Thursday, November 22, 2012

on being thankful

"But I mean, how--how exactly did it happen?" Jeremiah was pretty sure Old Pete was the oldest person he knew, and it seemed if anyone could answer his endless queries of the past, it should be Old Pete. Rumor had it, Old Pete was in the thick of it back in the day.

"There is no exactly. It just happened. Let me explain capitalism to you, Jeremiah, because I know you've no idea really how it was. Capitalism worked on a promise: you work hard, you live well. That's why people worked 40-60-80 hours a week," Old Pete chuckled as Jeremiah's jaw dropped, "doing things they'd never do if they weren't paid to do it. People took that money and bought things from stores. It wasn't like how it is when Peddler John comes through. There were these huge warehouses full of stuff, all kinds of stuff, as much stuff as you'd ever want and then some. You took that money and you bought stuff with it."

"But when would someone have time to play with all that stuff if they were working that much?" asked Jeremiah.

"Yes, that is a good point, one of the many contradictions of capitalism. Also, where you lived and what you ate depended on how much money you made and spent. If you had a lot of money, you lived in a very large house and ate good quality food."

"But what if you didn't work hard and make a lot of money?"

"Yes, that's another contradiction of capitalism. Like I said, there was this promise of capitalism, but the thing was, a lot of people worked really hard, and didn't earn much money. In fact, the more physically demanding the job, often the less money you made. So, if you worked in the fields harvesting, or you stood on a concrete floor all day in a factory, chances are you earned not very much money. But if you sat around all day in a fancy temperature controlled office, chances are you earned a lot of money. Yeah, doesn't make much sense, I know.

"A lot of people worked hard, but even in the good times, there were not enough jobs as there were people who needed homes and food. The government then put an awful lot of people in jail. Here we were in the Land of the Free--that's what they called it--and we had something like a quarter of the world's inmate population. Even with all those people in prison, there weren't enough jobs to go around. And then hard times hit. People were forced out of their homes at gunpoint, even though they had nowhere to go, and no one was going to live in those homes anyway. And then harder times hit. It got to where people who had never before in their lives known hunger or what it was like to be cold first got to experience it. It was scary for a lot of people.

"The reason I'm telling you all this backstory, Jeremiah, is so that you understand. You know what hungry people do? They learn to forage and grow food. They also share. You know what cold people do? They learn how to build shelters, or appropriate empty ones. You know what scared people do? They make friendships for social insurance. Every time capitalism failed to provide what it promised, people made do and figured out other ways to meet their needs. Each person doing this in their daily life built up alternatives to capitalism. It wasn't so much that we defeated capitalism, but that capitalism ran its course, and because it was a short-sighted affair--imagine an economy based on infinite resource extraction--it failed to live up to its promises. It was inevitable. We didn't cause its failure; we just built up with our common sense something that kept us going when the food ran out and the weather got wacky."

Jeremiah sat and reflected on this. He had heard stories, so many stories of heroic deeds and close calls, specifically about Old Pete. He felt like Old Pete was keeping something from him. "What about the time you took out that dam?"

Old Pete smiled. That had felt so good. "The dam was a hindrance to the flow of life. Everyone knew that, from the salmon who needed to spawn to the bears that ate them, and on and on. We did it slowly, so we didn't hurt anyone. No explosives."

"What about when you single-handedly captured a whole fleet of freight trucks?" Jeremiah asked indignantly.

"Oh, that story has gotten blown out of proportion. It was really a matter of timing, and the kids driving those trucks wanted to be on our side anyway. I told them we had a plate set for them at our table, and they were all for it."

"But wasn't there something big that happened that really pushed it over the edge? My mom says that one year everyone was working at jobs and shopping and being distracted by screens, and the next year, no one was doing that anymore. How did it happen so fast?"

"We became craftpersons in time. We changed our way of thinking. We started dreaming of something different, and suddenly, it shifted into being, like it had been there all the time, but we were so distracted we hadn't noticed. Once it became real, it was easier for others to take part and share in what it meant to live a life worth our efforts. It was easier to realize we had lived in prison and not necessarily known it. Even a gilded cage is death to one locked inside it. Once we started living differently, our minds and bodies changed. I don't think we realized what we had been doing to ourselves, though if we had bothered to look at the environment we lived in, it was obvious.

"There is this thing, Jeremiah, that we had forgotten. It was humanity. We, for some reason unbeknownst to us, had made ourselves into machines. But we're not machines, we're humans. We merely needed to extend our imaginations beyond what had been tried before. Our imaginations are unlimited, and if we can think it, we can create it. For some reason, we had forgotten that. But you know, Jeremiah, what it means to use your imagination?"

"Of course I know."

"Yeah, you do. But there weren't a lot of people then who did, and when we remembered that, the world changed, as your mom said, practically overnight. It was a miracle, and we're thankful for it."

"Why do you think people remembered when they did?" asked Jeremiah.

"Well, I don't really know, but if I had to guess, I'd say it's because it was better than giving up hope. It's a hard thing, Jeremiah, to look into your baby's eyes and realize you just brought another slave into the world for the Empire. Enough mamas and papas were tired of that. Believing in something else, and making it real, that was worth the effort. It was worth trying new and different things, and even as we were told nothing would be as great as this unfulfilled promise of capitalism, unfolding before our eyes was another story. We became open to being honest with ourselves, and accepting our own truths. We each have our own ways of doing things, our own beliefs, but the idea that there was something better than capitalism was universal. And in no time, we had proven to ourselves that our hunches were correct. Capitalism and the forces that purported to enforce it disappeared, and this--" Old Pete swept his hand to the distance where the apple orchard buzzed with bees, where children waded in the creek to escape the early spring heat, where people were outside chopping greens and cooking stew, mending fences, planting gardens, talking and laughing--"all of this--all of this just plain old but so very endearing life was waiting to spring into being. We planted the seeds in the cracks of capitalism, and we reaped what we sowed. We're so thankful, so thankful."

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