Our country and culture are in the midst of a great “disruption” of equilibrium. Stephen Jay Gould pioneered this idea when he researched biological evolution. He described what happens when a major catastrophic event eliminates something big and strong. The death of the dinosaurs made room for an abundance of small creatures to flourish. Such disasters create space for vital things to grow.
Gould’s idea is relevant today as we experience explosions and shifts, both natural and man-made, affecting us individually and collectively. The demise of some of the big banks, insurance and car companies and the economic meltdown shake us up, as do wars and refuge crises around the globe, and earthquakes and other natural disasters. As large structures fall apart, something new is being born, finding room to take their places.
Consider the people in a mere two-block section of my relatively wealthy part of St. Paul. One walked away from his business unable to keep it going in the downturn. One realized she had to sign up for food stamps as her unemployment ended. Another collects organic produce from a food shelf and shares it with others of us experiencing our own transitions. One family I chatted with a few times before I suddenly noticed the house dark and a pile of boxes strewn along the alley. Now I know it has been foreclosed. We even have our own special superfund site on the next block; a lovely home had an oil tank in the basement that has leaked and for the past two weeks government-hired workers have been exhuming the hazard. Two neighbors died suddenly from illnesses. Such disruptive forces invite space for the questions that inevitably arise. We are asking ourselves: What is on the other side of our disasters?
A new level of unknowns
Our experiences require us to tolerate a new level of unknowns, ambiguity and patience with ourselves and others as we wander through this undefined passage. A story serves as a metaphor for what I mean.
A few years ago, around New Year’s, my family and I were driving through Southern Minnesota on our way to visit friends. We were near Harmony, that part of the state where you are not surprised to see the Amish. As we drove at highway speeds, we overtook a slow-moving black horse-drawn buggy with an orange triangle of caution on its backside, moving on the shoulder of the road in the same direction as we were. A lone man sat behind the reins.
The day was sunny — a high blue sky characteristic of a cold Minnesota day. The temperatures must have been in the 20s or lower. The fields were bright white with stalks of ocher corn poking through. We drove a few more miles (I did not keep track) and came to a highway intersection, the spot where we would turn south toward Iowa and our friends.
By the side of the road on the corner nearest us stood a middle-aged Amish woman, dressed in traditional garb. I remember noticing her round hips and shoulders, a heavy dress and shawl, maybe a hat and round eyeglasses, smooth ruddy cheeks and a wide smile. In spite of the cold temperatures, it seemed to me she wore no overcoat. Her hands were folded low to her waist. Kitty corner across the highway sat another black horse drawn buggy with a lone man sitting behind the reigns, waiting. I looked at the woman’s face as we passed by and she glanced up at me and smiled. I waved.
She stood confident, unconcerned
As we turned the corner away from her, I realized that the buggy we had passed miles back was coming for her. Even though it was far up the road and out of view, she patiently, cheerfully waited. She looked unconcerned, not even cold. Who knows how long she stood there? As we drove away and she became a small speck in my rear view mirror, I wanted to open my window and shout out to her — “He’s coming! He is back there!” That need to know came from me, not her. She seemed unconcerned, confident, present to the day. She stood with faith that whatever plan or prearrangement they had made would be fulfilled. This between time would be crossed.
Like that Amish woman, we are all living with unseen beginning and ends points moving toward one another. We must trust that they will meet up. Like the period of dawn, or dusk, or the mid-point of the season — we are eager to leave the sting of this disruption, straining for renewal. Gould would suggest we must turn ourselves toward the new space provided to seek something different — culturally, politically, economically. We are not yet clear what the new will look like or even if we will survive long enough to see it, ourselves and the natural world through to transformation.
I see period as a blessed turning point. When we let our panic and confusion go quiet, we find space to consider our choices. We can seize the opening and encourage ourselves to cultivate the soil for something more nourishing to grow.
Recently the friend who lost his business was happily making bread. He told me he had things “in order” so that he could share this bounty with family and friends. Other promising starts are growing in people’s hearts and imaginations:
• An alley garden dedicated to sharing and storing;
• Organizers seeking to make a blended urban district dedicated to economic development and culture in the midst of the chaos of light-rail’s arrival;
• A network of neighbors cooking and exchanging services with one another;
• An hour-for-hour barter exchange that moves us out of the mindset of the hourly wage;
• An effort to improve personal and community prosperity grounded in the notion of a worker-owned artistic production cooperative.
We are seizing this opportunity to replace some of the bloated and “dead” ideas (so named by Matt Miler) with “destinal” ones, embracing a renaissance of creativity, connection and values. Let’s all give room for our small green shoots to grow into something better.
Twin Cities writer Catherine Reid Day is the founder and president of Storyslices, Inc.