling together. Although the trip was short, it was a very precious time to talk about whatever was on our minds, or what a neighbor had said, or what was recently in the Addison Independent. Dad realized that he could still collect signatures by standing beside the trucks where he could engage in conversations with those who supported social service agencies and those who didn’t but did believe in the democratic process of petitioning. Dad loved and respected the trash handlers, who called him “Sir” and he devotedly attended Saturday morning recycling until shortly before his death.
He’s been gone for a while now, but I had the overwhelming feeling last Saturday, when I did the recycling alone and signed petitions for people I didn’t know, that this is the way democracy really works. 
There is a phrase from a Mary Oliver poem about gratitude that goes:
 
“Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young and still not half perfect? Let me
Keep my mind on what matters,
Which is my work,
Which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.”
 
In a time when national chaos is degrading our humanity, depriving young children of their parents, and removing nutritional supports from working families, it is a gift to stand around in our old ratty clothes, sharing ideas with our neighbors. I feel as if the institution of Saturday morning recycling will help us keep alive the spirit of community where people have mutual interests despite differences of opinions. And in that community we have hope for the future. 
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.She can be reached at [email protected].

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