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Time for Ashland to take a post-election breather

With the election firmly in our rear-view mirror, the temperature is finally coming down in our community. Between the pandemic, Almeda fire, and the elections, anxiety reached a fever pitch as we moved through the fall — and we saw what came from that fever in the tone of our community conversations.

We are now on the other side of the election and are focused on post-fire recovery. Two down, one to go. COVID-19 infections are surging as I write this, but we know what to do and we finally have national leadership coming that will take it seriously, listen to respected scientists and call us to take the actions necessary to protect ourselves and each other.

What will we do in Ashland now that our collective anxiety is dropping? At the height of our season of discontent, some Ashlanders lost their way and found themselves demonizing those who disagreed with them — making personal that which never should have been in the debate of ideas and vision. Others found that their relationship with the truth became much more complicated. Often these behaviors were the opposite of how they normally behave. Being our best selves under all of this strain has been a universal challenge.

But we are in a new place now. We will work our way through the pandemic and eventually come out the other side. How we emerge will depend on how well we navigate these next months and years together. Now is the time to take a breather, get our feet back under us, think hard about what we will do to move our community forward, and take action.

While we cannot control when we will experience things like a pandemic, or a wildfire or smoke event, we can take action to build economic, social, and climate resilience. And, on a personal level, we can take responsibility for how we respond and who we let influence our thinking.

This quote from Aldo Leopold is one of my favorites in large part because it simplifies something that we can lose sight of in the details of any particular decision that affects the environment. He said, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” It’s a powerful and helpful litmus test.

Maybe we need something like this to help guide our personal interactions. Maybe something like this would serve us well in these times: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the social fabric, relationships, and ability to put forward new ideas in a community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Perhaps we could start by assuming our neighbors have good intentions until we have proof otherwise — and offering a gentle but firm correction for our friends and neighbors when they fall into the trap of demonizing others or stifling the voice of their neighbors. Maybe this correction, delivered with care and love, will serve as a gift that helps them see what is happening and move back toward their best selves.

Maybe we can chalk the bitterness of the public discourse of the past year up to too much stress piling on all at once and set it down so that we can move forward together — apologize if we have made mistakes and offer forgiveness even if it’s not asked for.

After working for 12 years in the climate resilience field, this is what I know. Communities that do the best as the world is shifting beneath their feet (sometimes literally) are those with the tightest social bonds who come into a disruption with a strong sense of community and shared purpose. We have the foundation we need in Ashland, but we must repair the relationships that have been damaged because too much bad stuff has happened to us this past year.

Recently, my pastor reminded us of this quote by Thomas Merton, “You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith, and hope.”

We can be what the future requires us to be if we work hard together, hold ourselves accountable, and are honest with ourselves and each other. There is much work to be done, but we are not afraid of hard work or hard conversations in Ashland.

Tonya Graham is a member of the Ashland City Council.