Thursday, November 24, 2011

Declaration of Interdependence

When you’re sitting in airport or planes for 18 hours at a stretch, you have a lot of time to think. When the flight attendant brought my meal, I started to think about all the unseen hands that brought this food to me on this plane. And once you follow that thread, it’s a bit like counting stars in the sky—you feel overwhelmed by the enormity of it all, humbled and somehow grateful to be a part of it.

Consider. A simple piece of bread on your tray. Who baked it? How did it get from the oven to me? Who transported it? Who wrapped it? Who received it? And then back in the other direction. Who grew the grain? Who milled it? And the yeast? And salt? Perhaps a dash of sugar? And who transported each of those items and how and to where? What kind of vehicle transported it? Who made that vehicle and all its parts, down to every last screw? Who painted it and where did the paint come from? Who mined the ore and manufactured the steel and made the plastic? Who made the road that the truck drove on? Where did the asphalt come from? And where did the gas and oil come from? And at what price? (Now there’s a big topic worthy of investigation!)

But back to the bread on my tray. Who made the tray? Not to mention my seat, the plane, the airport or my clothes, my backpack, the books in my backpack and on and on and on. And what about the movie I’m watching? And the music soundtrack? Who made the recording equipment and the building where it was recorded and the instruments used in the recording? You see what I mean? Thousands and probably millions of people working apart, but connected to bring to each of us the things we use each day. A giant orchestra of interdependent harmonious parts— but the orchestra members don't get to meet each other. Each plays their own part, but they don't get to hear it in concert with the other parts and thus, the totality of the music is mostly inaudible. 

And that’s the missing piece of civilization. We get the convenience of the goods and services without the pleasure of hearing the whole music or knowing who sits next to us in the orchestra. That was my big revelation in 1979 living in Kerala, India. More than ever before and more than ever since, most of what people needed and used each day was visible and understandable. The main house of the little rice plantation where we lived always had something happening on the front porch that was in process—rice being husked or coconut being dried. Each day as we walked into the center of the 2,000 person village of Cheruthuruthy, we would pass the rug weavers working with coconut husk, the potters shaping our bowls, the spinners making the thread, the dyers coloring cloth, the farmers growing the food, the drum-makers, the match factory workers, the carpenters. Visible people with names we could come to know, visible processes of creation, visible community endeavors. An interdependent music we could hear and see and feel and touch.

One needn’t go to India for that. How about an Amish barn-raising or folks in the North Carolina mountains bringing their apples to make cider together while playing fiddles and banjos or urban gardeners offering up their surplus zucchini. And having been an urban dweller in the 20th and 21st centuries, it would be disingenuous to critique modern civilization when I have enjoyed—and continued to enjoy—so many of its benefits. But no way to escape my Aesopian conclusion here, with four points:

1)    Despite our fantasies of independence and wrong-headed “I don’t need nobody”
     definition of freedom, we are inextricably necessary to each other and entirely  
     interdependent. Those we think we shouldn’t like or are named enemies by our
     politicians or seem to wish us harm nevertheless have probably helped bring that bread
     to our tray. 

2) As possible, keep things local and visible, close at hand and close to home. Let’s  
    envision a future with less hands traveling shorter distances without need of
    soldiers (see gas/oil above). This not only makes sense ecologically and
    politically, but also aesthetically. While I sometimes appreciate the Trader Joe’s
    ready-to-go packaged meal when I think I’m busy with more “important” things than
    cooking, what is more important really than living a whole and connected life?
    When I take time to cook a meal using the arugula I grew on the deck, the bread
    I kneaded and baked, the beans I soaked overnight to make soup with vegetables
    picked out at the local farmer’s market, there is a tangibly different weight and
    texture to the pleasure of sitting down to eat the meal. 

      3) Try the exercise of following the steps that brought the simplest thing to you—
           a piece of paper. a thumbtack, an apple. Or if you’re really adventurous, a piano,
           a refrigerator or a computer. If you teach children, spend a week or month
           showing them what a big, marvelous, complicated and interconnected world this
           is and how much effort and teamwork is needed for even the simplest thing that
           we use and enjoy. As the boss in a factory or bakery or auto repair shop, help the
           workers connect the dots with their little piece of the whole, feel pride in their
           contribution and connection to the other unseen workers completing or
           complementing their work. In short, try to make the invisible a tad more visible,
           the music of how this world actually works a bit more audible.

      4) On so on Thanksgiving Day, take a moment to reflect and imagine all those hands
           who brought the food to your table, from the farmers to the truck drivers to the road
           builders to the construction workers to the truck builders to the auto mechanics
           to the store owners to the plants and animals themselves.

And thank them all. 

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