Sheltering in Place

[The following commentary appears in the March issue of the Takoma Park/Silver Spring Voice.]

“There is more to life than increasing its speed.” – Mahatma Gandhi

I have long considered snowstorms to be the Universe’s way of telling us to chill out, and take the day off. So I was not at all surprised when public officials, in advance of last month’s historic blizzard, told us to prepare to “shelter in place” for 3 to 4 days.

Personally, I loved that week in February. In addition to all the shoveling (which, when paced correctly, is the best aerobic, upper body workout you can get), I went out and had fun, including some sledding with my godchildren. I read a book. I slept in a little, caught up on chores around the house, hung out more with my neighbors. My wife spent the time working on multiple paintings (she does art). We also both cooked a lot, and our simple pot of hot mulled wine was a big hit for all the shovelers on our block.

Many other folks, it would appear, had a much harder time of it. There were reports of people panicking when hearing the “shelter in place” advisories, of not knowing what to do or even what the phrase meant. And certainly some of  the instructions we received suggested a deep disconnect with our ability to take care of ourselves in a minor crisis: I heard commentators advising people who lost their heat (as we did), to put on extra layers of clothes, and to open window shades on sunny days to let the sun in. Literally – we had to be reminded that the sun is warm.

This is not to minimize the serious situations that some faced, whether the need to get to a critical job, or suddenly taking care of kids 24/7. But the fact is most of us get terribly anxious in the face of a situation which could be and should be thoroughly enjoyable. Slowing down.

Of course, the distress we feel has to do with more than the threat that we might be unable to get to a store for a couple days. The much more fundamental problem, I believe, is that the snowstorm threatens our way of life – meaning the industrial growth model, which also means our collective desire to run around all the time producing more stuff so we can all buy more and newer stuff, stuff which is hopefully bigger and faster too.

We go to great lengths to persuade ourselves that all of our economic activity, all the things we do in this endless pursuit of more, is worthwhile. One news story during the blizzard reported that we lost “$100 million of productivity” for every day the federal government was closed. Really? How measured? My friend Will Rogers used to joke that each day Congress was closed was one less day they could screw up.

Likewise,  heart bypass surgery and turning old growth forests into board lumber or pulp are both counted as positive contributions to the Gross Domestic Product, even though many of us would consider them indicators of a very serious problem. (And on the flip side, think how much we saved in greenhouse gas emissions the week everyone skipped sitting in traffic jams, whether commuting or shopping.)

We soldier on even when it’s clear our attempts to continually expand and accelerate are demonstrably harming us. To produce ever more meat we have created immense Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, which in turn produce tidal waves  of manure that are killing our waterways, including the Chesapeake. The increased use of insecticides and herbicides to grow immense fields of monoculture crops is leading directly to far more dangerous, resistant pests and weeds. And wasn’t the whole financial crisis that no one’s quite sure we’re out of caused by the incessant drive for ever larger profits on Wall Street – and all in the next quarter or year, however you get them?

Our incessantly churning economy  doesn’t work for us on a personal level, either. Measurements of happiness have consistently dropped since the 1960’s, precisely as our material prosperity has skyrocketed. To quote the Dalai Lama on one of the paradoxes of our age,  “We have bigger houses but smaller families; more conveniences, but less time.”

Many of us know instinctively that happiness does not come with things, but we also feel trapped in the hectic and seemingly necessary pace of our lives – and we were quite literally trapped when the snowstorm came along, and we were suddenly cut off from our normal routines. Yet a lot of us still yearn for something different than those routines.

That something different can come, ironically, from the very place we’re so often trying to leave. Your place. Your little corner of the planet, the place you live and the earth and land and neighbors right around you. The new agrarian and local food movements talk often about developing a sense of place, about a respect and responsibility for, and enjoyment of, the area and the earth where you live. It doesn’t have to be much earth, as the growing movement of urban agriculture is proving. It’s just where you are.

Although it can take some getting used to, given how we’ve been conditioned, the pleasures and benefits of place are very real, and provide a satisfaction and happiness, a true contentment, that are hard to beat.  It’s not for nothing that Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz got back to her heart’s desires by repeating, “There’s no place like home.” And it’s no coincidence the words “grounded” and “down to earth” describe people we really like to be around, people we’d want to be our friends.

Whether we like it or not, everything from energy shortages to more frequent and extreme weather events will force us into this situation more and more in the future – to live closer to home, a little slower and a little more simply. So why not learn to enjoy it now? It really is a better way to live.

For as someone wiser than I once noted, no one dies wishing they’d spent more time in the office. Or in a mall, for that matter.

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