At the recent memorial of our fallen comrade Dan Peper, I was struck by a curious thought: “this is a community that I will probably really miss someday”.
It’s not like I’m planning on going anywhere...especially since I really just arrived here...but when one lives with the notion of impermanence as a cornerstone of one’s waking consciousness, the phrase “these things too shall pass away” enters ones head whether the things in question are pleasant and joyful or horrific and torturous. Whatever happens in our little slice of heaven on Earth, it shall someday be dust. That is the nature of life on the physical plane: all is change. Days flutter by as they become years, loves come and go, we all get older, perhaps wiser...you know the drill. Every present moment becomes the stuff of future memory.
As I wandered amongst the crowd after the service I made the observation that there were at least twenty or thirty people gathered that I already felt a great deal of love for, and that like Dan, they too would someday make their exit from my life...unless, of course, I beat them to it.
I also thought of the term “glory days”. It’s kind of a cheesy phrase, and the title of one of Bruce Springsteens lesser works (I ordinarily like his lyrics, but I really hate that song), but it fits: here is an exceptional community full of exceptional people doing exceptional things. As someone who has bounced around a fair amount geographically, I can say that I consider it a rare thing...and a thing of beauty, in fact. One of those things that you want to keep going and keep contributing to, even when that thing is buffeted by such a significant loss...or even more, BECAUSE of it...because you see the fragility of these rare and beautiful things.
The older you get, the more time it seems that you spend ruminating upon the memories of the path you have left behind you. It is an act that can either be futile or instructive, largely depending on how ready you are to learn your lessons and not repeat your mistakes. I confess to be a mixed bag in this regard, myself.
Glory days: You find yourself in the midst of such a thing when you stop reminiscing and waxing nostalgic and actually LIVING. I have noticed since I moved here that I have been doing a fair amount of that, that whole “living” thing. I have become engaged, no longer just the aloof observer with the ironic detachment fixation. The Driftless region has breathed new life into my cynical soul. I smile a lot more out here, despite a couple initial setbacks and missteps.
This region seems to be a place to make NEW memories. If I live to a ripe old age, I picture droning on and on about this place to an impatient nurse who just wants to change my catheter and get on with his/her life:
“In my mid-forties I lived in this magical place where I met some of the most brilliant, gifted, and caring people you’d ever want to meet”.
“Yeah OK, whatever.”
“No, really...it was full of artists and writers and musicians and eco-warriors and hippies old and young.”
“What’s a hippie?”
One of the things that has haunted me my entire life, that I’m sure at least a few of you reading this can relate to is this: I am an outsider. I have been such for almost my entire life. I say almost, because there have been times where I actually have felt the warm embrace of something resembling community, despite the fact that most of the time I feel (and sometimes act) like I just got thrown out of a UFO.
When I was all of about 15 I read the book Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse. It was so profoundly impacting to my alienated adolescent mind that the second half of my stage name (Ludi) is an homage to that very author (my real last name is unpronounceable in any human language). Heretofore, I had thought that I was the only person who ever felt so estranged from this world. To march to the beat of your own drummer is a risky proposition...but if you are to be true to yourself you have to, if that is what the voice of conscience and intuition dictates. I dared to be just who I was and suffered slings, arrows, rotten fruit, and expletives galore. That which does not kill you...
Part of the issue was my wholly inappropriate and generally ill-timed asking of “The Big Questions”. As it turns out, most people are not all that concerned about trying to understand the meaning of life. That seems to be a distant concern at best, way behind the foremost concern of buying lots of things one does not need with money one does not have. Sadly, as the global wealth pool shrinks down to a dismal bit of nothing I kind of doubt that there will be a run on philosophy futures, but I could be wrong...I am wrong at least several times a day, so I am practiced enough in it not to take it too personally.
Here and there along the way I would find individuals who would be of a similar bent to mine. That was like manna from heaven: “Oh, you THINK too? Can we be friends?”. And every so often I would encounter a subset of a subgroup of a subcultural subspecies who managed to coalesce for some scant amount of time to meet in dark clubs or darker parties and spout existential poetry or quotes from Alan Watts or Robert Anton Wilson at each other while keeping an eye out for the “normals” who would invariably try to crash the scene as they wanted to be amused by the “weirdos”, as if we were some exotic exhibit in the reptile house of the local zoo. If they talked about football teams or said the word “brewski”, it was time to scatter and scuttle away like the cultural cockroaches many of us felt like we were at times. (In fact, when I lived in Minneapolis I hung out for a couple years with a community of aging goths and glam-punks and we called ourselves by that very name. It was a badge of honor.)
Viroqua and its environs seems to be a place where outsiders gather, in a lot of ways held together by the common theme of revulsion and repugnance at a dominant culture that seems entirely bent on destroying the very planet that we all live on. The dark side of human nature that seems to be so manifest in our collective suicidal impulse to consume everything in our path appears to have a far less intense grip here. We seem to live in a vortex of sanity...if sanity is to be measured by having the trait of not wanting to die gasping in the effluence of a cesspool the size of an entire planet.
“Why the hell do you want to take care of the environment? Are you some kinda socialist or something?” That seems to be the constant refrain of a regrettably large segment of the population our little vortex is surrounded by, and as the peril of ecocide grows larger, that drone gets louder. “Drill, baby, drill!” “Fraking is eco-friendly!” “Eat your hydrogenated corn syrup and be happy, you stupid peasants!”
Whether we are drawn here by the politics, the metaphysics, or the need to not be packed into a rented high rise like so many larvae, there is a set of principals that we either arrive here with or that slowly insinuates itself into our ethical cores. At it’s center seems to be the notion that we are all connected, that what I do either indirectly or directly affects YOU and vice versa, so we should probably not do terrible things to each other or the environment in which we all live. It seems an obvious thing...common sense really, but it’s amazing how we have created an entire culture that seems to operate on a diametrically opposed set of notions.
One of the observations I have verbalized to various people I have met here is that I think it is entirely possible that we could build a Great Wall of the Kickapoo Valley around several counties and be able to survive in a sustainable way...which is not something that I can say for pretty much anywhere else I have lived...or even visited. Granted, I would miss things like oranges and bananas, but I almost think it could work. Unfortunately, the insanity of the dominant culture would still find ways of spewing its toxins and radiation over and under such a wall, but it’s only a thought experiment after all.
When I think of a similar wall being built around the city where I lived prior to July 1st, Chicago, I think of this tiny little community vegetable garden I volunteered at. It was a sweet little piece of land that grew enough to feed probably one entire human being for approximately three months. It was also a rare thing and a beautiful thing in its own right. The people who created it seemed to do it more for public education than productivity. Large segments of people living in that city seem to be oblivious to how food actually HAPPENS. I was lucky in that I had a rural Grandfather who took great glee in sending me out to his three acres of vegetables to work the fields when I would visit in the summers, otherwise I would probably be just as dumbfounded by the sight of a squash as more than a few of the student volunteers were when a local school would fling them our way.
Such a wall would not be a good thing for Chicago, not under the current management and the current paradigm, at any rate...nor would it really be a good thing for our community either: we have some lessons to give to the rest of the world, once the rest of the world has finally found the current model wanting. Hopefully that day will come sooner rather than later.
And wouldn’t that be just delightful? That a relatively small enclave of outsiders, people at odds with the common culture, could be the people that prove by example that one can have a life of abundance and joy by learning how to work WITH nature...and each other...as opposed to trying to DOMINATE it...and each other? Wouldn’t that be something?
Yeah, I know...dream on. There are worse dreams to have though, and it seems that there are many people with dreams here...dreams of a better future than the past we are leaving behind.
We lost one of the people who was able to take the stuff of dreams and fabricate them into his very own reality...and further, was able to teach people how to do such things as well. That is a great loss accompanied by a great sadness, but at least we still have the dreams, and the ideas, and the skills. Those remain, and so does the community that can take those dreams, ideas, and skills and build wonders out of them.
And I hope we continue to do so. I really want to annoy that nurse someday.