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Sunday, October 19, 2008

October in New England: Conflicting Signs, Competing Realities

This town where I live, this quintessential small New England village is beautiful in the Fall. Sometimes I forget how beautiful. Yesterday was a crisp clean October afternoon. It was Saturday and I was driving through town to get my groceries for the weekend. I was away from my computer and out into the real world. Comforted by the surprise of the cool fresh air and the reassuring solidity of this unchanging historical reality which surrounds me. Clean white wood frame houses, tall slender church steeples rising up into a cloudless blue sky. And then there are the people, some of them my friends, up on ladders, painting their houses, in their yards raking leaves or playing with the kids. I wave at some of them as I pass and they wave back. Joggers jogging, lost in their zone. Young lovely mothers pushing baby carriages, thinking about the future.

I forgot how beautiful it all is. How beautiful and powerful and overwhelming this particular reality can be. I'm on my way to the store and I'm driving through this great undeniable reality, and I am comforted by its immutability.

There is of course another reality, an alternative reality, a competing reality, that not-so-reassuring reality I left behind me on my computer. And it seems so far behind me now, so foreign to this glorious day, so infinitely removed from this crisp bright Saturday afternoon. I comfort myself with the thought that that other reality I left behind me is nothing more than a virtual reality, an insubstantial two-dimensional reality, that exists only on my computer screen or in my overwrought imagination. It's not a real reality like the one I'm out in now. It has not the same weight nor credibility of this sumptuous October afternoon in New England. I am temporarily comforted by this thought. I think about those dark, looming existential threats that I left back home on that now-darkened computer screen, and they seem as inconsequential and amorphous as children's fantasies, as foolish and spooky as Halloween ghosts. What power do they have here? I ask myself. What have these hypothetical specters of creeping sharia and pending Socialistic doom to do with this real tangible world I see around me now? Do these people who I pass on my way to the store look frightened or vulnerable? If I stopped and asked one of them if they were living in fear of al Qaeda right now, what would they answer? If I stopped and asked that man who is raking leaves in his front yard if he's worried about America losing its national sovereignty or the encroachment os Islam into our Judeo/Christian culture, what would he say? These are the normal people living in their normal world. That alternative reality is as absurd and out-of-place here as a Transylvanian vampire.

I take in a deep breath of New England air and smile. I feel better now. I'm back in the real reality. It's a beautiful day and I'm on my way to the store to get groceries for the weekend and I'm happy and healthy and I'm not in any pain, and that other reality is as faraway and impotent as some old movie I saw long ago. To waste my life worrying about the threats from that other reality is as foolhardy as wasting my life worrying about being abducted by UFOs.

But then I start seeing the signs. Just one or two at first. Then more and more of them, until they seem to be everywhere. They are the signs of Obama. And they are from that other reality I thought I had left behind but hadn't. And my Saturday afternoon is suddenly not so pleasant anymore, not quite so invulnerable as it was just a minute ago. I had asked myself, How could all this that I see out my window, how could all this great American reality actually change? And the answer is in the signs. How many people in how many different worlds looked around them in history and asked these same great questions? How could all this change? It is incomprehensible.

Then I see another little sign, tacked up on a telephone pole. An innocuous little sign, weather beaten and torn at the edges -- it's been up there for quite a while now. "No room in this town for hate" it reads. And I shudder to myself. This is the sign that advertises our vulnerabilities and our weaknesses. This is what makes this beautiful little town of mine so friendly and pleasant and so blind to the steady encroachment of that other less friendly reality. We have no room here for hate. And without hate we are vulnerable to those who hate us. We are, this sign proclaims, a community determined to be tolerant and just. We are fair-minded and trusting. We don't just welcome the Other into our midst, we eagerly embrace them. And if you are different than us, we say, if your culture is different than ours, and if your values are different from ours, no matter, we will embrace you just the same. Our survival is secondary to our tolerance.

It occurs to me that these different signs are all coming from the same places, these Obama signs and these 'no hate' signs. They were put up by the same people. They are making the same statement and they are proud of their statement. They want the world to know that we care, that we recognize our culpability in the evils that have beset mankind and this great green planet of ours, and we are going to make amends. We are going to change. You just wait and see.

These are the competing realities that are fighting for the dominance of my soul on this beautiful Saturday afternoon. I am in the world of the reality of the normal people for a little while, and sometimes I feel so out of place, my bleak alarmist pessimism seems as fantastic and incongruous here in this bright sunlight as that misplaced Transylvanian vampire. If only I could stay in this reality forever...