On the day the federal government shut down this week, throwing our already-sequestered lives into disarray, disrupting our plans and bottom lines and whatever hopes we had that our elected representatives would begin to govern responsibly again, tens of millions of us took a collective pause. What will it all mean? How will we survive? Even those of us who have followed politics closely for the last thirty years had to pause. My first (and only) question was: Will the president finally hold firm long enough this time to stop these bullies from holding the government hostage over and over again? (For, make no mistake, if he caves again, we’ll be doing this every couple months till kingdom comes.)
The ostensible reason for this latest caper is implementation of the Affordable Care Act, a signature piece of legislation implemented by Democrats based on a Republican idea and model from Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts. The ACA went into effect on 1 October, just as the federal government was shut down because Republicans wanted that act delayed. Republicans, of course, would never have pursued such a tactic if it hadn’t worked so well for them in the past with this administration: don’t like x? Shut it all down. Threaten and dismantle the entire economy to make your regressive points—even when doing so doesn’t actually make your point one whit. But the whole caboodle this time was like the Monty Python players, except drunk on bad moonshine and minus the British humor and haberdashery. Nobody knew how long it’d take before those holding the government for ransom would stop. All we really knew was that ordinary citizens’ lives were on the chopping block again. The working classes and the poor—those who have been suffering the most from all this irresponsible governing by both parties for so long now—were certain to pay first and longest. It was a hard hit, to say the least, for anyone who cares about anything at all beyond sports and fashion and celebrity gossip.
The next morning, we—the people of the United States—got up and carried on. We went to work, took care of our children, helped our neighbors, and tried to figure out how we could help those who are struggling alongside us. Some of our churches and nonprofit organizations redoubled their efforts to feed those being hit already by an economy rigged solely for the wealthy: my email inbox was filled with appeals from the organizations I support. Individuals like my husband and me, with little to share (and less on the way because one of our jobs was being cut), determinedly shared what little we have, giving in hopes of helping others who are worse off. Some emergency personnel showed up for work even though they weren’t being paid. People cancelled vacations. Teachers rewrote lesson plans to provide substitutes for website materials no longer available at the Library of Congress or NPS, for just two examples. Some of us called Congress and signed petitions, but far more just got on with the responsibilities of our daily lives. This is what we do. We are US-Americans. Despite all of our shortcomings, most of us try to ease some of the worst side-effects of our craven form of predator capitalism, and we do carry on. Nose over our toes, one foot in front of the other, for as long as it takes.
The ‘nose over our toes’ bit has humbled and saddened me some this week. I didn’t grow up with that phrase, but since my mid-twenties—the middle 1980s—it’s become a bedrock of my being. On the heels of having survived more than six years of being battered by my first husband, I dove into life with a ferocity that I barely registered as such then, but that shocks the very heck out of me now. With no pre-planning involved, I tackled everything that frightened me all at once.
Heights, snakes, deserts, people, school, and public engagement. For each one I picked the most challenging task I could find: for fear of heights, rock climbing; for fear of snakes, close encounters with rattlers; for fear of deserts, relocation to one; for fear of people, learning to track; for school, enrollment in ten classes per semester at a local community college; and, for public engagement, speaking before large numbers of people and working alongside others. Every tactic worked like a charm on the fear. I focused so intently on the tasks, breathing myself into their warp and woof, that I didn’t have time to feel fear for long. Each task, too, became its own reward: fun and challenging and a little kick in the teeth of the fate and connections that had devalued so much of who I was then. I’d long been good at putting one foot doggedly in front of the other, no matter how long and how painful the trek, but when I happened onto the little matter of where my nose was located, my whole existence kicked into higher gear.
That happened on a vertical rock face in the Grand Tetons one chilly summer day in 1984. “Nose over your toes,” the instructor said in my first climbing lesson. “Here. Try on this boulder,” pointing to a 45-degree angled rock face next to us. “Put your whole foot down, and keep your nose over your toes. Too far forward and you’ll pitch forward. Too far backward, and your ass’ll get skinned on your way down. But if you keep your nose right over your toes, your weight’ll stabilize you and you won’t slip.” He was right. I walked down the 45-degree rock as if I were on flat ground, and then I put my Firés on the vertical rock wall and went up it like a mountain goat minus the cute chin hair and horns. That didn’t cure my fear: I had to learn to fall and cuss like a sailor before that would happen on rock walls from Joshua Tree to Yosemite to the Flatirons to the Gunks, as well as to rappel without a harness (photo here). But that concept changed my life: at all times since, climbing or not, I have known where my nose is in relation to my feet.
This has been remarkably practical, in ordinary ways. It has gotten me out of trouble I did not yet know I was in. It has required me to get my head out of the intellectual clouds I’m wont to inhabit—those wide skies of existence that I can’t help but steer toward—and keep a steady relationship with the ground. Keeping my nose over my toes also requires me to attend to the smallest details, to not lose sight of my own breath, and to make some effort to accommodate the other beings alongside me. I adjust my gait for ants and spiders and lizards, doing my deadlevel best not to end their small lives while rushing on with mine, and that reliably makes me a better human to know, much less endure being around.
Since 1984 I’ve done a lot of things that should rightly have unnerved me and didn’t. I’ve also done plenty that unnerved me at first . . . until I remembered where my nose was on the issue . . . and then no longer did. As I see it, my fellow citizens and I are carrying on, nose over our toes, putting one foot on the ground after the other for as long as it takes. Period.
But—and this is a really big, consequential ‘but’, I believe—far too many members of the establishment (all three branches of government and the corporations which own them) are playing a peculiarly deadly form of US-American roulette with all our lives right now: they’re breaking the economy (on purpose), degrading the environment (on purpose), and running generally amok on our heads. The checks and balances that were once built into our founding documents and agreements have come undone, raveling under the continued onslaught of politicians beholden only to corporate and uber-wealthy donor-masters.
We, of course, are carrying on, nose over our toes. That’s a trait I find extraordinarily congenial. We’re liable, however, to have to step up our game: to get our noses into our government’s muddles more effectively, and to make common cause with one another better to heal our communities and earth and make a world that’s worth living in again. If we don’t do this well and soon, I have some doubts about whether we’ll all have noses left on which to center ourselves anymore. Perhaps it’s time to do more than just endure the lot, doggedly putting one foot in front of the other in hopes of a better tomorrow. Perhaps it’s time to do that in public, taking back the helm from those who have steered it into every last ditch. I have great faith that this is possible. When it comes right down to it, Congress doesn’t represent us well or at all anymore. We are far better people than anyone watching them could fathom. I’d like to see us rein the whole lot in and get their noses back over our collective toes. Our asses are taking a real skinnin’ right now.