Fighting Fear by Learning About Taxes

by Trista Cornelius

During most of the day since 9-11, my life is the same as it used to be. I notice the smell of pumpkins in the morning air, I work hard on my teaching routine, and I make plans for the future.

However, for at least a few moments each day, my fears and imagination take over: the sky turns white, my tree-lined city neighborhood turns into a deserted refugee camp, and I have lost my loved one, my parents, my friends; I cling to a handful of possessions saved from my once comfortable life—a pen, a necklace, a photograph.

These imagined moments have motivated me to seek solace in places I’ve never looked before. For example, a League of Women Voters meeting about the Oregon tax system held at a church in my neighborhood.

A woman from the League starts the meeting. She uses terms like “fiscal analysis” and refers to her specific knowledge of something like 183 ballot initiatives. She knows them so well that she quotes specifics for guest speakers who are less familiar with their own work than she is. Her self-assurance about taxes and politics and her astute wisdom put me at ease.

I hear a speaker say, “. . . lost revenue over time . . .” and I feel safe because politics and taxes are being discussed inside the church. This is pluralism in action. America is still working and I’m seeing for the first time just what it is America does. I’m seeing for the first time the role of the individual in this nation that until 9-11 felt vast and isolating, and left me apathetic, sure only of my insignificance.

Six elderly women and men sit in the front row. In orderly dress, pressed blouses, creased slacks, bifocal glasses, trim hair, lipstick or collared shirts under V-neck sweaters, they take notes in margins of the notes they’ve already written, outlining research they’ve already conducted.

“Full-blown recession . . .” says a politician on the panel.

“Strong economy in the 90’s masked problems. . . hit hardest . . . thought economy would shield us from the foibles of the system . . .” says another.

My stomach shrinks. I remember the last major recession we had in the ‘80s. Then someone says the recession will be good, it will reveal the shortfalls of our system which will show us where to improve, how to be stronger, better.

The row of elders at the front of the room ask questions. Their voices are strong, minds sharp, questions pointed, informed up to the latest decisions made locally and in the state. They are powerful in their knowledge of their government, and they are not silent.

I start to trust America.

The meeting concludes. The speakers are thanked, the last of the coffee and cookies shared, and notes organized. I sneak out rather sheepishly. It was easier to whine about the system and wish that it would protect me from suffering than to take part in that system.

What I finally understand about America is that the good works of everyday people, the committed study and debate of local issues by diligent citizens like this group, have just as much potential to reach the heart of the world as terrorists do.

The role of the individual citizen, which seemed futile to me before, now seems like the start of something grand. Some notes carefully taken, a lecture attended, one vote consciously decided and counted, a world changed more methodically, more powerfully, more positively than any terrorist act.

Trista Cornelius teaches English composition and literature at Portland Community College. She publishes "Reflections," a 'zine of creative essays addressing questions like how to define success, femininity, etc. An earlier version of this piece was recently published in The Oregonian.

(c) Trista Cornelius


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