Op Ed: A Circle of Elders with Three Questions
Submitted by J. Michael Combs, Robert Dunsmore, & Marie Markesteyn
I sat in circle with 15 other elders, mostly unknown to me. Retired engineers, farmers, schoolteachers, songsters, poets, journalists and writers … half a millennium of wisdom and experience represented here. Anglos and Hispanos, women and men, life-long residents and transplants to the valley, El Valle. Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists and Sikhs.
Within minutes it was clear that I was among some deep thinkers: we’d read truckloads of books and articles, most of us had formal educations as well. We’d raised families, watched the world and society around us change, and we were troubled. The deep love for Northern New Mexico was apparent. Community activists, back-to-the-landers … our own elders had seen the nineteenth century out, and we’d seen the twenty-first make its troubled entrance. None of us would see it to its close, but we peered into that unknowable future, trying to forecast, based on what we’ve seen.
The source of our unease, a familiar litany of troubling symptoms: Loss of land base, decline in quality of food, increased dependence for our food on distant fields owned by corporations, trucked enormous distances; epidemics of obesity, diabetes, addiction; disintegration of families and communities, crime; sports- and celebrity-worship resulting in a dumbed-down, uninvolved and apathetic electorate; water scarcity and water loss to urban, industrial and military use …
And most troubling, we spoke of our youth: How so many of them wind up in the school-to-prison pipeline, or in the military to serve the Empire via the poverty draft; brain-drain and the out-migration of so many of the sharpest ones; how full the obituaries are with birthdates far too recent: the 70’s & 80’s, 90’s & aughts.
Technology incursions displacing so many human interactions; the Web replacing earlier life-nourishing webs we’d been blessed to grow up with.
It was obvious, we agreed, that the thinned ranks of ancianos, our own parents’ generation, could not be looked to for a change. And remembering how wrapped around our own axles we’d been during our youth and middle years as we tried to raise families, establish households, and figure out what the heck Life was about, we felt a sense of responsibility devolve onto our own shoulders.
We’d been around the block enough to have some perspective. We’d seen an earlier version, remembered what a slower-paced, more family- and community-centered way of living looked like. “If there is to be a change,” we saw, “surely we elders must have some part to play in bringing this about. There must be a change, or else humanity cannot continue, the Earth will not survive. But how?”
A roomful of hand-wringing fogies, bemoaning the passing of “the good old days,” this was surely not. We used a talking stick — with mixed success — an effort to bring Tradition and Respect to a circle where so many were bursting with ideas, anxious to share and be heard. Some reached for the stick after every other speaker, certain of their own voice; others shared only when urged on by the group.
In our stories we shared about childhoods on farms, about our own grandparents, about a time when most socializing happened within homes rather than in commercial spaces, when crime was low, addiction almost unknown, when as children we never knew what the word “bored” meant, and the prisons held tiny portions of our populations, rather than being the major industries they have grown into. None of us grew up with burglar alarms, motion-detector outdoor lights. We played outside most of the day, once our chores were done. Yes, crime did occur, but thinking of it, hearing about it, did not play a large part in our lives, as it seems to today.
We’d watched this mess grow up right before our eyes. Surely we ourselves had played some part without intending to. Some of us had lives full of activism stretching back into the sixties.
Are the forces puling us apart, degrading our land and water, fragmenting our communities and families, just too powerful to be stopped? Are our backgrounds just too divergent and fragmented to hold a common vision towards which we might move, however haltingly?
In our three hours of sitting in circle, we failed to solve all of humanity’s ills. We didn’t even find a cure for cancer. “Look,” declared one man, a community organizer down from Taos,” I gave up an evening of playing with my small son to be here. If we cannot become a dynamic force, fostering hope and inspiration, then I don’t belong here. ” Fathers playing with their families is earth-shakingly important. Perhaps if the fathers in the fifties had said yes to their families more often our world would be less of a mess today! Another man, a farmer who works with youth, said he’d given up the evening irrigating his field, hiring a helper instead so he could sit with us. “When I’m in my field bringing the water, I have no doubt that I am where I should be, doing what I should be doing,” he spoke. “If I am to sit in circle here, I need that same assurance.”
And so it was that our circle began to celebrate and applaud what we are doing to create a regenerative future for our children: promoting local gmo-free organic food production and the use of the sun for heating and cooling and electricity, dreaming of an energy resource training and service center, the development of the Food Hub, alternative schooling options, a world-class moving arts program, defending our water rights, celebrating the sacred beauty of the Rio Arriba area…leading us to deciding our next meeting, the first meeting of the Rio Arriba Bioregional Council, would proclaim we are: “Celebrating and acting upon what we have in common.”
We have in common a shared past of integral family interdependency and community commerce based upon la Tierra. We see new organic farms every year. We have our own theatre. We need support to build a monument to our ancestors, perhaps a tower structure and one to our children, perhaps a unique water park.
We have rich musical traditions celebrating this life-giving interdependence that in dance moves beyond musical harmony to harmony in the home and in the community. We decide to have music celebrated at our next meeting.
We can have a dynamic recycling system for waste as does Salida, Colorado. We will learn of how they have revitalized their economy capitalizing on local resources.
We will research the world-famous transformation of Curitiba, Brasil, one of the first major urban centers of the world which has effectively ended hunger and accelerated organic food production region wide.
We are forming community libraries such as the all locally-developed Vallecitos Community Center and Library and that of Alcalde. We are watching out for each other, caring for one another more through local Neighborhood Watch organizations. We have opened local eateries and platforms for local artists to perform, church activities, bingo, wifi availability, computers, printers, fax, locally prepared and packaged traditional foods and drinks.
We pledge to find how to support one another in enhancing these opportunities and many more unmentioned.
We affirm that human-caused problems are solvable by human beings. Societies, it has been observed, disintegrate from the top down, but are re-built from the bottom up. “If we want a better world, we must become better people,” spoke one. And this doesn’t happen overnight.
Hope, Vision, Action, Courage, Wisdom, Unity, Direction and Healing … these are what we are trying to hold our faces up towards.
We ended with a song. The refrain said,
We have a lot in common, underneath our skin
And it should be common knowledge that inside we’re all kin
Trying to make some sense of things that we don’t understand
We have a lot in common, we do the best we can. (Don Richmond, Howling Dog Music)
We agreed to meet again, monthly seems best. For now, our group is calling itself the Rio Arriba Bioregional Council. If you wish to sit in circle with us, have suggestions, or want to stay informed of what comes out of this write us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call Bob at 575-582-4224
Three questions were offered, borrowed from White Bison, an indigenous recovery outfit from Colorado Springs. These questions work for individuals, families, or larger groups. It has been suggested that asking these questions, sitting with them, can nourish one’s humanity.
Who am I (are we)? Why am I (are we) here? Where am I (are we) going?