Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Radical or Traditional?

A Purloined Letter from the Green Raven

During the summer of 2005, I became a radical.

Actually, that is not quite true. I had already been what I thought was a radical for a long time. I was born with a pink diaper, was the loud-mouthed lone liberal in my high school class, was active in national political protests in college, helped lead a pacifist response to the first Gulf war a few years later, painted Code Pink banners, upheld the right wing (ironically) of a giant peace dove in several parades, etc. I used to believe that being a radical meant marching for causes I believed in.

As an American historian, I also believed that I could practice my radicalism through teaching about the history of injustice in this country and the many awesome fights for equality that have occurred in our history. I wrote about disability discrimination, about racial violence, about institutionalization. While this academic fight seemed tame and subdued compared to raucous protest in the streets, it was nevertheless an authentic expression of this tame-and-subdued girl's own radicalism.

When David and I decided to have a child together, we both were politicized in a new way: an intensely personal and traditional way. The experience of raising a child made me more aware of the importance of taking one's ethics deeply into one's day-to-day life choices. I had a home birth, breastfed my son for three and a half years, and chose to unschool/homeschool him.

The funny thing for me was realizing that what I defined as radical parenting was exactly what our grandmothers and great-grandmothers had done. What I began to realize is that contemporary culture had taken away experiences that had naturally belonged to women--often in the name of convenience and modernity. These moments which had previously belonged to real people (and to their friends and communities) were now too often controlled by corporate medicine. It seemed like a radical act just to remember our past and learn lessons from our grandmothers.

In 2005, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival featured the theme of Food Culture USA. Suddenly, it became clear to me that those traditional-radical decisions I made regarding parenting had their parallels in all aspects of my life. I had been assuming that those decisions were entirely private, but it now became clear to me that these radical traditions were my personal source of power in the public world.

I had long since absorbed from my hobby-farmer grandmother that dietary fiber is at the heart of moral fiber. Now at the booths on the National Mall, I was realizing how many other people had learned this same lesson and played out its truth way beyond where my own mind had taken me.

My young son and I went every day for two weeks to visit the simulated school garden at the heart of the festival. Imagine a world where students learn to appreciate where their food comes from, to participate in the growing of produce in organic fields which respect the planet, to eat a healthy diet they grew themselves in the cafeteria, to prepare nutritious meals for their current and future families, and to communicate with each other across cultures while at the same time valuing those cultural differences.

What really blew me away was how much this kind of project could cut the cord between corporate culture and our everyday lives. What the school could not grow itself, it could purchase from local sustainable farmers. Instead of ordering a Sysco truck full of foods processed at massive packing plants after being produced on factory farms...

A Corporate Truck Unloading at Duke University

... a school system (or even a university) could send some of its dollars to supporting the community itself instead.

And then it occurred to me that the same thing was true for my own food dollars. Since those summer days in 2005, my family has made a more active commitment to growing a bit of our own food, to patronizing the farmers' markets in the area, to looking for CSAs and other farm-direct food options, and to searching out local products in our food co-op and in chain grocery stores.

My Son Meeting the Cow who Gives Us Milk

And then it occurred to me that the same thing was possible for my non-food dollars, too. I'm no expert at all of this and am reminded daily in blogs and newsletters how much is possible.

As Sharon Astyk writes in her amazing Depletion and Abundance, it is time for us to step up to completely transform the economy. If we March on Washington during the day but stop at McDonald's or Red Lobster, at Walmart or J. Crew--pretty much any chain--we are "simultaneously undermining every principle we said we had."

Instead of relying on the tradition of being our brothers' and sisters' keepers, we have allowed relationships of production to occur out of our view, behind curtains that hide the realities of injustice. If we buy a shirt at a discount chain, we don't see if workers are abused or mistreated. We only see the inexpensive price. If we make our purchases locally, we must confront the entire price of each acquisition. How thrifty is it really if our products are made by workers who are not paid properly, who are not given adequate health care, who are treated with cruelty? If we saw these relationships explicitly, in our own community, would we give our dollars to those employers?

It is by letting go of these corporations--and truly valuing the links between real people--that we support both the official community economy of locally-owned businesses and the "under-the-table economy" (as Astyk names it) of peer interactions. Imagine canning pickles with your neighbor's homegrown cucumbers, then sharing the jars. Imagine babysitting the children down the street in exchange for hand-knit scarves made by their parents. Cut the grass of the elderly neighbor down the street, just because she needs the help. And know that when you are there for your community when they are in need, they will be much more likely to be there for you if you ever need help.

Being radical in this way is about valuing our connections rather than valuing convenience. It is about staking our lives on what is real and immediate and lasting rather than on what is illusory and transitory. Rather than allowing ourselves to submit to the corporate powers that be, investing in our communities allows us to recognize the radical possibilities of tradition.

It isn't always easy to make these kinds of change. Living la vida local requires us to rethink how we do things and to recreate new ways to interact as a community. Sometimes, you might be shocked to find how many of your needs can be met within the community. At other times, the resources might not yet be there when we need them. But through our actions, together we will start building what is not only sustainable in its own right, but something that can sustain us as people, body and soul.


Burbanmom said...

Nice post! Funny how returning to "old ways" has become such a "new idea", isn't it? 100 years ago, it was strange if you didn't grow at least some of your own food. Now some tomatoes on your deck makes you bizarre.

Progress, it seems, is not defined the same by all.

kidletsmum said...

I agree! I want to live in a community like the one you describe. How do we find like-minded folks with whom to build a community? I'm good at finding people online with the same ideas about sustainable, responsible living that I espouse. I have trouble finding them in any number in my physical vicinity though... any tips?

The Purloined Letter said...

Kidletsmum: I will work on putting together a more complete list of answers, but I thought I'd steer you to Melinda's fantastic post as a starter.

As a shy introverted person, starting to make connections is certainly not the easiest step in this transition!

If the link is not working for you, try this:

Green Bean said...

What a wonderful way to wake up. You are so right, Raven. Is it really being radical to seek to fulfill our needs - food and non-food - locally? And, in doing that, we establish a community, relationships, those things that the corporations with their "good deals" can never give us. Indeed, in Deep Economy, Bill McKibben noted that "consumers have ten times as many conversations at farmers’ markets as they do at supermarkets." Try and match that Safeway!

Green Bean said...

Oh, and for Kidletsmum, ways that have been helpful for me have been the following:

1) local mothers' club board - I started a local foods buying club and a green book club through emails sent out on mine. A school listserv or other local yahoo-type group would work as might posting flyers at school or other gathering place.

2) planting an edible garden in my front yard. I kid you not. It has opened many conversations.

3) researching local green or simple living groups on the web and then making contact

4) hanging out at an independent coffee shop with a good green book.

good luck!

M of the Maritimes said...

It's sort of funny how being progressive these days invariably leads to embracing what seem like traditional practices. I'm not sure that I'd really dichotomize the terms "radical" and "traditional" all that much, since the term radical can also mean returning to a root or source, and revisiting these traditional practices -- growing our own food (or knowing where it comes from), reclaiming child-rearing from the status quo of institutionalization, focusing on community and sustainability -- is all about returning to the source. It's the way things worked before cheap oil and before industrialization. It's the way things worked before we became so estranged from our neighbours and so alienated from nature and the soil that grows our food.

As a 30-something year old who tends to an organic kitchen garden, preserves as much as possible of what I grow and who tries to lead as sustainable life as I can, I find it amusing that friends and family view me as being a bit old-fashioned. We're coming full-circle, though, and doing so by becoming radical in its different senses -- by going back to the source, and bucking the status quo of consumerism.

Fix said...

May I also suggest trying to borrow something from your neighbor, or bringing over something to eat, because you "made too much"? These things have really worked for me and when they haven't, I just try someone else. Not everyone is interested, and people cohere around different things - Sharon wrote a lovely post about it once:

I totally agree with finding common interests, and community is even broader than that.


organicneedle said...

Incredibly well said! I always find myself thinking of my grandparents when I need a simpler, less damaging, more satisfying, way of doing something.

As a city dweller...the connection to food hasn't been as clearcut as just growing our own. (Although...we do produce some kick ass basil.)Instead we rely on our CSA, farm markets, botanical gardens, and just plain discussing our choices to help our kids realize our and their role in a healthy self and world through our everyday practices.

As far as finding like minded people...try a CSA or get involved with local food banks and charities. You would be amazed what people in your community are doing under the radar.

Jennifer Taggart said...

Great post. Really good reminder - especially as we head into this frenzy of shopping that is the holiday season - that we can't undermine our causes by acting contrary to them. I fail a lot on this - esp. with two little kids that want, want, want, but I'll keep trying.

I don't have the pleasure of having a garden, but I do go back to "traditional" ways by making my own cleaners, soap, etc.


Anonymous said...

Interesting post! As always. Progress isn't always progress when seen in hindsight.

Scarlett said...

Lovely. As someone who had her last child at 40, I was constantly referring to myself as the 'old mom' until an historian colleague reminded me that, for the bulk of history, women had babies into their forties. Then birth control came along in the 20th century, radically changing the norm for childbearing age span. Duh! I love it when, as a fellow academic, I learn something new (and suddenly obvious). Anyway, I'm teaching In Defense of Food in my composition classes next semester. Captive audiences!

Electronic Goose said...

I thought I already left a comment but don't see it here ... hmmm. Anyway, this is an excellent post. Seriously. You should submit it to your local newspaper.

greeen sheeep said...

I love this post! It's funny how you can get two totally opposite perspectives on the same topic. My friends think my lifestyle is crazy and that I'm some whacked out liberal. When discussing the same issues with my grandparents they ask, "When did you become so old fashioned?"


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