A different kind of wall

Jan 04 2017 | 12:13 PM

I have to, don’t I? Writing about anything else — a bittersweet goodbye to cheap NJ gas, or how fruit tree catalogs unleash my inner shopaholic — feels quaintly clueless. In America in 2017, smack in the middle of where red meets blue, politics have ceased to be an elective. Run. Run for the hills.

In case it’s not obvious, Donald Trump was not my choice.

Now what? How can I roll all that’s required of me into one life: protector of my daughters; friend to my Muslim and gay friends; member of my community, which stands on the shoulders of the farmers, the hardware store owners, the contractors who keep it running.

I mean, would you want to get your chainsaw fixed by a liberal? We all need each other.

Hungry for direction, I took a book down from the shelf that hadn’t seen the light of day since college. Hobbes’ Leviathan, written 1668. Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher, is the “state of nature is a state of war” guy. Without government, he says, the life of man would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

I didn’t make it all the way through this 550-pager when I was 18 and reading was my job; now, with two kids and a full-time job, ain’t no chance. Still, I strapped the baby into her carrier and we headed up our mountain. When she fell asleep, I found an ergonomic rock and cracked the big red book.

Even though I’m pretty sure Hobbes’ grand thesis is that we should just shut up and gratefully submit to living under a dictator, still, he was so refreshingly... nonpartisan. I read until the ants found us, then shut the book and headed down with a sigh. I had failed to find the part I was looking for, which I’d hoped would help answer my most pressing question: Should we move to Portugal?

Still, one particular passage stuck in my sleep deprived mind. It goes something like this.

The state of nature is grisly. To live in the relative peace of society, we willingly make compromises, including, “that every man strive to accommodate himself to the rest.” People, like stones, come in a variety of irregular shapes, says Hobbes. If your shape takes up too much room because of all your odd hard edges, the builders, who are trying to put up a building, will cast you aside. We’re all entitled to act out of self-preservation, but a person who is just too stubborn will get cast out, and he’ll have no one to blame but himself.

“The observers of this law may be called SOCIABLE,” he writes, “the contrary, stubborn, insociable, froward, intractable.” (Froward: the seventeenth century version of angsty.)

Molding yourself into what those around you need you to be? Maybe in England 350 years ago, but in Am-er-i-ca, that’s not how we do things. We’re supposed to be whatever we want to be, the fullest expression of our unique and glorious selves.

As I made my daily rounds, though, driving past one old farm wall after another, I found this image settling in: myself, my co-workers, in-laws, outlaws, all of us not-quite-smooth stones stacked and wedged to form a massive foundation. It made a lot more sense than that other imaginary wall we’ve been hearing so much about. Maybe it was just the power of time, or maybe I’d had a sorely needed epiphany — but I started seeing a way forward.

The question keeping me up nights shifted from, “Are my children doomed?” to a more productive one: “Where do I fit in?”

How could I configure my lumpy self to maximize my utility in this wall, which was going up with or without me?

What I’ve come up with is nothing new, and yet, something that feels definitive. I can do the most good doing what I’m doing: standing here in the common ground (which there’s plenty of, you realize, when you stop being froward for a minute) with ears and notebook open. My job is to acknowledge the people who — by raising crops or raising mud houses or raising hell — are deepening our connection to the earth in a thousand and one ways.

This wall feels dangerously shifty, but locating my chink has been a relief. Come what may, I can be a useful human being.