Warning: This poem contains intense and controversial topics. Highlight to read the warnings, some of which are spoilers. It includes divisiveness, sociopolitical wrangling, opinionated journalism, artwork of atrocities, agitation for religious discrimination, references to unpleasant refugee issues, economic activism, a fractious but fair debate, a prompt vote on a town proposal, and other challenges. If these are sensitive issues for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before reading onward.
[Saturday, January 11, 2014]
After the bold proposal
to bring a hundred refugees
into Rutledge, the residents
had swiftly sorted themselves
into Team For and Team Against.
The Rutledge Gazette had printed
a respectable article of pros and cons.
The Vermont Conservative had filled
its opinion page with ranting and raving.
The Progressive Press listed figures of
population loss and prior failed solutions.
St. Joseph's Trumpet was more oblique,
merely issuing a sermon on the importance
of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked,
sheltering the homeless, and visiting the sick.
The local television and radio channels
had done special shows on the subject.
So had almost every teacher in town,
regardless of the subject they taught --
even the math teachers had come up with
lessons about percentages or statistics
involving the sad situation in Syria.
The library had been mobbed all week
as everyone researched the background
to put together their best arguments.
On Saturday, the City Hall was packed,
and the local journalists -- from professionals
to hobby bloggers -- all worked feverishly
to transmit the news to those at home.
In the basement, the multipurpose room
had been cleared of tables and chairs.
Then the area between the walls and
the support columns was divided into
sections with colorful tape, each one
assigned to a different citizen display.
Mayor Theodore Castle strolled
through the room, diligently pausing
to shake hands with every person
staffing one of the stations.
Some of the displays snagged
his attention more than others, though.
The medical providers banded together
in favor of anything that would get
the town another physician.
Chas Flanders had a booth
about car repair and how you
could get a tax write-off for
donating an old car to charity.
"I figure it would help if we could
get a car or two for the refugees
to share," he said. "Somebody's
bound to have a clunker that
I could fix up for them."
"That's very thoughtful
of you," said Theodore.
Chas' son Henry had
the next space, which held
several large panels that read,
A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words
above artwork showing the devastation
of Syria and the plight of its refugees.
There were ruined cities rendered
in charcoal and mass graves in oil paint,
even an overloaded boat in grim watercolors.
Theodore recognized not only Henry's work
but that of several other local artists too.
"You folks did a great job on this,"
he said. "I hope that it helps."
"It speaks for itself," Henry said,
and refused to say anything more.
Constance Higgins had convinced
the Ladies Uplift Circle to do a display on
how Rutledge had no resources for Muslims,
and beneath their fussy banner, the pastor of
Cross on the Mountain Catholic Church
was devoutly advising each to their own.
Unfortunately for them, Katie McCormic
had set up a much nicer booth across the way,
including snapshots from activities hosted by
the Fair Valley Interfaith Center -- among them
the Muslim Men's Group and Muslim Women's Group.
"Thank you for coming, Katie," said Theodore.
"I'm delighted to see that Rutledge has resources
for Muslims. I wasn't actually certain we did yet."
"Oh yes, we've had monthly meetings for
several years now," the chaplain said, handing
him a stack of papers. "Here, our members wrote
letters of support, and I included a summary of
Muslim events over the past three years."
"Wonderful. I'll forward this and hopefully
it will encourage immigration," said Theodore.
Then he spotted Quadruple Word Score with
Benj Vail, who made a trifold panel about outcasts
who had orientation, sex, or gender differences.
Ronie Ordway, a local transwoman who worked as
an agricultural assistant for area farms, contributed
a meticulous list of statistics on the subject with
attention to the plight of nonconforming refugees.
Theodore wasn't surprised, since Ronie pitched in
to help pretty much every kind out outcast she saw.
She could empathize with almost everyone.
"Well, that's alarming," he muttered as he read
the display. "I didn't know it was that bad."
"We think it underestimates the real problem,
but those are the best numbers we could find,"
Binj said. "I contacted some national queer groups
to see if they might help the Syrians to find us."
"We reached out to SPOON too," said Quadscore.
"I know most people don't realize it, but refugees
are the cream of the crop. The less able ones ...
usually don't make it out alive. If we're very lucky,
we might just catch ourselves a superhero."
Rutledge was so small that the chance of
manifesting another of their own was low.
Terrible times, however, pushed up the rate
and drove away soups more than naries.
"That would be amazing," Theodore said.
"Please assure SPOON of my support."
Jock found an elder willing to help. Theodore
was delighted to see Jean-Marie Alsigontekw,
a skilled mediator and negotiator who sometimes
unraveled community problems that nobody else
could, and her grandaughter Malina Cowass.
They had brought a large woven basket
full of hazelnut cakes that they handed
to everyone who stopped at their booth.
"One who gives of what he has is rich,"
Jean-Marie said as she handed him a cake.
"One who has but does not give is poor."
Oh dear. They were attacking capitalism
again. At least this time they were baking
instead of waving picket signs on the news.
Theodore took a bite and said, "Thank you
for the hazelnut cake. It's very good."
Maybe folks would stop to think about
how little the Abenaki had -- the reservation
wasn't as dirt-poor as some but neither was it
well off like the places that put up casinos.
If they could give, then so could Rutledge.
The next table belonged to Agnus Tucker,
a retired shepherdess who had passed down
the farm to her daughter Rachel Walker.
Her sign read, As a shepherd seeks out
his flock when he is among his sheep that
have been scattered, so will I seek out
my sheep, and I will rescue them from
all places where they have been scattered
on a day of clouds and thick darkness.
Below that lay a basket filled with
sample-size balls of wool yarn in
a rainbow of colors, a smaller sign
reading, Free! Please take one!
Theodore roved over the bright balls
until he found a deep, rusty orange.
"I'll take this one, thanks," he said.
Surely he could find someone
to knit it into a hat or a scarf
along with other colors.
Gideon Wheeler and
several other executives
staffed a booth about how
new residents could boost
the economy of Rutledge.
"Looking good," Theodore said.
"Thank you, but check out
Oscar's pitch, and don't dismiss it
just because it's his," said Gideon.
"I think they're actually onto something."
That was ... possibly not good,
Theodore realized, looking around.
Oscar's trifold display was roughly made,
but Theodore had to admit it was interesting.
Business Incubator scrawled across the top,
under which were lists of jobs particular to
Vermont, like making maple sugar, and
jobs that could be done from anywhere,
like writing apps for smartphones.
Fred and Oscar believed gathering
small businesses under one roof
might help more of them succeed.
Even though the display wasn't as
polished as some others, Theodore
thought the idea showed promise.
"I like what you've done with this,"
he said. "I look forward to the debate."
"Really?" Oscar said hesitantly.
"Yes, really," Theodore said. "I
represent all residents of Rutledge,
whether I agree with them or not. We
definitely need more business here."
Local veterans, led by Dell Evergreen,
used an American flag for their backdrop
and board that read, A scar is never ugly.
That is what the scar makers want us
to think. A scar does not form on
the dying. A scar means, I survived.
"That's an interesting quote,"
Theodore said. "What's up with it?"
"We want people to understand that
only the strongest, smartest, and
most resourceful refugees tend
to survive," Dell said. "Those are
traits we should welcome here."
So that's where Quadscore got it.
Theodore winced. "I appreciate
the sentiment, but you should know
that most refugee groups include
some dependents, including
those with serious limitations."
"You visited me in the hospital
right after my medical discharge,"
Dell said evenly. "Did that make
me any less of a survivor?"
"No it did not," Theodore said.
"All right, I wish you well with
encouraging residents to view
refugees in a positive light."
Aside from the displays,
the afternoon featured
a series of debates
held on the stage.
Theodore made sure
to attend the one between
Quadscore and Oscar Paton.
She opened with a favorite quote,
"We are all different, which is great,
because we are all unique. Without
diversity, life would be very boring."
"A pessimist sees the difficulty in
every opportunity; an optimist sees
the opportunity in every difficulty,"
Oscar shot back at once.
ripped into him. She
loved a good debate.
Oscar gave as good
as he got, though, and
it was interesting to hear.
"What makes your plan
better?" was the first prompt.
"We have some valuable things
here, but not everyone realizes that,"
Oscar said. "We have beautiful scenery,
cheap living and work spaces -- those
are good for businesses. Why move
to an ugly, crowded, expensive city if
your job doesn't require it? Work here!"
"Why restrict that to people we already have?"
Quadscore said. "We need some new blood!"
They both had good points, Theodore thought.
Perhaps he could pursue both of the plans.
"We used your budget numbers to draft
some ideas," Oscar said. "Here's a sketch
of how we could turn an old factory into
a business incubator with offices and such."
"And how would you pay for that?"
Quadscore challenged. "We'd have
special funds for refugee support."
"Fred found grants and other programs
to support businesses, and I found some
for small-town revitalization in Vermont,"
Oscar said. "It's not quite as much as
yours, but it would make a great start."
Especially if the town chipped in for
the business incubator the way that
Theodore had planned for the refugees.
There were plenty of empty buildings
they could use, too, which meant
that the price should be reasonable.
He made a note to look into possibilities.
"How would each of your plans address
the unique opportunities of Vermont?"
was the next prompt for them.
"We want to support businesses
that work with things like maple sugar,
and help artists or writers capitalize
on local color," Oscar explained.
"We would teach refugees about
Vermont history and culture, to help
them become citizens," Quadscore said.
It went on like that for an hour, and
by the end of it Theodore had
a bunch more notes about
both the plans to research.
Voting opened in the evening,
after folks had had plenty of
time to look at displays
and listen to debates.
There were poll booths
all down one hallway, plus
online and phone options for
anyone unwilling or unable
to come to the City Hall.
Since this was not an election,
Theodore had extended the voting
to everyone old enough to answer
a few questions and sign their name.
He wanted to see what the young people
thought about the proposals, because they
would live with the results the longest.
Theodore cast his vote early, in favor
of the refugees, then went out to supper.
Mandy's Diner had a sign out front
advertising lamb stew on special,
so he got a bowl of that and tried
to forget about the vote for a while.
The apple cider donuts helped.
Eventually he had to go back to
City Hall, grateful that technology
allowed counting even paper ballots
fast enough to announce results
shortly after the voting concluded.
Not everyone was thrilled with
the speed of the decision, but
most people were grateful
to get it over with instead of
dragging it out for months.
The children and teens were
bubbling with excitement just
because they got to participate.
That would probably punch up
participation in Voter Education
during the fall semester, and
teachers would appreciate it.
Theodore squeezed through
the crowd to find Quadscore
so they could read the results.
"We'd like to thank everyone for
coming today," he said. "I'm pleased
to announce that Rutledge has voted
to welcome the Syrian refugees, with
67% in favor and 33% against."
"We'll tell them about the decision
and start the process, keeping you
informed of progress," Quadscore said.
The crowd broke into excited noise
as people talked about the outcome.
Most seemed happy or resigned,
only a few complaining loudly.
Theodore hurried through
the throng, searching for
the people he wanted to find.
"Fred, Oscar, a moment of
your time, please?" he said.
"I'd like to talk about your plan."
"What the hell use is it now?"
Fred said, throwing his hands up.
"You already gave away the town!"
Then he stormed off in a huff.
Theodore wasn't surprised
that Fred was more interested
in keeping the refugees out
than in helping Rutledge up,
but it was still disappointing.
"I uh, don't know what you'd
want with me either," Oscar said.
"I really liked your proposal
for the business incubator,"
Theodore said. "I want to see
if we can do both projects."
"Really?" Oscar said, blinking.
"We meant it as an alternative ..."
"That doesn't meant it can't work
as an addition," Theodore said.
"This wasn't a choice between
two plans, and plenty of people
were looking at your booth. I think
that they'll go for it if we do this."
Quadscore sidled up behind them.
"He's right, Oscar," she said. "We
absolutely need new businesses, and
local opportunities for young adults so
they don't all move to bigger cities.
The refugees will need jobs, and
they'll be happier with more variety."
"Can the city afford to do both,
though?" Oscar said. "We could
get some grants, but not enough
to fund the whole establishment.
Who'd want to invest in a project
with that kind of uncertainty?"
"Me, for starters," Gideon said
as he came up beside them.
"I've been shilling for you all day,
and I know some other people
who might like to get involved.
I'm not broke yet, and I'd like
to keep it that way, so I'm in."
"The city has programs that
promote revitalization, too,"
Theodore said. "If you're
serious about reclaiming
an old factory, that counts."
"Yeah, yeah, Fred and I
talked about what we'd need,
and a big open space is part of
that," Oscar said, then slumped.
"But Fred bailed, and I don't think
that I can do this without him."
"There are plenty of other fish
in the sea," Gideon said. "I'm sure
you can find other partners to help."
He patted Oscar on the shoulder.
"Why don't we go looking now?
All the young entrepreneurs are
here, and so are most of the teens."
Theodore watched Gideon lead
Oscar through the milling crowd.
"Do you think that our plan
will work out?" Theodore said.
"I don't know, but I'm sure we
have a better chance of saving
this town tonight than we had
last month," Quadscore said.
Theodore had to agree with that.
* * *
This poem is long, so its notes appear elsewhere.