Below is a fable for this moment.
A great blessing – and curse – of the last half decade is how rug after rug is getting pulled out from under our certainties. It’s had many hashtags: #waterislife, #metoo, #blm, #climatestrike, #j6, #fires, #floods, #storms, #afghanistan, #border, #authoritarianism – and #stopthesteal, etc. Into this comes #covid, #vaccine, #fauci – the excruciating polarization of something that at first seemed would bring us together: a #pandemic.
As they say in #nonviolentcommunication, I put on my Giraffe Ears (listening without judgement for feelings and needs) and listened to #nevervaxx friends and read the more balanced websites that focused on the negative effects of the covid vaccines, on the dark agendas of the state and Big Pharma, on the mechanistic mindset underlying the effort to prevent the worst effects of covid: sickness and death, overwhelmed hospitals, the shut down of our lively public spaces and economy, families torn apart by dueling and intractable opinions. At the end of this piece I will post several links that I think provide more nuanced information.
This fable reflects not just what i heard from the #sides, but what I heard in the hearts of people who seem to be on different sides of these complex issues. I rarely write fiction, so I offer this not as Vicki’s sword of truth, but as a spontaneous (likely amateurish) way my being sorted through all I have listened to, including myself.
The Village Resolution
When the medicines arrived from the capitol city, a 2-day ride away, the elders breathed a sigh of relief. The disease had seemed so random, plucking people from life to death like a child plucking flowers in a field without pattern or plan. Suspicion and defiance had grown among the villagers. Camps had formed. Some had protected themselves and their families by giving one another a wide berth and cleaning themselves often. Others had danced together in the woods, made love and generally felt free-er than they ever had to defy the rules.
You’re frightened little chickens!
You’re thoughtless, hateful brutes!
The herbalists and chemists worked around the clock in the city, compounding and testing one formula after another and the vials that arrived seemed like gods in a bottle. The people will be safe and the village will settle into old routines. The squabbles and jealousies from before the disease, disputes the elders resolved handily, would feel comfortably normal. Most of all, the people would live their full measure of years.
That did not happen.
Those who took the medicines felt free. Those who refused felt cornered by the pressure to cooperate with the plan to rid the village of the disease. The taunting reversed. Those who drank the brew were smug. Those who refused felt defiant, spitting into the well, coughing in the street, licking their hands and smearing them on every wall and door. Their children could no longer play with one another. The local healers refused to treat the ones who hadn’t drunk the medicine and got sick, heartbroken to violate their oath.
Even one of the elder-council refused the medicine, but with more dignity and care than the defiant citizens. The refusers cheered, held him as their champion and he couldn’t help feeling a bit more courageous than the others in his circle. The split had infected the one body everyone respected, everyone depending on to keep the peace.
The elders put on their robes, formed a circle (albeit outside and allowing space between), and began their deliberations. Seeing this, the seething hate simmered down to a teeth-gritting antipathy. Trust in the elders was great.
After just an hour, two of the elders, Brigid (who had taken the medicine) and Thom (who had not), emerged and spoke. The villagers huddled in 2 camps in the village square, as far from one another as possible. The refusers and the cooperators. They all, though, watched these two revered elders eagerly.
“Thom and I do not agree. Cannot agree. So we are going to present our cases to one another here. Now. In front of you. We will listen intently, as we respect one another. We will not argue. We have each promised that if the other’s reasoning is superior, we will change our minds. We have no idea of the outcome. Rest assured, in our council we felt the same animosity rising in us as we see among you, the same inability to find harmony and unanimity. This public debate seemed the only way out, and may fail. Please join us in three deep but discrete breaths.
The villagers were so silent they could hear the raven’s cry in the distant meadow. The council had never been unable to provide a clear and just solution.
Thom and Brigid were now seating facing one another.
“We drew straws to see who would go first,” he explained, turning his head towards the villagers, and then back to Brigid.
“Brigid, my trusted friend, let me tell you why I refused the medicine and believe it is bad for our village.” Murmurs came from the refusers, some fists punching the sky. Shhhhh came from both camps and silence returned.
“My family has remained well as the disease burned through our people. Would you agree that we have seemed immune?” She dipped her head slightly in agreement.
“I believe the body is a great mystery. We feel our hearts beating, our stomachs clenching in hunger, our bowels rumbling. We know how our entrails might look from butchering our animals, but what they are, how they work – we are ignorant. Yet, through observation, we know ever more how to stay strong. I knew that this disease required us to strengthen our vital force more than ever before, and I thanked it for the lessons.”
All of the villagers stared intently at Thom, waiting for the clues about how his family went untouched – which they thought was some good luck or even dark magic.
“We went up into the hills where pebbles of dense, shiny black rocks are strewn. I had discovered long ago that if I ground them down and taken some of the powder, I did not get sick when others did. My family gathered the red, round seed pods on the rose bush and ate them every day. We ate the bulbs of the kind of lily we use for flavor in our stews, and then had a lick of honey to wash it down. We took our lunch outside, even in the winter, and turned our faces towards the sun because we felt enlivened by this. We slept as soon as the sun went down, and deeply thanks to some spirits. We opened our door just a little bit – and barred it against the animals – to have fresh air while we slept instead of the foul air from both ends of our bodies. Every morning we went outside, breathed the fresh air, and moved our bodies to release the stiffness in all our joints. Every morning we sat together quietly, emptying our minds of our cares like pouring water from a pitcher and then each said some little thing that made us feel happy. Every day, even in the winter, we plunged our bodies in the cold pool at river’s bend and then sat shivering by a hot fire until we were bright red. Every evening, we drank a bit of whiskey, yes, even the children, and breathed the fumes until we could feel a tingle even in our cheeks and forehead. Most of these habits were known by all of you to make our bodies feel strong. But my family was the only one that took the time to do them. Most of you fell into fear and suspicion, regarding the disease as an evil wind that blew this way and that without reason.”
A murmur rippled through the refusers.
“Ain’t catching me jumping in that cold lake. No way.”
“OK for him to say, he doesn’t have to get up and work every day.”
“In other words, dear Brigid, I did everything I knew to keep this temple pure. I tried to explain these habits to everyone, but no one listened. Or they made fun of us. How stupid to swim in cold water. How stupid to not come out in the square in the evening to visit with one another. How very, very stupid to eat the powder from those stones. I will admit. I felt offended. I felt sometimes like a crazy man trying to convince others of what to me is obvious but to them is foolish. Fighting, I noticed, weakened me, so I stopped.”
The villagers cast their eyes down. Yes, they had all made fun of Thom and his family.
“When the medicine came, dear Brigid, I thought that to take it would weaken me. My habits had protected me. If I took some of that liquid from the city, it would be like saying I am stupid and they are smart. Think about it. When have the people in the city cared about us? They take our money, take the food we grow and tell us we would die without them. Can we trust the medicine they send us? Maybe that’s the poison!”
“Here, here,” the refusers cried.
“The more you all pressed me to drink the medicine to protect you and kill the disease, the angrier I became. I held my anger in. I stayed dignified. But I was offended. I was not like the ones fornicating in the woods, though you lumped me with them as stupid.”
A grumble went through the refusers. They’d thought he was on their side.
“People I called friends shunned me, as if I was the one spreading the disease. I will admit, Brigit, this has hardened my heart and hardened my resolve to refuse the medicine. I have though ill of all of you flocking to the wagon and opening your baby bird mouths for the medicine to be dribbled down your throat. I am very sorry for this, but I am not going to depend on the city people – who we all revile for thinking they are smarter than we are. Who say we are peasants as if that were an insult. And I am not going to depend on all of you to take up my habits, though I hoped you would. I am staying with my own counsel, with what has proved itself to me if not to you.”
Thom stopped speaking. His jaw relaxed, his face settled, his gaze fell to his lap. Clearly, he was done.
The people seemed puzzled. He hadn’t confirmed either side.
“Thom, my dear friend, I respect the wisdom of your habits even if I don’t agree with you refusing the medicine. Perhaps if everyone had done as you have, this angel of death would have passed over our village, not because we were the chosen ones but that’s we’d chosen well.
“You were careful. You were faithful to your habits, and that could not have been easy. I can’t imagine plunging my old body into cold water every day.”
Brigid laughed at the thought and the refusers laughed too. Damn if they would jump in that lake. Naked. Even Thom smiled and relaxed back.
“Thom, I have the greatest respect for you. But you are wrong, my friend, about the essence of this disease. It is not a cancer that befalls one. It is like a plague, a bad air, some deadly bug, that befalls us all. Our solution must be to protect everyone. We can’t split ourselves, as we surely have, between the saved and the damned, the fearful and defiant, and, yes, the good habits and the bad. Look at our people. Look. Two groups huddled as far from one another as they can get. Their hatred smells like a fart. A big one.”
Everyone tittered. “Did Brigid the almighty say fart?”
“In fact, my friend, without one another we have no village. We have no harvest. We have no festivals. We won’t sit in church together. We are ghosts already from having lost the life of us.
“Because it is like a plague, not a cancer, the remedy must be cooperative.”
Thom couldn’t help himself. He blurted, “Had they cooperated with me we would not be in this mess.”
Brigid paused. She was… what? Peeved? Grumpy? Ahh, in fact she was furious. What an ass Thom was. What an arrogant ass! She needed to settle down before she could speak again.
“Thom, you miss the point, my friend.” She still sounded peeved, but the cooperators were sure Thom deserved it. She had to heave several big breaths, her ample body looking like a bellows, before she could continue with enough calm to sound again like an elder. Let Thom be arrogant. I won’t respond in kind.
“We are not like you. We don’t have your self-control. Many of our people like our drink at night with friends. Many of our community like flirting and a few pinches here and there. We love to sing and eat our roasted meats and fall into bed at night with our wives and husbands and have wonderful sex without waking the children. We like to gossip.”
The villagers smiled at this, the refusers and cooperators alike. Indeed, this is what it’s like. What is life if not a roll in the hay and a pint with mates and eating big meat pies? They were beginning to unite against Thom.
“The people did not want your very excellent advice, Thom. They were afraid and confused and needed your patience. Somehow, I intuited this about my dear friends in this village, who bake the bread I eat, who fix my wagon and bring me their babies to bless. This bond between us, Thom, is the medicine. I took a day and a donkey to nearby villages and brought back news of the ones where the disease had taken only a few. I’d learned that the disease might go from one to another through our hands and lips, and told our friends we must wash often and kiss less. I was able to tell them that a cloth covering our mouths when we are out in the village might tell the disease to stay away. Many took this advice, some giggling, some complaining, some defiant, saying they didn’t need a baby nappy on their face. Some took to embroidering their family shields on their cloth coverings. The people trusted me, and we did this together. They trusted me, Thom. Trust is the medicine. When one fell to the illness, we grieved together. Perhaps this seems stupid to you Thom, but to me, this social glue is the biggest medicine.”
“We are all bone tired of this conflict, Thom.”
The villagers nodded. All of them.
“Here is my proposal. We will eat those rose fruits, we will inhale our spirits before we drink them. I doubt we will join you in the cold lake, but we will sit by the fire, still with our face cloths and clean hands, but we will still tell stories and sing.”
The villagers nodded. They could do that. They surely could.
The refusers now glanced over at the cooperators, giving a little wave to the old friends who had become enemies. A few men and women looked at one another, lowered their eyes and smiled inwardly, blushing. Brigid could tell they wanted the conflict to be done. One stood and said, “I’ll take the medicine, and I’ll tell you now that I will wed and bed Mary over there when I have.” Mary turned red, her hand flying to her chest.
Thom, however, did not soften.
“Are you finished, my friend?” he said with no lilt in his voice.
“If you have heard in your heart that we need one another more than we need purity. That our social affection means more to us than any perfection. That kindness and care are our medicine, as well as doing what we can to not make one another sick. Oh, even you, dear Thom, even you. We love you. You are that part of us who stands apart and perhaps a bit above. I will have none of the shunning and shaming many have done to those who won’t drink the medicine.”
She sounded stern. Though looking at Thom the cooperators knew she was talking to them. They trusted her and bowed their heads to examine their hearts. Were they doing that? Shunning and shaming? They certainly were. Yes, they were.
“And I will have none of the ridicule of the cooperators from those who won’t take the medicine! You hear me?”
They did, but they set their jaws and conceded nothing. Not a good sign, Brigid thought.
“Yes, Thom, if you have heard me, I’m done.”
“Well, I am not, Brigid. Having heard you there is more I need to say.”
The villagers seemed to all suck in their breath. Would he scold her now, here, in public, in this ceremony?
“I have been to the city. I know for a fact that they lie, that they will say anything to keep their posts and their hands on our tax money. How do we know the medicine they sent will heal us? How do we know it isn’t sent to weaken us, to stop our revolution?”
Many refusers set their jaws and jabbed the air with their fists.
“How do we know they have taken it themselves, that they trust the medicine? I trust myself, my herbs and my habits far more than I trust anything that comes from that city. It is polluted with greed. You are fools for believing them. There. I have said it. I’m done.”
“You have made a very good point, Thom. Doubt is healthy. I have also been to the city to meet with our colleagues on their wisdom council. I met with the mothers whose babies have sickened and died. I attended their churches, and heard the lamenting for their lost loved ones. And I met with the chemists who made the medicine. These are all honorable, caring people. And Thom, they have all drunk the medicine. All. All. And Thom, look around you. Those who have drunk the medicine are not dying even if they feel those aches that say the disease has entered. Those who have refused the medicine are still burying their loved ones. Do you know for certain that your habits have kept you healthy? Because you have judged us, Thom, you have shunned us. Kept yourself apart. Washed your hands and face in the cold lake daily. Keeping a distance. Washing often. These are our habits and maybe you are well because you follow us.”
The cooperators now punched the air. A win for Brigid, they thought. Thom is no better than us.
“Or maybe you have a special hardiness, like so many villagers who’ve enjoyed their pints and still not gotten sick. Thom, my friend, let go. Don’t be such an insufferable ass.”
Everyone roared. Oh yes, Thom was smart, but such an ass.
Several women among the refusers stood and said, “I will take the medicine for my family,” one said. “I’m tuckered out from every day trying to show you (gesturing at the cooperators) that you are wrong,” said another.
One woman in the cooperators surprised everyone by standing up and walking across the gulf between the groups, weaving herself into the middle, folding her arms, eloquent in her silence. She’d taken the medicine, yes, but she didn’t trust the city folk and was beginning to think she’d been duped.
“Brigid, I am glad for your sake that you will take up some of my habits. I’m glad for you, but I still won’t take the medicine. This disease will be followed by another and another because we have each abandoned our purity and our sovereignty and allowed ourselves to trust the city people, the merchants who make medicines and the bureaucrats afraid to lose their jobs. We must trust ourselves. Our own bodies. We are refusing more than the medicine. We are refusing to remain peasants in a world with kings. We are all sovereigns.”
A ripple of nods went through both groups. Indeed, no one wanted to be like the donkey chasing the carrot in the town’s mill, tricked into grinding their grain.
“We are surely responsible for our own choices, Thom, but none of us are sovereigns. We are members of a community. Responsible to one another. We take care of ourselves to better take care of one another. You are not free of gravity. Of the need for air. You were born in water and blood from a woman and you will die and feed the worms, just like everyone who has ever lived. Sovereignty without responsibility is arrogance. We depend on the generations before us and come after us, who die so we might live, who live on after we die.”
Thom interrupted. She was talking nonsense. Blathering. He had to get her and everyone back on track.
“This may be true, Brigid, but we are more than this. We have the power to heal not just with habits but with our minds. And more. There is more to living than being born, making babies, working until we are spent and dying. We are not animals, Brigid. We are not cattle to be fed and slaughtered. If I would drink your medicine, I would be that. A brute without a brain. I would be polluting my body and may never have such powers of healing. You are dear to me Brigid. We have argued and come to agreements as part of the council. We have trusted one another and the town has trusted us. I am sorry we can’t find a way forward for our people, but this is a line I cannot cross.”
Brigid seems to become heavier and squatter in her chair. He shoulders drooped like a sad hound’s ears. She sighed loudly. And sighed again. And again. Everyone waited in silence. Would they become a town that does it all? Takes the medicine, wears the cloths and eats the fruits of the roses? Would they become a town that doesn’t take the medicine but does everything Thom says? Who will we become, their faces all seemed to ask.
“Thom, I fear there is no middle way. Our job on the counsel is protecting the village from harm, and guiding us towards harmony and prosperity. Together we’ve examined each new idea from outside the village, and changed if change was good. But here we don’t agree and the math does not add up. We do everything your way – and I mean everything – we may have less illness or it could make no difference because what works for you doesn’t work for the rest of us. We do as much as we can bear of your way and take the medicine, we may survive the disease and become stronger and wiser. This is my desire. Or we refuse the medicine but don’t require ourselves to do as you have done, and allow those forces of living and dying have their way as they always have. Our knowledge can fill a thimble. Our ignorance is as big as the sky and as long as history.
“Thom, I believe we have to tell our people that we have come to a problem that the elders cannot resolve.”
No one could believe their ears. Refusers and cooperators alike depended more than they knew on the council to arbitrate disagreements. Now there seemed no middle ground.
“Brigid, there is a way. But you won’t like it. You will say I am an arrogant ass. You will say my pride has run amok. But maybe, just maybe, I am right, dear friend. Maybe my careful observations and good habits are the medicine.
“We can do it together,” Thom said to the crowd, trying to put a smile on his wizened face. “A new ritual for our town. And we can make it fun. (Oh the people snickered at that one. Thom? Fun?) We will take the powder, eat the rose hips, sit in the sun, dunk in the cold pool, sit by the fire until we glow red, breathe fresh air all day and night, sit quietly to draw on our inner council, inhale the potent fumes from our whiskeys, eat the bulbs of the wild lilies, wash with our soaps, and even wear the cloth indoors if we’re going to rub shoulders and laugh in each other’s faces. Everything but drink the poison from the city. What do you say, village? (He tried to sound jolly) How about we give the Thom way a chance?”
It wasn’t going over well. At all. He may be right. OK. He may be right one way, but he’s like a monk. He doesn’t have a normal life.
“I’ll do everything but the cloth,” one said.
“I’ll do everything but the cold pond.”
“I’ll do everything but don’t ask me to eat that foul lily bulb.”
“I won’t go to bed with the sun instead of drinking and singing.”
And so it went. Each one willing to do what they were willing to do and no more. And some said, “I already drank the medicine. Nothing bad happened. I’m well and if that medicine kept me well, I don’t want to stop anyone from having it.”
A lot of the crowd stirred at that. It was true. Many had taken the medicine and they had remained well. It was ok if someone didn’t want to take it, but they would not deny anyone a chance at it – if they wanted it. So no. And no. And no.
Brigid took no pleasure in watching the inevitable failure of Thom’s perfectly rational and perfectly tone-deaf prescription. He didn’t understand people. He never did. Not from the day he stepped into school and told her that she’d tied her apron bow wrong.
They nodded to one another, dignified in their defeat. They rose, turned and returned to the wagon that had brought them into town. Thom helped Brigid, who now seemed a hundred years old, get up and in, giving her fanny a push in the end. Some thought that a bit too cheeky, but said nothing. The driver turned the mule and they disappeared down the road.
The villagers now felt foolish, huddled into 2 groups, their animosity towards the others like magnets pushing them apart.
“Well, Mary, what do you say?” Thim said, “will you marry me?”
“Drink the medicine Thim and I will and gladly!”
Normally, at this the villagers would get out a blanket and toss the newly betrothed couple and they would giggle at all the ways their bodies fell together. Now, they didn’t know what to do and so they cheered. Fortuna, who was the closest they had to a healer, rushed to get a vial of the medicine, handing it to Thim.
“To life and health and babies” he said and tossed it down, Then the villagers got the blanket and had a great laugh.
“Baron, Dougald, Priscilla,” shouted little Maisie from within the refusers, “I challenge you to a game. Festus, Pieter, be on my team and we will win. I guarantee, we will win.”
“No you won’t,” the three young cooperators said in unison, “we will win!”
“We will! Festus, Pieter and I will win. And here’s the game.
“You have drunk the medicine. We have not. You do nothing, we do everything Thom said. Why not? It’s better than playing with a ball. It will make us strong like the hunters who bring dried meats to the fair. We know how to build shelters of mud. We know how to make baskets of bark. We know what plants to eat. We will live, you will become fat. We will be brave. You will be cowards.”
Festus, Pieter and Maisie punched their little fists in the air and flexed their muscles on their thin arms. Already they felt stronger.
“You will be dead and we will live to find a love and be tossed in the blanket. We will have fun and you will be like Thom. Stuck up and mean.”
Each team laughed and stuck out their tongues at the others.
The villagers all laughed. A good competition. They loved a good competition.
The Thom-team rushed off to the hillside to find the black stones to make into powder. They felt wild and free. The Brigid team (yes, they did call themselves by their departed elders), decided they would run races and climb trees to be stronger than the Thom team.
“If the disease doesn’t kill them, the cold water will,” they laughed and ran off.
Maeve, one of the cooperators, stood.
“If the medicine is good, we who have taken it will live. We will still wear the cloth until you stop dying and the disease is gone, but we will have our festivals and not fear for our children. If you, who do nothing, still live, well, aren’t we the fools. Living and dying. This has always been our way. I invite the women who’ve drunk the medicine to form a circle and those who have not to form a circle and if the elders won’t seek wisdom for us, we will hold it until they return.”
The women clapped and the men seemed relieved.
“Until we let them return,” one said, but that was too soon, their strength too fragile and a wave of hostility flowed towards the speaker, who said, “Only joking.”
And so it went. Some refusers started wearing the cloth because, well, why not? Many cooperators adopted some of Thom’s habits because, well, why not? Those who made small changes noticed they didn’t get those sniffles that came and went every year. Some went to the city to speak to the makers of the medicines, to find the truth about them. They were quite surprised by what they learned and came back to the village to report. The women’s circles considered this new information. Some people still got sick and died. Strong as well as weak, young as well as old. Over time, fewer sickened and those who sickened didn’t die. Babies were born. New lovers were tossed in the blanket and married. Friendships renewed. News of Brigid’s death arrived; one day her heart simply stopped. Some old refusers wanted to make something of that, but it fell on deaf ears. The people were simply sad. Some of the cooperators whispered that her heart was simply broken. Thom, it seemed, had gone elsewhere and the rest of the council, it was rumored, enjoyed their garden and made face cloths which they sold in the city to buy some sweets. Maisie’s team came back once, brown and strong, and then left for their huts in the woods, never to return. A few other children left to join Maisie’s camp and their leaving put a hole in the villagers’ hearts. The holes healed. And so it was. And so it was.