A story from the streets of New York
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For me, the genesis of the gathering was the fear I felt in the pit of my stomach when I realized that my babies are draft age. Since then, I’ve thought a lot about what is worth fighting for, about what freedom and independence mean to me, about how powerless most of us feel to live our lives and our convictions fully. I know that many of the luxuries I take for granted are predicated on economic injustice and the plundering of non-renewable resources—and the changes I manage to make in my way of life are minuscule and incremental.
If you throw a frog into boiling water, it’ll jump out, I’ve heard, but if you put it in tepid water and heat the water gradually, the frog will boil to death. The analogy is obvious, but none of us seems to know where the fulcrum for change is, so we just lie back, enveloped by that soothing warmth.
Marcela, who is Chilean, reminded me that September 11 was also the date when Chile’s longtime democracy was overthrown by a military coup orchestrated in part by the CIA. The year was 1973. The coup was followed by waves of terror, by curfews, greatly restricted freedom of expression, and the death or disappearance of 3,000 people. According to Marcela, the dictatorship’s grip was cemented by government policy that effectively stupefied the population: an edict forbidding groups from gathering coupled with a steady diet of televised sports and entertainment in lieu of public discourse.
The dictators’ ban on groups made perfect sense. As Margaret Mead said, 'Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.'
What became apparent to those of us who gathered last week was that we had no answers—nor, for that matter, did we even have clear questions. But there was a strong and shared longing to awaken. As one participant said, 'I know I have a warrior in me and she wants to become active.' So what do you do when you don’t know what to do? Here are some things my friends are doing: creating a bibliography of novels and memoirs about the Middle East; volunteering in a soup kitchen; joining the local volunteer fire department; studying the history and culture of Afghanistan; donating money; fasting and praying.
As I write this, the fast of Ramadan is about to begin—an occasion for all of us to reflect. Virginia Coyle, who has led vision fasts for hundreds of people, says the purpose of fasting, across religions and through time, is to remove the familiar and disrupt our habits so that our attention is freed for deeper questions: What is our common good? Who will stand up? What do I really care about? What am I here to do?
We need to be asking ourselves these questions. We need to encourage each other. And we need to exercise our freedom to gather in small groups—so we don’t take that freedom for granted.
Ten years ago Utne Reader launched the Neighborhood Salon Association, which, at its peak, helped 20,000 people talk to each other in their living rooms. I’d like to propose that we relaunch the conversation—with an intention for action. But let’s keep it simple. We might invite a few friends; light a candle; pass around something beautiful as a talking object; and, after asking for clarity and wisdom, talk. Then let’s keep talking (and add in singing and dancing).