This story is available in WSQ’s Together Issue out from Feminist Press. Much love to everyone at Feminist Press & WSQ for letting me post this story now, when we really need it. This story is the direct result of funding from the 2018 Minnesota Artist Initiative grant I was awarded to develop new models for storytelling that illustrate societies grounded in human and nonhuman flourishing, cooperation, and environmental sustainability: a project I continue now.
Author’s Note: “Dear Reader” was inspired by and written down on Dakota and Ojibwe land. I would like to pay my respects to the Dakota and Ojibwe and their Elders past and present. Thank you for your stewardship of this land and for your survivance, which I believe will save us all. Since the writing of this story, I have learned that towns similar to Sunlight have already existed here.
For Danielle: I created Sunlight for you most of all.
I am so glad you’re here! I’ve created the most beautiful story I could, the most amazing, alluring world. I can hear you asking for the catch, because there’s always a catch, isn’t there? Fiction is conflict, is pain, hopefully with redemption, or at least a bit of understanding or possibility. Yes, I’m afraid there is a catch, but try not to let it trouble you. For now, please, come closer to see what I’ve made for you, for me, for all of us.
There are over five dozen birds speaking to each other in the trees that line my porch. I’ve invited them all, along with the grunting, chirping squirrels and the raccoons I never see during the day, but whose prints I witness in the snow, and the feral black-and-white cat watching me warily from behind the gnarled leafless tree with twisting spines. She sniffs the top of a strawberry I’ve left as an offering, as sustenance for all my friends, big and small, mammal, bird, bug. I give freely all my scraps and more. I go back inside and open a can of food meant for my fat orange-and-white cat, take it outside, dump it gently on a mound of ice for my feral friend, hoping she won’t come back in spring and beat up my old tabby cat, who’s not much of a fighter.
Have you ever listened to Reiki music? Indian flute music? Japanese koto? Celtic instrumentals? Burundi drum music? There is much that blends the human soul with its flora and fauna kin, with the elements themselves. Find something you like now. If you’re in the mood for nature noises minus human touch, a nice track of birdcalls blended with waves or rivers or rain would serve nicely too. Anything that bridges the gap between you in a building, in a vehicle, near roads, near human noise of industry and longing. Anything that puts you outside, puts you within your natural context, which is a world full of sights, smells, sounds, and touch that don’t originate in human acts alone.
We’re about to leave so much behind to go somewhere else, somewhere where I haven’t just been watching a memorial video of the seventeen people most recently murdered in another school shooting on February 15, 2018 the latest of eighteen school shootings so far this year. All of that will soon fall aside as I take you far, far away from here, to the most beautiful, wonderful place I know, where there aren’t shootings or other needless deaths, no environmentally triggered diseases, not even the ones from stress. Nope. I’m taking you way away from all of that. Did you find some music you like for this adventure? I settled on Andalusian Spanish Arabic music, الأنْدَلُس, myself. Okay. Wonderful, then let’s go!
It’s summer in the town of Sunlight. Flowers bloom everywhere, but no one is allergic since there’s no diesel exhaust in the air to trigger delicate mammalian systems. The humid air is full of birdsong, as well as the sounds of stringed instruments, flutes, and drums, singing, and the laughter of children and adults alike—especially the older adults, who take great joy in surveying the generations at play.
I describe them as at play because there’s nothing resembling what you or I might call work, which is often something no one actually wants to do, or at least, heavily involves any number of tasks we’d rather not do. Not so in Sunlight. One of the things that will likely be hard to understand about this community is that no one there has ever been coerced into doing anything they don’t want to do. Ponder that for as long as you like. There are no exceptions, especially not for the children, the people we’re most used to seeing coerced and coercing. That’s not how things are done in Sunlight.
Sit with that information as long as you need. No coercion. Period. As you’ve likely already guessed, no coercion means no prisons, no borders, no police. No coercion means no bosses, no hierarchies of any sort. Each individual speaks their needs from birth and is respected.
Summer is much loved in Sunlight, which exists away from the equator, so the winters are long and snowy, spring still sees snow and ice melting and the occasional flurries, but then summer—luxuriant, wonderful summer. It rarely gets too hot, and life rushes forth in a way hard to appreciate in more even-keeled environments. Where there was snow and ice, there is green, green, green three months out of the year.
Some people are out in the terraced gardens, weeding and harvesting ripe fruit and vegetables, popping early strawberries in their mouths. Some people are digging and sculpting new homes in the outskirts, so there will always be enough room come winter. Some people are wandering home to home with toolkits, searching out things to repair. Others dance in the gardens or stroll around town with their instruments playing. Some cook large meals or tidy the outdoor communal area, pruning bushes and sweeping debris. Some engage in games of skill, wit, strength, or dexterity. Some engage in ritual movement that resembles tai chi or yoga. Some have slipped away to favored locations in the nearby woods to engage in more lusty activities.
And where are the children in all of this? Anywhere but the last places. There’s a toddler trying their hand at the ritual movements to the best of their not-quite-coordinated-enough abilities, there’s a six-year-old sweeping the courtyard, stopping to look at a green-and-yellow caterpillar on a downed leaf before carefully carrying the insect to nearby greens. Two tweens follow a person with their toolkit, hoping to learn how to reset off-kilter doors and fix ovens and tighten up plumbing. All sorts of children are in the gardens and helping in the kitchen, and of course, many are playing games, strange ones unfamiliar to us where there aren’t any winners or losers, but a general good spirit of appreciating fantastic feats and clever twists and general increases in ability and dogged determination to keep trying whether one is naturally talented or not.
Three children have collected flowers and are taking them into homes to leave beautiful surprises for residents when they return. And out in the woods, there’s a solitary child sitting on a felled tree, contemplating the mushrooms springing forth from the bark. Several have taken books from the library outside where they pore through them, sharing interesting parts with each other, and assisting when someone doesn’t know a word.
Does it look like chaos to us? Do we wonder how the important things get done when no one must do anything? When no one is in charge? But look, everything needed for a good life is taken care of and no one is engaged in work they dislike and no one is engaged in any sort of “job” needed for “money” required to exist. The work they do is not dangerous or soul-crushing or designed to harm many for the supposed benefit of the few. No one is stressed out about anything. What would cause them stress?
Follow the path down to the river where dozens are fishing, using poles or nets, a few trying to fish like bears, reaching down into the water. They will not bring back more fish than are needed. They will not compare their catches to see who did better or best. They will admire the fish and thank them for nourishing the people of Sunlight.
Are you struggling to believe that such a place exists? Perhaps it’s easier to believe in all the warring peoples of history, their atrocities, their violence, their hate and degradation, as if misery is the “natural” state of humans. Is that what you believe?
Or maybe you concede that Sunlight could exist, but you also assume that somewhere not-too-far-away there are other peoples, planning an attack. Every apocalyptic story you’ve consumed has primed you to believe that there must be roving bands of selfish monsters, those who would steal, snatch, murder, and enslave.
No, I think you can envision the town of Sunlight, and I think you can envision it without dangerous others nearby, waiting to descend. I think you know it already exists. The multiverse is infinite, so any place that could exist does. So here is the town of Sunlight: beautiful, lush, peaceful, content.
Take a moment and fully imagine the place. Now imagine yourself in it. Who would you be? There are endless choices. A scholar in the stacks. A builder of new dwellings. A gardener. An inventor of games. The person who cleans up common areas. One who fishes. A musician. A builder of instruments. The person who throws clay pots.
Go ahead, ask yourself: What would you do if you could do anything you wanted? What roles would you play? No one will harm you here in Sunlight. They won’t mock you or coerce you or tell you who or how you’re supposed to be.
There’s no competition. No need to try to be the best at anything. And contrary to Western colonial belief, the lack of competition and labels like “best” produces wonderful results, genuine art and craft that is appreciated, useful inventions, and rigorous intellectual debate and curiosity. So what would you do if you lived in Sunlight? Would you learn medicinal herbs? Weave cloth? Create stories to tell?
Have a seat in the garden or at the common tables or in the woods or by the river or in a cozy home. Pick a spot you like and think about it. Perhaps you’ll carve birds from deadwood or play your flute beautifully. Or turn sand to glass panes, happily teaching anyone else who wants to learn. Or turn fat and herbs to soap. You could be the person to discover which plants repel biting insects and help the gardeners protect the perimeter and intersperse the plants throughout the town, then help the soap makers make repellent soaps and sprays.
What would be your contribution? Your joy?
Humans enjoy being useful, something most of us aren’t often allowed to be in the ways we crave. In Sunlight, you get to be useful, appreciated, and loved.
Speaking of love, imagine the friends you would have. The hugs and smiles and jokes and games. The meals eaten together. The stories you’d tell. Do you want them here with you now? They will come and share your joys and sorrows. Your relatives too, blood and by choice. Look, here come Twilight and Bearcub now, who have enjoyed and loved and indulged you since you were barely toddling around. They have graying hair and weathered skin, but their bodies are still strong and their love for you only grows stronger and stronger still. They are happy to sit with you and comb your hair and listen to your thoughts while you go through the options.
Perhaps you prefer a lover’s insight. Sunlight has many lovers, no one owing anything or feeling owed, just respectful interested persons coming together in the ways that please them. One or more of them are happy to sit with you too, or fish with you or garden or play a game if any of those are the ways you do your best thinking. There is no rush, after all. You can decide to do whatever you want, whenever you want, and your friends, family, lovers, and neighbors will all find it good, a perfect contribution.
Don’t worry, you’re not locked in for life, whatever you choose. You can change, grow, and try new things. Just look at Twilight, who was originally from the plains, a hunter, who traveled alone three seasons before settling in Sunlight. Twilight can navigate anywhere by stars and sun alike, and later in life learned to weave and dye beautiful fabrics, and is currently learning all there is to know of medicinal herbs.
Bearcub has never lost their childish love of play, the good-natured twinkle in their eye. Bearcub invented several beloved games that have spread out from Sunlight to other towns, and helps organize activities for each year’s several festivals, and also enjoys cooking and cleaning, and has woven a halo of flowers for you now.
Your life follows the rhythms of nature instead of the demands of capital. You do less in winter when sunlight and energy are low and more in summer when there’s longer days and so much nature to enjoy. The only deadlines are the ones nature imposes to follow planting and harvesting seasons and fish migrations. Only useful and beautiful things surround you. No clutter and no scarcity.
Have you imagined it fully? Does it feel amazing? Are you eager to fill your days with nature, meaningful projects, community, and solitude in the proportions that make sense for you? To breathe the fresh air and eat real food that’s made with love and not full of poison?
Are you ready?
I am so ready.
So then, what’s the catch? I said there would be one. You’re certainly expecting one. A tortured scapegoat? An AI rendition that is mere illusion? It was all a dream or a sociological experiment that’s run out of funding? Are you expecting some sort of devil’s bargain was made for Sunlight? You’ve been trained by the stories before this one that it must be so. There is always a catch, and anything that seems better than what you have now will reveal itself to be worse.
The catch is that Sunlight exists, but we cannot go there. Even if we could travel to the parallel universe where Sunlight, and thousands of towns like it, exist across the globe, we should not go. They have everything they need, and while they would welcome us, because that is their way, we do not know how to behave like the people of Sunlight, how to give and receive and take no more than is needed, and speak our needs. Yes, I do think we would mess it up, so we shouldn’t go there, even if we could. But that is no cause for despair.
We have much we can do to bring Sunlight to where we are. Imagining it is always the first step, isn’t it?
The squirrels that share a yard with me love avocados. Can you believe it? I was surprised too. They’re not as picky as I am, so I take out the skins with flesh still left inside, the bruised parts, sometimes the whole thing, and I leave the halves on my porch railing, and they come and eat them.
I put out old apples too, and sometimes a fresher one if I haven’t given much recently. It’s the darndest thing. They eat the apples a bit at a time and always leave them sitting right where they found them. I look out and see the apple several times a day, always getting a little smaller, always sitting in basically the same spot, a communal resource that none of the squirrels tries to hide or take away.
I’ve been lied to so much about so many things in my life. Yes, by people with devious intent, but also by people who already thought they knew how everything works, so they only saw what they expected to see. So many people I meet expect the worst from other people, expect that is how humans are, even if they themselves aren’t that way. But like the apple shared by the squirrels, I’ve seen the moments of compassion and coming together, even among strangers. I see the light and love in people’s eyes, the craving for a safe place, a better way to be, connection, trust, love, mutual benefit, usefulness. These are basic human needs that we’re told we cannot have.
That is not the nature of reality. Our real needs could be fulfilled. We all want the same basic things and are all capable of providing them to each other.
Sunlight is real. It exists. Of that I am certain.