444. Double-take on Community

February 27, 2015

Look. And look again. You might not see the same thing two times in a row. When I look at Bar Harbor in winter, I see a small New England town covered in snow (as it is today while I focus on this post). It has that Currier-and-Ives feel about it. In summer I see a bustling tourist town filled to the brim with strangers just milling around wondering what to do next, clogging the sidewalks and streets. There are days (when several cruise ships are in, for example) I wish I could hibernate like Taunton Bay horseshoe crabs for six months of the year—just dig a hole in the mud and retire from the scene for six months. Pretend the tourist season never happened.

The irony being that shop and motel owners are blissfully happy on the very same days that I am down in the dumps. They are deeply invested in the economy of Bar Harbor, and that economy barely limps along in the winter, but runs full-steam-ahead from July through October while I think of hibernating.

 

Bar Harbor in Summer

With a cruise ship in, the streets of Bar Harbor teem with summer visitors.

That double-take is the result of the delta signal in my brain between good times and bad. At either extreme of happiness or deep disturbance, that is the signal that alerts consciousness to pay close attention to what’s going on because we’re sure to be affected one way or the other. If we had fair weather and smooth sailing every day of the year, we’d have no need for consciousness because we could just set the tiller and let the boat steer itself while we didn’t have a thought in our heads.

But that isn’t how our little worlds work. We all have ups and downs, often several times a day. Depending on how we adapt to the situations we are in as they change for better or worse. Those situations aren’t the issue, it’s how we take them from our current perspective. Sometimes the very same situation sets us off in ways that are diametrically opposed. It depends on our mood at the time, what we had for lunch, how well we slept the previous night.

As always, we’re in for the long haul, so slide from good times to bad, or the reverse a few minutes later. Just wait a bit and we’ll get over it. Or so it is to be hoped. Being mortal means we have earned the right to change our minds. To peer out through a new pair of eyes.

I have winter and summer eyes to cast on Bar Harbor, which as a New England coastal community, is always doing its thing. I live here, so am along for the ride, whatever it brings. One thing for sure: tomorrow will be as different from today as Miami Beach is from Helsinki.

 

Card players on the town pier, summer in Bar Harbor.

Card players don’t look up to enjoy the harbor.

How we handle these dichotomies in experience is up to us, depending on how resilient we are. We can reach out with cheery spirits in an active manner to kindle engagements that might be lagging a bit. We can wave to friends and acquaintances instead of turning our backs. We can reach out to start an engagement, shake hands, pat them on the back or shoulder, share a hug, give a kiss, initiate a conversation, share a story, invite friends over for a game or for dinner.

We each have a repertory of gestures that signal our readiness to engage. Nothing is more powerful than an open smile in inviting a trusting engagement. Eyes askance or to the ground signal otherwise.

Even at work where we are expected to do our job, we can do it with a style that includes others in the process we are engaged in. If we seem to be enjoying ourselves, others will want to join in the fun. If we keep our head down, others will skirt our workplace by a good margin.

By synchronizing our actions with those of others, we can make it easier to be ourselves in mutual companionship, even inducing them to join us. Such activities are moderated by our strengths and needs at the time, which we can subtly broadcast in our postures, gestures, facial expressions, and tones of voice.

 

Bar Harbor in Winter.

Body language on skis in wintertime Bar Harbor.

In a very real sense, communities run on the collective body language of their members at different levels of intimacy. To make anything happen, we have to select the level we want to engage on, then show up and give it a try, always being mindful of the level appropriate to that occasion.

The stuff that communities are built of is not bricks and mortar but flesh and blood. And something else: human minds. Each unique, each in a mood of its own. No two communities are the same because their prime constituents are highly specific. For that reason, it is dangerous to generalize about the nature of communities. With a different mix of unique inhabitants, each community is unique unto itself.

Since communities are the warm seas that bathe our minds, we want them to harbor us as contentedly as we enjoy them. Harmony between a place and its residents is the watchword, even if seldom achieved. There it is again, that helical loop of hospitality and gratitude between a one-celled organism and its surroundings.

We humans are no different in depending absolutely on the nurturing engagements we establish with the communal niches that provide for us. Every community is just such a niche in providing water, clean air, food, shelter, work, companionship, and much else.

The polarity of the relationship we establish says it all: this is the good life, I like it, I approve, I want to stay here; in contrast with: this is the pits, I hate it, I disapprove, I can’t wait to get away.

To get clear with ourselves, we intuitively react in such passionate terms. Our minds are made to sharpen distinctions in our minds so we think and feel in bold strokes. Our minds do the heavy shading for us so we won’t miss the point in a wash of subtle tones. Fish or cut bait, stay or move on, help or get lost.

People pay good money to ride on roller-coasters to remind them they are alive in two different ways—up and down, good and bad. Being alive means having choices. Choices and decisions require backing consciousness with sound judgment. Whizzing us up and down, life is guaranteed to deliver just such a ride, testing our judgment on every hill and valley.

Please note: I usually have second thoughts about hibernating for the duration of a summer in Bar Harbor. I may let the throng get me down at times, but I always bounce back and take to the woods for a walk, or Taunton Bay for a row. This year I’ve had thoughts of hibernating under all this snow. Just dig a hole next to my poppy bed and hunker down where the snow will serve as insulation from the chill blast out of Canada. It’s not that bad things never happen. Our paramount skill is in being resilient no matter what comes our way.

That’s it for my posts on the topic of community. Now it’s on to the family level of our engagement with the world, which I will explore from my point of view in upcoming posts.

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Reflection 50: Cleavage

January 16, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

 

I am walking up Holland Avenue in the middle of the road because the sidewalks have not been plowed since the last storm. A strong northwest wind is bringing arctic air down from Canada. I watch my footing because the road is so icy. Looking up briefly, I see a man’s back as he scrapes the side of the house at the end of the street, moving side to side, pressing his body against whatever tool he holds in both hands. I’ve done that when sanding. Cold day for that kind of work. Looking down, I pick my way between patches of ice. Fifty feet farther on, I look up again. The man is gone, replaced by a man-sized cedar tree blowing back and forth in the wind. It even has shoulders where its spire spreads out into branches.

 

From November through April, I love Bar Harbor. Just another small village on the edge of the bay. No cars to speak of, hardly any walkers. Schools and banks are open, the library, post office, and two movie theaters, but most stores and restaurants are closed. A few fly the snowflake flag declaring themselves open for business, but there are even fewer tourists to take them up on the offer. It’s just us locals, happy to have our town to ourselves for the duration.

 

The other half of the year is a different story. That’s when cars and buses and RVs and cruise ships flock to town. Everyone wears shorts, even people who shouldn’t even dream of wearing shorts. Varicose veins on parade. Pink, hammy thighs, Venus-of-Willendorf bottoms stretching the limits of modesty. And, too, breasts of all sizes, belly buttons, and cleavage come to town. Not only do they spill onto the streets, but they are displayed for maximum visibility. Guys tend to all look the same, cut from the same brownish-gray fabric, outfitted with sneakers, baseball cap, shades, ill-fitting T-shirt. Their function is to carry the money. The gals’ job is to make themselves attractive while they spend it.

 

But back to cleavage. What is it about cleavage that so sticks in my mind for a couple of seconds until the next candidate comes into view? My personal consciousness has special sections for wildlife, books on the brain, and cleavage. My mother had her cleavage, my partner has hers, as, to one degree or another, does every female of the species once her hormones start flowing. You’d think by now I’d have gotten used to it so my brain cells could move on to philosophy, say, or aesthetics. Which is the study of beauty, and that brings me right back to cleavage. There’s no getting away from it.

 

Cleavage is an outward and visible sign of vaginas, ovaries, and eggs—in a word, fertility. Cleavage, I learned in school, is a secondary sex characteristic. Seen that way, it is just another physical attribute, subject to a wide range of variation. But an attribute with a difference. Men don’t have cleavage, unless you count the gap between well-developed pectoral muscles. Men do have nipples of a sort, useless ones, proving they are a variation on the female body plan rather than vice versa. But men don’t have cleavage per se, up front and personal.

 

What men have is—no, not cleavage envy—but a lust for cleavage. Let me rephrase that: I can’t speak for anyone but myself. I have a deep appreciation for cleavage. Cleavage is a way station to babies. I don’t have a lust to go that far, but I do enjoy the way station. A little bell goes off in my head when there’s cleavage in the neighborhood. I don’t see it so much as just know it’s there. By a kind of sixth sense. Which is reassuring. Beyond admiration, nothing is expected of me, much less required. I go about my business, the cleavage bearers about theirs. It’s a great arrangement with no strings attached.

 

Sexist writing is politically incorrect these days, but I’m here to declare there are fundamental differences between men and women that need to be talked about since we have to live with them every day. Cleavage, cleavage, cleavage. There, I’ve said it. Long may it wave! Long may breasts wave, vaginas, ovaries, and eggs. Without them there’s be no babies because word would get out how much work, time, and money it takes to raise them to adulthood. As long as there is cleavage, however, there will be reproductive sex, and babies will be born. That’s one of consciousness’ main jobs. If it wasn’t, none of us would be here today.

 

In some cultures, women are hidden under wraps so their cleavage may be inferred but is never explicitly on view. Until it’s too late, that is—until the bearer is undressed and sex is precisely the issue. That creates a different form of consciousness, consciousness that must make the most of very few clues—such as an exposed toe or ankle, or a burqa pressed by the wind against the lithe body within. And leads to customs such as allowing temporary marriages for dalliances and on-the-job training.

 

Regarding sex, consciousness handles the aesthetics while unconsciousness tends to arousal and the details of execution. Just as, in the case of nourishment, consciousness enjoys colors and flavors while unconsciousness makes sure that food gets properly digested. Consciousness makes both food and sex appealing, setting the stage for unconsciousness to see to the biology of making babies and maintaining metabolisms. Centerfolds and cookbook photography appeal directly to the conscious mind: Doesn’t that look tempting! But it takes the unconscious mind to get bodily processes past mere enticement to the reproductive payoff that vertebrate genes have achieved so successfully for over 300 million years.

 

Consciousness is just the surface of a pond whose depths remain hidden and mysterious. Once allurement leads us to take the plunge, consciousness gives way to unconscious processes that accomplish deeds far beyond what we may have in mind. Which suggests that we belong to consciousness more than it belongs to us. The art of living is largely a matter of deciding how readily to do the mind’s bidding. Beyond that, connoisseurship (enjoying the view for its own sake with a certain detachment) requires learning how to stop short of taking that fateful plunge into the depths of the unconscious.

 

I’ve never heard it said, but any time of year, Bar Harbor is a great place for the human mind to witness its own consciousness in action. But so is every other town. Look at what Sherwood Anderson found in Winesburg, Ohio. There goes Doc, writing great thoughts on pieces of paper, stuffing them into his pockets, where he rolls them between his fingers into little balls as he makes his rounds, only to dispense them onto the side of the road like so many paper pills. Life is the story consciousness tells us as we make our rounds. It’s worth paying attention to else we might think we have to get somewhere special while the entire spectacle is within us the whole time right where we are.

 

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