A thousand shades of grey

Powell RiverI discovered this morning that Powell River, where Rick and I’ve been holidaying for a few days with our long-time friends Paul and Cheryl, is where the paper was produced that was used for printing the 50 Shades of Grey novels. It’s the kind of thing you’re likely to learn when you spend time with Paul; interesting details attach themselves to him like barnacles. But imagine that: here I was sitting not 10 kilometres from the mill that produces the paper for one of the most controversial, not to mention best-selling, novels of the decade (which admittedly I haven’t got ’round to reading yet, but still…)

The four of us were in the middle of a conversation about Fred, a local guy who Paul and Cheryl have known for a long time, and who Rick and I’ve struck up a friendship with over the five years of our annual pilgrimages to Powell River. Fred is an energetic, retirement-resisting entrepreneur in his mid-70’s. He’s owned a marina south of town, which he recently sold, and much heavy equipment which he used to build, construct or develop just about anything. If you wanted a quarry dug, a dam excavated or a hill removed, Fred was your man. He’s someone who gets things done. There’s probably not a thing of significance that’s happened in Powell River in the last many decades that he hasn’t had a hand in. Fred’s manner is considered and careful, with undertones of passion. When he talks about Powell River, his eyes grow misty. Powell River almost disappeared off the map when it down-sized its pulp and paper mill (at one time the very largest in the world), but I’ve heard it said that Fred is among those who helped the town to recreate itself into a vibrant, energetic, culturally strong centre. He’d never do a thing to hurt it.

On his way to retirement, Fred recently negotiated a deal with Chinese buyers who’ve picked up several acres of waterfront property a few kilometres out of Powell River. They’re about to start developing five large buildings that will be used for the off-water growing of abalone, sea cucumbers and oysters, to be sold in China. The project was discussed with enthusiasm around the dinner table a couple nights ago when we met with Fred and several other new acquaintances.

But it has occurred to me that Fred must have encountered a few enemies along the way. There are landowners and visitors to Powell River who chose it because they like its remoteness. It’s not an easy place to get to; it’s peaceful and undeveloped. There must be people who want to keep it that way. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture the opposition to Fred’s project, to view it from the lens of foreign ownership, foreign markets, an unknown industry. The undertaking is big enough to nudge Powell River in new directions, not only economically but socially and culturally as well.

At any rate, thinking about 50 Shades of Grey and all that paper got me reflecting about shades of grey in Colour wheelgeneral, about the amazing multi-hued-ness of life. A century or two from now, what will Wikipedia have to say about the impact of this Chinese sea food project on Powell River? Beneficial? Detrimental? Irrelevant? For that matter, should it even concern us what history will say?

The issues are complex and far-reaching. You’d want to take a light-footed approach before you waded in full of opinions on the subject. As a good friend says repeatedly, everything in life is finely nuanced.

***

I’ve been feeling bereft because I’ve just finished a novel I’ve enjoyed more than any in a long time—The Goldfinch, a Pulitzer Prize winner by Donna Tartt. It was a long read Fabritius' The Goldfinch(difficult to calculate in Kindle-land, but apparently over 700 pages) which meant I got to know the characters so well that they’ve become part of the fabric of my life for the past couple of weeks.

I can’t tell you a great deal about the story, which has a strong and drop-dead compelling plot, without getting into spoilers—and, as I very much want you to read it, the last thing I want to do is undermine any of its surprises. But allow me to say that our protagonist, Theo, has his life forever broken by a day in his 13th year when he lost a parent and acquired a priceless painting. He is one of a handful of characters we get to know and love inside out, in spite of the “fine nuances” that make them unpredictable.

This is a story that warns us off rapid-fire judgement. Be careful, Tartt leads us to understand, because you’ll change your mind five minutes later. Life is complex; the light plays on one thing and you think you’re seeing the truth, and then moments later a shadow crosses and you see something else entirely.

Life is like that. Relationships are like that. Truth is like that.

As a bit of diversion: I was sifting through the local paper a few minutes ago, when I stumbled across an article about the situation in Washington State, only kilometres south of where I’m living, where use of marijuana has been decriminalised. You can wander into a shop in Seattle and buy a spiked brownie! Or into a cafe and buy a joint! What will happen when just anyone has unfettered access to mind and mood altering drugs? Images of the decline of civilisation, of aimless people everywhere breaking bad, flashed through my brain.

It was too much to take in; I had to stop and replenish my wine glass.

My God, the amount of rethinking one has to do moment-by-moment, whether about paintings or relationships or coastal towns or recreational drugs. There’s no peace. Can’t we just have a little black and white?

A very sad planet

Planet of the ApesWe’ve had a Planet of the Apes frenzy this week. First we saw the new release, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, at the cinema, then we watched its prequel, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, at home. It wasn’t that we were enraptured by the first movie, but there was something compelling about it, and, well, in for a penny, in for a pound, as they say. So we watched them both, and they’ve left a certain odour trail behind them that’s stayed with me.

There’s no doubt Planet of the Apes, which was rated highly by both audience and critics, was a technological accomplishment. How did they get all those apes to learn to talk and sign and shoot sub-machine guns?—that’s less of a mystery to me than how anyone could figure out how to use computer graphics to create all that swinging in trees.

And the characters were believable, well-developed and engaging. You really wanted the good guys to succeed and the bad guys to bite the dust. You could see the forces that were driving them and empathise with them, as indeed they empathised with each other on occasion.

But it was so bleak, such a sorry representation of human (and ape) nature. There were two or three really good guys (on both teams), and about the same number of really bad guys. That in itself wasn’t a very nice ratio, but it was everybody else that was the problem. There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of other primates who were just following whoever happened to be in power, panicking, racing mindlessly toward destruction.

Not only that, as far as bleak goes (spoiler alert): the good guys didn’t even win by being good guys. The good human survived by getting lucky and the good ape won by pulverising his opponent. Caesar, the ruler of the apes and the first to have been genetically enhanced, clearly carries the mantle of leadership with some reluctance. He just wants freedom for his people; he doesn’t want war and he knows he’s the only one who can keep the peace. And he tells us at one point, sorrowfully, that he must always show strength—physical strength—to stay in his leadership role.

The message that seeps through is this: There is good and there is evil, and the only way to have good triumph is to use force to make it happen, which is maybe not so good, but, hey, what can you do? It’s a bit like life, really.

But I ask, what’s the point of having good guys and bad guys if they both just use force (or lies or manipulation or…) to get what they want? I’m not generally a black-and-white person, but in my view, the end never justifies the means. It’s an inherent contradiction. You mustn’t ever try to justify putting a good product on the market by lying to customers. You mustn’t ever push a good policy through by cutting corners with the voters. You mustn’t ever win a war by dropping an atom bomb on a city or two of ordinary just-about-their-business folk.

The means colour the end indelibly. Forever.

I wouldn’t make a movie that took the resigned view that force is ultimately the only way to make something happen. I’d recognise that you can’t just turn the other cheek either. Not unlike Planet of the Apes, I’d deal in language, will, purpose, intention, connectedness, love and reason—but I’d give my movie a positive outcome to reinforce the fact that it can be done.

You may have guessed where I’m heading. When Rick came in earlier and said, “Have you been following the news?” my heart dropped and I reached for the Sydney Morning Herald on my android. Someone has fired a missile at an airliner over the Ukraine and brought 298 lives to an abrupt end. It was probably a military action, and it probably wasn’t intended to kill those particular people—but it did, and a ground-to-air missile launcher doesn’t go off by accident. A missile launcher is trouble aching to happen.

Until I read the story again just now, I’d forgotten about the Iran Air flight that a US warship mistakenly shot out of the sky in 1988. At least the Americans ’fessed up but the article implied the US has never apologised and the bombing has never been forgotten or forgiven by the Middle East. It’s been theorised that the Lockerbie bombing later that year was in reaction. Actions have consequences and missiles launched have big ones.

It makes me extremely nervous to think about the possible long-term consequences of this one. The Sydney Morning Herald cautiously reported that a hundred of the people on Flight MH17 were heading to an AIDS conference in Melbourne. That’s a lot of empty seats at that conference, a lot of goodwill choked out forever, more people to die in developing countries because of that loss.

And that’s the tip of an iceberg of possible consequences of the downing of Flight MH17 in the days and years to come.

We used to play a game in the Negotiations course I taught. We’d line up two people on the opposite sides of an argument. The rules were simple: Person #1 makes an assertion from their position (e.g. “Abortion is never justifiable. It’s a pure and simple act of murder.”). Person #2 has to paraphrase that statement to the satisfaction of Person #1 before continuing with an assertion of their own. And so on. It’s a very simple game, right? Anyone can make an assertion and anyone can paraphrase. But it was amazingly difficult for the listener to get a tick on his paraphrasing. The person being paraphrased almost always felt they hadn’t been fully heard or understood, that empathy was missing—ultimately, they felt disrespected. Feeling disrespected is also trouble aching to happen.

Eventually, in the game, something would click for both people and real listening would occur. The heat would go out of the argument and they could grapple with the human condition. But, wow, it was hard work. It takes more than most of us are ever prepared to bring, to show that kind of willingness to listen, connect and respect. But nothing less can prevent a war or the possibility of downed airliners.

As Rick and I were cuddled in bed last night, he talked about empathy. He’s been working through an excellent book called Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace), by Chade-Meng Tan, and has been observing how often he listens from a perspective of trying to fix or offer opinion rather than just listening with empathy for the deeper truth about how something is for someone. He’s on a renewed mission to make that more profound connection.

Now there’s a primate endeavour I can get behind.

Rick and I practicing empathy

Rick and I practicing empathy

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall

Yesterday we had our first celebration of Mum’s 93rd birthday, which is coming up next week. Our dear friend next door has hosted a pre-birthday lunch for Mum for almost all of the past 10 years, if I am to go by the dates on old photos I was browsing. Two other good friends, who are both regulars at this event and both formerly from Holland, managed to attend as usual in spite of the looming World Cup match between The Netherlands and Argentina. The luncheon is a wonderful ritual, fresh and full of fun each year. Mum loves it and responds full-heartedly as these younger friends of hers acknowledge her good life and ply her with questions about her past and her family. I love it, as these women have become very good friends of mine as well.

Neighbours at play

Neighbours at play 2How lucky we are to have a neighbour like this one. You really couldn’t do better. In addition to being lively and fun and generous, she’s a doctor and shares her medical skills on a moment’s notice. She’s full of news about local entertainment. Our lives are immensely richer for having her next door.

Another friend at the party was chewing her nails over a big tree in her own front garden that was being taken down exactly as we were having lunch. She is the most peaceable and civilised of people, but she has a neighbour who took offence to one of her trees. I often think that the quality of the relationship with a neighbour reflects what you yourself put into it, but I can assure you that’s not the case this time. My friend has brought every well-honed tool in her negotiations kit to bear in the relationship, to little avail. Some people you just can’t deal with in an enlightened way. Court injunctions, lawyerly conversations and attempted tree poisoning became the order the day.

Reflecting on these two types of neighbours led me to think about a poem I studied and loved in high school: Robert Frost’s Mending Wall. The line from the poem that I’ve used as the title for this post has remained with me all my life. So I looked up the poem and took great pleasure in reading it again this morning.

It’s about a guy and his neighbour who meet every now and then to fix the stone wall between their properties. Here’s an excerpt that sums up the story-line:

And on a day we meet to walk the line
Neighbours repairing the wallAnd set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.

But our protagonist can’t quite understand what all the fuss is about:

There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.

And the neighbour’s response?

He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.

Well, between our property and our next-door neighbour’s is a mighty fence – a laurel hedge that grows a metre or so every year. If nature had her way, that hedge would climb to be 30 feet high and almost as wide. As it is, we attack it with the hedge-trimmer a couple times each summer so we can peek over the top and exchange a word or two with our friend. Mum, who planted the hedge some 35 years ago, every now and then says, “We should take that down.” But…it’s not unattractive, has a life of its own, hosts hoards of little birds—and perhaps sometimes good fences do make for good neighbours. So we leave it, and probably will for some time to come.

When our friend first moved in next door, some 20 years ago, she had a soon-to-leave husband, four young sons and a big wandering dog. Needless to say, there was the occasional minor border skirmish between the two households, and that laurel hedge probably helped give both neighbours a little privacy. And that’s the thing: stuff comes up with neighbours. You can’t help thinking that if you have a big enough, solid enough fence, that stuff can’t reach you—which couldn’t be further from the truth, of course, as my friend with the wayward tree could tell us. She has a rollicking good fence and that didn’t spare her the Neighbour Wars.

Back to the poem. Eventually we get to the heart of Frost’s ruminations:

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself.

Well, if it’s not elves that want a wall down, what is it?

There’s a moment in time that stands out like a video recording in my memory. It was a warm spring day in November 1989, and I had taken the train to the NSW Parliament House in Sydney to conduct a day of training. I had plenty of time so I popped into a milk bar across the street to buy a coffee. And while I waited to place my order, I saw, on a sidewalk newspaper stand, in full-page letters of the size that they use to announce an invasion or a catastrophe, the words: BERLIN WALL COMES DOWN. It was a complete and utter shock, and I was unable to stifle a gasp that was almost a The Berlin Wall comes downsob. A man standing beside me looked at me and said, “Yeah, that’s really something, isn’t it?” I couldn’t speak for the tears.

Now, THAT was a wall with a big history. Notice the photo. That’s no elf attacking that wall: that’s a human spirit intent on regaining freedom and opening up possibility. Many such walls have been built over the centuries—none with an intention to generate well-being with the neighbours. And it isn’t elves that bring them down again.

Watching Mum and our friend next door laughing and chatting together has me think that the fewer boundaries we put between us and others around us, the more we can draw out of life. Our neighbour at home on Mitchells Island, Farmer Scott, knows it’s important to leave up the thin strands of barbed wire he uses to keep his cattle in his pasture and out of our bromeliads. In Frost’s words, Farmer Scott is clear about what he is “walling in or walling out”. Sometimes a fence is critical. But mostly, let’s encourage that core part of ourselves that doesn’t love a wall.

Farmer Scott's fence

A tale of three lunch pails

Lunchpails 1My mother was born in 1921. The Model T Ford was in its heyday, though her family on the Saskatchewan prairie wouldn’t have owned one at the time. Women were not long out of floor-length skirts and corsets, high necks and puffy sleeves. At 13, she already had the beat, so was recruited to her father’s band as a drummer. The family would pile into a wagon behind the horses and head off to play at one of a number of community dance halls within a 40 mile radius. She went to a one-room school. She fought with her seven brothers and sisters—it was a time when everybody had a houseful of siblings. She was part of the great social disturbance of swing and jazz. She milked cows, rode everywhere on horseback. She grew up through the Dirty Thirties and as a young woman saw people around her going off to war.

It’s hard for me to even imagine that world. There have always been motorised vehicles Lunchpails 2and trousers and canned music in my world. But I was shaped by other things. Like many people my age in that time I was raised on a farm. There were no telephones in rural areas until I was twelve (whereupon my friend Brenda and I monopolised the party line); the “power came through” when I was old enough to remember. I became a teenager when the concept was still shiny new. I was part of the great social disturbance of rock’n’roll.

It must be hard for my daughter to even imagine that world. She was a city girl from day one, surrounded by people and traffic and television and portable music devices. She was there when emails were invented, and Facebook, and notebook PCs. She’s never lived in a place of her own that had a landline.

And although I was part of my daughter’s world, there’s still a barely visible wall there somewhere. Maybe the barrier is an expression of that “Give me a child until he’s seven…” thing. Our youth has such a strong and long-lasting impact on us. Those early years are indelible.

Lunchpails 3On Canada Day, I took Mum and her good friend Vonnie to a barbecue and vintage car show at a stylish seniors’ residence that clearly has plenty of marketing budget for wooing potential customers. What a good time they had! They chatted endlessly with each other, and conversed easily with other seniors. And the things I learned while we toured the vintage cars: Vonnie and her new husband had Lunchpails 4borrowed a friend’s Studebaker when they travelled to the next town over for their honeymoon; Mum and Dad’s Ford had no brakes as they nursed it up the mountain to Miette Hotsprings on their wedding day. It was a different world, but, my goodness, what an interesting one!

And yet, you can hardly read a weekend paper without encountering an article somewhere referring to the battle of the generations. A young writer observes that baby boomers, exercising the entitlement that comes with their sizeable generation, are privileged, selfish and boring. A grey-head complains that Gen X (or Y, or whatever) are privileged and selfish with short attention spans. I intensely dislike this labelling process. We are shaped by our era, as is the rest of our generation, and to translate that into a judgement isn’t useful. Observation and distinction-making can be valuable, but labels like “privileged” and “self-centred” are absolutely not. They reinforce differences when we’d be better off finding common ground. We might never get real “skin in the game” of understanding another generation, but we can try. We can practice empathy.

—None of which refutes my observation about how Mum and her friend come alive in the company of other octo- and nonagenarians in a way that I don’t see with anyone else. There’s a relaxed quality about their conversations, even with strangers, that surely comes from that common ground of being. I feel the same way when I’m with any of my same-age friends. I felt it the other day when I met my daughter’s boyfriend’s parents. I know a lot about who you are, we’re all thinking. I know some of what you went through in life. “I grok you,” as the Stranger in a Strange Land would say.

I am present to how much we need that same-generation contact, and how important it is for Mum. If we are organising for her to be here in her beautiful and familiar home with her granddaughter to guard over her, she still needs the occasional company of her peers. Such times are a respite from the emotions that come with having to deal with other generations: bewilderment at least, bemusement at best, suspicion and mistrust at worst.

***

My daughter just saw her partner Colby out the door for his first day of training at his new job, making a little joke about not forgetting his Star Wars lunch box. It’s a universal Mickey Mouse lunchboxprinciple, this proudly taking your new lunch box as you head off for your first day of school. I had to smile, thinking of my own beloved Mickey Mouse lunch box, and of Mum’s description of the lard pail she used to carry to school. Line them up on the windowsill, those three lunch pails. How alien they are to each other!

But how much more they have in common.

A change is as good as a rest?

Beautiful Georgia StraitA few weeks ago, as we were preparing to leave home in Australia for our annual migration to Vancouver Island, I was chatting with a friend. I described my mother’s property in Nanaimo: right on the water, overlooking the incredibly beautiful Georgia Strait, mainland mountains looming in the distance, lush well-appointed gardens. The friend, who has observed our busy life on Mitchells Island, said, “You must look forward to getting away from it all.”

Given my description, she could be forgiven. But let me set the record straight. Sometimes a change is about as far from a rest as things can get.

Take this beautiful property overlooking Georgia Strait and zoom in on the bungalow that rests near the top of the cliff. You will find this house of ours agog with change.

Let’s start with Kyle. Remember him? He was hired last August to be a largely out-of-sight housemate/chauffeur/computer technician/eye-keeper-on for Mum after Rick and I left. Well, Kyle worked out very well. He was a wise, energetic, resourceful young man who could shrug off the challenges of his unusual living situation. The arrangement gave Mum independence—but by mid-winter she was complaining of being lonely. Fair enough, as providing companionship wasn’t in Kyle’s contract.

So Kyle put in his nine months, and, over long discussions, my daughter and her partner volunteered to take his place. Mum was initially radiant at the idea and we forged ahead. As you would: in theory, this is an arrangement created in heaven. Jenn and Colby are young and strong, with a highly supportive relationship. They will be working and out of the house most of the time. They are energetic and hard-working (they’ve cleared the gardens of weeds and debris, removed unwanted trees, trimmed overgrown trees and shrubs, removed hazards, helped clear out garages and sheds and the greenhouse). They are also cheerful, resilient and sensitive to the needs of others. I find them excellent companions. I’d have them as housemates in a minute.

But you might spot the flaw in the plan: far too much change. If you were watching over the house a few weeks ago, you could have found Kyle at his computer searching for a new place to live. You could see Rick and Heather, having yanked up their roots in Australia, working to transplant them to sunny Nanaimo. You could see Jenn and Colby leaving their jobs, a city they know inside out, a familiar apartment and their beloved friends—to come to a strange city in an area of relatively high unemployment, to caretake a big property and an unpredictable housemate. And you could see my mother, whose quiet house is suddenly filled to the brim with fast-moving people.

Change is everywhere, filling the space, reducing visibility, clogging the filters. This house was built 35 years ago by my father and mother, lived in exclusively by them for the next 21 years, then exclusively by my mother for the next 13. It has seen more change in the last month than most sedate old houses have to put up with in a decade.

I read today about China opening a copper tubing plant in Alabama. Now there’s a concept to mess with your head. Chinese workers are getting more expensive; US energy prices are falling; the Chinese have become welcome investors rather than communist infiltrators.

But those big changes—and they really are big changes—well, they’re at a safe distance and I can live with them. I can deal with Chinese factories in Alabama. But encountering an extra toothbrush in the bathroom, or hearing familiar footsteps and not being sure which version of my mother will come around the corner—that’s a challenge. And if it’s a challenge for me, can you imagine what it’s like for her?

If you’ve had oldies in your life, you are likely to have witnessed the effects of 90+ years of living on the human body and psyche: grumpy, less resilient, confused, not amenable to logic. The frontal lobes dry up and it’s game over for a cheery, positive outlook.

I had a father-in-law who had a long-term live-in caregiver, who along with his three daughters living nearby, treated him wonderfully—but no doubt he gave them a rough go in the last few of his 95 years. I have an aunt (blind and badly crippled by arthritis) who hasn’t said a kind word to her son in all the years since he helped move her from her house into a luxurious assisted-living facility. I have a cousin who, tag-teaming with her sister, puts in hours each day visiting and providing for their 90+ mother so that she could remain in her apartment (an arrangement that sadly has just been terminated by a broken shoulder). People go to great lengths to provide comfort for ageing family members, when nothing can really provide comfort.

A friend recently commiserated in an email, “It is a very difficult issue for all concerned. Having spent almost 20 years as a volunteer in aged care/respite I still have not seen the perfect model for people as they lose their independence, and often fail to recognise that their circumstances have changed.” That might not sound like good news, but I can take heart in it. There’s no magic bullet, she’s saying, so just do your best.

When we Shedders began discussing our joint-household project, we said, This will be good for us. The stimulus provided by dealing with continuous change will keep our brain cells young.

Thirteen years on, I’m not so sure anything can keep the brain cells young. Will we be less territorial when we are older, because we must learn to be easy with shared property and possessions? Will we remain more generous as we age, because we must daily practice compromise? Will we be less grasping about money because we pool some of our assets?

There’s no guarantee that these years of practice will do some good. My goal is that sometime in the distant future daughter Jenn will say, “Gosh, Mum, you’re flexible and good-natured!” I’ve never been a big fan of hope, but…here’s hoping!

A wisp of Mum's wisteria

100 and counting

100!Just over two years ago I started this blog, with a commitment to post once a week. Today when I press, “Publish”, WordPress will tell me I’m posting for the 100th time.

Isn’t that extraordinary? I know there are bloggers out there who’ve been doing it since we left the garden of Eden, and people who do it twice a day every day—but it still seems worthy of a little celebration to have arrived at this event.

Here’s a quick historical recap:

It all began, of course, with our Shedders project to create a house and a lifestyle together. Over the course of several years, the six of us did that, and it went swimmingly. There I was, sitting with all that retirement time on my hands, so I decided to write a book about it. (Well, housemate Eve decided for me but that’s another story.)

The writing project went well but I had a lot to learn about bringing a true story back to life, so I stuck into revision with a vengeance. The editing process was daunting as I saw the gap between what I had and what I wanted, and at times my courage flailed. Then one day I had the thought: why don’t I create a blog and post a chapter each week while I’m revising? That will motivate me to stay on track and within half a year I’ll have the whole thing done. And people can be reading it, in the way of serialised stories, and can provide me with feedback. In hindsight, it was an excellent idea, as it placed me out there in the real world.

So I dived in, worked hard, and then one day the job was done. I downed tools and sat back. But blog followers said, don’t stop; we’re curious about how the experiment is working out—and it did feel like there was more to say. So I began writing about our day-to-day Shedders adventures and the kinds of things we encountered in this unusual process of living close together.

Somewhere along this road I became inspired to research and write about co-housing and cooperative households. That played out for awhile, but I decided that, while living collectively was indeed a strong interest of mine, I was not driven to become an expert and a mouthpiece for the movement.

What I really was interested in, always, was relationships, and how we make meaningful connections with each other, and how we can live together well—whether we’re in a communal household or on the opposite sides of the planet. I’ve taken to ranging far and wide with that theme.

So this Shedders blog has wandered all over the map—and I want to thank those of you who’ve been patiently following it. I appreciate you all—those of you who make regular comments, those who send me supportive emails, those who don’t know me from Eve but have found something in the blog that appeals anyway. Spending five or ten minutes every week is no small commitment; I know this from the handful of blogs I subscribe to myself. I feel like there is no end of fellow travellers out there, and my world is richer for connecting with you all.

Speaking of thanks, special mention to Rick, who every week puts up with the last-minute flurries and then the inevitable request to read my draft and sort it out. “Tell me what I’m trying to say,” I might ask him. Or “I’ve got no idea how to end this.” And he interrupts whatever he’s doing and sorts it out (sometimes just by saying, “It’s perfect, couldn’t be better, don’t change a word,” which works too.)

The purpose of literature is to turn blood into ink (TS Eliot)It’s been quite a learning curve. When I began personal writing (as opposed to marketing material and instructional manuals) several years ago, I used the mantra, “My writing reveals me.” As an essentially private person, the hardest part has been exposing myself—talking about the things that most trouble and most delight me. So it’s always been a blog about me, as well as about relationship and communal living and world issues. On the other hand, this business of revealing myself to you, of being vulnerable, has been the most rewarding part.

So—what’s next? I reckon I’ll just keep writing and wandering. A friend in my writers’ group wrote yesterday and said, “Really, the national newspapers should give you a weekly column.” I enjoyed the acknowledgement but couldn’t begin to imagine dealing with the pressure. Can you picture the commitment? the responsibility? working to a real deadline? I’m not a nicely organised blogger with several posts waiting in draft in the queue. Most of the time I don’t have any idea what I’m going to write about until my self-imposed deadline starts to press upon me. I’d have trouble selling that concept to a national newspaper.

Deadlines and fame notwithstanding, there is another very good thing about continuing this blog: I will keep on learning. There’s still more to say, and I learn a lot every time I try to figure out how to say something. I’ll keep learning about blogging, and social media, and what makes the world work.

Stephanie Burns, well-known Australian educator, once told the story about how she got her PhD, as an adult with a high school diploma. “Ten years ago,” she said, “I realised that in seven years time, I could have a PhD. Or I could not have one. And I wanted one, so I enrolled and the rest is history.”100 4

Myself, I’m quite amazed—and very happy—to have 100 posts under my belt, and with it, new friends, new followers and a head-full of new ideas. I’m grateful I started when I did, and grateful to you for keeping the path open.

 

Do what you’re told

Like many of us, I have long been bewildered by the behaviour of ordinary Germans before and during World War II. I’ve read my history, I’ve wandered the streets of Berlin, Empty helmutsI’ve toured the German war memorials. I’ve been numbed by the numbers—numbers with more zeroes than I can count, all representing unfathomable losses: German deaths, Holocaust deaths, total war deaths, reconstruction costs. It has always eluded me how one madman and a cadre of passionate followers managed to lead Germany into such a mess, leaving one quarter of its population dead, 70% of its infrastructure destroyed, and its international reputation in tatters. I can’t make it add up.

But where facts fail to illuminate, fiction sometimes does the trick. I’ve just finished a novel by Ursula Hegi, Stones from the River. Set in a little German town from 1915 to 1952, the book has gone a long way to painting for me the picture of how it all could have happened. Perhaps I feel some affinity with Ursula, who like me was born just after the war and grew up in its shadow. But whereas my little shadow was from distant reflections—no one I knew had even served in active combat—Ursula’s must have been all-enveloping, because she grew up in heavily-bombed Dusseldorf. At any rate, her cast of ordinary, every-day characters are the kind of people I live with and sing with and enjoy the company of; they are generous and brave and kind, they get jealous and angry and frightened, they make mistakes big and small.

In the novel, two characters have a conversation in the aftermath of the war. One bemoans the devastation, saying, how could this happen to us, to German people who are good, honest and hardworking?

And obedient, says the other. We were raised to do what we’re told. That’s how it could happen.

It’s that “do what you’re told” that left ordinary, everyday Germans vulnerable to the convictions of the maniac who stepped with ease into control of the country.

Have you heard of the Milgram Obedience to Authority experiments? Conducted at Yale beginning in 1961 (shortly after the launch of Adolf Eichmann’s trial), the experiments involved three characters and was ostensibly about the role of punishment in learning. Milgram experiment set-upThere was the experimenter who conducted the experiments; a teacher whose job was to teach a learner a certain pairing of words, administering a shock if the learner got the answer wrong; and the learner. The learner was in actual fact an actor, and there was no real shocking going on. The teacher was in actual fact the subject of the experiment, which was really about how willing people are to follow the dictates of an authority figure. What goes completely beyond understanding is the lengths to which the “teachers” would go to obey the authority of the person running the experiment. They would shock their learner at high voltage levels, with clear indications that the learner was in extreme pain or even dying—purely on the direction of the leader. “It is absolutely essential that you continue,” the leader would say, or “You have no other choice, you must go on.” And the teacher would indeed go on. A whopping 65% of subjects went to the highest shock level, administering what they had reason to believe was a humungous, potentially fatal, 450 volt shock, where the learner would scream uncontrollably and eventually pass out over his desk.

In the words of Milgram’s report on the experiments: “The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation. Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”

If you haven’t read about these experiments, and don’t mind unsettling yourself for awhile, have a look at Wiki’s balanced analysis.

After reading the report, I can’t help glancing over at Rick and wondering if he would be able to resist such a call by authority. He’s a very good guy, I figure, but 65% puts the odds against him. What about my housemates, my children, other members of my close communities? My well-being is tied to them and that 65% is so ominous.

I know that I wouldn’t exhibit that level of obedience, of course. I mean, I wouldn’t, would I? Surely I’d be the one person among the hundreds who participated in the experiment who’d storm out of my chair, throw the controls to the floor and pile-drive the authority figure. I’d make sure the learner was okay and apologise to him for ever having participated in the experiment at all, and then I’d report the whole mob to the local police.

Wouldn’t I?

A little pulse in my throat reveals a glimmer of doubt. Could I end up in the 65%? Can I afford to be arrogant about my ability to hold true to my values? After all, I’ve just done the airport thing, and I’m the one who bit my tongue when the bureaucrat at the immigration counter spoke rudely to us, and when the guy at Security brusquely directed me through the X-ray machine. What will I bite down on tomorrow?—and what will be the cost?

How many times this week have I already practiced compliance? My friends and family and I, and people everywhere—can we identify and resist encroachment on our freedoms and our humanity?

This is, I think, my greatest fear. You know how we all have something which gives us a frisson of fear for mankind? For some it’s climate change, or overpopulation, or solar flares. It’s where you think, “This is the thing that could mess us up good.” And this is my deepest fear. Sometimes I think education and technology are increasing our sense of personal responsibility, but sometimes I fear our freedoms are eroding as we give away more power to our institutions.

Stone cairnAt one point in the novel, Trudi, the main character, builds a little cairn of stones from the river. Each stone represents a hate, a fear, a special joy she experiences. Her awareness makes her wise.

For me, I intend to keep working on my awareness, exercising my moral compass as I do. I’ll choose my battles wisely so that Rick isn’t left dithering at the airport while I’m hustled off to Guantanamo. But I’m aiming to be in the position where I’d question the Obedience experiments right from the startand be a factor in preventing the next great war.