Two days into my annual visit to this small Adirondack town, my aunt sent me to collect the mail from the local Post Office. That’s how they do it up here. Taped to the door was a piece of letter-sized paper announcing a Celebration of Life for a woman who’d lived most of her life here but retired to Florida ten years ago. Never mind that I’ve never lived near a Post Office where you could post things like that on the door—hers wasn’t the only death this summer. A couple of weeks earlier the town said goodbye to two much loved life-long residents, one dead from cancer, one from old age. Then, just last week, we got word that a local businessman died of a heart attack at the breakfast table, one year shy of his planned retirement. Death hits hard, particularly in a town with a population hovering around 350—even when the number swells dramatically during the summer months.
The thing is, Death comes to us all. Why, then, do so many of us live like we’re never going to die? Why so much anger and divisiveness when our time on earth is very short, whether we live to be 40, 60, or 100?
Up here during my summer visit, we never watch TV. No talking heads to rile anyone up, although that’s not the reason we abstain. The stars at night tell a story. Many stories. The Big Dipper sitting above the little cottage is just one of them, and it’s a metaphor for life. Compared to the Big Dipper, we humans are all little dippers. Rich or poor, famous or uncelebrated, Republican or Democrat, our time on earth is but a blip in the universe. Many humans will come after us, and I’m sure we wish them well after we’re gone. But for that to happen, we have to begin to work together and get along.
There are signs that this can happen. Gun safety legislation, too long in coming, passed quickly after another horrific school shooting, this time at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. In Kansas, a majority red state, voters from conservative and more liberal counties turned out in record numbers to vote NO to a bill that would have abolished the right to abortion from the state constitution.
In Greek mythology, there’s a story about the Great Bear and Little Bear constellations, where the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper reside, and one version goes like this: Zeus, the king of the gods, falls in love with a young woman named Callisto, which makes his wife Hera very jealous. One day Zeus and Hera go walking in the woods and Zeus sees Callisto up ahead. Not wanting to make Hera jealous, he changes Callisto into a bear. Meanwhile, Callisto’s son Arcas is hunting in the woods and shoots the bear dead with an arrow. When he sees the dying bear turn into his mother, he begins to cry. Zeus doesn’t want Hera to figure out what’s happened, so he turns mother and son into Great Bear and Little Bear constellations and places them in the northern sky, the Little Bear curved towards the Great Bear.
If you see Zeus as representative of the powerful forces that are driving American citizens apart, you’re not alone. However, Zeus, as I see it, made a big mistake. To cover up his chicanery, he turned mere mortals into stars, where they’ve co-existed peacefully for thousands of years. We can be those stars!
Democracy can be messy. A cacophony of voices in a country of 330 million souls. Here in the North Country, politics lean right—heavily right—but not everyone votes the same way or thinks about individual issues the same way, be it gun control, abortion, or you name it. Neighbor helps a neighbor in need, even the few who don’t like each other for whatever reason.
For me, summertime up here is magic, even when it rains. Waking to the call of the loons, swimming in a pristine lake, crossing paths with deer and geese, gazing at the night stars, I feel as small as the smallest of creatures—and so very lucky to be alive in the land of the free during the short time I have on this earth.