Tuesday, June 8, 2010

What Can We Pass On?

Because of my role with the Cavendish Historical Society, I’ve been in a unique position to study not only how people responded to the Great Depression in the 1930’s-that was the focus of the Society this past year- but am also collecting stories of how our town is being impacted by the current recession. In compiling the Business Directory for May 2010, I couldn’t help but notice how many small home based businesses are gone. Considering they are the backbone of our economy, that’s a very telling sign.

As co-director of Chronic Conditions Information Network, I spend quite a bit of time helping people deal with their respective health care crisis. The combination of the two roles has made me think a lot about our current situation.

Many are having a rough time. While the economic situation is a major contributing factor, so too is the aging of the “baby boomer” generation. It’s a “perfect storm” for frustration, anger, fear, anxiety and “just what is going to happen next?” You know it’s bad when NH Public Television is continually showing “Living through a Personal Crisis” almost round the clock as part of its current fundraising campaign.

I’ve been looking at things through a 1930’s lens. Interestingly, there was a study released in September 2009 that showed that longevity actually increased during the 1930’s. Why would that be when so many were without jobs and there were few public service agencies compared to today?

While there was no definitive answer, the authors guessed that it was more about the lifestyle of the era: people walked everywhere as they couldn’t afford a car (they got their 30 minutes of exercise every day).; alcohol and cigarettes were a luxury so these health negatives were significantly reduced; people slept in because they didn’t have a job to go to; little money was available for entertainment so people created their own fun; and gardens sprung up in everyone’s back yard, everyone went hunting and fishing, which ultimately resulting in people eating “whole foods” and not relying on “processed” items.

As the depression eased, and people returned to work, life expectancy decreased. Why? Again the authors can only guess. They think it related to the stress of working long hours in a new job.

In Cavendish, people didn’t have a lot to begin with. If you worked in the mills, you had the risk of being laid off, but you could still tend a garden, hunt and fish, which certainly made things a bit easier than if you lived in a city. If all else failed, there were the wild blackberries and raspberries of August. I’ve met more than one Vermonter who refuses to eat them because that constituted a large part of their diet in the 30s.

Life was hardly easy and there was even a “Hooverville,” shanty town, located near the old Fitton Mill area of Cavendish. People did what they could to help each other. Their ideas of renew, reuse and recycle make the best of our green living practices look like beginners. In short, trying to live a 30’s lifestyle today isn’t practical. However, we can learn from them just as future generations will learn from our experiences.

With that in mind, below is my take on thriving during these difficult times thanks to those people from Depression era Cavendish. What are your ideas? The more we collect, the more helpful it maybe to future generations.

1. Turn off the TV and computer and only listen or read the news for about a half hour each day. In the 30’s there was no TV or computer. Most of the folks in our town only had a chance to listen to a little bit of radio in the evening. If you were lucky to have electricity, and not have to hook the radio to a car battery, you could listen to “The Shadow Knows,” and the birth of the Big Band. Keep in mind that our news today has the philosophy of “If it bleeds, it leads.” The more frightening and upsetting the story, the more likely it will make headlines and the various TV programs will devote hours to it. You can make yourself nuts in short order on this stuff.

.2. Cook. Avoid the processed stuff and enjoy what’s appearing at our local farmer’s markets or from your garden. Share your extra with friends, family, and neighbors.

3. Walk or ride a bike. Leave the car at home whenever possible. If you want more exercise you can help the Historical Society with their Cemetery Preservation project by cleaning stones. You’ll get a good workout, learn some interesting history, and help the town at the same time.

4.. Invest in your friends and neighbors and create social opportunities. When I interviewed Sophie Snarski, a fiddler, who graduated from high school in 1933, she said she played three nights a week. There were “kitchen hops,” dances that rotated among the various farmers, plays, movies, and town dances that took place weekly. Because they weren’t competing with TV, Netflicks and various activities in other towns, people turned out for events. When I first asked Sophie about the 30’s, she talked a great deal about the good times they had and how much better the community was connected than today. It was only when I asked specific questions about the depression did she relate how strapped her family was for money. In this difficult era she created positive memories that have lasted her a lifetime.

5. Churches and the Grange played a major role in the lives of people in the 30’s. My take on that is join something. Those that belong to a church, Rotary or any other such group have a built in strong social network. If there is a problem, people know about it and can help. Having a spiritual belief-not necessarily a religion- is very important for most people. It helps to have a bigger picture to support you through the rough spots.

6. Do something enjoyable that engages you. It might be going to Six Loose Ladies on a Thursday night to work on knitting-again that social piece. However, anything that fully engages your mind, and gives your brain a break is going to make things a bit easier. Reducing cortisol (the stress hormone) levels in the brain is a real plus.

7. Hang out with people that make you laugh.

8. Less is more. Enjoy what you have and don’t obsess about what you don’t have. It’s not “stuff” that makes life worth living. Make time for the important things-a hot cup of tea with a friend on a cold winter morning; a hike up Hawk’s Mountain with your kids; a pot luck at a neighbors; helping an elderly neighbor with snow removal or putting in their garden; and watching for shooting stars on a warm August night.

9. We’re all connected. The more we obsess about world hunger, free Tibet, the BP oil spill (the 30’s also had the Dust Bowl), the lack of work or any other cause, and ignore the joys in our own community, the more challenging life becomes. The Buddhist concept of a mindfulness meditation on all centennial beings is a wonderful idea. Do it once a day for whatever time frame you can and let it go. If you can afford to send money or go to help, do it. Keep in mind that the more we work to generate joy and happiness in our own lives, the more it spreads among us and beyond.

10. My final point really comes from working for many years in AIDS and with people who are closing out their lives. Warren Buffett probably said it as well as anyone when he was asked to measure success, "When you get to my age, you'll measure your success in life by how many of the people you want to have love you actually do love you. That's the ultimate test of how you've lived your life."

Since I wrote this initial post, I would add one additional point, Be flexible and willing to change. Cavendish had to make a lot of adjustments in the 1930s, not only due to the economy, but also because the town was inudated with men from other parts of the country as part of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Some of these men stayed, married local women and helped the town grow in new directions.

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