Op/Ed

Ways of Seeing: Take care of society’s fabric

When I was about 4 years old, my mother taught me to sew on a button. Likely, she too was sewing something, and I expressed an interest. While it was a useful skill, I never became a dedicated sewer. In my early adulthood I made curtains and even the rare clothing item. Later on, I made my kids’ Halloween costumes, but quickly found the advantages of duct tape and staples for those single use creations. While I found various fabrics and materials appealing, both visually and by touch, I never did take up weaving. 
I don’t know anyone who weaves these days, but I once had friends with looms — large contraptions that took up half a room. They seemed way too complicated, but I got the basic idea. I had woven potholders as a young child on a very basic grid: There are threads that go the length and others that pass through them — over and under, over and under — going the width. Warp and woof, they are called — two names that are easy to remember. Together, they make the fabric. 
I was thinking of fabric recently as I hung a sheet out to dry and saw that the material was coming apart. It wasn’t a very old sheet and I wondered about the lack of strength in the threads from which it was woven. In my musings, I thought about another way we sometimes use that word — fabric — as in “the fabric of our society”. What threads or yarns make up that “fabric?” How might I describe that? 
I decided that one group, perhaps the warp, is that of more concrete substance. To me, this would be things like our actual, physical world and its environment. Perhaps it includes economics, but really in the sense of the tangibles that we might grow, produce, trade, share, or use ourselves. And what about that woof? It might be made of the intangibles: our values. As in any actual fabric, its strength and longevity result from the strength of individual threads, the way they intertwine, and the overall balance. A wall hanging, purely for show, might have heavier threads in one area and thinner ones elsewhere, but if the cloth is to be worn, its lack of integrity would soon cause it to unravel. Similarly, if our economy, our resources are not well and evenly distributed, the fabric of our society starts to pull apart. 
And what of the woof, our values? We are a land — whether state, nation, or world — of many people, each with our own story, our own background. Without some core values in common, it is very difficult for us to hold together. In our country, the Declaration of Independence provides some of that structure: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all … are created equal, that they are endowed … with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” We may all believe in these values, but do they mean the same to all of us? While each of us may have varying values, it is the ones we hold in common that bind us together. 
I think about this in my own small-town community of Ripton, a community that is unique but also akin to many towns in our state. Here, many of us have settled with some sense or desire to be independent and self-sufficient. That might be one thread, but directly adjacent is another: We will help each other. When the pandemic came to town, we immediately set up a system for town-wide communications, with ways for people to get help and ways for people to give help. That was not a completely new concept; we put an energy assistance project in place during the 2008 recession, and it is still going strong. Those strands tie us together, because in a community, people help each other out. 
Where do we develop these values? We begin within a small circle: our families and the families of our friends and neighbors. Some we come to incorporate through school, where we start to meet a broader world along with the need to cooperate with a greater number of people. This is where the value of smaller schools and classes impacts on so much more than basic academics. 
Much of our state’s unique culture is a result of its many small communities. Though they do not hold the largest population, they cover the state, they tie it together. Indeed, in many ways they provide a significant part of the “warp,” because the tangibles here are not all about money. They also provide much of the “woof,” since those basic values and connections are more easily learned and practiced on a daily basis in a smaller community. Vermont needs all these threads. When our fabric is strong, we bring a clear model to the rest of our nation.
As we connect with others, we find the ways that bring us together and the ways that tear us apart. Alas, tearing, ripping, and unraveling can always be done with less thought and less effort than the weaving or the knitting. Pulling together in a way that is shared, equal, and sustainable takes effort, but we can find ourselves part of a fabric that is strong, lasting, sustainable, and even beautiful. 
Laurie Cox is a retired school counselor and longtime 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.

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