Archive for May, 2010

Corita’s art

In our downstairs bathroom we’re lucky to have a print by Corita Kent that says, “We live in one world and each act of ours affects the whole”. Her name is signed in pencil at the bottom. It was done as a benefit poster for the late, great New Alchemy Institute on Cape Cod. There’s a blue, yellow and green wash above the lettering – very simple, as all her work was, and it reminds me daily that it’s not about me.

Anyone who lives in or near Boston knows Corita from of her paint-bucket drippings over the huge Boston Gas tanks on the Southeast Expressway (is that really Ho Chi Minh there in profile?).

Corita’s art, heart and conscience made me aware of the strong social justice aspect of the Catholic church. I learned about her, then learned about Peter Maurin, and Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton, and the Berrigans. I just came across a slide show of her work on the web. What strikes me even now about it is how alive it feels – forty five years old, and it could have been done yesterday. Pretty cool. You can check it out here.



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I got an e-mail from a friend that she is losing her position as school librarian – as a matter of fact, all the elementary school librarians in her district are losing their jobs. While the idiocy of this move astounds me, it really made me think of something else that happened to me a couple of months ago. What happened goes part of the way towards explaining why schools don’t have librarians.

I found myself sitting at a gate at Midway Airport in Chicago, waiting for the plane to board to Providence. Next to me was an older couple – I’m guessing late sixties. I struck up a conversation and asked if they were headed home.

No, said the man, they were just going to visit relatives. They used to live in the Rhode Island area.

“Where do you live now?” I asked

“South Dakota”, he answered.

“Wow,” I said. “South Dakota. How long have you lived there?”

“Three years,” he answered.

“You must have moved for family,” I guessed.

“No,” he harrumphed. “No family there.”

“Oh, “ I said, a little perplexed. “Why’d you move there? Work?”

“No, we retired there,” he said.

“Retired to South Dakota. Why?” I asked. No slam on South Dakota. I’ve been there a number of times and liked it, but it’s not your typical retirement spot.

“No taxes,” he said.

“You moved so you wouldn’t have to pay taxes?”

“Nothing compared to what we had to pay where we were. We were sick of paying taxes.”

His wife nodded. “We did the research and found the place where we would have to pay the least taxes. We live in the cheapest place in the country.”

“Do you still have family in Rhode Island?” I asked. I was trying to reorient to the whole notion of moving away from your home and community because you didn’t like the tax structure.

“We go to see her family,” the man nodded at his wife. “I don’t care if I go back.”

“You must live in a nice town, and made some friends,” I said.

“No,” the man said, “It’s a real small town – only a thousand. And we live outside of town and don’t really know anybody.”

“Do you see anybody?” I asked. This was all sounding kind of desperate. If they were in the federal witness protection program, I could understand it, but…

“Well,” the man said, “we brought her mother out with us. She’s ninety and lives in a nursing home about ten miles away.”

I was really trying to find something encouraging to say but it sounded like a nightmare to me. I was wondering how excited his mother-in-law was about leaving her family and home behind to move to South Dakota and live by herself in a nursing home. “That’s quite a change,” I said.

“We got a good sized house and we don’t have to pay property taxes. We don’t pay any taxes,” he said. She nodded.

“Oh,” I said.

“No taxes,” he said definitively. She nodded. They were both quite proud of the fact they had pulled this off.

I thanked them for their conversation, then got up and moved.

I suppose it is fine to try to pay less taxes, or at least not pay more than you have to. And I don’t want government to be wasteful (in my case, a few less bombers would be fine, thank you). And there may be more to their story than I was told – I know that people are strapped by the economy. But with that said, this attitude mystifies me. It seems that the refusal to pay taxes, and the decision to abandon a lifetime of community to avoid paying taxes, is put forth as a virtue. I didn’t get the impression that these folks absolutely couldn’t, but that they felt they shouldn’t have to pay taxes and they didn’t want to. The decision to balance government budgets by cutting programs because we won’t pay taxes is laid out in terms of acting responsibly. In my own town meeting I’ve heard it couched in terms of not passing a debt onto our children.

From another perspective though (and that would be mine), it just seems selfish. There is another debt we’re passing on when we don’t want to pay taxes anymore. As a result of our refusal to pay our share, and to show concern for others in our community, we cut the librarians, and let go of teachers. We do this under the guise of responsibility, but that’s not what it looks like to me. Libraries don’t really work without librarians. Schools don’t really work without libraries. Kids don’t learn well with thirty students in a class. And civilizations don’t really work without educated people.

Even in South Dakota.

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