First, the good news: by approaching our neighbors as they stopped to open their gate, and apologizing for calling the cops on their Memorial Day barbecue, I seem to have restored some level of peace to our northern border. Most of them were kind, and several seemed to understand how I might find listening to two or three hours of target practice annoying. Ironically, the only person I didn’t connect with was the actual shooter, but Cindy spent a good forty-five minutes talking with him one day when I was gone, in a conversation that ranged from the derelict state of our house to how to trap and cook groundhogs. I am no longer concerned that, in the event of a general collapse, our neighbors will hold us up at gunpoint. And, so far, there has been no more shooting.
The bad news is, I lit another fire.
Here’s what happened. Clearing all our remaining possessions out of the house has not been easy or orderly. Things get put in boxes and onto shelves, but then get moved, and moved again. Finding something can be a major challenge. Is it in the barn? the basement? the chicken coop? the trailer? the gazebo? the box truck? Is it still on the porch, or maybe somebody thought it was trash and pitched it? Or maybe somebody took it home to dry it and clean it up and just hasn’t gotten it back here yet? I know I should appreciate all the help we’ve received, but it’s easy for me to become upset when I can’t find something. I am reminded of the R. Cobb cartoon from the late 60’s in which a dazed middle-aged man is stumbling through a vast field of rubble, looking for a place to plug in his portable TV set.
“You don’t have to live like a refugee,” Tom Petty sang back in the 80’s. Thirty years later, here we are, living like refugees. Cindy and I read James Kunstler’s “World Made by Hand” with its tales of people living in the dysfunctional ruins of suburban houses, and saw “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” with its graphic depictions of life in half-rotten trailers, and now we’re kind of living like that ourselves. (Well, OK, our trailer smells kinda moldy but it’s in way better shape than the ones in “The Bathtub.”) It puts a certain amount of strain on my psyche to be sucked out of comfortable, familiar surroundings and into less comfortable ones, in which I have to improvise and substitute and pay better attention than I am used to paying.
Spiritual psychologist (for want of a better term) E. J. Gold points out that each of us has a “chronic,” a habitual, conditioned response, set in early childhood, that we tend to fall into when we feel stress. For me, as for many people, this takes the form of being consumed with the need to find the lost object, and a conviction that I can’t find it because somebody else moved it. There’s only two of us here in Rabbit Hole Hollow, and so that means I tend to blame Cindy when I can’t find my missing whatever. It means I tend to become so focussed on (fill in name of missing item–knife, cup, bowl, pan, pen…) that I forget that, most of the time, when I ultimately do find the missing whatever, it turns out to be exactly where I left it. It means that I get hung up on the need to locate the missing item and fail to imagine creative, flexible workarounds.
So, that’s my “chronic.”
In this particular case, I went into the gazebo, which we have turned into a storage unit by putting tarps up over its screened-in walls, to get a hand drum, and found that the drum was not where I remembered leaving it. I also found that my saxophone, which I had played the night before and left sitting on a table to dry (they get wet inside from saliva) had been knocked off the table onto the floor. When I picked it up to put it back in its case, I discovered that I couldn’t find the bag of saxophone reeds that had been with it. I shuffled through the boxes and looked around on the floor, and then checked elsewhere for my drum, feeling increasingly anxious.
One of our hippie neighbors was visiting at the time. He’s a small-scale organic grower, of the non-certified kind, and was picking up some of our newly harvested onions and bountiful rosemary to sell along with his own produce and gourmet hot sauces. (For those who don’t know, Tennessee’s climate is not conducive to the production of storage onions, and so Tennessee onions have a short shelf life, which is why we were selling ours rather than keeping them.)
So, he and Cindy were wrapping up the deal when I charged into their midst like a rhinoceros, fuming and demanding to know what she had done with my drum, and wondering if our neighbor’s 40-something grandson, who probably helped himself to my chain saws a few years back (I’m reasonably certain I’m not making that up!), had somehow decided that he wanted my drum and saxophone reeds. (I told you I get crazy!). Our poor neighbor was quite taken aback and got his ass out of my tantrum as quickly as possible.
Well, sure enough, my drum was just where I had left it, albeit with a few items piled on top of it, but, a month later, after repeated searches, the sax reeds have not showed up, nor has our organic farmer friend returned for another visit, even after I called and apologized for “sliming” him, as I put it. (“If you ever wondered why I’m not enlightened, now you know,” I told him.)
So there it is, my account of how my own neurosis acts as a force to fragment my community, rednecks and hippies alike. I trip over my own shoelaces and step on other peoples’ toes, all on account of taking myself too seriously, in spite of years of reflection and meditation. I’m hoping that perhaps this time, I’ve learned my lesson, but I won’t know for sure until I pass through some similar situation again and notice that I finally figured out not to take the bait. I just hope I don’t scare everybody away first.
Here’s the bigger picture: in our particular scene, we are the only people whose lives have gone into “collapse” mode, and so when one of us freaks out, it’s against a background of general relative sanity. In a broader collapse/disaster, a great many people will be stressed into their chronic, and running on autopilot. Most of these people will not have the psychological coping skills that Cindy and I have both spent decades honing, and will have a much harder time getting over themselves and getting on with it. I think that, in a way, that’s why zombie movies are so popular–“zombie” is an apt metaphor for what happens when we believe everything we think and take our emotional state at face value.
When we don’t cultivate the witness position (in relation to our moods, thoughts, and feelings), we end up in the witless position, and this can be more devastating to our attempts at community and co-operation than lack of any material thing. Practice, practice, practice haing some perspective on yourself, Martin! As I understand it from those who have been working on this longer and more intensively than I, these things don’t just go away. They’re like knots in a piece of wood–sand them long enough and, although they’re still there, they’re shiny instead of rough. And that’s a good metaphor to end on.
music: Richard Thompson, “Oops, I Did It Again“