Wednesday, January 2, 2008

On Bailing

It's snowing again, little windy gusts, and I've been thinking about this quote from Barbara Kingsolver:

It's the worst of bad manners -and self protection, I think, in a nervously cynical society- to ridicule the small gesture.

I know about the small gesture: adjusting the thermostat down one degree, bringing your own bags to the grocery store, walking the extra half-mile. Things I do, even though it feels like howling in the wilderness, like bailing a sinking canoe with a thimble. Pathetic, talismanic gestures I mock even as I complete them.

Because, of course, it's not enough. None of it's enough. We're still lost and we're still sinking and nothing I do can ever be enough.

Obviously, it's winter. Obviously, I've gone and gotten into the non-fiction again. Obviously, I'm succumbing to the most unfortunate side effect of reaquaintance with the real world, which is reaquaintance with despair. In the space of the past seven days, I've not only enjoyed my yearly tryst with Michael Moore, I've read, back to back, two indictments of our agricultural system and foodways by Michael Pollan (masterful) and Barbara Kingsolver (preachy). Now, Marsh makes me nauseous.

I'm back home again in Indiana, in the non-fictional slough of despond. I've been here before, you see. Three years ago, I left a nest of unremittingly earnest, exhausting individuals for bigger and putatively better things. I expected to be relieved: thank GOD no one was going to spend three hours debating whether purchasing only firm-style, as opposed to silken, tofu constituted institutionalized racism! Thank heavens no one was going to insist that we subsist on turnips for the whole of February!

But instead I felt bereft. Outside of the bubble, no one CARED. Even if that care had been overbearing and occasionally destructive, at least it had existed. Now I lived in a world where people considered one mile too far to walk. Now I walked behind a young woman who picked up a newspaper, examined the advertising circular, and then, as if to epitomize all-encompassing lack of care, dropped it on the ground.

I did what all closeted idealists do, which was to get worn down. I sulked. I snarled. I adopted irrational, ineffectual schemes of reprisal, including getting my feet muddy and then, when my shoelaces came untied, hunting for the biggest SUV I could find. People think that idealism gives you the strength for the long haul, but that's false. Ignorance gives you that strength, and obsession; pragmatism helps you along. But idealism? The idealist is the one you'll find drunk and raving by the side of the road, dragging her dirty shoe along the side of a hummer.

Of what use, the small gesture? I used to make dozens, and now, in my new city, I find I can't even make those. The nearest farmer's market is a 45 minute drive. The natural foods store is 50, and their butternut squash is from Mexico. I have to drive to work. I have to drive to shop. I have to drive...everywhere. To recycle, you have to pay a monthly collection fee of $5. I pay it, but am crushed, week after week, when no one else does.

You can't change your neighbors. Often, you can't even change yourself. But Barbara, bless her earnest, optimistic heart, is right: the least I can do is refrain from making fun of myself when I try.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

I know how you feel.