Coerced

Recently, the word coerced seems to weave through many conversations. As in, “I don’t want to be coerced.” People say they don’t want to be coerced to get a vaccine. They don’t want to be coerced to wear a mask when inside public spaces. They don’t want to be coerced to take a test to see if they are ill. I try to put this in context as I travel. While in the tourist mode, I read an article about the alarming escalation of violence on planes, people’s response to not wanting to be coerced to wear masks. The Atlantic recently did an article, “What’s Really Behind Global Vaccine Hesitancy.” It was disheartening to realize the vaccination rate in my northwest Montana county is equivalent to the rate in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I want people in both places to be healthy. Is this really too much to ask?

All sorts of reasons are given for refusals, or to explain what coercion means in the time of Covid. Distrust of medical science, distrust of governments. Someone posted on social media, “The letter ‘i’ is not in the word team, but is in the word independence.” It is a challenge to understand individuals making choices for themselves, when they don’t see the need to make choices within the context of their community.

It feels like an onion with more layers than I can possibly manage (I so admire Heather Cox Richardson), because there is also the political context. I noticed myself breathing easier in Berlin where Covid testing was available and free in many places, and proof of vaccines as well as negative test results were required to go into theaters and museums. Visiting friends in the Czech Republic, I hear that yes, restaurants ask to see proof but it is easy to provide false proof that allows you in. And reading the news, I follow the controversy where a legislator in the US proposed unvaccinated patients pay their own hospital bills – which is a rabbit hole we don’t need to go down. At the same time, I want hospital beds to be available for people with heart attacks or appendicitis, broken hips or C-sections. I don’t want healthcare providers to be exhausted.

It isn’t easy. Not for me (traveling with valid proof of vaccine), nor for those deciding not to get vaccinated, and certainly not for those who don’t have access to vaccines. The other day I saw an exhibit at the Moravian Gallery in Brno. The installation, “Demon of Growth” by Kristof Kintera , captures this time. All sorts of balls from golf balls to beach balls, Christmas balls to children’s balls, some beat up, some shiny. All connected. If only.

“Be Kind: You Can Make the World a Happier Place” Naomi Shulman (2019)

“Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued” Petr Sis (2021)

“The Tree Who Set Healthy Boundaries” Topher Payne (2020)

Staying focused

Even though I am trying to read the best books I can possibly find at the moment, I am still distracted by my community and the larger picture. The number of people opposed to vaccinations and face masks, Covid stats skyrocketing, people in this small town dying. Having civil conversations about the situation is difficult because it is as though we are speaking different languages, or using different logic systems. I long for something like the Babel fish in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” I wish there was some way I could understand where these folks are coming from, those who stand firm against any sort of mask protocol in our schools even as Covid numbers escalate here.

Of course, all the dystopian books I think of don’t seem to help. I really want something that not only provides a good ending, but with clear directions how to get there. I recently read Robert Putnam’s “The Upswing” which was compelling in how the period between the late 1800s and today was analyzed, but did not provide easy answers about what we can do now. And I am looking for answers.

Later this month, I take the bookstore on the road. Setting up outside the public library in White Sulphur Springs, MT on September 17 and 18, then at Mountains Walking Brewery in Bozeman September 19 and 20. I am hopeful enough road time, driving across long Montana stretches will inspire some ideas, and perhaps talking to others (outside) in different communities will also give insight.

I thought it would be kind to end this post on a positive note. Thought about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s “Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.” But for the moment I have no sense of direction, what the next step should be. But, of course, willing to take it anyway so putting on my lovely hat and a mask as I walk out the door.

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.