life between the pages

“I spent my life folded between the pages of books.
In the absence of human relationships I formed bonds with paper characters. I lived love and loss through stories threaded in history; I experienced adolescence by association. My world is one interwoven web of words, stringing limb to limb, bone to sinew, thoughts and images all together. I am a being comprised of letters, a character created by sentences, a figment of imagination formed through fiction.”
Tahereh Mafi, Shatter Me

Friday, April 15, 2005

continuing the rant

Dear Ones:

Thank you again for listening to my rant yesterday afternoon. It was so nice to come in this morning and read all the lovely posts, both on & off list. I am happy to report I am quite mollified by your empathy, and have decided that maybe I will stick it out awhile longer. At 5 p.m. yesterday I was missing the good old days of being chased out of an Alabama swamp (where we were doing housing counts for a CDBG low-mod water & sewer extension application) by concerned citizens in a pickup truck with four gun barrels hanging out the windows, pointed straight at us. No, really! Let me explain:

I remember how lovely the sky looked that day, how the wind was riffling through the soybean plants in the field alongside our rapidly retreating vehicle, and in spite of the momentary dismay & excitement, felt as if I had done something worthwhile & taxpayers' money was very well spent in those days. I could look at a new elevated water tank in an old downtown and say, "I helped to put that there." Things like that went a ways towards helping the infant mortality rate in one of our counties actually dip below that of Bangladesh. I made maps of county water systems, held public hearings on landfill sites, had eggs & tomatoes thrown at me at public hearings & was called a communist for writing one town's first zoning ordinance. I observed straight-pipe septic systems, saw people living in tarpaper shacks, and visited old people who had no floor in their houses with 7 half-naked children clustered around the TV set. (I was told "no one here goes without a television set. That would be uncivilised.") At times I felt as if all I could do was listen and commiserate. But then a year later I could go back & visit those same houses in their fresh blue paint & new front porch & roof and smile and feel like I had done something. Back then, need had a face that I could look into and learn from. As poor as the people were, they had dignity, and they were decent folk.

So when the question is posed, why don't we planners do something, or do more? I realize it is a challenge to be met. I also realize that I don't have the tools to deal with it. The questions have changed, the needs are different now. And maybe I don't care about these people I am supposed to be helping as much as the old ones. Now it is all about playing a game, pushing the pen, saying the right words, making people happy so they don't call the congressman. And the need is no longer dignified, it isn't even honest need. It's just want.

Remember the "two twin imps" of Dickens' Christmas story? They were "ignorance" and "want." You may feel the outraged, concerned citizens mentioned in the opening of this story typify both ignorance and want. However, I beg to differ. All in all, they were protecting what they saw as their dearest possession, to which every ounce of need, purpose, and passion was tied: their land. And, by the way, it must be noted, these guys didn't feel they were in need at all, and had purpose and passion in abundance. All they knew was someone was trespassing in the area, and their first instinct was to remove that outside invasion. Trespassers may bring change, and change may not always be good, and in any case it's a pain in the butt, I imagine they were thinking. Would that we had just left, and done nothing, instead of applying for the federal money that brought the public water & sewer to the area. Do any of you know how the story ends? I don't, but I can guess. The public utilities brought with them economic development, in the form of investment in commercial industry, which brought jobs. Jobs brought prosperity, which in the end just brought more want, in the form of fast cars, disposable diapers, fast food restaurants. It made the land more valuable, even desirable to outsiders, who moved in & put up brick houses and demanded better schools for their children. Building the schools caused the locality to have to raise taxes above what the old-timers could afford to pay, and brought services they hadn't known existed before, such as permitting procedures. So the people sold the land, made lots of money, and moved away, taking with them the community that had been there for decades. What was left were people who worked at the new industry, alongside some of the remnants of the former community (the ones who didn't have enough land to subdivide & become rich off of), and when the industry closed its doors and moved to Mexico, everybody was left sitting in a big pile of their own, self-created want. And the guys in the pickup truck, who previously had been hard-working farmers but became millionaires when they sold the land (aka their purpose, passion, & need); retired & moved to Myrtle Beach, partied for 18 months straight, and died sitting in a hot tub with their noses full of cocaine. Crazy? No, just an amalgamation of several stories I've collected over the years. Scope for my novel.

Because in the end, we just go around chasing after want. I maintain, it's the needs of people that we are too ignorant to recognize, and so need, the purpose, the passion... goes unfulfilled.

Thanks for being there. Maybe we'll figure it out if we work together & share what we know.

Best regards,


sophronia_ said...


You’ve just retold the story of my native Macon County. The same cycle you described continues developing here. And although some might think it inappropriate, I see part of my job as planner as being an advocate for a different way, a way that honours those things from our past that made the mountain people beautiful and a way that overcomes those things about our way of life that weren’t so beautiful. I watched my family sell the very thing that held us together – the land we grew up on and worked together. The money didn’t last long and it didn’t go very far. Now they regret it. I watch families make that same mistake every day and every day I watch our sense of community erode. As we move away from real need we also move away from needing and depending on our neighbors and family.

At any rate, you share some great insight. I was just in Brazil for a month. There the difference between need and want is very clear – reminded me somewhat of the way it was just 20 years ago here. It makes it hard to come back and hear a citizen who drives a $45,000 pick up tell me that all this government regulation is hard on poor folks like him.


sophronia_ said...

Planners Motto: Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.

***You know your doing your job when you have been called a "communist".


sophronia_ said...

I did not read your story- but man if you have time to write that much I'm starting to wonder about the work load down there! No wonder you left Guilford...which still has not hired any new planners so far...


sophronia_ said...

Yes, that is part of the rant. I am so bored out of my mind and I have absolutely nothing pressing to do today. I have answered one phone question all day. The others I've spent organizing my desk.

Hope you are fine! Best, S.


fred said...


We are in the very early stages of overgrowth and retirement/tourism pressures in Floyd County. Don't be surprised if I don't come to you for advice or suggestions arising from your experiences--good and bad--in this process.

I appreciate your blog and hope you feel it is giving voice to what you want and need to say. I've just passed my third blog birthday and can't imagine not having Fragments friends and visitors.