How to be a (Real) Citizen

Riding “The Loop Trail”, a bicycle path encircling my city

Lest my title mislead you, this is not a “how-to” post; rather, this is a blog entry about my own fumblings toward authentic citizenship. Now that I am semi-retired (or rather, I “work for pay” only part-time), I have more time. I have more time to explore ideas and landscapes. I have more time for friends and family. And I have more time for crafting words (like these ones!). I also have more time for a citizenship that demands more of me than simply casting a vote or reading a news story.

I use the term “citizen” broadly, to encompass political participation, community involvement and environmental stewardship. Also, I do not mean to imply that citizenship has clear geographical boundaries. ‘Global citizenship’ is important, too (perhaps the most important, in our increasingly global world). For the time being, I practice global citizenship through “conscientious consumption” – e.g., challenging unthinking consumerism by using renewable energy, recycling and reusing, eating a plant-based diet, buying used, bicycle commuting, researching the environmental and social impacts of particular products, and purchasing goods that perform multiple functions. (For example, I make my personal care products and cleaning agents with five simple ingredients: fair trade coconut oil, baking soda, vinegar, zinc oxide and castile soap!)

Of course, conscientious consumption is only the start; for failing to have a negative impact on the global environment is not the same as having a positive impact on the global environment. Nevertheless, conscientious consumption has helped me strengthen my values and sharpen my awareness, even if I am not (yet) sure what robust global citizenship looks like for me.

In any case, I believe citizenship starts with inhabiting the place (or places) I live, with getting to know what, and who, lives in my town. This is not as easy as it sounds, especially in modern times. Being present in the place I live requires resisting the technologies, or even the career, that, over and over again, transport me away from home. It also requires a willingness to enter spaces in which my particular identities or beliefs are not represented, reflected or even respected. I believe this is where true citizenship starts, at home, respecting the place and the people you live with, whether or not they respect you back.

My own sputterings toward citizenship:

Earlier in the summer I took a bicycle maintenance course through my city’s local bicycle cooperative. Recently I was asked to volunteer my time and (clunky) skill. I spent an afternoon fixing kids’ bicycles and teaching them how to fix their own bicycles. And they taught me a thing or two!

 

 

I was asked if I wanted to join the writing group at my local independent bookstore — a beautiful shop that is solar powered and employee owned. I joined. Complete strangers shared deeply personal poetry and essays, reading their work out loud. Even though it terrified me, I read my work out loud.

I was asked to teach a class on nature writing to retirees. I agreed. In December I will spend a day at a retirement community, with people who have much more life experience than I.

I participate in free community yoga in our local parks and businesses. It is open to everyone.

I hike or bike in the desert, acquainting myself with the native plants and animals, getting to know and respect species that were hitherto unknown to me.

Starting next month I will attend all city council meetings. In the course of a year of attending these meetings, I hope to come to a more nuanced and complex understanding of the issues my city faces. And at that point I may raise my own voice.

Real citizenship is a lot more demanding — and a lot more special — than simply casting a vote or consuming mass media. It is a lifelong practice requiring lifelong commitment. But I think that if I am open to real citizenship, it will come to me. Most of the time just being here (and being present) is enough. I am asked to help. I am asked to participate. And all I have to do is say “yes”. And then show up. 🙂

Sarah

 

 

 

Photo Credit: Anonymous

 

Citizenship and Political Community

Tonight I am writing in a coffeehouse as part of a community writing group. People of all ages, vocations and backgrounds gather here Wednesday nights to work on poetry, novels, memoirs, screenplays and the like — writing that often draws on their own lived experiences. We begin each session by simply having a conversation for half an hour. Over time the strangers become familiar, and maybe the familiar become friends. Perhaps even a community of friends. Who knows?

We are all having different reactions to the crises of our country. For my part, I have disengaged from mainstream media. I get the short version of the news every morning from my roommate, Margot, a former social worker. We talk about it. We yell about it. We laugh about it. And lately — cry about it. Along with my morning coffees (yes, plural!), this ritual wakes me up. Every week I select a few longform articles to read — because I like lengthier pieces of journalism, which explore various angles and complexities of a single issue. Sometimes I share these articles with friends. Often I do not. Largely I do this for my own well-being. After all, I wrote an entire dissertation on the destructive effects of worthless media on the soul. Seriously.

My relative disengagement from the ‘show-that-is-mainstream-news’ has led me to think a lot about citizenship. I agree with Aristotle that citizenship is an essential ingredient in “eudaimonia” (human flourishing); part of what it is to lead a good human life is to be a good citizen. However, if being a good citizen requires remaining “well informed” on the “spectacle” of reactionary media+politics, then I am no citizen at all. I am what the Greeks call an “idios” — a private person. We get our word “idiot” from this word. It is not a nice word.

The summer before last I traveled to Athens for the first time. After mountain biking the Aristotle Trail (in Stagira, Macedonia), cycling/running up Mount Olympus and off-roading along the wild Mani Peninsula (in the south Peloponnese), I finally landed on Socrates’ stomping grounds, the ancient agora in Athens. Despite the heat and my own exhaustion, I walked and walked. For the first time I glimpsed what it is like to live in a genuine participatory democracy. Imagine if, on your way through the public square, you were to pass a senate assembly house (bouleuterion), a “tholos” (housing chief government officials), law courts, a stone “voting machine” or even a gigantic placard listing all current lawsuits. Imagine also that you are deeply familiar with most of these spaces and tools, having used them together with your fellow citizens. Interspersed with these familiar structures are religious temples, altars, a public bath, a jail, a theater, stores and more. Religion, recreation, commerce, culture and politics all meshed. And people actually spent time talking to each other in public. Indeed, Plato’s philosophic dialogues are based on the kinds of deep conversations citizens had with each other. (Unfortunately, “citizens” only comprised about 15% of the population, freeborn males.)

The great joy of citizenship — i.e., what makes it part of human flourishing — is that of being part of a political community. How do we skip the spectacle and embrace the community? What kinds of political communities can we “home grow”? Perhaps we need to broaden what we mean by ‘political’ and also disentangle it from partisan politics — the great divider and conversation stopper.

I will stop here, because I have been at this coffee shop for far too long, and all my companions have wisely abandoned me. But I do hope to develop these ideas, because this is just a start. Please comment or write me with any thoughts!

And because a blog post cannot not have a picture, I leave you with a picture from an Arizona Trail Association trail work day at Mormon Lake last weekend (does the path look less bumpy?):

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