Frida Berrigan, Seeking a Salve for Heat, Hate, and Hysteria
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If anything saved my life when I was young, it was books. Library books, to be exact. These days, about to turn 78, I walk past one of my bookshelves, notice the several volumes of history I’ve collected on the Ottoman Empire — I was always curious about it! — and think sadly, I’m never going to get to you, am I? But when I was young, there was only one issue: making it out of the children’s section and into the adult part of my local library. And a wonderful librarian trusted me to do it. If only I could thank her in person today! I checked out every book I could carry, often not even faintly knowing what they were. An only child with working parents, I took them home and spent a remarkable amount of time reading about the world I would one day join (or so I was told, anyway).
I read Bruce Catton on the Civil War and William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I read H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, and other sci-fi authors, memoirs, and fiction, too, including Désirée, that novel about Napoleon’s first love and mistress. In today’s mad terms, I guess you could say that I was “grooming” myself for a world beyond imagining.
Now, I know one thing: that memorable librarian of mine would be deeply embattled. She might have to face off against the Proud Boys. Her name might be made all-too-public by a Republican member of the Virginia House of Delegates or she might be fired for defending books from being banned or simply retire in despair. She would face the increasingly morbid Trumpist urge to censor everything that the former president and his crew don’t like. Hey, only months ago, a Tennessee school board banned a book I published, Art Spiegelman’s bestselling, Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus about his parents’ experience in the Holocaust. Part of their explanation for doing so: that it contained naked cartoon mice. (In the process, of course, they sent it soaring back into bestseller heaven.)
It pains me to see this madness in our all-too-disturbed land and so it warmed my heart to read TomDispatch regular Frida Berrigan’s thoughts on what, including libraries (and their embattled librarians), she still loves about our disturbed country. It’s time for all of us to take a deep breath and think about what we still truly care for and would defend about this land of ours, no matter what. Tom
This Is My Song
What I Can Still Love about My Embattled Country (and World)
It’s hot and hazy as July rolls around. Growing up in the Baltimore swamplands, we used to say, “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.” Meaning that the humidity was harder to deal with than the feverish temperatures. At some point in my family, the phrase morphed into: “It’s not the heat, it’s the stupidity.” At the time, we meant the antics of people when it gets hot, including public drunkenness, mishaps with fireworks, and fights over slights. (These days, sadly enough, you’d have to add to that list slaughtering people at a July 4th celebration with an AR-15-style rifle.)
Worse yet, in 2022, it’s emblematic of a far larger picture of life on earth: the stupidity of trying to stay cool while burning carbon; the stupidity of the Supreme Court tying the collective hands of the Environmental Protection Agency when it comes to regulating the emissions of coal-fired power plants; the stupidity of blaming mental illness rather than assault rifles for massacres; the stupidity of a pro-life movement that seems to care about nothing but fetuses. And, of course, the list only goes on and on… and on.
And now, I think I’m breaking into a sweat even though I’m sitting still. The novelist Barbara Kingsolver posted this on Facebook recently:
“There are days when I can’t live in this country. Not the whole thing at once, including the hateful parts, the misogyny, the brutal disregard of the powerful for the powerless. Sometimes I can only be a citizen of these trees, this rainy day, the family I can hold safe, the garden I can grow. A fire that refuses to go out.”
So, in these hazy, humid days laced with commercial patriotism and an upbeat jingoism shaken loose from the daily struggles of most people, I’m trying to take her words to heart. I am a citizen of the trees, particularly the two plum trees I planted this spring. I am a citizen of the rainy day. (May it come soon!) I am a citizen of my family of five, of eight, of 16, of 150 (the number of people anthropologist Robin Dunbar says we can meaningfully connect with). Yes, it really does seem like that’s what it takes to go on these days — committing yourself to what matters, to what you still do love in this ever more disturbed America of ours.
Above all, I am a citizen of what I love! I resolve to be a citizen of goodness and generosity, competence and kindness. I pledge allegiance, above all, to libraries, used bookstores, community gardens, and the mutual-aid network of my local “Buy Nothing” group. This, sadly enough, is as much of my country, America, that I seem capable of loving in the age of Donald Trump and an all-too-extreme Supreme Court.
So, in an America in which Roe has gone down and gun sales only continue to rise (thank you so much, Supremes!), let me tell you a little about the things I still truly do love in America.
Used Books Stores
I recently ruined a library book! I spilled coffee all over it and there was no way to fix it. When I contacted the library, I was told that there would be a $30 fine to replace it. There was, however, another option: I could find a new copy and bring it in instead. Well, I have more time than money, so I set off to replace the State of Terror by Hillary Clinton and Louise Penny (a propulsive guilty pleasure of a summer read) that I had caffeinated to the hilt.
After checking out three brick-and-mortar used bookstores in my area I found that novel in no time at all for $1.50 (plus $4.00 shipping) at Alibris, an online used bookstore. But don’t feel bad for the stores that didn’t have a copy of State of Terror. I still spent at least $30 in them, picking up a couple of survival guides, an Octavia Butler novel (another kind of survival guide), graphic novels for my kids, and a few other books that caught my eye — but hopefully won’t catch my next cup of coffee.
There’s something so wholesome about used bookstores. If the $25 billion-plus publishing industry is a slick, cutthroat insider’s game riven with racism and inequity, then used bookstores are its antithesis. They’re all about the pleasure of knowledge, craft, and the word! Nearest to us here in New London, Connecticut, is the Book Barn in Niantic, a network of three stores loosely organized by theme and covered in cat hair. Their haphazard nature rewards curiosity and perseverance. The mismatched chairs and overturned milk crates invite you to pause, peruse, and dive in. When I go there with my family, we chant “five books are enough” before we get out of the car. Then we revise it to five books each (for a total of twenty-five) and, in the end, are likely to buy as many as we can carry. Given such frenzies, we can only afford to go once every few months even though many of the books are only a dollar each and most are less than five dollars. Honestly, how could you not love it?
Excuse me for being so book focused, but that’s who I am, I guess. In between trips to used bookstores, we can always go to the library, where you can borrow 50 titles per card at a time! My kids, 8, 10, and 15, are so well known there that the librarian calls us when they leave behind a favorite stuffed animal or jacket (which is like every week).
The New London library is within walking distance of our house. In addition to books, it has a job-search support center, a recently redesigned teen center, and meeting rooms for local groups and events. Patrons can check out free museum passes, use the free services of a notary, and pose any question under the sun to members of its calm, helpful staff. In addition, our library has a couple of surprising offerings, including Memory Kits for people developing dementia and quite a variety of cake pans shaped like cartoon characters, animals, or castles that can be borrowed like any book.
In this way, our library is very trendy. Like ever more libraries, it’s no longer just focused on lending out books. It’s a multi-use facility that hosts community events, serves as a free or low-priced Staples or a WeWork suite with computers, printers, and study carrels. It lends out Roku devices and laptops, while maintaining catalogs of diverse offerings. My sister-in-law, for instance, borrowed catering equipment like chafing trays and large casserole dishes for her son’s graduation party. At some libraries, you can even borrow lawn mowers, weed whackers, and pruning equipment for your garden and lawn. During prom season, some of them are opening dress-lending libraries to help cash-strapped families get strapless!
It’s all so wholesome and delightful that it’s easy to forget just how underfunded and under attack our libraries are. This in a country where, if you love books, you’ve instantly got financial problems, but if you love the military-industrial complex you’re guaranteed to have more money than you know what to do with. In a nearby town, a first selectman demanded that the library remove a copy of Who Is RuPaul? from its collection in response to a parental complaint.
The book, part of a popular series of biographies, tells the story of the performer, producer, personality, and queer icon whose groundbreaking talent has turned drag-queening into mainstream magic. In Indiana, North Carolina, Texas, and elsewhere, members of the right-wing armed hate group Proud Boys have tried to interrupt children’s story hours with vitriol and threats of violence. And yet, despite all the hate, librarians just carry on! The library, a bright, functional, welcoming space meant to exist outside of commerce and to be open to all, is one of the last true public spaces in this country, an enduring part of a shrinking commons!
“Buy Nothing” Facebook Groups
I know. I know. Facebook (now Meta) is big, bad tech. Our every cursor move is tracked, our every “like” logged. I should go on a total social-media fast, but I’m not on Instagram or TikTok and I do love to “like” my friends’ cat pictures! Above all, though, I love “Buy Nothing.” That site-specific network — there are groups everywhere — is built around asking, gifting, and gratitude. It’s online neighborliness personified, demonstrating, in the words of its founders, that “true wealth is the web of connections formed between people who are real-life neighbors.”
The New London Buy Nothing Group on Facebook has more than 1,500 people. It’s administered by a handful of souls who moderate the page to make sure, among other things, that no one feels badgered into choosing certain people for gifts. In the last few days, some members have offered up cats, organic plant fertilizer, and a toilet seat, while others have asked for vintage drinking glasses, a dog crate, and an old cellphone so a nephew can access the Internet.
People respond to all these queries by asking to be chosen, sometimes sharing why they want whatever’s been asked for and how they’ll use it. The gifters get to choose who to give items to and then they make arrangements to pass them on. When I see someone asking for something that I have in excess, I’ll post a picture of it and invite them to reach out and make a plan to pick it up. Things move pretty quickly then. The only time I had no takers, I was offering used school backpacks the same week that the local Rotary Club was giving out brand new ones filled with school supplies. We’re a friendly, dynamic group that stretches from the nicest homes in New London to the Red Roof Inn, a place people stay when they’re experiencing homelessness.
I love thinking about my front porch as a place where people can come to have their needs and wants met. In the last few months, I’ve shared a women’s history puzzle, a pair of kids’ boxing gloves, a mini-pool full of hostas, jars of sourdough starter, and vegetable stock, while collecting yoga mats, chicken wire, rosary beads, an aquarium, and small jam jars from porches and front steps all over town.
When I refer to “the city” of New London, Connecticut, which was founded in the 1600s and burned down by American traitor turned British Brigadier General Benedict Arnold in 1781, it sounds grand indeed. As it happens, though, we’re now actually a small community of about 28,000 people living in a six-square-mile area. In other words, we’re the size of a town.
New London has been known for lots of things, including its arts scene, bar scene, sugar-sand beach, and being the childhood home of playwright Eugene O’Neill. It’s long and thin like a jalapeño pepper and so small that sometimes it feels like I know everyone. Then I find myself driving down a street I’ve never noticed before, searching for the address of the nice person who’s left me a copy of Dean Spade’s Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next) on their porch in a brown paper bag.
Only 2,882 people voted in our last election, but it seems as if twice that many were actively searching for infant formula during the recent shortage. There’s a level of engagement, gratitude, and celebration on New London’s Buy Nothing Facebook page that I always find moving and delightful, sometimes overwhelmingly so.
A little head of organic lettuce costs almost $3 these days at my local grocery store. A pound of organic strawberries, imported from Mexico, is about $8. Inflation is the word of the day, week, and year. And nowhere is it more obvious than at the checkout counter of my local grocery store. Like so much in this interconnected, fragile, unequal world of ours, we can blame the soaring cost of food on war and the greed of the corporations that call the tune in the global economy.
But far away from such overwhelming disasters is a modest set of raised garden boxes just up the block from my house. They burst with lettuce, strawberries, and a dozen other easy to harvest “snack” crops. And they’re free for the picking! Hand-painted signs in English, Spanish, French, and Arabic encourage passersby to harvest there and eat the food. The “snack boxes” were built and are maintained by a local food justice and youth empowerment organization called FRESH New London. Passersby can harvest the lettuce and strawberries and bring them home to wash and enjoy. They can pick snap peas, okra pods, and a little later in the summer sweet peppers and blackberries, too.
There are also boxes at the community garden where people can grow their own lettuce, peppers, tomatoes, and whatever else they want after accessing water and tools. While they’re at it, they can ask staff members and other gardeners for advice and help.
There are community gardens like ours all over the country, organized by groups of neighbors, non-profit organizations, or even towns and cities. Community gardens are places where we can get our fingernails dirty and our bellies filled with veggies and fruit, while connecting with neighbors, celebrating the beauty of nature, and even providing food for bees and other pollinators.
Of course, people like me can’t grow all our food this way, especially in places like urban Connecticut. Still, producing some of it in such a communal way reminds us that we have the power to feed ourselves and one another. And in these dispiriting times, that should be a strong message of hope!
A (Small) World Free of Nationalism?
“My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean and sunlight beams on clover leaf and pine,” we sometimes sing when our Unitarian Universalist congregation meets. Finnish composer Jean Sibelius wrote the music more than 100 years ago, while American poet Lloyd Stone provided the words in 1934 to what became the hymn “This Is My Song.” It continues, “But other lands have sunlight too, and clover, and skies are everywhere as blue as mine.” It’s a beautiful piece of music, poignant and full of a love of home that’s somehow radically and beautifully free of nationalism.
The sunlight beams down on used bookstores, libraries, community gardens, and even, however metaphorically, into the dark universe of Meta where there are still people who reject our click-and-buy culture, opting for mutual aid instead. “Buy Nothing!” is the thought lurking there, even if all of this can’t quite stave off the despair that circulates whenever I tune into the wider world of Supreme Court rulings and House January 6th hearings or contemplate why the heat and humidity and stupidity is rising all at once in this forlorn world of ours.
In my own small version of the world, “This Is My Song” is so beloved that my husband and I made it the entrance march at our wedding. It always reminds me that this planet is bigger and more beautiful than nationalism and militarism allow us to see. It reminds me that curiosity and connection form a web that can be stronger than border walls and xenophobia. It reminds me that the small bits of joy and hope that gardens and the gift economy give me is a seed that, with time, nurturing, and hard work, could grow into a more just and equitable future for us all.
So, that’s what I need to remind myself of with each new Supreme Court decision, each crazed statement from Donald Trump or so many other Republicans, each new Cold War moment in our embattled world. It’s good to know that there’s still something I truly do love about this country.
Copyright 2022 Frida Berrigan
Featured image: Books by John Kannenberg is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 / Flickr
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