Building the Sustainable Community: Reconciliation and “Sticking” Over Rights and Flight

…the faces of men and the hearts of men are helpless quicksands. Only in the heart of the cosmos man can look for strength. And if he can keep his soul in touch with the heart of the world, then from the heart of the world new blood will beat in strength and stillness into him… – D.H. Lawrence, The Plumed Serpent

Louie is a parole officer with 3 years to go until retirement, a non-conformist thinker I’ve always thought of as “anarchist material,” though lacking a political philosophy as far as I know. He tells me once retired he is going to leave the U.S. for anywhere else. Everywhere he’s been – a half dozen countries or so – is better than here. Here, he says (meaning Utica, and the decidedly Trump-loving people who dominate his workplace), he cannot talk to anyone. I’m thinking, mulling this over, that my adult life has evolved and revealed its shape in the same environment but on its liberal end – in which I cannot talk to anyone (with a very few exceptions). Increasingly I decline to, because of the frustration of finding myself to be an “other” in liberal reality. Does Louie not know that this painful isolation and fragmentation is our post-industrial condition? Some of us consciously suffer it, others bypass it through accepting, in exchange for real community, bourgeois society’s increasingly pitiful rewards (Caribbean cruise, anyone? Netflix? ) Exiting-the-patria, like suicide, always is a choice for the one who despairs, perhaps an honorable one, though I cannot see how.

With the precedent set by the companies and corporations that abandon our upstate communities when, following their profit imperative it is in their interest to do so, why should people be loyal to places or to each other? Though I can perfectly well imagine how that dream of the reward of escape can entice, after one has fulfilled one’s duty to the job, still I marvel (gasp?) at the complete lack of any moral considerations within neoliberal reality for making such decisions. Far from faulting Louie, I’m saying this is simply our context, which is nihilistic and inhuman.

While liberals puzzle over why working class and poor Trump voters vote “against their interests,” they never ask how this context of purposeless and nihilism, ostensibly anti-authoritarian and free, serves theirs. True enough, if one sets one’s goals and works toward them, one can do so well that the fact one serves neoliberal reality – which is always working against one’s human interests – seems less pertinent than one’s self-evidently correct opinions about race, the rights of women and minorities, going green, and above all, about saving America by getting rid of Trump. They never imagine where the vitality of liberalism has gone, the imagination, the will, (even, “the thrill!”). The persistence of old-fashioned virtues – loyalty, constancy and even traditional faith – is not the problem, but rather the death of imagination in individuals, and the snuffing of the soul that informs us how to live humanly.

Pretty consistently, as I’ve remarked upon many times, moving away from Utica is what people obediently do; I’ve lost count now of the departures of valued friends and members of our tiny sub-community of non-conformists, poets and cultural activists in just the 17 years of our Cafe’s existence. I say “obediently” because of the very composure with which most people make a decision that ought to be difficult! Under humanly supportive conditions, peoples’ affections and loyalties would at least vie with, if not triumph over, American restlessness and the temporalism and fragmentation of consumer capitalism. Were people conditioned to value the bonds of relationship that nourish the heart, more of us would be, to use Wendell Berry’s terms, “stickers,” rather than “boomers.”

One does not argue with people over their decisions to quit, many times simply a logical fulfillment of a chosen career path. We must allow for peoples freedom and the fact that we don’t know “what’s best.” But many decisions are prompted, not only by the disintegration of the ties of community and family, and the loss of an authentic and impassioned “family-positive” ethos, but the fact that we exist in our dispiriting alonenesses, in the emptiness of nihilism, and lack powerful ideas with which to counter aimless drift, the passive flowing with the neoliberal current. We must have ideas if we are to rally ourselves to live positively within and for the bonds of relationships, committed, even if we fail at it, to the interdependence of living beings and the earth in an interdependent cosmos. Failure is not dishonorable; having no ideals or principles upon which to base inhibitions of one’s libertarian freedom is.

Currently, the “powerful ideas” in the mainstream “center,” ceaselessly promoted in mainstream media, are those premised in racism and fear of “the other.” Is it possible, at this late moment, to engage hearts and minds other than with hatred and fear? How can we be moved out of our isolated consciousness, the utter aloneness of our existential condition in industrial capitalism that breeds neuroses, denial, and conformity, into a different premise, one of a fundamental connectedness that can re-energize us for the work of remaining human? The answer is we cannot, at least not without making contact with the spiritual dimension of our nature and recognizing its authority, as myth-making humans, their imaginations alive, did over most of human history. Secular liberal bourgeois reality so effectively teaches us to fear that dimension, to keep it obscure, inferior, and “other,” that people prefer enslavement in the corporate system to challenging it. And not because we admire capitalism, but because we are not free in our innermost being. Those satisfied in neoliberal reality know instinctively that to reclaim the spiritual, interior center it is necessary to go outside the “center” we know, and into marginalization, inferiority and obscurity; into an “otherness” no healthy liberal will face. Life without the perks and benefits of bourgeois privilege, including the privilege of never having to consider that one is privileged, is unimaginable.

I see no way around it: the way to break the chains of corporate enslavement is to put ourselves consciously into the bonds of relationships. To stop following the ephemeral promises that so appeal to our unhinged abandoned selves, to stop obediently following the logic of the career path, to stop running from our grief, which – grown enormous and hostile after years, or decades, of repression – terrifies us until we learn to treat it with compassion. To become “stickers” and “stayers,” and trust we can learn what we will need to by staying on that path no matter what.

In Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang (the novel we just finished in our Anti-fascist Book Club) the eco-saboteur and Vietnam vet Hayduke finds himself in an emergency when, pursued by the authorities, he scales alone a several hundred feet high sheer rock wall. He reaches a point, very high up, when he “feels the sick panic of the unbelayed and unaided climber…. Impossible to go on, impossible to descend, impossible to stay where he is.” Pressing his cheek and ear against the “canyonland bedrock [he] feels, hears, shares the beating of some massive heart, a heavy murmur buried under mountains, old as Mesozoic time. His own heart.”

Receiving the message of the land, of his own heart, Hayduke overcomes paralysis and continues his climb. In my reading, this “supranatural” moment is not limited to extreme experiences in the desert wilderness. Individuals committed to being “stuck” in a different wilderness – of committed relationships to others, to a place, to the land, and to the creative soul (the “other within”) – similarly to Hayduke – will be in a place that allows some other source of knowing than the one commonly available in neoliberal banality, to enter consciousness.

When Orin and I “cemented” our local identity by starting a business in Utica, the way to this major commitment to “sticking” had likely been prepared by many years of inner work and making our marriage conscious. Bound now by our commitment to our coffeeshop, to move away is practically unthinkable; our investment here is just too identical with how we see the meaning and purpose of our lives. Thus stuck here, we must put our ears to the canyon wall, receiving information imaginatively, by means of the intermediary of the soul so that we can understand ourselves as acting within a frame of meaning and moral purpose. The mad creative thinking and poetry we engage with – that will never bring us in a cent – is both our reward and our basis in an other reality. In our stuck condition, only the creative imagination can supply us with ideas powerful enough to counter the alienation and divisiveness of the society. Not everyone would understand that the intergenerational family dinners we host every Sunday at our home, admired by everyone who hears about them ( a rich but very mixed event, we being more wounded “non-Royal Tenenbaums” than nostalgic Norman Rockwell) – is consequence of choosing our bonds and of bending our ears to the information coming from the heart.

Prophetic journalists like Dahr Jamail and Robert Hunsiker who see the dark truth of approaching climate collapse, species extinctions, etc., bring the information nobody wants: our collective stuckness on a doomed planet is a fact. It remains to be seen if – even if too late – more of us can become consciously stuck, and take up once again the humanizing work of building local lives in place over time. Must we not now adapt ourselves to that darker reality rather than keep pretending that if we can just stay on the highway, off of sheer rock cliffs, the darkness isn’t there?

Ideas powerful enough to contend with the pervasive and largely unconscious racist, fascist, orientalist assumptions will not come from our established power centers, but only from inferiority, at the margins. A major risk with revolutionary models for change is that they’ll toss out baby with bathwater, thus losing customs, traditions and valuable wisdom gained over centuries that are needed for the retention of our humanity, for present and future generations. As bona fide marginal person and “other,” I mention an old and thoroughly unoriginal idea with contemporary relevance to our emergency. Originally, I learned about reconciliation as a sacrament, during my brief tenure as a practicing Catholic convert, in the early 1990’s. It impressed me greatly to learn that “confession of sins” could be satisfied in a more congenial way.

As we understood the priest, our sole duty before receiving Communion was to reconcile with each other, husband and wife, that is, to keep the spiritual (imagination-based) relationship alive. The suggestion this gave me is that the restoration of peace between two or more otherwise warring, potentially estranging, and otherwise mutually dependent “others,” in defiance of pervasive nihilism and of liberal sanctification of the supremacy of individual rights, may be the most important, revolutionary, and quintessentially humanizing task we could take up. Could this not be the energizing wake-up call for those slumbering in liberal banality? Not without exceptions, of course, but surely, everyone can recognize these non-trivial relationships with the “others” closest and most mutually dependent – whether parents and children, husband and wife, neighbor and neighbor, brothers and sisters, individuals and the forests, hills and fields of their home places – are those which the neglected soul longs to be bound by and which should not be sundered for a lesser cause.

In these times, to save the planet, we’re called to contract our way of life in a capitalist society based upon unlimited growth. Considering this, it seems to me the conservative process of reconciliation, understood not as a “patch job” but as a lifelong process of inter-human dependency informed by soul-based knowing, should be hailed as the worthy pursuit of every man, woman and child, over the exclusive pursuit of liberal rights. The “to-be-reconciled” include those bound by affection, listed above, and include even the bonds of commerce within local economies. Energies thus kept focused “at home,” upon the immediate relationships binding each individual “other” to others, – mean less energy available for war-making, hatreds, estrangements, social stratifications and enmitizations of all kinds. Peace-making would then be the time-consuming, never-completed, imaginative, humanizing work that it actually is, while leaving Utica just to go someplace else – let alone allowing Utica to be colonized by powerful corporate interests – would simply be seen as bizarre.

Kim C. Domenico, reside in Utica, New York, co-owner of Cafe Domenico (a coffee shop and community space),  and administrator of the small nonprofit independent art space, The Other Side.  Seminary trained and ordained,  but independently religious. She can be reached at: kodomenico@verizon.net.

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