I was recently choosing an image for another blog and I wanted to use a topo map of the US like this one —
— but on my search I found a neat blog, Big Thinks, that compiles interesting data maps under the tag Strange Maps. My search led in a few directions from there.
I’m fascinated by this NYT map showing our country physically divided in two – Clinton’s America on the left as an archipelago, and Trump’s eroded land mass with lakes, on the right. This is according to 2016 election results.
I’m including some data from the article, and head over to the NYT if you want to see the beautiful full color illustrated versions of the maps.
These Crickets are pretty well settled back into (and enjoying!) the routines and rituals of everyday life. I miss the open sky and easy connection to natural landscapes, yet I’m glad to once again be part of the community structures within which I feel most intellectually and spiritually alive.
There’s a richness to life within a community; that’s an obvious point, but one that is under-appreciated because for most of us, social structures and our DNA are always driving us towards creating and maintaining connections. When you’re not living on the road (or otherwise reconstructing your life in some kind of new environment), you don’t usually have to think too much about it.
Networks of people have many functions. To mention just a key few, they help us meet basic human needs, bring us together to create and share joy, and offer us support during times of trouble.
In a talk this week at Smith College, Maria Stephan highlighted the importance of networks in successful nonviolent resistance to authoritarian regimes (this is her expertise). “A movement of movements,” she called it, describing the ways that working at a local level builds trust and loyalty that are needed for a sustained engagement. If these efforts are also organized with intersectionality and into larger networks, rather than in silos, they are more likely to succeed. If you’re interested in these ideas, this TED talk will give you food for thought about the need to mobilize 3.5% of the population, and what that means.
I heard about Stephan’s talk from someone at work, and I’m grateful for that. I love to build connections around my perpetual desire for learning and growth. One of my (several) favorite things about being home is that as I’ve wondered how to re-engage in democratic civil society, people I know have pointed me towards lectures and other resources that were just the thing I needed at a particular time. (I read a lot, but lectures are unique. To speak for an hour or more to a live audience is to create a particular kind of responsive long form journalism that requires a lot of clarity and care.)
First, it was Garry Trudeau. He reminded me that it can feel good to connect with people about distressing events, and that it’s possible to be entertaining and constructively engaged. Next it was Adam Gopnik, who reminded me that there’s precedent for dealing with uncertainty and ugliness. Societies are cyclical, vacillating in fairly predictable ways between openness and aggressive reaction. This can result in feeling disheartened and hopeless, but it can also help us use great minds of history to inform our thinking about the present.
Most recently it was Maria Stephan, who spoke cogently about action informed by history and brought up the importance of self care. She had already pointed out that it’s important to plan for at least 8 years of civil resistance, if not more. The divisions in our society are that deep and it’s a big mistake, she says, to allow people to become discouraged because of unrealistic hopes — we need to plan for a marathon, not a 400 metre dash. I’m drawn to think about deliberate nurturing as an important element of sustaining momentum. I already think a lot about the overlap between healthy shifting of awareness and unhealthy avoidance — how to tell the difference, and how to create practices that serve me well.
The day after the election, Chris and I happened to be near Boston and we visited the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis. There was a particular installation by Sarah Sze (this page has photos and describes the enchanting piece better than the official Brandeis site) that allowed me to feel calm in a way I could nowhere else. We spent time exploring together and then, while Chris visited other galleries, I sat for more than an hour and sort of meditated in the large dark room. While that activity felt healthy, the desire to stay seated there forever did not (or wouldn’t have been in practice).
In the months after the election, I’ve felt a strong desire to escape. Burning Man has thus crept into my psyche; I’ve often been viscerally reminded of pieces like the lighthouse and I’ve felt a pull to run away to a magical place that doesn’t exist. I’ve also felt an urge to run away into the hills; I think lots of people feel that way, but for Chris and I it’s somewhat more of a practical option because of the ways we’ve lived in the Cricket. I’ve observed the blogs of fellow road travelers, noting that some have gone quiet (sometimes as their life patterns change, as ours have) while others keep up a steady pace of festive adventuring, no mention of the state of the world. I wonder if they feel as carefree as they seem?
For some time, those various couples were the network to which I related most easily; they understood and could inform that peculiar lifestyle of living together on the road. I wonder, would I would still be avoiding the news if Chris and I were still on the road? It would be easier to do so without the forces of community here at home inciting me to talk, question, and know. Or I might also be building networks of a different sort; I had one non-escapist fantasy that involved taking the Cricket to all those places we skipped and interviewing people who support Trump about how they feel and what they hope to achieve. I think it would make a great podcast (someone’s doing it, I imagine).
Chris and I hope to get tickets for Burning Man 2017; they go on sale soon. Burning Man is a once-a-year-extravaganza of departure from everyday life. I wrote last year that it felt post-apocalyptic. It’s also a place of super strong community and active engagement. A city almost unto itself, bound by both ritual and radicalism — and that’s exactly this year’s theme: Radical Ritual.
In 2017, we invite participants to create interactive rites, ritual processions, elaborate images, shrines, icons, temples, and visions. Our theme will occupy the ambiguous ground that lies between reverence and ridicule, faith and belief, the absurd and the stunningly sublime.
There will surely be rituals of cleansing escape and rituals of social action (along with everything in-between). The more I think about the networks of people volunteering year-round towards making the on-playa event happen, the more I realize that Burning Man isn’t quite as debauched as it looks while biking around, especially to an overwhelmed newbie. So maybe the question is, how does that energy translate now, post-Trump? As a healthy escape, a safe space, a refuge? Or is Burning Man more part of the activism of everyday life than I realize? A place where intersectionality already flourishes?
As I was thinking about Burning Man 2017, I looked at our photos from 2016. The theme was “Da Vinci’s Workshop” and as a small contribution to the Burning Man community, I had posted a “Leonardo quote of the day” each day of the event. Some of the quotes (as below) are strikingly appropriate to the concept of nonviolent resistance and social change, as part of a network.
I realize that quotes don’t change culture and Burning Man doesn’t represent any practical solution to the challenges of a divided America. Yet it’s an interesting piece of the puzzle, somehow representing both an effective system of connections and a place of renewal. As I talk with people about how they are making sense of the current social and political climate, I realize that although my dilemmas are specific to me, they’re not particularly unique. People who followed the campaign straight through are still facing questions about how to be useful and how to feel ok. I find it to be comforting that the Burning Man network exists (admittedly far more liberal and open-minded than the population at large) and succeeds as one sort of movement of movements.
Now, I need to dig into the many resources for organizing and action suggested by Maria Stephan and others. Radical ritual and life in action. My community has persuaded me that there’s no other choice.
(All photos in this post are mine from Burning Man 2016.)
Adam Gopnik was in town recently with the Salisbury Forum. He called his talk “notes of a reluctant pundit” and opened with a funny story about what he called his first experience with punditry, in the mid 1980’s in New York.
The short version of that story is that Gopnik gave a keynote, with almost no advance notice, to the Pluralism and Individualism Society. He had no idea what the group did but he figured the topic of pluralism and individualism was sufficiently broad to allow him to talk about modern art, which was something he knew about. The conference organizer told Gopnik afterwards that his remarks were healing. I mention this detail because Gopnik had a very similar effect for me.
In the weeks prior, I had been distraught about my relationship with the news media — I wanted to re-engage after our travels, but I couldn’t figure out how or where to do so thoughtfully, especially post-election. My interactions with radio news, newspapers, dinner-table conversation, the writing of friends, and snippets of television went badly. I was, at times, hysterical (and I don’t mean extremely funny).
Writing, thinking, reading, and talking weren’t helping me move through my efforts to re-engage. I was terrified and stuck. With examples from philosophy and history, Gopnik persuaded me that “writing sanely about politics in a less than sane America” is possible. To accomplish this, he cited Camus, Darwin, Lincoln, and many other people, many ideas about irony, (deadly) abstraction, truth, empiricism, tone, and civil society.
I’ve been trying to sum up that “spark” — how and why this moment shifted my thinking — and I’ve concluded it’s not possible to do so in a brief way. It was a long talk, the effect is a sum-of-the-parts. You had to be there. Gopnik did a good job of threading together complex ideas in a coherent and accessible way, and I think it resonated with the audience: they laughed, hmmed and mmmed, and asked questions at the end. His remarks also had personal resonance for me, because of the ways I try to understand the world. That’s all difficult to distill, as are the ideas of thinkers like Camus. In awarding Camus its prize for literature in 1957, the Nobel Prize committee cited his writing’s:
clear-sighted earnestness [that] illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times.
That’s not too much to want, is it?
Here are my notes.
It’s been almost two months since we’ve ended our travels and already it seems like years ago. Time is strange that way, how it can stretch and elongate itself or compact and shorten depending on the situation. What once seemed distant can suddenly spring forward as memory is sparked from unusual sources. Standing Rock is that spark for me.
I’ve failed several times to write this blog, my first attempt being last spring. It always starts with how our road trip refreshed and further educated me on American history. Crisscrossing such routes as the Oregon Trail, Pony Express Trail and the Old Spanish Trail gave a clearer picture of the challenges and accomplishments our ancestor’s endured. Then there was the Japanese internment camps we passed and nuclear testing grounds, reminders of darker times.
There were many other historical markers we came across but the one we followed most was the Lewis and Clark Trail. This was not an intentional decision, but one of pure accident but perhaps rightfully so. Just like Alexis and me, Lewis and Clark set off to explore the American West and find an easy route to the Pacific Ocean. Like these two adventures, Alexis and I followed parts of the Missouri, Yellowstone, and Columbia river until we reached Cape Disappointment where, just like Lewis and Clark, we set our eyes on the Pacific Ocean for the first time in our travels. These two explores helped open up the West while also starting the long and unfortunate demise of the Native Americans living there.
Having lived both in the West and now East, I find there is a great absence of Native American presence in the East. Other than their casinos like Mohegan Sun, there are few physical things to remind us that other tribal cultures once thrived in our 13 colonies. The majority were pushed west and that is where they have remained. The West is where over 90% of the reservations are and it was the West that reminded me of the tragic relationship between the United States and Native Americans. Actually being in places where Chief Joseph and his 3,000 Nez Perce trekked while fleeing the United States Calvary paints a clearer picture of their hardships and mishaps. Another trail we came across several times is the Long Walk of the Navajo. This was the path used to march over 8,000 Navajo, 300 miles, and have them live on 40 acres of land. We drove through many reservations, catching a glimpse of their lifestyle and circumstances in which they live.
Our history is riddled with such happenings and filled with broken treaties. The relationship between the United States and Native Americans is an unhealed wound, ignored in the hopes that it will go away. It is a situation our government has all but given up on. It’s an embarrassing disgrace that our government and media choose to give little attention to the Native Americans and would rather focus on how other countries mistreat their people.
Our media has diligently covered every tweet Donald Trump made for over a year paving the path to his presidency. Meanwhile, a conflict slowly began brewing between the Sioux and oil industry. Scarcely covered in the news until the shadow of the election seceded, even now this story is barely mentioned. Instead the media would rather listen to the talking heads make assumptions on how Trump will lead this fine country of ours. Ironically, once this peaceful protest finally did get some press, the government decided to shut it down, forcing the thousands of protesters to leave by December 5th.
You would think our government would have some remorse towards the Native Americans, given how much we’ve screwed them. You would think our government would stand up for them and say- hey; we got your back on this one. But just the opposite, once again, America has spit in their face.
Originally, the oil pipeline was to cross the Missouri above Bismarck, ND, a predominantly white city. But Bismarck feared their drinking water could get contaminated and so the pipeline was moved down river next to the Standing Rock reservation. The Sioux have the same concerns as their white neighbors but apparently their concerns are valued less. Why would the oil industry move the pipeline for white Americans and not Native Americans? Why would our government allow this?
Its no wonder the Native Americans have mostly chosen to remain to them selves and not intermingle into our society of racism and inequality. We have proven to them time and again that they are just a nuisance to our own development and will disregard their rights and liberties for the betterment of ourselves. We are not a united nation, far from it.
When Hilary Clinton’s slogan is “Stronger Together”, or Donald Trump’s is “Make America Great Again”, or Obama’s “Change We Can Believe In”, or John McCain’s “Country First”, or George W. Bush’s “Yes, America Can!”, or John Kerry’s “Let America Be America Again”, how much do these campaign slogans resonate with Native Americans? Do politicians even try to win their vote? People like the Sioux, the Navajo and Nez Perce have been swept under our nations rug long ago. They have faded away in the barren and expansive West while the politicians in the East try to forget whose land this was in the first place. As our politicians discuss the rights of muslims, blacks, hispanics, gays, transgender, and women; they turn a blind eye from the Native Americans, the first and last people to suffer discrimination by the United States of America.
When humor fails, there’s poetry. This morning after election night, Wislawa Symborska comes to mind, particularly her poem “The End and the Beginning” (to honor copyright, read it in full here; it’s worth it).
There’s also running away. Another of Symborska’s poems, “Consolation,” begins: “Darwin. They say he read novels to relax, but only certain kinds: nothing that ended unhappily.” Darwin’s supposed approach reminds me of my own escapism during this travel adventure. It also reminds me of how I felt at Burning Man.