When I went back to Columbia earlier this month, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the Peace Nook was still open. I was happy to see that Flat Branch was still there, as was the Chez and the old Adams bookstore that was only open once a week. I even felt comfortable seeing the more popular standards like Tropical Liqueurs, Harpo’s, Willie’s, Blue Note, etc. even though they weren’t really my scene in college, except for the Blue Note. But, the Peace Nook was a real treasure that I should have visited more when I was in college.
When I first went to Columbia by myself during the summer before my Freshman year, I discovered the Peace Nook and thought that I had arrived in Gen X, multi-cultural heaven. I bought a magazine with Alan Ginsberg on the cover, though I had no idea who he was. There were books about Wicca, Buddhism and many other things I’d never heard of. There were posters on the wall to go meet with people who wanted to be radical and change the world.
I never got into that scene, though. I think I was too scared to, and wanted to get involved with EVERY scene on campus. I didn’t want to be a frat boy, but I did fancy myself spending a semester or two like some kind of Pauly Shore character, which isn’t any better. I had a sense of myself as being some kind of generic rebel mad about the man, like Ethan Hawke’s character in Reality Bites–a really deep, cool guy who was so over it.
Seeing that the Peace Nook was still there made me happy, though, because I could see that there remained at least a few folks in the Midwest trying to make the world a better place outside of the standard paradigm that has been shoved down our throats and made to seem sacrosanct after 9/11. I was pretty sure 9/11 and the younger generation would have killed any organization of significance in that area that sought peace in this world, in our time. I don’t know why, since I wasn’t active at all for social change when I went to school.
It is to my detriment that I would assume that downtown Columbia would have become nothing but a bunch of chain restaurants and stores, with the only local shops selling stuff they bought from China. It seems to have been the trend in some places I’ve known fairly well here in Texas, where there is always a downtown committee trying to revitalize things, a group of old farts trying to keep everything like the 1950s, and the compromise being a bunch of kitschy stores that sell merchandise made in China.
If anything, Columbia seemed to have gotten more focused on remaining true to its local businesses than when I lived there. One of the bookstores was gone, but two remained. A store that sold nothing but beer and served beer from the tap was now there. That alone was enough to make me almost want to move back there. There was certainly the large contingent of affluent white families walking around and their kids who were there for early summer Greek activities–it seemed at one point on the last night I was there as if the entire Greek population of Mizzou was drinking at Harpo’s. But, you could also pick up on the presence of other interest groups and people who didn’t all look and act like they were going to get blitzed on fruity drinks walking around.
Aside from being afraid to do anything especially different and potentially get teased for it, I know that I stayed away from getting involved with the groups on the posters of the walls of the Peace Nook because I didn’t want to do the real work involved to change things. It was nice and pleasant go get a little dose of progressiveness now and then and buy some books and magazines about people who didn’t think that Jesus, war and money were the answer to everything, but I didn’t want to actually have to change myself and possibly face the fact that I wasn’t as different and rebellious as I thought I was.
The trend of this kind of behavior continues. It doesn’t even have to be a group that is significantly outside of the mainstream. Even going to church over the past four years has seen me very reluctant to get significantly involved with people who are for the most part older, rural and more conservative than I am. I certainly could have tried harder and asked the pastor or someone else point blank, how do I get on this or that committee–how do I get involved in a big and significant way? There were always plenty of excuses. I am too busy with work, family, personal interests, etc. I don’t want to impose myself upon groups that have known each other for decades and “steal” a committee position from someone else. I don’t think the people here even like me. Of course, there might have been some validity and truth in those reservations, but they were at the end of the day simply excuses for not having to get too involved and possibly see myself changed in a significant way.
Paradoxically, I am always obsessing about how I could change myself in a significant way, but I am terrified of having it happen outside of my control–probably because I know that most of the changes that have taken place inside of me have happened when I wasn’t in control.
The radical change, then, is not necessarily giving up wearing store-bought clothing (in favor of loose, locally sewn garments) and eating anything but locally-sourced vegetables (the dented and imperfect ones only) raw, and showing up at every agitating event where people are against war, poverty, sexism, racism, capitalism, etc. I don’t need to go sit in front of a guru or have someone help me realize perfectly just how guilty I should be for being a white male. These are superficial, nonsustaining changes, anyway that just make someone miserable, I would guess.
What radical change needs to happen is much more basic and goes back to all of the groups I refused to join in high school because I thought I was too cool for them, when I was really just too scared to join them.
I need to seek out groups by asking others what groups are available, asking when and where they meet (even if the other person is going to sigh with exasperation and tell me that I should know where such information is posted), and generally allow myself to be awkward and uncomfortable in order to get someplace new. Maybe I will embrace a more radical form of Christianity as I progress in school–not one that has a new agey cast to its theology, but one that requires me to show up at community meetings and listen to what the problems are people are facing, and slowly get involved without thinking the least bit like I am the drum major or even the third chair trumpet player. However, if there does come a moment where it is clear that I could be doing more at a higher level then I shouldn’t ignore that moment and project false humility where it isn’t helpful.