Winter Solstice at the dawn of the future

As the winter solstice comes upon us, I ponder the nature of our nation’s divisions. I wonder if we can emerge a wiser and more thoughtful nation, or if this is our fimbulvetr — our horrible winter — leading to the demise of this version of our society.

Íss er árbörkr / ok unnar þak / ok feigra manna fár
Ice is river bark and waves’ roof and harm of men destined to die¹

The world seems fractured to me. Scattered remnants of peace and companionship, good will and understanding lay strewn in a landscape of what appear to me longstanding institutions now smoldering in their ruin. Not without reason, distrust of each other and our institutions is higher than it has ever been in the history of the nation. Perhaps the only time this country has been so divided was the Civil War. And it seems to me now, as the icy rain falls outside the window, that Donald Trump is the perfect culmination for such a divided nation. Not because he is the best president or because I think he can bring us back together, but because he best represents the division, fear, and reactive nature that we’ve become as a country. He is truly the president we deserve. I believe that his term of office will be as a thin layer of ice over a raging river or the ebb and flow of waves. Smooth in appearance, but a cold and silent drowning beneath.

This is fitting in a way. The end of the postmodern era should be ushered in by the epitome of itself. The distrust of what we’ve made and the hyper-focus on the inner self without understanding the connections between each other has led us to this point. Far from seeking authenticity, as Charles Taylor would have it, we have been soothing ourselves with assurances that each of us is more authentic than everyone else. We have come to the point where our discussions aren’t centered around the comparison of the merit of ideas, but rather insistences that we are right coupled with insults against those whose opinions differ. I believe it is this isolationism from each other along lines of differing opinion that allowed Trump to win. This is not identity politics per se, but the unwillingness of us to find shared meaning in our own existences despite our social and self-identities.

Hagall er kaldakorn / ok krapadrífa / ok snáka sótt.
Hail is cold-seed and a shower of sleet and the sickness of snakes.¹

There’s a word in Old Norse — Skuldali∂ — that i have tattooed on my left arm to remind myself of what’s important in life, especially around the time of deep winter. It translates roughly to household or family, but like many pre-Christian concepts, there isn’t really a word left that contains the entire concept of it. The first syllable skulda means debt or what’s owed. The second half of the word li∂ is a synonym of hjún which is defined as the people in the household. Skuldali∂ means, then, the debt owed to the people in the household.

A Viking-age household included extended family such as parents and children, grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins, and other relatives. It sometimes also included guests who stayed through the winter due to the weather, distance to their own home, or hard times they fell upon. A household could be anywhere between two and twenty people depending on location or size of the homestead. In short, it was a group of people in a communal space sharing the burdens and joys that came along in their time together. In essence, a small village. This is what Skuldali∂ represents, and is the core of community relations: “don’t bark at your guests or drive them from your gate, / treat the indigent well” (Havamal, verse 135, tr. Larrington). It is in this context that I have the tattoo, and this context in which I look forward to the times ahead.

(cén) byþ cwicera gehwám cúþ on fyre, / blác and beortlíc; byrneþ oftust / ðær hí aþelingas inne restaþ.
(Lamp) is to the living all, known by its flame, / pale and bright; it burns most often / where the noble folk within relax.²

As the deep of winter enfolds the Northern Hemisphere, and the ice and snow and sleet coat the ground, and the cold kills the last of crops and forces animals to sleep or flee, we humans huddle together against the cold. It’s what we do. Midwinter is a time when we acknowledge the power of light to repel the darkness, when we recognize the cycle of the seasons. It’s when we know that we’ve been through the worst and soon enough things will slowly warm and thaw, enlighten, and come alive. We burn and dance and sing in defiance of the isolated cold of the deep night around us and remind the universe of our existence in the face of its unceasing entropy. While we do this within our own households and with our own traditions, we do this together. This season is a reminder that in the face of darkness, humanity spread across the globe comes to the same conclusion: recognize the cycle and know that it’s not complete. The cold dies with fire and light. The sun will, as the orphan says, come out tomorrow.

Sól er skýja skjöldr / ok skínandi röðull / ok ísa aldrtregi.
Sun is clouds’ shield and the sun shining and ice’s arch enemy.¹

But what will the sun reveal as it melts away the winter. Will it show us a disheveled field of battle, political and social corpses still unburied and bones bleaching in the sun? Or will it reveal our own emergence from the dark of winter in recognition of our shared existence? Will we be able to participate in society together as a community unified by the need for understanding, or will we continue our collective falling out and further isolate ourselves from each other.

We do so at our own risk. There is much at stake in the coming frost. The fate and future of our nation, our own senses of self-worth, the nature of who we are as a people, and whether we stand up to claim a legacy worth being remembered for. Through all of it, though, we should not forget that at the very core of our beings, we are one big household. Differences aside, we must acknowledge that we are partly responsible for each other and each others’ fates. This is encoded in our founding documents, and it is implied by the bond of each state to the nation.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The opening sentence of the Constitution is a call for a nation built on a shared dream of justice, tranquility, welfare, and liberty. We aren’t there yet. For many, social justice is a myth. We have entered the winter fractured and fragile. The promise of the Constitution has become thin ice, and unless we recognize this truth, we will come undone and drown in our own ignorance. So what is it to be? Will we fall through the thin veneer of calm and drown in the roiling waves beneath? Will we emerge from our winter slumber with a new purpose of unity beyond that conveyed by elected leadership, but unified by the shared mission of us as a people? Do we have what it takes as a people to rebuild our failed institutions and overcome the distrust we have of each other?

In Norse mythology, following the horror and dark of Ragnarok, those remaining alive emerged onto a battlefield long grown over with grass. The fimbulvetr had passed. Spring had come. The sun streamed through the leaves of new-growth trees. The people remembered the terrible battle they’d been through, the vanity of the gods that led them to the final battle, and vowed to make things better. In the ruins they found the chess pieces used in carefree games prior to the broken promises that led to war.

Þar munu eftir undrsamligar / gullnar töflur í grasi finnask, / þærs í árdaga áttar höfðu.
There afterwards will be found in the grass / the wonderful golden chequers / those which they possessed in the ancient times.³

 

  1. Source: Icelandic Rune Poem; Translation: Sabin Densmore
  2. Source: Old English Rune Poem; Translation: Rune-Net
  3. Source: Völuspá; Translation: Carolyne Larrington

More than charity is needed to fix hunger

During our second year of marriage in 1997, my wife and I were often hungry. We lived in a one-room apartment in the back of a garage in the middle of nowhere. We had no money. Our car was reposessed in the winter. Just before that, I lost a job doing in-home teaching because we didn’t have gas money. I was working about 25 hours a week at the local Dunkin’ Donuts, and we were relying on our local food shelf to provide us with the bulk of our meals. Any money we did have went towards what bills we could pay, but more often towards some quick-fix happiness like fast food or books or music: anything to distract us from our seemingly interminable reality. We didn’t know any drug dealers, or we might have spent money on that.

We survived that 18 months or so without ever becoming truly homeless, though I think we still owe some rent. We were lost and confused. Cold even in the summer. Abandoned by the world. Angry, depressed, and scared. We did live clean, and we did work hard, but all of that would have been for nought if we hadn’t been lucky enough to live in Vermont, and have family close by who could provide shelter and food when we needed it.

We did not have a Thanksgiving meal that year. I think we ate bearclaws or something from Dunkin’. But the thing is, we were also unable to have supper the night before or the night after. We ate what was available at the food shelf or the day-old pastries I brought home from work. The only reason we remember our absense of food on that particular Thursday in that particular November was because it was a holiday. In truth, it was no different for us than any other day that week. Had we been the recipients of a food basket or something on that day, it would have made us happy, but it would not have solved our problem. Charity is not enough to solve the problem of hunger.

During the holidays, we all become especially sensitive to the needs of others. We focus more deeply — if for an infintesimally brief amount of time — on the homeless, the marginalized, the hungry, the poor. We give money at our local grocery stores or buy the gift bags in $10 increments. Celebrities drive truckloads of food to their old stomping grounds. Some of us might volunteer at homeless shelters, food shelves, or work with the local Kiwanis putting together food baskets. Whatever the activity, we do it because it feels good, because it provides a moment of happiness in somebody’s life, and we do it because it’s the right thing to do. We do it because it becomes more clear during our own moments of abundance that there are far too many people who go without.

According to Feeding America, in 2014 48.1 million people in the United States lived in food insecure households. That number includes 15.3 million children. If you’re keeping track of the math, that means that 14% of Americans can’t guarantee that they or their family can eat today, and a third of those affected are children. Shockingly, this number is higher than it was a decade ago, according to the USDA.

Also according to the USDA, 31% of post-harvest food went uneaten in 2010. And just two years ago, the United States ranked second worst regarding child poverty in a survey of 35 of developed nations. Meanwhile, the international statistics for hunger and poverty are increasing. Food development and nutrition are improving on a global scale. In spite of this good news, however, there are many countries where hunger is getting worse, and the United States seems to be one of them.

Clearly, there is a problem with hunger in the United States. Even if you don’t want to look at the numbers, logic should make it clear: charity continues to be needed in spite of it having been tackling hunger for decades. The truth is that charity continues to be needed because hunger is not something we can solve by giving people food. Hunger is a systemic, symptomatic issue of a more deeply entrenched problem. People don’t need to be given food. People need to be given the means to access food. The same methods that are used in developing nations that allow people to conquer hunger should also be used here. We don’t do it, though, because we are blind to the problem, and we believe that hard work and persistence can solve any problem.

This is not about self-sufficiency or lack of a work ethic. I think we’ve reached the point in history where we can begin to say that hard work does not guarantee success. Someone working two minimum wage jobs for a total of 50 hours a week does not lack a work ethic. Let’s be honest, here. In our current system, success is only possible for those born into a position where it can be achieved. My wife and I are examples of this. In reality, luck, geography, and salary play far larger roles in our success than hard work does, and the same goes for access to food.

The cost, availability, and quality of food is based entirely on where one lives in the United States. In Mississippi, the food insecurity rate is 22%. Two-tenths of the population of Mississippi isn’t sure where their next meal is going to come from. Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky, Texas, Ohio, Alabama, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Maine, Oregon, and Kansas round out the list of the 14 states that are more food insecure than the national average. Additionally, there is absolutely no county in the U.S. where the minimum wage is the same or greater than a required living wage. Just last month, the average cost of food for a family of four was approximately $1,070.00 (USDA). That’s about two weeks worth of work for someone being paid an average of $9 – $10 an hour. Once you start factoring in housing, transportation, health insurance, clothing, utilities, and entertainment, the struggle becomes clear: food is expensive.

Access to food for most people in the United States is dependent on being able to afford it. We have long since stopped being an agrarian society, and most Americans depend on some means of distribution for their food, and that’s where the problem is. If there is so much food that 31% of it is being thrown out, but there are still people in the country who are hungry, then there are at least two ways of fixing the problem. First, minimum wage must be fixed to a rising cost of living. If a family of four needs $22 an hour to live, then that family has to earn $22 an hour. As the cost of living increases, the wages should increase. If the cost of living goes down, wages should stay static. Second, we need broader access to food beyond what top-down economics or charity can provide. I believe we have to focus on this in order to create long-term, sustainable solutions to hunger.

We must begin looking at ways of ensuring people will always have food. We should support and nurture neighborhood gardens and co-ops. We should allow people to grow food and have a few animals in the suburbs. Some communities have enacted local currencies and barter systems. We need to de-industrialize farming and be more diverse with the crops we grow. We need to spend money on infrastructure and moving towards more sustainable transportation methods, the costs of food distribution will go down. We need to bring food selling back to the centers of communities and away from the big box stores. We need to get violence out of our communities. And while we do this, we need to continue to be charitable.

Food is not a commodity. It is a necessity. Perhaps the most necessary one. If we can work with other countries to help devise systems of food growth and management, then surely we can do the same here. Access to food should no longer be dependent on whether someone was lucky enough to be born in a particular location at a certain time. Access to food should be an implicit right of being born, period.

What I’m saying is that during this holiday season — this one right now — let’s stop thinking about just giving $1, $5, or $10 at the grocery store and start thinking about what we can change to ensure that those donations are no longer necessary. Again, this is not about people lifting themselves up by their bootstraps, or self-sufficiency, or spending more on social safety nets. This is about changing the very nature of a system that causes the problem so that bootstraps and safety nets become obsolete and nobody will need to live hungry again.

A babbling tower …

Branches of languages from the Indo-European Tree
Branches of languages from the Indo-European Tree

Just a post of interest. I like to look at this drawing to see how closely related all of us in the Northern Hemisphere really are. The development of languages, of course, happens right alongside the development of culture which lead to prejudices and all of that other wonderful stuff. When looking at all of these languages and cultures on one page, though, I’m inspired to think that perhaps we really can just get along.

When I was a kid, the only story in the Bible that ever really left an impact on me was the Tower of Babel. I never took it literally, of course, but as a reverse allegory. The story tells us that when we all speak a different language, or desire different goals, or fight against each other, we are doomed to simply stay on earth and not aspire for a higher state of being or discovery. If, however, we can come together then we may just be able to do something remarkable.

I still think there’s a chance for all of us to do something remarkable together. A man can dream, anyhow.

The Revolution of Humanity

Almost 300 years ago now the original founders of the United States chose to rebel against an oppressive regime in order to secure the right of self-rule. No matter the men’s motivation — liberty, lower taxes, business, etc. — the goal is still a valid one: self-rule. When we talk about the right to vote, democracy, and liberty we are really talking about this goal. In other words, that human desire to be in charge of our own destinies in as much as we are able. The events in Iran over the past week demonstrate how that desire is not attached to a particular region or group of people. The desire for personal recognizance is deeply rooted within all of us.

When that desire is faced with some sort of inane, out-dated, illogical obstacle the level of anger and frustration mounts to a boiling point and no force on earth can quell the rage. There are only two options at that point for us: slavery or revolution. Iranians are choosing the latter.

It is with this frame of mind I watch events unfold from the obscure safety of my apartment on the sea, the vinyl train benches on my way to Boston, and my ergonomically-designed office chair. Out there in the world right now there are people dying — not to gain liberty for others — in order to gain what they believed they already had: the right to control their own earthly fates.  Let’s face it, that control is really all we have.

In spite of the theological debates, philosophical arguments, and “evidence” to the contrary, the only sure things in life are birth and death. The rest of it is up to us to do with as we see fit. In Iran, a theocracy made the mistake of pretending to be a democracy, made the mistake of offering up a pretend activity in self-rule. The Iranian people will not choose to be slaves any longer, it seems.

In our own history, a group of English citizens were also robbed of what they understood to be their rights under their king. Rather than settle for a fake existence, one of pretend autonomy, they opted for revolution as well. France. Africa. South America. Our own civil rights movement. Every location on the planet where an illusion of autonomy is placed over the eyes of people a revolution has begun. Human nature is autonomy.

As we watch the events in Iran unfold, as we read on-the-ground reports of daily fighting and dying, try to remember what it means to fight for something that is tantamount to the existence of humanity. This is bigger than a political theory, set of economic rules, a religious belief. This is as big as humanity itself. Iranians are launching a revolution just as we did some 300 years ago, as France did 200 years ago, and as people continue to do every day. Oil? Religion? This is far more important.