Boundaries

Canada-US border at Roosville, MT

There seem to be more difficulties dealing with boundaries, although I suppose there have been difficulties for as long as there have been people drawing lines in the sand. Or when someone made a decision about who could use that cave, or hunt in that forest, or fish in that river. When the traveling bookstore isn’t on the road, it’s parked seven miles from the Canadian border. Other than showing the right papers, it was an easy place to visit – going up to Fernie for the wonderful independent bookstore there or on longer adventures to Edmonton (and the wonderful Alhambra Books). But since last March the Canada-US border has been closed for these sorts of trips. The boundary is quite visible in our valley especially in winter with that snowy line stretching from one mountain to another. Close but closed.

Even on this side of the border though, there are struggles with boundaries. Who wears a face mask? Who doesn’t? Why is that person standing so close to me while waiting in line at the post office? Last summer for the first time since opening my traveling bookstore, customers went into my bookstore wearing sidearms. There are my boundaries. Personally I don’t like people wearing guns into my quite small bookstore. I do want people in my community to wear face masks and take other precautions in public during a pandemic. But these are challenges because unlike the border visible across the mountains, I need to establish my own boundaries and decide how to apply them in my sphere. This becomes more complex with seemingly arbitrary boundaries the current Montana legislature and governor are changing at an alarming rate. Can transgender youth play sports? Can children who aren’t vaccinated attend public schools? And yes, people have the right to wear their guns anywhere. And now there are no public health mandates concerning masks or public gatherings from the state government. It is an overwhelming time with frantic urgency to write my representatives in Helena, trying to get them to be sensible about those of us who live in this state, all of us who live in the state. Forcing us to think seriously about our boundaries.

I have the traveling bookstore and plan to set it up in Montana this summer. I hope to take it to other states by Fall. Now I read books – some recommended, some left on my doorstep as a donation, some discovered at the local library. These current times make me aware of books dealing with boundaries – The Women in the Copper Country by Mary Doria Russell, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, True North by Jim Harrison, and Savage Inequalities: Children in American Schools by Jonathan Kozol.

Halloween

Last week while sorting books at the end of the traveling bookstore season, I had the idea to give books rather than mass-produced candy away for Halloween. There were a few aspects to figure out especially distributing something in the midst of a pandemic. With help from a friend, we wrapped over fifty books, marking each with a code so it was easy to discern if the package would be appropriate for a pre-schooler, a beginning reader, middle school student, etc. The town folks decided to do a Trunk or Treat on the main street so I minimally decorated the back of my car, loaded a pumpkin along with the books, and parked downtown.

The books were mostly a big hit. I suspect it was a combination of recipients getting something different (a book and not just another packet of M&M’s), and as it came wrapped, there was the heightened sense of receiving a surprise. Of course I quickly realized that small children often have small bags for their treats, so large picture books were problematic. Next year I will do a better job on that. I also realized that even in a small town, I should have had at least twice as many books to give out. Next year.

There’s the tendency to be optimistic that next year things will be better – politically, with the pandemic, with climate change. Surely we’ll get a handle on some of these things. Its evident we aren’t simply facing one person who happens to be a bully, but a sizeable portion of our citizens who support him. And we aren’t all diligently focused on stemming the Covid tide but muddled hurling terms like anti-maskers and hoax at each other.

I was thinking about all this while handing out books. There were kids dressed as unicorns and others as Harry Potters. Quite a few Captain Americas, some witches and princesses mingled in there, and four young people dressed as cows. A local restaurant owner dressed as a plague doctor, had me wondering when is a costume no longer a costume. There were two youngsters dressed in camo but I figured we’re in Montana and its hunting season.

It did surprise me the number of adults who weren’t wearing masks as they socialized along the downtown sidewalk meeting up with friends, standing in groups talking. It was unnerving to see a young teen dressed as Kyle Rittenhouse. I must admit I felt relieved to hand out the last few books and drive away. But of course, we can’t really drive away now, can we? Wherever we are, we are part of the solution – or part of the problem. But we can’t be neutral, it isn’t possible to live outside the fray. We can’t just drive away, leaving the problems in our rear view mirror. Its a matter of deciding where to put our energy.

Civil disobedience

Earlier this week, the traveling bookstore set up at a farmers market. The market manager put out signs reminding people to wear masks and maintain social distances. Besides selling used books and postcards, the traveling bookstore gave away free face masks, masks made by women in the community who have been sewing mountains of them since March.

People stand and read books during silent protest in Istanbul’s Taksim Square.

I really enjoy talking books with people. I appreciate hearing kids enthuse about what they want to read. I like seeing someone get excited when they find a book they are searching for on the shelves – or discover a gem they didn’t even know they wanted. The traveling bookstore is small but it does have a remarkable inventory. Ask the man who inquired about a book on horses and I tried not to look doubtful as I pulled out the only three I had, but one was EXACTLY what he wanted. Most of the time, setting up the traveling bookstore brings joy.

And then someone stopped by who wasn’t wearing a face mask. In my kindest I-care-about-you voice I said masks were required at the farmers market and I had a box full of free ones so he could take his pick. But no. He didn’t want a mask. He said, with a smile, he was practicing civil disobedience.

I don’t know about you, but hearing ‘civil disobedience’ got my mind spinning on Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King Jr. I thought of Rosa Parks on the bus, the Stonewall uprising and the people in Tiananmen Square. I wanted to ask him what he meant. I wanted to say civil disobedience is an act to be honored, it isn’t a joke. I wanted to offer him a book, but he had already walked away.

And I was pissed trying to think how to react. It is a situation that plays out too frequently in my community these days. So it wasn’t anger at just this individual, but at the situation with the pandemic, with individuals and businesses who make choices that are potentially harmful to others, and at myself for feeling powerless.

But the incident got me thinking about civil disobedience and the remarkable occasions when people stood up to make the world better. Not only stood up but put their lives on the line. Gandhi’s Salt March, protests in Egypt, Ukraine, East Germany, and Selma. The list is long and if everyone who participated was counted, it would be millions. Millions! Millions of individuals who acted to make a difference, a positive difference. A difference that made the world a better place for themselves and their children and their neighbors. People were arrested and tear-gassed and blasted with fire hoses, and some were killed. Those who survived were willing to endure anything because they believed their endurance would change things for the better. And often it did.

I don’t know what vision the man held who refused to wear a mask at the farmers market. I hope he has a view larger than his own inconvenience on a summer’s afternoon. I am thankful my thoughts turned towards those who stood up for change, those who chose to walk towards something better, who kept true to their vision for days, months, even years. And this led me to consider when a choice to stand against power makes sense, and why in other instances it just seems wrong.

Some suggestions……

Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience

John Holloway’s Change the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today

Dorothy Day’s Hold Nothing Back

Angela Y. Davis’s If they Come in the Morning: Voices of Resistance

Duncan Green’s How Change Happens

Audre Lorde’s Your Silence Will Not Protect You

Erica Chenoweth and Maria J Stephan’s Why Civil Resistance Works

If you decide to purchase any of these titles, please support an independent bookstore.