We live in the world

A few days ago, I sat at my desk, carefully read through the directions for absentee voting, took a pen from next to my computer, unfolded the Rumney town ballot I’d requested months earlier, filled in the oval next to “Joseph R. Biden & Kamala D. Harris” (and every other Democrat), tucked the ballot into the envelope, sealed it, put two stamps on it, and walked it out to my mailbox.

I recorded the moment on my phone, then posted it to Instagram with this: “Never missed an election, and I'm not about to miss this one. Now can someone wake me after November?”

To detach, or not

I’ve personally been struggling with whether to engage or detach. Every week (every hour) brings some unprecedented event, the likes of which I’ve never even contemplated. It’s all too much. Most afternoons last week I went to work on my garage renovation, where I would put on a Pandora station of some classic rock or circa-90s nostalgia comfort music, blissfully ignoring the news for hours at a time, even as the daily pace of it outpaced anything I’ve known in my lifetime.

We joke about these stressful times. At least, I do. I ask for someone to please wake me in November after all this is over. Humor gets us through, at least it helps, and oh how I miss Jon Stewart. But perhaps even he couldn’t find the humor in what has befallen us all. He’s still fighting for healthcare for the first responders during 9/11.

On my Twitter bio I have an image of the ruins of the Acropolis, a photo I took two years ago when I visited Athens, and with it the caption “May you live in interesting times — ancient Chinese curse.” And so it is. I have no interest in living in times as “interesting” as these. What I most long for is for someone to make American politics boring again.

I wish for a functioning Democracy where we need not contemplate questions like, to what extent must my personal life become public, and precisely what percentage of my time must I devote to public causes and advocacy in order to satisfy my duty as a citizen?

The past few months (the past four years) it’s felt like fight or flight, and lately I’ve been leaning toward flight.

Which is to say, lock myself in my workshop. Focus on the renovation: measure distances, cut wood, drill screws, sand surfaces. I’m almost done. It’s soothing for me to do this work, and it has the added benefit of detaching me from the news of the day.

Last week, while the president was hospitalized and it seemed the entire world turned its attention toward deciphering the conflicting reports on the course of his disease, I spent much of my time wielding an impact driver and brad nailer, ripping and chopping wood and sweeping endless sawdust from the garage floor.

And yet, we live in the world

The problem with complete detachment is that it’s selfish.

Actually, I’m not sure I mind that. We are all selfish. The real problem is that, selfishly, this kind of detached life by itself won’t ultimately lead us to our highest purpose, or to happiness, contentment, nirvana, or whatever it is. Choose your noun.

A week ago, when in the evening I do check in on the news, I saw this:

It’s a nice summary of much of what modern psychology has determined makes for a happy, fulfilled life. Essentially, we need to figure out a way to match our nature to the world. We need to figure out what we are strong in, and how that may serve or improve our environment, our society, our tribe. It’s not enough to dig ditches — we must dig ditches so that others may plant crops, or pour the foundation for a house, or lay track for a railroad.

We must do something, and that something must fit the needs of the world around us.

And here’s the thing about my garage renovation: the world actually does need it.

Going north

In December last year, before coronavirus was anywhere on my radar, I recorded a podcast called Go North. I implored people to move north, literally. Only a small handful of U.S. states can be considered to be insulated from the worst effects of climate change, and New Hampshire is among them.

That’s why I bought this house in Rumney, in a resilient and tight-knit community, and made sure it was big enough to house my family and grow us some food. That, and the thousand plus sport climbs right down the road.

Since coronavirus has transformed our world, more have followed. People are moving north in droves. Rumney is currently sheltering more than a few big city dwellers, a few of whom are my friends and climbing partners. Across the street, a house which had sat empty for a year and a half is suddenly bustling, with outdoor gatherings and classical music blasting — its New York City owners decided to relocate here a few months ago. Meanwhile, Rumney the climbing area is busier than ever as everyone seeks the outdoors.

In Upstate New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine, city dwellers from New York City and Boston are buying property sight unseen, fueling an Airbnb boom, hoping to get away from the close quarters of city life, not to mention the expensive big city rent.

And so I renovate my garage. And who knows, perhaps afterward I will find another property and do the same over again. It’s one small part of how I can contribute to helping people go north, and besides — i't’s very satisfying to work with one’s hands and actually build something. And I’m getting better at that.

All of which is is to say: I need to give myself a break on this engage vs. detach thing. Every time I detach from the news, I feel like I’m ignoring a clear duty as a citizen. But duty to do what — tweet? Post to Facebook? Go march… somewhere?

No. The best thing I can do right now is do work on the garage renovation. So that more people can come here and climb, be outside, find refuge from coronavirus, and in the long-term, find a haven from climate change. I could spend 12 hours a day ignoring the news by renovating old properties into livable homes, and I would be doing the work of humanity. The work of civilization.

We live in the world. But living in the world doesn’t mean following the news 24/7.