Saturday, September 26, 2009

No reset button. No safe havens. No navel-gazing. It's about "creating communities"

We’re so involved with the here and now that "we’ve hardly ever had a chance to step back and look around."

That’s Patrick Overton of the Front Porch Institute speaking at the second Wyoming Arts Summit in Cheyenne on Thursday. The view from his Oregon front porch is this: we’ve all been so busy consuming that we haven’t paid attention to what’s happening in our country and in our communities and in ourselves.

"Our greatest crisis isn’t ‘dumbing down’ but ‘numbing down,’ " Patrick said. During the past several decades, we’re let a lot of life just pass us by.

He’s not the only one who notices. Massive rumblings are afoot in the land, from left and right and center, although I'm not sure there is a center any more.

Patrick mentioned Kurt Anderson’s recent book, "Reset: How This Crisis Can Restore Our Values and Renew America," which basically says that Americans can weather the storm and prosper just as we did in the last great "paradigm shift" of the Reagan era.

"I don’t want to go back 20 or 30 years," said Patrick. "I want to go someplace else."

Forget the nightmare of returning to the Reagan era – although all of us would be much younger. What led us out of that era were these things: "Greed is good" and trickle-down economics and union-busting and open markets and "send jobs overseas" and solid gold umbrella stands and bad mortgages and, worst of all, the "Me Decade." We all fell prey to me-me-me. I’m in this club too. I may have been a bit more involved in my community, but I still wanted mine and worked hard to get it. As Patrick put it: we had "increased expectations" and "decreased accountability." We felt we were entitled to certain things and we were going to get them, by gum, and we were going to get them even if it led us into the world as in "Wall-E." The robots do all the work and we all sit around fat, dumb and happy. Scratch "happy." Make that "numb."

The numbness seems to be wearing off. Americans are angry. Michael Moore is angry. Glenn Beck is angry. The 9/12 protesters are angry. The G-20 protesters are angry. The family that lost the house to foreclosure is angry. The guy who lost his job is angry. The young veteran just back from Iraq is angry. Grandma is angry. I’m angry.

We all seem to feel that things are slipping away. But, instead of yelling at the TV or a Congressman, we need to look around and see what is happening locally. Not navel-gazing. This is a valuable thing and writers engage in it often. But now we're going to have to look up and out.

Thus we return to the Arts Summit. Art is a personal thing to those who create it and those who appreciate it. But it takes a village to plan it and promote it and fund it. But what if it also takes a village to create it?

Patrick usually doesn’t mention the word "art" when he’s working with a small community. It conjures up too many competing emotions, fear the primary one. Often this ordained minister, poet and scholar is too busy serving as mediator among the town's various competing factions. First the peace talks. Later we can talk about the arts.

He challenged all of us in the arts world to "stop talking about art and start talking about creating community." He even has some new terminology for those of us who work in the arts. The terms "creative community" and "creative class" has been bandied around by deep thinkers such as Richard Florida. Patrick thinks that we are all better served if we start talking about "creating communities." "Creating" here is used as an adjective and not a verb. We arts administrators tend to think that we are creating creative communities. Truth is, each town and village must be creating their own community themselves. We can provide some tools, but then it’s in the citizens of the town to do the heavy lifting. No disinterested bystanders allowed. And no silly turf battles.

Talk about hard work. The shouters can’t just shout, and we can’t just make fun of the shouters. We actually need to talk to each other and work together. That sends a ripple of fear down my spine, that I would have to be part of the conversation instead of doing my shouting from the safety of this blog. But if I want to be a citizen of my town, I need to be involved. That’s Civics 101.

By working together, we all create. We stop talking about art and create our own masterpieces of civic responsibility. It will be messy in the way that real democracy is messy. We will rise out of our numbness, take a look around and see that there are many things to be accomplished.

Patrick sums up by talking about "the poetry of place." It’s the title of the book he's working on (writers always work the conversation back to books). "I try to focus on the ‘poetry of place,’ the relationship that people have with each other and how that impacts the geography. This is messy stuff because we don’t get along very well."

Tough economic times are forcing us to work together, Patrick says. "The world doesn’t understand that it’s important to be creative. We have constructive and destructive energy. If people don’t do the former, they will do the latter. And I don’t even want to go there."

During the summer we witnessed an inkling of that sort of country. We truly don’t want to go any further than harsh words and taunts and sign-waving and ridicule.


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